Today’s readings include “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online” by Kevin Kelly and “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism” by Jaron Lanier. While in general, Kelly seems fascinated by the positive improvements that collectivism can offer our digital and social environments, Lanier criticizes the collectivism he calls “hive mind” for what elements he feels are lost in the transaction- our personality, our voice and even our ability to discern. Before explaining the tension between their ideas, I will first start with Kelly’s perspective.
In his article, Kelly describes the communal function of digital culture, its collectivism, as a new form of socialism. This is because the digital exchanges are centered around social interaction, not ideology as the term “socialism” evokes at first glance. Kelly terms it “a sort of socialism uniquely tuned for a networked world” (Kelly 1). It is characterized by an interaction that- as we have learned in discussing networks previously- relies heavily on a widespread connectivity of individuals; the eventual ability to “connect everyone to everyone” (Kelly 1). It is the force dubbed “dot-communism” by John Barlow in the 1990s, derived of “free agents” and a lack of owned property (Kelly 1). Since the Internet functions as a global platform, this new socialism produces a world-wide egalitarian environment. The implementation of the Creative Commons alternative copy right liscence and the proliferation of file sharing have aided this growing communal digital landscape.
Kelly calls upon the ideas of one of our class mascots, Clay Shirky, to explain the development and phases of interactivity online. These ideas can be broken down into four layers:
- I. Sharing- Examples of sharing take place on sites like Loopt, which shares your location, Youtube, where users can post videos and on Yelp!, where individuals can express opinions on local businesses (possibly affecting the ideas of the researcher).
- II. Cooperation- At this level we have sites like Digg, that can be influenced by the voting power of its users.
- III. Collaboration- Open source software and the Apache web server are examples of digital media that allow for collaboration. As discussed in class previously, open source software is the epitome of this egalitarian, socialism that Kelly is describing. After all, the contributions it accepts can virtually be from anyone, from anywhere. As a result of adding to a project, communication and essentially, socializing, take place.
- IV. Collectivism- Kelly describes collectivism as the ability “to engineer a system where self-directed peers take responsibility for critical processes and where difficult decisions, such as sorting out priorities, are decided by all participants” (Kelly 3) While he praises Wikipedia for partaking in such a format, Kelly admits that Wikipedia is not at a collective ideal. Those with the power to edit still make up a much smaller population compared to those contributing. He goes on to say that “some types of collectives benefit from hierarchy while others are hurt by it” (Kelly 3). It seems the roles in these collective communities are a bit flexible, dependent on the organization.
As Kelly explains, the aim of digital socialism is “to maximize both individual autonomy and the power of people working together”, not necessarily to favor either side (Kelly 3). This idea is echoed by Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Network. Open source software and the power of collectivity is clearly growing. As Ohloh records, there are 250,000 people working for free on 275,000 projects.With examples like Kiva, a peer to peer lending site, individuals have the ability to help total strangers. Providing such humanitarian examples as this, Kelly presents collectivism to be entirely positive and even possibly moral.
However, Jaron Lanier finds fault in collectivity, particularly in our willingness to trust in it as an authority. Lanier begins his piece by explaining the tug of war he played with Wikipedia editors, when trying to correct his own page. “I’m turned into a filmmaker again”, he writes of Wikipedia’s response to his corrections (Lanier 3). Little did the editors know that this identity is inaccurate. I feel like here there is a great tension between Kelly’s idea and Lanier’s: that tension is in the relationship of the user to the Wikipedia. To Kelly, it would seem that individuals are creating the outward manifestations that are on Wikipedia, yet, to Lanier it’s as if the Wikipedia is producing us, our identities. He is quite concerned with what elements he feels are lost in the transaction of collectivism, one important one being individual voice. “A voice should be sensed as a whole. You have to have a chance to sense personality in order for language to have its full meaning” (Lanier 5). Lanier also criticizes collectivism for allowing a disjointed aesthetic. These visual and personal cues are wrongfully lost from the Wikipedia, to Lanier. However, to an extent, I would imagine that Shirky would disagree with this point that Lanier makes. To him, contributing to the Wikipedia is putting our mark on the world (Reason #2 for contributing to Wikipedia, Shirky 132). Though it may not be recognizable to all that encounter your post, you would know that those are your words. Is that enough?
Lanier criticizes Wikipedia also for the way that it is so highly esteemed: “how it’s been elevated to such importance so quickly” (Lanier 4). In the article from Nature that he mentions, Wikipedia is even reported as being more accurate than the Encyclopedia Britannica http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4530930.stm (Lanier 4). Here, we witness what Lanier might call a competition over who is more “Meta”: more collectively wise, more all-knowing and whose identity encompasses all others. He also finds our willingness to believe in the authority of these Meta-mindful sites problematic. He notes “an increased tendency to enshrine the official or normative beliefs of an organization” as a result of wikis and Meta-sites (Lanier 10). In this regard, he likens American Idol to the Wikipedia, claiming they are both at fault for the centrality (Lanier 10). However, Kelly claims that this new form of socialism “is designed to heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralization. It is decentralization extreme” (Kelly 1). Clearly there is a conflict between their ideas, particularly on this particular notion.
Though Lanier does criticize the Wikipedia and “hive mind” formation, he does mention the strength of the collective when it comes to answering its own questions, particularly numeric ones. However, he does also suggest the importance of individuals for quality control on the content. His emphasis on the power of the individual is key to his concept: “Every authentic example of collective intelligence that I am aware of also shows how that collective was guided or inspired by well-meaning individuals” (Lanier 13). Whereas Kelly may suggest that the individual becomes empowered by assisting the collective, Lanier would strongly disagree and sees the transfer of power as exactly reverse.
Below I have included a screen capture of Jaron Lanier’s Wikipedia page. It says that he is a “visual artist”, though I’m not sure if that is his doing…since I cannot sense his voice in the entry.
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