Jaron Lanier’s essay, “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism,” has sparked tons of responses, as he no doubt hoped. Here’s mine:
The collected thoughts from people responding to Jaron Lanier’s essay are not a hive mind, but they’ve done a better job of dissecting his provocative essay than any one of us could have done. Which is precisely the point.
Does Lanier truly not see the historical absurdity of equating Wikipedia and other such phenomena with Maoism and collectivism? Even the most cursory examination of the Communist predations of the 20th Century makes that clear. A tendentious title and analogy undermines the many interesting facts he’s assembled.
The better analogy is the old-fashioned barn-raising, where people contribute their labor for a specific purpose. It takes more than a hive to raise the barn. (I’d say it takes a village, but that’s been turned into a political cliche.) People with a variety of expertise, ranging from expert to pure novice, come together to solve a problem. Leaders emerge to steer the process, and a barn happens.
It’s not about an all-wise hive mind. It’s not about a collective. It’s about community.
It’s also about persistence — and celebrating the reality that knowledge is not a static end-point but rather an ongoing process. New facts and nuances emerge after articles are published. One of Wikipedia’s best characteristics is its recognition that we can liberate ourselves from the publication or broadcast metaphors from the age of literally manufactured media, where the paper product or tape for broadcasting was the end of the process. My mantra as a journalist was a simple one: My readers know more than I do. We may (should I use this word?) collectively not get it right, and in fact humans almost never get anything entirely right, but get closer the more we assemble new data and nuance. If Steven Spielberg and other Hollywood folks can create directors’ cuts of their movies, why can’t journalists and other creators, amateur and professional, keep updating and improving some of their own works?
Pointing out the flaws in Wikipedia seems to be a new participatory sport. Let me join for a minute; the entry about me is both incorrect in small ways and grossly out of date. I’ve honored the site’s request that people who are the subjects of articles not fix them, but I’m definitely annoyed.
Then again, no article about me or my work in a traditional media outlet has ever been precisely correct. Factual errors, mostly minor, are common. Ditto out-of-context quotes. Yet those articles are now there — in print and even in databases, never to be updated, because the manufacturing model doesn’t permit such things.
The flaws in Wikipedia and other kinds of media are real. (Disclosure: Jimmy Wales is a friend; he is on my advisory board; and I’m an investor in his for-profit company.) But ways it shows us how to improve, along with watching how the community (not collective) operates around individual articles and the project as a whole, are lessons in themselves.
The debate does demonstrate how much we need to update our media literacy in a digital, distributed era. Our internal BS meters already work, but they’ve fallen into a low and sad level of use in the Big Media world. Many people tend to believe what they read. Others tend to disbelieve everything. Too few apply appropriate skepticism and do the additional work that true media literacy requires.
We need better tools to help us, as a community, gauge the reliability and authenticity of what we find online (or in print or on the air, etc.). Popularity is only one measure. Reputation has to become part of the mix in systems that combine human and machine intelligence in novel ways.
What’s most essential, though, is to remember how early we are in this process. Wikipedia isn’t the ultimate authority. It is, however, a remarkable achievement. And it’s getting better. I look forward to seeing how it proceeds.