Skip to content

Digital Maoism

One of my favorite podcasts/blogs, Radio Open Source, had a great discussion between James Surowiecki and Jaron Lanier about the wisdom (and limits) of crowds. Lanier started the conversation with a commentary in Edge entitled Digital Maoism. Lanier has many points in his essay; perhaps the best way to get a flavor of it is to look at his treatment of Wikipedia:

A core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds. This is analogous to the claims of Hyper-Libertarians who put infinite faith in a free market, or the Hyper-Lefties who are somehow able to sit through consensus decision-making processes. In all these cases, it seems to me that empirical evidence has yielded mixed results.

I like this critique because I’m suspicious of aggregation (via politics or markets) generally. Hayek may be right that the market is a uniquely powerful way of collecting privately held bits of information about the best destination for resources. And democracy may be the only legitimate form of political governance. But we have to keep the logics of buying and voting out of spheres where they don’t belong; proceduralism isn’t everything. This is a constant battle in an age of skepticism and relativism, as more and more logics of value are displaced by the “delinguistified steering media” of votes and money (to put it in Habermas’s characteristically apt and awkward terminology).

To their credit, both Lanier and Surowiecki identify the particular situations where aggregation is most useful. I’d like to nominate one more: open access publishing. I think that disciplines that adopt open access models will be evolutionarily more successful than those that fail to. It is much easier to vet quality and to build consensus (or structure controversy) when everything can be accessible to everyone.

Think, for instance, of how this discussion on the wisdom of crowds will progress. I would love to discuss Jeremy Waldron’s brilliant article on Aristotle’s concept of the Wisdom of the Multitude, but it’s on closed-access JStor. I’m not bothering to download it–not because it would be hard to do so, but because it’s not accessible to everyone. As a moral matter, I want to cite to things that can be accessed by, say, average citizens in less developed countries, independent scholars unaffiliated with universities, curious autodidacts, etc….not just fellow academics at relatively wealthy institutions.

Both this blog’s founder (Michael Madison) and Yochai Benkler help us see how that ethic of egalitarianism leads not to anarchy but to more benign things like quality control. Madison predicts that eventually

[o]pen access can create a working prestige economy if scholarly publication is standardized to a format that permits scholars in the relevant discipline to develop a digital “tagging” specification. Works in open access archives can be “tagged,” classified, and rated along various dimensions by scholars, and the result would be a kind of dynamic, searchable, shareable, bottom-up post-publication form of peer review.

Benkler has some great descriptions of current “relevance and accreditation” mechanisms in fora like Slashdot.

In conclusion: people like Lanier (and Birkerts and Updike) may lament the rise of an apparently unaccountable “hive mind.” But the only way to “fight it” is to increase the accessibility of one’s own work, opening it to a global discourse rather than circling the wagons against it.

1 thought on “Digital Maoism”

Comments are closed.