The (Group) Think Method

Collectivism is in the air. The power of the many implies the power of the one, so TIME magazine anointed me as its person of the year (thanks!). Unlike Siva, I’m not going to decline. Not because the award is deserved (it’s not), and not because the award means anything (it doesn’t). But because the award reminds us of the limits of the collective, as well as its power. Reading Siva’s piece, I was struck by this sentence:

“So it’s not about your reviews on Amazon. It’s about how we as a community of Web users choose to exercise our collective wills and forge collective consciousnesses. So far, we have declined to do so. We have not harnessed this communicative power to force the rich and powerful to stop polluting our air and water or to stop the spread of AIDS or malaria. We have not brought down any tyrants. We have simply let a handful of new corporations aggregate and exercise their own will on us. And we have perfected online dating.”

Collective consciousness? I’ve heard that said before, and I’ve even heard it said about Google. But Amazon.com and Google aren’t the enemy; as Ed Felten points out in response to Nick Carr’s “sharecropping” post, it’s a mistake to conclude that users of MySpace and Google and so forth aren’t already getting significant value out of these sites and services. “Collective consciousness” isn’t missing; because it isn’t necessarily monetized, it exists in a form that society has difficulty recognizing.  Put differently, I don’t think that the collective has a “will”; we’ve been trying to valorize that sort of collective consciousness for a long time, and it has a history of failure. Example:  Given the recent passing of Gerald Ford, my mind immediately thought of the most memorable policy initiative of his administration: The Whip Inflation Now — or “WIN” campaign. In a manner of speaking, Ford wanted to use the distributed intelligence of the American public to reduce inflation. We were supposed to think our way to slower price growth.
It didn’t work, of course. The problem was the concept, though, not the tools. If society really wants to harness the collective consciousness of a group, should it find a way to tie monetary policy to videogames? Wii are the one? Sounds silly, and it is.

3 thoughts on “The (Group) Think Method

  1. While not directly addressing the value of collective thinking, there is an article on CNN discussing how NASA’s vision is lost on the web generation. A civil engineering student interviewed for the article mentioned that he saw a clip on YouTube that convinced him that the moon landings were faked.
    That raises two disturbing issues: First, I don’t want to drive on a bridge designed by that student. Second, sometimes the collective consciousness is horribly wrong.

  2. Great post. two quick points: first, collective action occurs in many forms, in many groups. Siva seems to be focusing on a particular form and scale of collective action. Second, you and Ed are absolutely right about the sharing of value. MySpace and Google appropriate some of the value from the platforms they offer, but certainly not all of it.

    (Random thought: We can imagine Carr’s argument turned into the free rider argument for more of the value to flow to the platform providers; MySpace and Google appropriate enough to provide them with incentives to offer the platforms, it seems, but might they need or deserve more if we want even better platforms? hmmm, maybe they’re not getting enough! Who is doing the free riding here? …)

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