Herd behaviour or people’s power?

Buffalo herd - Mikumi National Park, Tanzania

After a really inspirational talk by Wikipedia’s Jimbo Wales, I had an interesting exchange with Paul and Patrick about the broader philosophy that lies underneath Open Source, concepts like the hive mind or the collective consciousness that moves the newer outposts of Information Technology, masterfully explained in Steven Johnson‘s Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. This is what makes wikis great, argues Jimbo. This is what makes them extremely dangerous, argues Edge‘s prodigious child Jaron Lanier, echoing Kevin Kelly’s Out Of Control study on social systems:

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.

Read the whole article here. And, incidentally, if you have a spare day or two, read as many of Edge’s articles as you can possibly can, as they are absolutely brilliant!

Update: another interesting take on the subject by Ming the Mechanic’s excellent blog.

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2 responses to “Herd behaviour or people’s power?

  1. Jaron has it right; whether this means Wikipedia constitutes a danger to society is another question. I wonder if we are sufficiently innoculated against the temptations of the collectivity by such artifacts as Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Matrix, parables about sheep and the cliff’s edge, D.A.R.E., etc. Claude Lefort argues that totalitarianism suggested a solution to the ‘indeterminancy’ of democracy and social fragmentation engendered by capitalism – total submersion of individuality to the collective. The tension between individual and community is, of course, replicated throughout history and culture and patterns our political, economic and ethical systems. The danger is not intellectual, except insofar as a society’s relationship to intellect is a proxy indicator for its relationship to the individual. And the annihilated individual is the currency of collective formation.

    The question is whether or not such ‘collective’ endeavors might be ‘better’ than typically productive formations in human (capitalist) society. Wikipedia is an interesting example if only because the production of Wikipedia is ostensibly ‘knowledge’, something we have a hard time imagining as an ideal commodity. OpenSource, on the other hand, is a productive formation geared to tangible goals, though it is rather narrowly focused on issues of intellectual property. OpenSource attempts to harness both creativity (leading to innovation) and probability (leading to refinement and quality control). We would be rightfully concerned if Wikipedians took it to be there purview to ‘innovate’ historical figures and episodes; hence, the function of Wikipedia – that is, the active production of knowledge – can only ever be one of quality control, analogous to peer-reviewing journal articles. But we hold out great hope, for instance, that the OLPC project might not only be a source of education for poor children but latent creative innovation for everyone. That is to say, that it will harness the individual side of the equation rather than the collective side.

  2. After confessing adherence to Ayn Rand’s school of objectivism, Wikipedia founder James Wales made these remarks on the ‘wisdom of crowds’ in a recent interview:

    JW: In general, I’m pretty skeptical of the idea. And I’m very skeptical of it being applied to Wikipedia in particular. But I think you can pick out elements of good sense from ideas in that general neighborhood – like the idea that given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow. That’s kind of a wisdom of crowds idea. It says that lots of different people have lots of different contexts and information. And if they can come together in a way that productively aggregates or shares that information, you can end up with a pretty high quality of work that will be far better than what an individual or a small team could produce. But I think, when a lot of people talk about the wisdom of crowds, they’re thinking of some kind of mystical collective intelligence. And they’re thinking in terms of some sort of trust that somehow the averaging out of lots of ideas will end up being correct. And I’m a lot more skeptical about that.

    If you’ve ever seen the film 12 Angry Men; it’s the story of a jury that’s trying to decide in a murder case. And there’s one guy who disagrees with everyone else. He thinks that the evidence does not prove that the defendant is guilty. He argues for two hours, and one by one he slowly convinces people that there are holes in the evidence. And in the end, they acquit. Well, that’s what happens sometimes in a really great Wikipedia debate. You may have eleven people on one side and one on the other. But if that one person is reasonable and thoughtful and deals with the criticisms one-by-one, people will actually change their minds and we end up with a strong product. That can’t really be described as the wisdom of crowds, in the way most people use it. So, I’m a little skeptical of that rhetoric.

    Read the rest of the interview.

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