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)?