Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Lanier revisited

It has been interesting to track the hurly-burly stirred up by Jaron Lanier's Digital Maoism essay, which I reported on a couple of weeks ago. Time for some deeper reflections on its context and impact.

You might say that Lanier's apparent crowd-anxiety is very much in the American political tradition. James Madison himself outlined his concerns about un-governed collective activity at the Constitional Convention, declaring that the masses − and hence Democracy − need constant checking because a) they are dumb and b) they generally behave more like a mob than rational individuals.

Indeed, in stark contrast to the more optimistic proponents of "smart chaos", Lanier is probably one of those thinkers that believe the "hive mind" might indeed be a good idea, if only it consisted entitrely of people with individual minds like his own. Peer-production in the more elitist sense then. Some people simply don't trust the dumb to become clever in the aggregate.

Of course one huge weakness of Lanier's argument is that not all mobs are Maoist. And in the specific case of Wikipedia, although the effect is collective, the cause is surely individual.

Individualism has been the West's key differentiator for centuries. Until about a hundred years ago it was backed up by a scientific world-view founded on a model of reality conceived as the product of the activity of distinct particles. This mechanistic paradigm has steadily lost its grip since quantum phenomena were first detected, and "web" and "system" had become the dominant metaphors within our scientific thinking long before the Internet became a mainstream communications medium.

It's hardly surprising then that all this has tipped the balance in favour of thinking about "webs" of human creativity. This shift is significant and looks like it is here to stay. Perhaps Lanier is right however to suggest that we ought to be giving some consideration at least to what we are losing along the way.

"The book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and women
to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod
of snippets. So, booksellers...keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges.
For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity."
(John Updike)

Now Updike might prefer content with edges, but the edges have been shifting right the way across our culture for some time now. Many would regard his defence of the non-electronic book as Conservative − such things, they would argue, increasingly have legacy cultural value in excess of their use-value. However, it would surely be wrong to dismiss him as a dinosaur. There may be a "new modality" out there, but it is not necessarily a better one. For the time being at least, it would be best to consider it as a useful alternative.

Personally, I'm less concerned about changes to our cultural forms (like books) than changes to the psychological make-up of the individuals that make up our culture. In the end though, I suppose it's up to all of us to decide how mashed-up we'd like our society to become. It's all part of the phenomenon that non-geeks know as Postmodernism...which is not necessarily an improvement on Modernism and everything else before that.

Many Tech-minded thinkers are often far too quick to designate all change as progress. In some of the worst cases they seem to be in the grip of an alternative religious revelation, faith in which entails that it is the destiny of mankind to be relieved of its painful individuality and to fill up the cosmos with a great hive intelligence that will transcend the personal mortality of its components - us. If anything, such ideas are more Buddhist than Maoist.

There are many different ways of looking at the relationship between individual and collective, the centre and the de-centre. Two axes on a graph, two quadrants in a Boston matrix (what would the other two be?!)...a continuum. In his response to Lanier, Clay Shirky characterised the polarity as a "tension". ("Social life involves a tension between individual freedom and group participation.") The human mind is obviously an interesting mix of individual/serial and collective/parallel process, but unlike other aspects of biology where the dynamic is more obviously "tense"and competitive, here perhaps the two exist in a kind of symbiotic balance.

In spite of the increasing "webbiness" of our contemporary ways of thinking and acting, the market and the theories which drive it, remain resolutely individualistic. So I'd agree with those that regard much of the community activity on the Web as part of an on-going collective defence mechanism against its rigours.

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