An amazing essay by Jaron Lanier about Digital Maoism delves into the behavior of collectivism and whether the Internet Age is fueling it. However, the core subject is much deeper than the digital world encouraging mob madness. It is about whether we can benefit from groupism and Wisdom of Crowds, and if so when.
As Lanier mentions, this collectivism is seen in many places, through participation of individuals. The American Idol (or Indian Idol), elections, Wikipedia and stock markets are some examples. However, there is primary difference in Wikipedia and the American Idol model. Wikipedia nurtures objective factual information, as against subjective opinions. The fact remains the fact and its truth is not influenced by who has written about it or how many have written about it. The strength of a group can influence how much information is available. What Wikipedia has done is make this immense information available by using a open group of authors rather than a closed one. If a piece of information is not accurate or right, it can be re-edited to reflect the truth. In other words, inaccurate information by authors is corrected by its accurate version. They are written by humans, errors are possible and will be corrected. However, the probability of correction improves with the number of people involved. It is not chaos, it is a system where inaccurate information is replaced by the accurate one which can be verified because of the objectiveness.
Wikipedia, an aggregator, does not mean that the individual authorities are undermined. They still are respected and are read. However, Wikipedia serves just as a singular storage of information and not is not intelligent in itself. But it serves as one of the best references to have.
On the other hand, American Idol model works on gathering votes based on subjective opinions and judgements from the common man. The tragedy is that people who do not have enough knowledge can not only participate but their vote gets counted, whether any other knowledgable person votes or not. Usually, a minority of the population is an expert on any subject. However, with votes being counted, the majority is always going to overrule the minority thereby throwing away the argument for merit. Surprisingly, this model has been replicated in many countries and even there the model is raking in money, which seems to be the primary goal. I haven’t seen the Indian Idols chosen improving their musical or performance abilities. However, the average talent that comes out of the model has improved, now there are more performers have exposure than before. The average beats the best!
While I agree that American Idol probably has the best business model and it brilliantly exploits the mob mentality, it is not a good example of collectivism bringing out the best. If I say, I don’t like a certain painting, that does not mean that the painting is not good, it is my subjective opinion, and the painting itself should not judged by it. A couple of years later I might change my perception and take a liking to the same artifact.
And there is also the blogosphere. Isn’t it an another form of collectivism? What blogosphere, as a whole, does is bring a subject in view of many others. Frankly, I would not have read this essay if it was not for the blogosphere. However, this neither means that the subject is important nor does it say whose opinions are important. It is entirely the onus of the individual to act and how to act on the information. This probably applies even in the stock market. The mob mania causes spikes or trenches in the sensex graph, but it is momentary. Whether to react to it or not will depend on the individual investor.
Elections are probably true processes of democratic participation by individuals to form a collective voice. However, there are multiple instances that they have completely failed. They have failed, not because collectivism does not work here, but maybe because the citizens did not have enough information, or enough did not participate or that they were completely rigged. However, this is another example, where the total number of votes might not bring out the best.
While discussing with a friend, what also came up was that not only the subjective opinion but also aspect of the subject might matter sometimes. In a software, the users opinions count a lot when its usability is being tested. I wonder how it will work if they are asked about the software engineering or the software process used for it. However, I see it works for usability as it is targetted towards the users and hence they are the best candidates for opinions on it. In this case, the proportion of the mass that reacted or opined is important.
Now to the more resident issue – is the internet fueling collectivism? We are seeing more and more aggregator models being used by businesses. The aggregator is a matter of convenience rather than intelligence. For example, it is convenient to read everything in one single place. Why they have worked in business models because they supply convenience, which is in demand by the users. If you look at Slashdot, it has been brilliant in reporting news that were not available in many places earlier. Sometimes even the discussions provide lot of value, but it never tries to snatch the credit or highlight from the original article itself. The aggregator model can build intelligence over and above the one provided by an individual, which is not harmful. In fact, collaboration between groups of people has also led to generative internet and community marketing as in case of Mozilla Firefox.
Whether collectivism is good or not, whether it works or not is more dependent on the subject it is applied for, and what it is used for. It, by itself, is not good or bad, its usage is. By nature, even this post is again just another opinion of an individual, probably even a subjective opinion and should not be counted as a vote.
Copyright Abhijit Nadgouda.