Brockman's post, entitled "The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism," was quite, er, provocative, and here are some highlights: "The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?"
What Brockman is calling "the hive mind" here, and "online collectivism" elsewhere is the emerging peer-to-peer democratization of culture and politics facilitated by digital networked media and social software. "The problem," he writes, for example, "in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used [is] how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly." There is indeed in Lanier's essay a sensible but by now quite familiar discussion about how factually authoritative disputative collaborative research and policy-making tools can be, and under what conditions, and how we can make them better, and how we can best benefit from them. But that rather modest topic hardly justifies the flame-throwing eagerness of Brockman's language, however.
He continues: "And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less" -- and more to the point, one suspects for Brockman, nothing more -- "than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise[.]" I for one would be very interested to discover anyone at all who argues that peer-to-peer knowledge aggregation, testing, critique, formulation, editing is all-wise, rather than, say, good-enough to call into question the so-called indispensability of current costly elite-sponsored alternatives that existed hitherto, and also attractively open to collaborative self-improvement in ways that these costly elite-sponsored alternatives may not be.
Further, Brockman proposes that the "new collectivism" of peer-to-peer entails the view "that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force." One need only recall that the vanishingly cheap and instantaneous global publication, editing, and circulation of creative content by individuals faciliated by digital networks is a challenge precisely to the immemorial bottleneck of expensive unweildy elite-owned printing presses and studios and broadcast networks to grasp what an extraordinary inversion Brockman seems to be driving at here.
"This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy," Brockman intones, wringing his hands. Now, I'm trying to restrain my suspicion that "representative democracy" here, as it has come to be practiced here in America, is an ideal too little concerned about, for example, just how many congressional multimillionaires currently claim to "represent" the interests of citizens who are overwhelmingly not multimillionaires. I'm trying likewise to restrain my suspicion that "meritocracy," means here, as it so often does, that prvileged people deserve their privileges and everybody else deserves their lot no less, however utterly interdependent we all really are in fact.
I'm trying to restrain these suspicions, but that first sentence of his keeps resonating in my brain: "The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?" What kind of democracy, what kind of meritocracy does that sound like to you?
"This idea," by which Brockman means the dire and drear "collectivism" he descries in peer-to-peer, "has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right" -- heck, he knows what the meat and potatoes need to be when one is posting to a lefty blog like Huffington Post... but then here comes the gravy -- "or the extreme Left [emphasis added] in various historical periods." "Extreme left" wikipedian blogospherical peer-to-peer movements, eh? My, now that certainly sounds ominous...
And so, it was to this rhetoric that I replied in my own comment on HuffPo. Here is what I actually wrote:
Communities are more intelligent than individuals are, although diverse and self-critical communities are by far the most intelligent of all.
Democracy always looks scary to aristocracies nervous about the likely loss of their unearned privileges. Peer-to-peer collaboration in matters of creating, publishing, and editing online content (wikis and websites), achieving warranted scientific descriptions (consensus science), keeping authorities accountable (blogracking, real democratic journalism), invigorating critical culture (the blogosphere and the eclipse of broadcast media models), deliberating about public policy and global development (online juries, position papers, fora, organizing, petitions, small-donor aggregation), and for exchanging goods, favors, gifts, and services is much more a matter of using technology to deepen democracy than it is about enforcing some kind of conformism or raising some silly twentieth century collectivist bugbear from history's dustbin.
Jeron Lanier (whose work and thinking I really admire, actually) is right to highlight hazards to better ensure that the emerging peer-to-peer culture lives up to its promise rather than getting mulched into the usual accommodation with corporate-militarism that has dashed our democratic hopes time and time again. But certainly there is no reason for pre-emptive despair to derange or distract us from what is truly hopeful in this moment.
We have the power. Let's see what we can do with it.
When I went on to read Lanier's piece more carefully later I came to decide that he is making some valuable points that are not necessarily well-captured in Brockman's citation of them.
Lanier writes: "A core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds. This is analogous to the claims of Hyper-Libertarians who put infinite faith in a free market, or the Hyper-Lefties who are somehow able to sit through consensus decision-making processes." I have written about pernicious complementarities between the rhetoric and culture of "spontaneous order" as it expresses itself sometimes from the Right, sometimes from the Left, and I see Lanier's argument (whatever my disagreements with some of its specificities and thrust) as a useful one in this vein. Frankly, I believe that notionally left-leaning technophiliac arguments appealing to the rhetoric of "spontaneous order" are not so much analogous to market libertarian arguments but straightforward expressions of precisely the same falsifying "naturalist" ideology. For more, again, check out my essay, Trouble in Libertopia. Be that as it may, returning to Lanier's claim about the "faith" some of us have may have in peer-to-peer processes of knowledge production, it seems to me that there is all the difference in the world between those who would argue
[one] that problems and inaccuracies in knowledge-production are inevitable whatever media architectures articulate them, but that peer-to-peer processes are the best most efficacious and most appropriate practices to address such difficulties in societies that are commited to democracy; as against those who would argue
[two] that peer-to-peer architectures are a technofix bypassing the intractible and interminable quandaries of stakeholder politics by connecting up in some deep way to the structure of the "natural order" itself thereby rendering the arrival at optimal solutions or final factually true descriptions "inevitable."
It's hard to believe that anybody on earth would take up the kind of facile moonshine expressed in [two] but I think we can probably take Lanier's word for it when he claims "we are witnessing today is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective. Numerous elite organizations have been swept off their feet by the idea." He goes on to say: "They are inspired by the rise of the Wikipedia, by the wealth of Google, and by the rush of entrepreneurs to be the most Meta. Government agencies, top corporate planning departments, and major universities have all gotten the bug." To this one must add that elite organizations may be inspired by any number of things, and may see what they want to see in any number of developments, especially when what they want most is reassurance that they will maintain and consolidate their privileges in the midst of disruptive technodevelopmental churn. But this scarcely means that they are seeing things clearly.
Needless to say, Lanier is right when he reminds us that "[h]istory has shown us again and again that a hive mind is a cruel idiot when it runs on autopilot. Nasty hive mind outbursts have been flavored Maoist, Fascist, and religious, and these are only a small sampling. I don't see why there couldn't be future social disasters that appear suddenly under the cover of technological utopianism." It seems to me that history has comparable lessons to teach when it comes to cruel and idiotic self-appointed elites and aristocrats and authoritarians -- and, one suspects, some of the very stories he may be locating in the "misbehaving hive-minds" genre might be located with equal justice in the "misbehaving elites" genre as well.
He continues: "If wikis are to gain any more influence they ought to be improved by mechanisms like the ones that have worked tolerably well in the pre-Internet world." By these, he means the role of public reputation in credible peer-review, the introduction of institutional fixes like time-based restrictions on editorial publication at times of conspicuous disputation, and the like. I have no doubt that advocates of peer-to-peer will be among the first, not the last, to embrace such discussions and suggestions as useful ones.
"The illusion that what we already have is close to good enough, or that it is alive and will fix itself, is the most dangerous illusion of all," Lanier concludes. With all due respect, it seems to me that few but the usual suspects from the era of irrationally exuberant extropian libertopian technophiliac digirati are really saying things like this these days among the more sensible progressives excited by peer-to-peer (like Yochai Benkler, James Boyle, Lawrence Lessig, Michel Bauwens). "By avoiding that nonsense," writes Lanier, "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." I think this is a useful and deeply attractive recommendation. But where matters of "avoiding nonsense" to the contrary of Lanier's reasonable recommendation are concerned, one wonders if part of the problem may be mistaking an old-school digirati discursive space like Edge.org in the first place for the world now.
And by way of conclusion here, let me say an additional word or two about the "Brights," free-marketeers, evolutionary psychologists, and memeticists who gather in the "Third Culture" salon of Edge.org, under the inspiration, provocation, and guidance of John Brockman.
I sometimes talk here about the awkward and unproductive distrust and even outright incomprehension that sometimes seems to prevail between traditional technoscientific and traditional humanistic or literary cultures. This is a difficulty exacerbated to the point of crisis in late modernity, due to the opportunistic restlessness of global capitalism having its way with traditional discourses and cultures and due as well to the ferocious premium that has come to freight the real accomplishments and hyperbolic imagination of technoscientific practice. This is a problem perhaps most famously discussed in Snow's "Two Cultures" essay.
Well, it seems to me that John Brockman thinks this clash of North Atlantic intellectual cultures is somehow "reconciled" by the creation of what he calls a “Third Culture” which I'm afraid consists pretty much of truly interesting and often quite important figures on the technoscientific side of the traditional culture divide (including heroes of mine like Freeman Dyson, Jeron Lanier, Lynn Margulis, and Bruce Sterling) who declare a kind of pre-emptive victory over the humanities side by indulging in what too often amounts to dilettantish speculation over the key problems of this tradition without paying much attention to what is being said at the moment by most of the truly interesting and often quite important figures actually making their home in the traditional humanities today, literary, critical, or cultural theorists, or even science and technology studies folks who certainly should be included in any honest attempt at such a conversation about science of all things.
Indeed, I suspect that the “Third Culture” would gleefully dismiss most of this work in the “humanities” (scare quoted here because here in the humanities we have grown quite suspicious, don’t you know, of the parochial elitism that has often sought to speak in the name of all humanity to the benefit of at best a lucky few human beings) as “fashionable nonsense,” “pomo relativism,” effete aestheticized “English Department radicalism,” wink wink nudge nudge, and the like.
In other words, the “Third Culture” re-enacts the usual gesture diagnosed in the “Two Cultures” argument, but with the novel twist that this time around at least one side is so breathtakingly oblivious to their parochialism that they express this parochialism as a grand overcoming of parochialism. All the while, here on the humanities side we just roll our eyes with knowing desolation and howl at the moon as our budgets get slashed again and again to better fund the hard-science he-man bomb-builders and statisticians, so I guess justice is served (Stangers With Candy joke, don’t ask).
It is my hope that the radical democratization of politics peer-to-peer will dislodge and transform the disastrously skewed priorities of societies too resopnsive for now to the kind of corporate-militarism that supports the position of established elites. Meanwhile, I hope the re-imagination of human creativity and expressivity peer-to-peer will open spaces for a fuller flowering of literary and critical culture that will no longer be contemplated primarily from the perspective of such threatened and precarious elites and hence will no longer be forever construed as a menace to the technoscientific practices on which these elites have parasitically depended hitherto for much of their power.