New Socialism and the Hive Mind

In their essays “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society is Coming Online” and “The Hazards of New Online Collectivism” Kevin Kelly and Jaron Lanier present two drastically views of online collectivism. While Kelly embraces online collectivism as the beginning of a new age in global cooperation, Lanier cautions against trusting the wisdom of an anonymous online collective.

In his essay Kelly heralds collaborative web pages as the start of a new, updated form of socialism. Collaborative web pages, such as Wikipedia, allow users to alter the site and depend on their participation. As Clay Skirky points out in Here Comes Everybody “If the people who love Wikipedia all lost interest at the same time, it would have vanished almost instantly” (Shirky 141). Wikipedia needs constant user participation, not only to add and edit articles, but also to stop vandals and special interest groups from deleting controversial articles.
Kelly sees these communal sites, which function based upon the voluntary contributions of their users, as harnessing community action in a new way, leading society towards digital socialism. Unlike traditional socialism, which centers on state control of the economy, digital socialism is “socialism without the state [and]…operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government” (Kelly 2). Unlike the centralized socialism of the past, digital socialism does not operate under any central authority. The Internet allows people to share goods (music, video, programs, etc.), and to work together to produce something (a program, an encyclopedia, etc.). Rather than the government rationing a limited number of items, supplies are free for everyone on the Internet.
Kelly defines this new socialism as “a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions. Broadly, collective action is what Web sited and Net-connected apps generate when they harness input from the global audience”(Kelly 2). In this system, large numbers of people work for free and enjoy products free of charge. As in the traditional idea of socialism, people control the means of production and are free to contribute as they wish. As discussed in the previous post entitled “The Ongoing Process of The Social Web” people are driven to work on these projects for a variety of non-monetary reasons, including the desire to do a good thing.

Digital socialism is not an ideology, but a set of tools that allows people to work together, free of charge. These tools enable people to move through four levels of social arrangement: sharing, cooperation, collaboration and collectivism. With each level, the amount of coordination increases.
1)    Sharing: The first level is sharing. People share photos, videos and personal information through a variety of sharing sites including myspace ad youtube.
2)    Cooperation: Individuals work towards a large-scale goal. The products of this work are available to everyone. Many sites harness the cooperative dynamic for a threefold benefit:
-The technology aids the user directly (allowing her to tag, rank and bookmark things for her own use).
- The user benefits from another individual’s tags, bookmarks, etc.
- The project creates additional value that comes from the group as a whole. In this way, collaboration multiplies the power of the individual. While one opinion may be lost, cooperation allows the individual to contribute to a community’s collective influence. This influence can be larger than the members of the group would be able to achieve on their own. On sites like Digg for example, an individual can vote on which links will be displayed more prominently, steering public conversation as much as broadcast media.
3)    Collaboration: Organized collaboration can produce benefits beyond those of casual cooperation. In organized collaboration, highly tuned communal tools harness the work of thousands or tens of thousands of members to create complex, high quality products. Open source software projects are an example of collaborative projects. The contributor will gain only indirect benefits because he will only work on a small part of the project and the completed product may be years away. Rather than gain money for his work, the contributor gains experience and status.
4)    Collectivism: Individuals take responsibility for critical processes and difficult decisions are decided by the group as a whole. Some collectivist organizations can benefit from a hierarchy (such as the elite group of 1,500 editors who do the majority of the editing on Wikipedia) and some can suffer from it (like the internet or facebook).

Kelly heralds this new digital socialism as elevating both the individual and the group at once. All levels of digital cooperation can “enhance creativity, productivity and freedom”, creating things that neither traditional capitalism nor communism could achieve (Yochai Benkler quoted by Kelly on p 6). In his article “The Hazards of New Online Collectivism” Jaron Lanier presents a less optimistic view of online collectivism. He criticizes “a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force”(Lanier 1). He suggests that collaborative Internet technology harness the work of many to create one faceless work, without personality. It is impossible to tell who contributes what so no one is forced to takes responsibility. He suggests that special interest groups and dedicated subcultures can easily sway collaborative projects, like Wikipedia, because they are the only ones willing to put a significant amount of time and effort into these projects. Collaborative sites lack the context and personality that comes with knowing who writes an article.

Blogs and Internet news sites also devalue real reporting. These sites largely react to or copy the work of real reporters. As these sites grow steadily more popular, news agencies (TV, newspapers and magazines) that employ journalists are steadily declining. News is no longer seen as something that you should pay for. Personal, investigative journalism (when a journalist takes responsibility for his work) is declining. This leads to a loss of insight and subtlety and a tendency to enshrine the norm. This makes the hive mind (great masses of people working on or giving their opinions about something) stupid and boring.  American Idol, for example, is the hive mind choosing the next pop star. It is extremely easy to vote for a contestant on American Idol (through calling and text messaging) and many people vote multiple times. This competition enshrines mediocrity, choosing the contestant that is palatable to the most people, not the one who is the most talented. While I do not think that this competition is responsible for the lack of great American musicians in popular music, as Lanier implies, it certainly doesn’t help. According to Lanier, the opinions and work of the masses can be useful only when taste and judgment don’t matter, when no personal flair is required. The work of the masses and the individual must be balanced. A strong press, with reporters who take responsibility for their work must inform the collective for their opinions to be of value. Lanier contradicts Kelly, suggesting that empowering the collective takes power away from the individual.

I found Lanier’s article to be overly cynical. It is true that the individual should be valued and that the collective should not be blindly trusted. However, online tools, not only empower the hive mind, but also allow unprecedented opportunities for collectivism and cooperation. Through the Internet, people can work together to create something that they could never achieve on their own. It also provides millions of people with free access to tools, media and information. I remain optimistic and think that digital socialism can change the way that we view society. Perhaps we will grow accustomed to working and receiving goods for free, moving us towards a more socialist society. What do you guys think? Is collaboration on the Internet a force for good (as Kelly and Shirky suggest) or is it dumbing us down (as s Lanier suggests)?

9 responses to “New Socialism and the Hive Mind

  1. Digital socialism is a phenomenon which deserves a deep exploration and examination. According to Kelly “digital networking provides the necessary infrastructure” for digital socialism. As Shirky calls it, “new ecosystem” which came into existence and challenges traditional hierarchical structure. New infrastructure relies on a “spontaneous division of labor” according to Shirky it is a driving force which perfectly works for collective projects such as Linux or Wikipedia. However, we should not be putting a sign of equality between collaborative projects and chaos. I would not be considering Wikipedia as digital socialism because even within this new ecosystem we have hierarchical structure and Kelly mentions this in his essay, there are a small core of the most active editors who contribute to projects, moreover Wikipedia has a set of rules and guidelines which maintain this system in specific order (Shirky does not fully expand on the topic of Wikipedia and so it might seem that new ecosystem do not have hierarchical structure, as the matter of fact it does have it, but this structure is not well-defined in comparison to traditional hierarchical model). Also Linux has its author it wasn’t an anonymous project, core programmers/editors of Linux are well-defined and not ammoniums.
    Based on Kelly and Lanier’s arguments i believe that the nature of term “Digital Socialism” has a symbolic notion, which is why its nature can be determined differently: having positive or negative impacts on our society. In his essay Lanier brings personal example of how Wikipedia can be misleading and irrational, he is saying that Wikipedia defines him as a filmmaker, however every time Lanier tries to correct it, somebody always puts back old (incorrect) information “I have attempted to retire from directing films in the alternative universe that is the Wikipedia a number of times, but somebody always overrules me.” Moreover, in Wikipedia Lanier is associated with the ideas which he never supported. It shows how digital socialism can be irrational; due to a big number of layers, as result reality can be distorted. Digital socialism is incredibly hard to control and it can be very difficult to make necessary corrections at distributed information. In other words, we as users and content creators should be critical for new system, taking into consideration its pros and cons. Lack of personal voice and anonymity can become a problem when it gets out of control.
    The idea of new ecosystem (we can call it digital socialism) is correlated to a Manovich’s argument that computer layer influences cultural (human) layer. The phenomenon of digital socialism and emergence of a system which challenged traditional hierarchical structure became possible with integrating of computer layer and its close interaction with cultural layer.

  2. Lauren Ingerman

    I wrote an essay last year that pretty much said the same thing as your final thoughts, that the individual is extremely important but when people come together as a group they can accomplish so much more, no matter how smart or reliable the individual is. I understand where Lanier is coming from completely, but at the same time you have to think about all the positives that are coming out of this collectivism online, without completely diminishing the individual voice. It’s not like the individual is lost, the collective nature of the digital space just fosters more ideas and more creativity. I think it’s a healthy freedom.

    Kelly’s argument about digital socialism allowing a more creative and productive environment to exist really sits well with me. It reminds me of the idea of Creative Commons, which I was originally introduced to through a TED lecture given by Larry Lessig, a copyright lawyer. The ability of individuals to use copyrighted material for free and without penalty fosters a whole new community of producers on the internet that can share and create. An example he uses in his speech is how kids take popular songs and videos that are technically owned by companies and artists and mash them together to create their own pieces of “art.” These kids then post their videos on Youtube for everyone to see, comment on, and react to. This creates a sense of community and collective freedom, but at the same time embraces the individual’s creativity.

    It’s an incredible presentation, and pretty short. I highly recommend it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Q25-S7jzgs&feature=PlayList&p=FBA9DD73A5889F25&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=36

  3. I see Lanier’s point in the case of Wikipedia, where the individual’s recognition is non-existent – it doesn’t matter how much you know about bulldozers or finger nails, as soon as you post your knowledge on Wikipedia your individualism disappears because the general public never know who exactly posted what. However, I don’t think it is fair to say that the collaboration on the Internet necessarily dumbs the individual because there is incredible potential for growth and development when large groups pool their knowledge and create a database.

  4. As usual, I’ll be the voice of doubt. First, you all present valid arguments for your reason to agree with this “prosumer” model of web 2.0. However, there exists an equally cogent counter argument that I have presented time and time again in class–which no one cares to acknowledge: The subversive tactics of ISPs, Google, .coms, and so called social media production/distribution sites. These examples pose a very real threat to the intellectual property rights of individuals. In an attempt to avoid being redundant, and to frame it in another perspective, I’ll use crown-sourcing as an example–the method used by corporations and independent developers to mine a profit from the collective’s labor.

    When we consider the growth of social communities: Stumblers, Diggers, Wikiers, Forum Stickiers, and Youpoop producers it is obvious that the growth of social media in cyberspace is spreading proportionate to the accessibility, popularity, and seduction of (what can only be described as) the commoditization of cyber culture. It is an ever increasing maelstrom of flash games, ubiquitous java apps, and (wait don’t say it…) socially-constructed post-modern utilitarian users–who’s definition of a fulfilling cyber experience is “not a complete waste of time.” So, I’ll ask of all you proponents of being a social-tool, where is the cultural gain; where is the social unification; what is the iPhone app that personifies cyber-socialism’s production and consumption into physical space? Havent we already been over this in our discussion about Fogg and his demented optimism?

    Users (yes you!) are so enamored with the fantasy of web-granted agency that the economic impetus of cyber-culture is hidden within the ether of pay-per click, IP advertising, and even ISP fees. So, what is crowd sourcing then? It is ultimately the reinforcement of hegemonic media marketing practices. Users are creating content that fuels the economic engine of cyber-capitalism.

    Truthfully, it is an ingenuous business model to use public space as a labor pool for the production of lifestyle-marketing. The public overwhelmingly buys into the idea of free access and user defined content while corporations continue to reap the profits from a cyber-commoditized public. The more access and agency that users have–the more dependent (and seduced) they are upon these resources. Therein, the economic model of Crowd sourcing is evident as a reinforcement device for commodities, whether it be material or intangible, where the public serves as both the producers and consumer. I am not stating that all forms of Crowd sourcing overtly serves as capitalistic devices. But, they all still contribute to the economic architecture that mass-media has built within the use of networks.

    Sorry for the tirade, but I get the impression that most of you are like Fogg, overly optimistic. I dont mean any offense. I just want to emphasize that there are dangers to this system, again….

  5. “Is collaboration on the Internet a force for good (as Kelly and Shirky suggest) or is it dumbing us down (as s Lanier suggests)?”

    Like all technology, it’s both. The television may be making us fat, lazy, and stupid, but would the violent riots in Birmingham have made the same impact they did without being shown on the televisions at home? Would there be another way to contact the the population as a whole in order to deliver a Presidential speech?

    I don’t think we can categorize digital socialism as good or bad, because it is one of the hallmark characteristics of the internet. And just like television, religion, and Sanjaya, this development is what you make of it–it can be a force for good or evil or a way to destroy American Idol or the reason it’s destroying America.

    I think we need to realize that neither of these occur within a vacuum: both are criticized for the way they work. And (here is the important part), not everyone buys what Wikipedia and American Idol are selling. There are open critics and condemners for both. So while I think that the internet does encourage a hive mentality because it allows for one product to gather a series of followers, it also allows a space for the individual voice to be heard, and thus criticize, corroborate, or agree with this hive mentality. There is space in the internet to step away from digital socialism and look at it critically.

    That leads me to look at what you said about real reporters. I feel like a lot of new media (blogging) and takes on old media (see: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) are about turning around and looking at what that “real reporting” is saying. It prevents that reporting from becoming accepted as 1) the word of God, in that it cannot be questioned, or 2) something that just IS, in that there is no reason to question it.

  6. Pingback: Collaborative promises, tools and bargains « Introduction to Digital Media

  7. Socialism in theory is wonderful. We all work together to achieve a common goal. However, humans cannot achieve such collaboration on a grand scale because of emotions. We are greedy, selfish, miserable people. We will not sacrifice ourselves for a greater good because that is what we are.
    On the other hand, digital socialism can be achieved because of anonymity. The digital world does not exist physically. It is comprised of something immaterial, only accessed through a computer and an internet connection. Maybe because we are so far away from this digital world that we can collaborate and truly work on a grand scale to accomplish something. I firmly believe that anonymity on the web promotes socialism. If I knew who I was collaborating with, I would probably not post anything or help because I know who that person is.
    Are human beings good? Can we answer this question and does it motivate us to trust others and believe that they will do the right thing? I cannot say but digital socialism will evolve. I believe that it is evolving more to a hierarchal structure because a group cannot lead: an individual with a vision and leadership capabilities can lead and humans want to be led for in the end we are animals and we search for someone to guide us towards somewhere.

  8. Although I do not necessarily agree with Lanier, he does make some very valid and interesting points. It is true that today people no longer search the internet and no longer google things to research topics but instead turn to a Wikipedia articles and attempt to become instantly familiar with a subject.

    I have seen that Wikipedia does in-fact take lines and paragraphs straight from the sites that it cites. It was interesting for Lanier to acknowledge this and claim that these texts lose part of their value. If you think about it, Wikipedia is almost damaging web authors and knowled people geable who are trying to gain their own web traffic and support. Wikipedia even cites books that the user will likely never read in detail.

    As a result authors barely get acknowledged because people rarely check sources on wikipedia when casually browsing. Still, if they do they do not click links and research these topics further because they do truly feel wikipedia’s information is sufficient enough (even though it may not be). It does almost take away from the information because reading random excerpts does not necessarily give you a good enough picture of what the author is trying to express and can be used in the wrong contenxt.

    I strongly believe that instead of dumbing us down, wikipedia is helping us casually expand our knowledge by allowing us to quickly gain access to a wide range of topics. I would never sit down and read an encyclopedia but I would however skim through the wikipedia article and learn a great deal of information. As long as the information on Wikipedia remains factual I think it has really allowed people to expand their learning.

  9. Lanier is quite the pessimist! I had a hard time reading “The Hazards of New Online Collectivism” because I am a strong supporter of the new online collectivism that our culture puts so much time, effort and value into. Although Lanier believes new online collectivism (and the congruent ideals of digital socialism) is “nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force”(pg 1) I think that ventures like Wikipedia are ventures that prove the author wrong.

    People like to feel like they have a voice in any given matter and the power to change the course of the future. The digital collectivist mindset and the ability our generation has to add to/edit information is a unique cultural advantage we have now that was nonexistent before the Internet came about. While there are certainly hazards in this “new online collectivist” arena, they are overshadowed by the advantages.

    As long as people take personal responsibility for the information they submit or add to collaborative sits and efforts, the system will stay in place and continue to “enhance creativity, productivity and freedom.” The idea that if I want to, I too can write an article on something I am passionate about and upload it to Wikipedia is personally satisfying. Although there is a good chance I will never do such a thing in my lifetime, I like to know that I could share the information I possess in a cooperative, collaborative and collectivist arena if I so desired.

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