Collective Culture

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 (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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4 responses to “Collective Culture

  1. It is strange to me that Jaron Lanier holds a sort of digital elitism in his mind. Further, I do not see what is wrong with collectivism since at the top level, there are individuals monitoring “nonsense” from being publish. I suppose I disagree with Lanier because there might be things that society might deem as “stupid” but are in fact relevant. Or perhaps the authority or high ranking individuals might deem as “stupid” but are indeed relevant to society as a whole.

  2. Both authors make some good points, but I think I’m going to agree with Kim and her disagreement with Lanier. One issue I have with Lanier is his issues with Wikipedia. I think most people know that users make the articles and some things should be taken with a grain of salt. I don’t think people take Wikipedia to be the be all and end all of information.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. While I don’t want to particularly side with either author- because this is quite a slippery slope in either direction- I do think that Lanier’s comments on Wikipedia’s growing authority is accurate. In all honesty, when beginning his article, I didn’t know what “maoism” meant, so I wiki-ed it. I don’t know that its “all knowing and all wise” but it most certainly is the most convenient way to quickly gain information and that reason alone, I believe makes it so extremely powerful in this digital world of bytes and high-speed.

    Also, I think that the authors are tackling this topic from different epistemological perspectives: Kelly seems concerned with the idea of growth and expansion as progress and Lanier critiques the power of the Wikipedia with philosophical arguments about the ideas of self and voice. Lanier ends his piece with the sentence: “The best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first”. Comparatively, this sentiment sounds more- I really can’t think of a word so let’s just go with “hokey”- hokey than the factual argument Kelly uses, clad with statistics and “numerical representations” of just how effective he finds collectivism to be. Lanier- while making some rather crude remarks about us “idiots”- does explore this technological progression from a more abstract, emotional, human level and I think examining collectivism through this lens is ALSO important.

  4. I agree that it’s hard to agree with each author completely but that both rise good points. While I do believe Lanier does get too emotional lessening the usefulness of his perspective, it is still a necessary perspective. Kelly, while admitting that there is no pure example of collectivism and that collectivism isn’t even ideal for all situations, seems too optimistic about what can be achieved with the infrastructure currently provided and seems to discount that Wikipedia is anything but perfect. For me the strength of his argument is that these new type of collective projects are simply better than “pure capitalism or pure communism,” that is not to say that it will work on a grand scale outside of the digital platform. I think Lanier is right in questioning what collectivism means negatively for the individual. There will always be tensions between individual and group thought and one will give to the other at some point.

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