Collectivism vs. Individualism Online

By js, 16 January, 2010, No Comment

Response to:

DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism [5.30.06]
By Jaron Lanier

http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/lanier06/lanier06_index.html

I have been struggling with the benefits and the dangers/constraints of the internet.

I know several people whom I respect immensely who are very weary of the internet. They put forth the same arguments which I have heard before regarding safety, worth and authenticity of ideas, and surveillance. These concerns are legitimate and many scholars are debating these issues.

What concerns me is that we may not be taking advantage of its strengths because we are so guarded by its dangers. There has to be balance between the two. Lanier takes up the discussion of this balance between the power and danger of the collective and the individual. He argues for both collectivism and individualism.

Lanier argues that the strength of the internet is the people behind it. The danger, he argues, comes in elevating the technology above the human, that is, elevating the internet and giving it power which it ultimately does not have and behind which individuals (especially those doing despicable things) can hide.

No, 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.

He uses the idea of individualism to argue against the collective. He says:

A desirable text is more than a collection of accurate references. It is also an expression of personality.

This quote reminds me of Foucault’s “The Death of the Author” and his argument that in much of postmodern writing we want to remove the author and in doing so create authority in the text itself rather than in the individual who wrote the text.

He gives the example of cloning of scientific texts in wiki sites which devalues each text. Instead of thinking about the knowledge that has been created as connected to an individual, we think of knowledge as separate from which makes us think less of the act of separating the two.

When you see the context in which something was written and you know who the author was beyond just a name, you learn so much more than when you find the same text placed in the anonymous, faux-authoritative, anti-contextual brew of the Wikipedia. The question isn’t just one of authentication and accountability, though those are important, but something more subtle. A voice should be sensed as a whole. You have to have a chance to sense personality in order for language to have its full meaning.

This idea of “sensing personality” to achieve “full meaning” is interesting to me. It is the personality and all the meaning that comes with it that alters or adds to the meaning of the text. Without that information, the text is always incomplete. This though is the same argument against New Criticism that wants to focus on only the text. When is it appropriate to look at the text on its own and when to search for outside sources to give us a “fuller” understanding of it. He gives the example of MySpace:

You can always tell at least a little about the character of the person who made a Myspace page. But it is very rare indeed that a Myspace page inspires even the slightest confidence that the author is a trustworthy authority.

The greatest danger, he argues, comes from those sites wishing to become the most “Meta” since it is this site that will drive traffic, the readers, to the webpages.

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.

We see this in the SEO craze for websites and the race to be on the top of the Google search list. These aggregations are completed through algorithms.

In the last year or two the trend has been to remove the scent of people, so as to come as close as possible to simulating the appearance of content emerging out of the Web as if it were speaking to us as a supernatural oracle. This is where the use of the Internet crosses the line into delusion.

I can understand the politics of a company wanting to become Meta to turn to the algorithms and “remove the scent of people.” It is because people tend to be biased and play favorites. The people behind the aggregation hold power over who will receive traffic to their site. But in trying to create this sense of neutrality, they create another problem, the delusion of “content emerging out of the Web” which Lanier discusses:

In the last year or two the trend has been to remove the scent of people, so as to come as close as possible to simulating the appearance of content emerging out of the Web as if it were speaking to us as a supernatural oracle. This is where the use of the Internet crosses the line into delusion.

The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.

The algorithms and SEO don’t focus on connecting people but on connecting people with content/a product. This focus is one way in which MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter are different from the Meta sites. Those services instead do focus on “connecting people” even if, like Lanier argues, people have to connect within specific constraints developed by the service.

What is crucial to notice about modernity is that structure and constraints were part of what sped up the process of technological development, not just pure openness and concessions to the collective.

But the constraints also lead others to develop new services or lead users to create workarounds to achieve their purpose. It is the individuals who develop the new directions, and the collective which either subsumes or ignores those new directions. I can think of the newest form in which this has materialized: the via function in Facebook which follows the RT function in Twitter.

The hive mind should be thought of as a tool. Empowering the collective does not empower individuals — just the reverse is true. There can be useful feedback loops set up between individuals and the hive mind, but the hive mind is too chaotic to be fed back into itself.

it ought to be possible to find a humanistic and practical way to maximize value of the collective on the Web without turning ourselves into idiots. The best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first.

One trend though is for the collective to make it seem like the guiding principle is the individual when in fact it may not be. I agree with Lanier that there needs to be a balance, a push and pull so that change/growth continues but in a way which still values the individual.

No, 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.

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