August 19th, 2006
A few months ago, Jaron Lanier published a provocative essay entitled “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism.” It created a storm of controversy, debate, and discussion — but it faded away before I could digest it all and attempt to contribute something to the discussion that had not already been said by people far more respected and articulate than me. Meanwhile, other crises, deadlines, diversions, and amusements kept clamoring for attention — as they always do, when we’d like to have a few quiet days or weeks to think deeply about some complex issue — and eventually Lanier and his essay drifted off my radar screen. But this morning, I see that Newsweek‘s Steven Levy has re-started the debate, with a column in the forthcoming issue of the magazine entitled “Poking a Stick Into The ‘Hive Mind’.”
If you’ve never heard of Jaron Lanier, and have no idea what the debate is all about, here’s the abstract that appears a the beginning of his essay:
“The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?
“The problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it’s been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of 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. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it’s now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn’t make it any less dangerous.”
During the two or three months between the initial publication of Lanier’s essay, and today’s Newsweek column, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring several of the things that Lanier criticizes — e.g., Wikipedia, Google, Digg, and various “aggregators” and “meta-blogs” that attempt to provide the “wisdom of the crowds” to anyone surfing the Internet. So I’m a lot more sensitive to the arguments and criticisms he makes, and I’m also far less inclined to view the issue in a black-and-white, all-or-nothing sense.
I think the best example that Lanier provides of the idiocy of the “hive mind” culture is the “American Idol” music competition that I have studiously avoided watching on television for the past year (or has it been going on for two years? three years? who knows? who cares?). As Lanier observes, “More people appear to vote in this pop competition than in presidential elections, and one reason for this is the instant convenience of information technology.”
But beyond the staggering notion that more people (at least in the U.S.) care about their choice for top amateur singer than their choice for the politician who either will or will not protect us from the Forces of Evil (whoever they may happen to be this week), the problem, as Lanier puts it, is “As with the Wikipedia, there’s nothing wrong with it. The problem is its centrality [emphasis added].” If “American Idol” had existed30-40 years ago, Lanier says, “John Lennon wouldn’t have won. He wouldn’t have made it to the finals. Or if he had, he would have ended up a different sort of person and artist. The same could be said about Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, Joni Mitchell, Duke Ellington, David Byrne, Grandmaster Flash , Bob Dylan (please!), and almost anyone else who has been vastly influential in creating pop music.”
Well, perhaps not. But the practical reality is that these wonderful musicians succeeded only partly because of their talent; after all, there are thousands of gifted musicians who never get any audience to listen to their work — not on American Idol, and not on a CD published by the major record companies. John Lennon and Elvis and the others on Lanier’s list achieved prominence because, in addition to talent and years of hard work, they also managed to persuade an agent and/or a record producer to back them, record their songs, and promote them in concerts and on radio stations. So it would almost seem like Lanier is complaining about the diminished authority and power of recording executives — or, by extension, Hollywood movie producers, and TV executives who choose each season’s sit-com series, as well as newspaper editors and prominent op-ed columnists.
Back to the American Idol metaphor: yes, I too find it appalling that society puts so much emphasis on this cultural phenomenon, and that it essentially represents a lowest-common-denominator form of entertainment. But as Chris Anderson argues eloquently in his Long Tail book, the same could be said of traditional book publishers, as well as producers of Hollywood blockbuster movies, and, yes, even recording-company music executives. If you’re going to produce a movie like The Return of Superman, which (according to an article. “Caught on Film: A Growing Unease in Hollywood,” in today’s New York Times) cost $209 million to make, then it has to be a blockbuster, which means that it has to eliminate controversial, edgy, quirky elements and appeal to the masses. (Interestingly, a recent article in China View — yes, I do scour the entire planet for useful tidbits of information for my faithful readers — claims that Superman Returns cost $225 million to make, will generate only $200 million in revenue, and probably won’t be successful enough to persuade Hollywood producers to create a sequel.)
In any case, I think the “dumbing down” phenomenon, which could conceivably be a dangerous consequence of “hive mind” efforts like Wikipedia, was already a major cultural force before the Internet achieved its current prominence. Meanwhile, though, the Internet has brought us the “long tail” phenomenon, which I think Lanier has overlooked in his diatribe. Yes, if American Idol had been the dominant cultural force 30-40 years ago, John Lennon wouldn’t have made it; and because of that, nobody would have signed him up for a recording contract. He would have had nothing in terms of a musical career, and he would have been forced to go back to Liverpool and get a “real” job as, perhaps, a school teacher.
But in today’s world, he could become part of the long tail. He could write and record his own music, and he could put it up on his own Web site. He could make music videos and upload them onto YouTube (for whatever it’s worth, there were 1,345 different John Lennon video clips on YouTube when I was writing this entry). Maybe people would pay attention, maybe they wouldn’t; it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that there would be a “viral” buzz throughout the Internet-connected youth culture, and Lennon could have become a cult icon even without the traditional producers, executives, and American Idol shows. But even if only two or three people around the world downloaded his music and watched him on YouTube, at least it would be greater than zero — and he would hopefully have been sufficiently inspired to continue creating his art. After all, artists do care about things other than money; it’s the passion for their art that drives them, as long as they can figure out some reasonable way to pay the rent and put food on the table.
And one could make a similar argument about Wikipedia. Yes, there’s a potential risk that some of the more prominent articles might be dumbed-down by the community effort; and yes, perhaps we do lose something with a committee-like effort whose product has no personal style or identifiable authorship. But on the other hand, the breadth and scope of Wikipedia’s reach is stunning: I understand that Encyclopedia Britannica is now up to 120,000 articles; but Wikipedia has ten times that number — 1.2 million articles (and that’s just the English-language version; Wikipedia also exists in roughly one hundred other languages). Talk about individuality! If there’s something out there that someone — anyone! — cares about, chances are that it’s in Wikipedia.
In addition to the long-tail issue, there’s another aspect of the Wikipedia/Digg/hive-mind phenomenon that Lanier ignores: its accessibility. For example, when I scanned through the list of musicians that Lanier felt would be ignored by today’s “American Idol”-dominated culture, I was reminded of my cultural ignorance: while I certainly know who Elvis and Bob Dylan and John Lennon are, I had never heard of Grandmaster Flash. But Wikipedia says this about him, and a quick Google search provided me with a link to his own web site. To my surprise, Encyclopedia Britannica also has an article about the hip-hop musician. But here’s the difference: Wikipedia’s article is 605 words long, with 65 hyperlinks to additional sources of information. Britannica‘s article is only 286 words long, with one hyperlink (to “hip-hop,” which even a cultural dinosaur like me doesn’t need to read about), but I was only allowed to read 75 words unless I signed up for a trial subscription to the encyclopedia. I don’t care how wise, individualistic, respected and knowledgeable Britannica‘s writers are on the subject of Grand Flash; faced with a comparison like that, Wikipedia is going to win, hands down, every time.
So … I’ll continue resisting the cultural pressure to watch “American Idol,” just like I resisted the pressure to watch the idiotic “Survivor” reality-TV show when it appeared a few years ago; I don’t need Lanier’s help on that one. But I’ll take Lanier’s criticisms and concerns about the “wisdom of the crowds” phenomenon to heart, and perhaps temper my enthusiasm for the utopian possibilities of such things as Wikipedia. I still think that Lanier’s perspective is too negative and critical, but maybe — just maybe — I should reconsider my recent proposal that Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.