jaron lanier's essay on "the hazards of the new online collectivism" 08.08.2006, 9:37 AM
posted by bob stein
In late May John Brockman's Edge website published an essay by Jaron Lanier -- "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism". Lanier's essay caused quite a flurry of comment both pro and con. Recently someone interested in the work of the Institute asked me my opinion. I thought that in light of Dan's reportage from the Wikimania conference in Cambridge i would share my thoughts about Jaron's critique of Wikipedia . . .
I read the article the day it was first posted on The Edge and thought it so significant and so wrong that I wrote Jaron asking if the Institute could publish a version in a form similar to Gamer Theory that would enable readers to comment on specific passages as well as on the whole. Jaron referred me to John Brockman (publisher of The Edge), who although he acknowledged the request never got back to us with an answer.
From my perspective there are two main problems with Jaron's outlook.
a) Jaron misunderstands the Wikipedia. In a traditional encyclopedia, experts write articles that are permanently encased in authoritative editions. The writing and editing goes on behind the scenes, effectively hiding the process that produces the published article. The standalone nature of print encyclopedias also means that any discussion about articles is essentially private and hidden from collective view. The Wikipedia is a quite different sort of publication, which frankly needs to be read in a new way. Jaron focuses on the "finished piece", ie. the latest version of a Wikipedia article. In fact what is most illuminative is the back-and-forth that occurs between a topic's many author/editors. I think there is a lot to be learned by studying the points of dissent; indeed the "truth" is likely to be found in the interstices, where different points of view collide. Network-authored works need to be read in a new way that allows one to focus on the process as well as the end product.
b) At its core, Jaron's piece defends the traditional role of the independent author, particularly the hierarchy that renders readers as passive recipients of an author's wisdom. Jaron is fundamentally resistant to the new emerging sense of the author as moderator -- someone able to marshal "the wisdom of the network."
I also think it is interesting that Jaron titles his article Digital Maoism, with which he hopes to tar the Wikipedia with the brush of bottom-up collectivism. My guess is that Jaron is unaware of Mao's famous quote: "truth emerges in the course of struggle [around ideas]". Indeed, what I prize most about the Wikipedia is that it acknowledges the messiness of knowledge and the process by which useful knowledge and wisdom accrete over time.
Steven Chabot on August 8, 2006 11:37 AM:
Thank you for finally making it click for me, the uniqueness of Wikipedia. It is not solely in the collaborative model, which is not entirely unique, but what that allows us: the ability to not just frame a debate, but have the debate itself exist as part of the work. And not just descriptively, but ongoing, within the work, within the very article, in a microcosm of reality. It is this ability that traditional models physically cannot allow.
I still think Wikipedia is bad, and often, but when it is good it can be extremely good, and in a different realm than what a traditional encyclopedia can produce, and for this very reason.
virginia kuhn on August 8, 2006 3:22 PM:
I really do wish the essay could be reproduced here for the purposes of a sustained dialogue; one of Jaron's issues about the loss of personality (and the trend to be 'most meta') is a really interesting one if somewhat oddly raised throughout the essay (and his point that folks will bend over backwards to make a newcomer look smart just mystifies me - anyone remember Usenet and the treatment of newbies?) but adding to Bob's points, if the Wikipedia and its notorious misinformation promotes a healthy skepticism about all monolithic universal truth claims, then so much the better.