Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Wikipedia and Digital Maoism

Yesterday's "On Point" show on NPR (referred to by me and by many in my community "National Palestinian Radio) station WBUR (Boston), was called "Wikipedia: Open Intelligence." Guests were Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia ; John Palfrey, the Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Simon Pulsifier (a prolific Wikipedia contributor), and as a dissident, Jaron Lanier, who is sometimes described musician and a virtual reality developer, sometimes as a "computer scientist and digital visionary," and other times as a film maker. While a shameless self-promoter and perhaps claiming a quite a bit too much for himself, he apparently has broad interests in addition to shaping his own image carefully. (Here is a link to his homepage so you can make your own mind up). There were also call-ins, some pro and some scathingly anti-Wikipedia. I love Wikipedia so let me get my side on the debate right out there.

Jimmy Wales was unfazed by the negative call-ins, and only once expressed some risibility; that was when Lanier trotted out his theory that Wikipedia was engaged in what he calls "Digital Maoism." Wales said this was the most surprising thing he had heard about Wikipedia and it made no sense. I'm surprised he was surprised. Lanier had expressed his views in a May 30, 2006 piece for "Edge The Third Culture." (Appropriately, there is a link to it on his Wikipedia entry). Here is an introduction to the piece:

"In "Digital Maosim", an original essay written for Edge, computer scientist and digital visionary Jaron Lanier finds fault with what he terms the new online collectivism. He cites as an example the Wikipedia, noting that "reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure".

"His problem is not with the unfolding experiment of the Wikipedia itself, but "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".

"And he notes that "the Wikipedia is far from being the only online fetish site for foolish collectivism. There's a frantic race taking place online to become the most "Meta" site, to be the highest level aggregator, subsuming the identity of all other sites".

"Where is this leading? Lanier calls attention to the "so-called 'Artificial Intelligence' and the race to erase personality and be most Meta. In each case, there's a presumption that something like a distinct kin to individual human intelligence is either about to appear any minute, or has already appeared. The problem with that presumption is that people are all too willing to lower standards in order to make the purported newcomer appear smart. Just as people are willing to bend over backwards and make themselves stupid in order to make an AI interface appear smart (as happens when someone can interact with the notorious Microsoft paper clip,) so are they willing to become uncritical and dim in order to make Meta-aggregator sites appear to be coherent."

"Read on as Jaron Lanier throwns a lit Molotov cocktail down towards Palo Alto from up in the Berkeley Hills... "

Well, I came of age in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s, when there were real molotov cocktails being thrown, some in Berkeley, and when Jaron was about 6 years of age. In the NPR show I laughed when he referred to the 1960s as a time when individuality was valued, maybe even blossomed. My hair then was about the length of Jaron's now, but it was natural, without the Rasta locks he takes the time to construct. In the Berkeley Hills (read white areas) of the 1960s, there was just as much conformism among hippies as there were among the straights (as they were called then; now the term has an obviously different meaning). Your hair had to be long, you had to wear Levis, smoke dope, have lots of sex, etc. Now if you have to conform to something, that was pretty good, and I wasn't complaining. But it was not individuality, it was adolescent rebellion: when John Lennon decided to cut his hair short, people were shocked, outraged. I cut mine too, and lost almost all the friends I had had the day before.

It is the cult of the individual, of the original author, that Lanier is hyping (notice the subtitle of his piece, an "original essay"). His concern with wikipedia is with its quick popularity and with its collective (read anonymous) nature. Rather than having an entry in wikipedia on, say, Icelandic Transsexuals, he thinks there should be an Icelandic Transsexuals website, where we can see pictures of such people, read their stories, bond with them. A collective, anonymous wiki entry suppresses them just as surely as their bodies do.

In copyright, we have seen this before, with efforts to recast the evolution of copyright in the form of the struggle of the Romantic author. That effort was historically flawed and merely a polemic. Wikipedia is a tool, and an amazing one; it is not a form of intelligence, it is not history, it should not be anyone's principal or sole source for information anymore than TV should be for "news."

Originality is vastly overrated, most especially by those who claim to be original. Some forms of works are inherently collective and encyclopedias are the echt example. (Think of the examples of collective works that can be specially ordered or commissioned works for hire; why them? Because there are lots of contributions by individuals that are then shaped into one collective work usually).

Blogs and websites serve totally different purposes; they let you express yourself and I am not shy in that regard. But you can't spend all your time strutting around like a peacock. Sometimes too you just want access to information, and it doesn't matter from whom it comes. And even on Lanier's own terms, I find wikipedia's entries have far more personality than works of the same genre and that is the true comparison, not to blogs or websites.

In any event, as Justice Holmes said in Bleistein: "Personality always contains something unique. It expresses its singularity even in handwriting, and a very modest grade of art has in it something irreducible, which is one man's alone. " Maybe Lanier just doesn't like wikipedia's personality, but I suspect it is more its popularity that he dislikes.

Jaron, my advice is get over yourself and I say: baihuā yùndòng!


Anonymous said...

No mention of Colbert's "wikiality," huh?

See this article or video clip if anyone missed it:

William Patry said...

I try to be more Euripides than Aristotle, which isn't hard.

Anonymous said...

I'm too lazy to to comment in any substantial way, but I do want to point out that you seem to have used "nonplussed" in a (common) incorrect fashion.

William Patry said...

Thanks for the correction. Here is a link to a disucssion of the point:

Anonymous said...

Very well said as usual. It's a pity Wikipedia does not *actually* have an article on transsexuality in Iceland, though. :)

Anonymous said...

I can take or leave Wikipedia, and I'm more likely to leave than take a computer scientist/digital visionary/film maker. So while I agree that Lanier is competing for attention (for more about which, see Richard Lanham's The Economics of Attention, even perhaps a review I wrote of it), I think skepticism about all the hype over "collaborative" this and "collective" that is healthy. It, too, amounts to a kind of conformism among self-proclaimed digital visionaries, aka geeks, this decade's hippies. Collectivity is a phenomenon we need not embrace so much as simply recognize for its ubiquity. More than merely "some forms of works" are collective endeavors, I'd say, but that doesn't mean we ought to dispense with a Romantic notion of individuality, however marginalized it has become. How else to listen to Beethoven...or Monteverdi, for that matter?

William Patry said...

Well put Dean. I was arguing, in my tongue-in-cheek link at the end, for letting all modes of expression make their way on the marketplace, and also arguing that each has its own place.

William Patry said...

P.S. I encourage readers to read Dean's review and the link to the book he is reviewing

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the kind postscript. Attention, you know.

Anonymous said...

Nice one ... the thing that's missing for me in the whole discussion is around personal biases and ego-enriched information. I like the concept of ego-less information which sometimes is just what you need. To start with edit trails on Wikipedia are completely transparent which can't really be said for much of the information provided by professional journalists or scientists. Also Lanier's belief in the "absolute truth", right and wrong, and a clear preference for intelligent scientists vs the essentially dumb collective is somewhat limiting and dated. Wikipedia and Quantum Physics are excellent examples for highlighting how seemingly conflicting "truths" can all be "correct" at the same time. Basically there is a place for both models ... given that historically most of the consumed information has been dominated by individuals/specialists it seems appropriate that a manifestation of the collective model receives a lot of attention these days. Jaron, it's cool man ... let go of your fear :-)