Magazine article Newsweek

Poking a Stick into the 'Hive Mind'; to Lanier, the 'Wisdom of Crowds' Delivers a Reflection of the Lowest Common Denominator

Magazine article Newsweek

Poking a Stick into the 'Hive Mind'; to Lanier, the 'Wisdom of Crowds' Delivers a Reflection of the Lowest Common Denominator

Article excerpt

Byline: Steven Levy

Jaron Lanier is a man of many talents--virtual-reality pioneer, New Age composer, visual artist and artificial-intelligence scientist. Now Lanier has taken on another role: dyspeptic critic of the surging trend of digital collectivism, an ethic that celebrates and exploits the ability of the Web to aggregate the preferences and behaviors of millions of people. In a recent essay posted on the Web site Edge.org, Lanier disparages the recent spate of efforts that rely on conscious collaboration (like the anyone-can-participate online reference work Wikipedia) or passive polling (the so-called meta sites like Digg, which draw on user response to rank news articles and blog postings). To Lanier, these represent an alarming decision--rejecting individual expression and creativity to become part of a faceless mob. To emphasize the enormity of this movement, Lanier titled his essay with a fearsome moniker: "Digital Maoism."

Yes, to Lanier, subsuming one's identity into an electronically aggregated mass (even by such innocent acts as tweaking a Wikipedia item or giving a rating to a comment on the Slashdot discussion board) is akin to the rabidly destructive mob fervor seen in China during the chairman's rule. "If you look at the history of youth cultural movements, they tend to go one of two ways," he explains. "One is in the direction of individual expression and creativity; the best example is the '60s. The other way is to lose themselves in the collective, binding themselves into a gang--as in the Cultural Revolution."

Lanier's widely circulated online rant was the equivalent of poking a stick into a beehive--or, more specifically, the much-celebrated "hive mind" of the modern Internet. Books like James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds" and Kevin Kelly's "Out of Control" have provided a philosophical underpinning for the idea that the world benefits when people participate in unpredictable, emergent enterprises. …

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