15 Years of Digital Maoism

I randomly came across a 2006 essay by Jaron Lanier. It’s called “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism”.

It’s available online here.


The article and its responses really hit me deeply. And the essay, having been written in 2006, can be complemented with insight.

For context, in 2006, Wikipedia was being compared to Encyclopedia Britannica, Facebook was still invitation-only, Twitter was 6 months old, and reddit 18 months old.

To be short, the essay reflects the worry of 2006 about what the future of the internet may be. But also touches on more general topics, it denounces especially dilution of the individual through “collectivism,” (really “committees”) for example as a way to escape responsibility. He sees that in mass media companies. It also denounces the fetish of algorithms and communities as entities. Notably quoting “Digg” and “Reddit” in scare quotes) and saying social feed algos were bad at surfacing meaningful news. The page also contains 13 responses to the essay (including form Cory Doctorow and Jimmy Wales) all of them are quite thought provoking. It’s almost retro-futurist, and it made me nostalgic of the days when no one even thought the internet would lead to massive silos, and Google search was a way to access a plurality of 3rd party webpages.

As the responses to the essay point out, Lanier doesn’t really criticize Wikipedia. In particular, his complaint against Wikipedia is moot, Wikipedia is mostly driven by pseudonymous discussion in the talk and history tabs pages of articles. Wikipedia relies on reputation building to validate changes (which explains why his own anonymous contributions on his own page were rejected.)

But Lanier touches on something important. He doesn’t name it well in the essay, he calls it “collectivism” or “hivemind”. But really what he’s denouncing is cultural trend of abstracting individuals through technology or institutions. I’ll call it social reification.

Lanier also demonstrates a McCartian level of disdain for open source. As a Linux user (I use arch btw) and contributor to open source, I’m not too hot on that take, but not exactly in complete discordance.

What matters is people

Lanier says:

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

Lanier then analyses various collectives: news orgs, scientific community, free markets, democratic states.

Lanier acknowledges that some form of collectives do in fact have positive sides.

The collective is more likely to be smart when it isn’t defining its own questions, when the goodness of an answer can be evaluated by a simple result (such as a single numeric value,) and when the information system which informs the collective is filtered by a quality control mechanism that relies on individuals to a high degree.

Open market pricing or reddit is a perfect example of collective censoring individuality: The individual is completely erased, leaving only an aggregate number from each decisions.

More quotes, but no comments

One service performed by representative democracy is low-pass filtering.

Larry Sanger says:

Slashdot’s post-ranking system is another perfect example. Slashdotters simply would not stand for a system in which some hand-selected group of editors chose or promoted posts; but if the result is decided by an impersonal algorithm, then it’s okay. It isn’t that the Slashdotters have a rational belief that the cream will rise to the top, under the system; people use the system just because it seems fairer or more equal to them.

What’s great about it is not that it produces an averaged view, an averaged view that is somehow better than an authoritative statement by people who actually know the subject. That’s just not it at all. What’s great about Wikipedia is the fact that it is a way to organize enormous amounts of labor for a single intellectual purpose.

Yochai Benkler says:

We talk. We link. We see what others say and think. And through our choices we develop a different path for determining what issues are relevant and salient, through a distributed system that, while imperfect, is less easily corrupted than the advertising supported media that dominated the twentieth century.

In either case, his lot is with those of us who see the emergence of social production and peer production as an alternative to both state-based and market-based, closed, proprietary systems, which can enhance creativity, productivity, and freedom.

What the internet enables

The rest of this post is very rant-y, and doesn’t lead to anywhere, feel free to overlook it.

The power of the internet always has been about connecting people.

Internet chat rooms, blogs and forums are a serendipity engine. It brings value by bringing people with different experience together, so that they together can make something they couldn’t alone.

This has direct economic, cultural and social effect. This is why we should care about a serendipitous internet. We should hold serendipity as the sacred common goal of all internet activity.

Beyond chance encounters between individuals, the internet can serve larger scale human relations.

The idea of Wikipedia, is to seed a community, a human social structure and progressively amend it, through more rules and what they call “bureaucracy” to welcome more and more community members, resulting in a large social structure. A structure which goal is still to create an universal reference work accessible to all for free.

Arguably succeeding.

In the end, all of this is mostly a game, where each internet participant is a willing player. And the fact that it is mostly a game is what drives most of it.

It’s just a question of making up rules. Wikipedia is a prime example, but you can take as example any social media.

A prime necessity for voluntary cooperation, is that the game is fun and fair. This is why, when a site’s owners and structures of power dissociate from its users, you’ll see countless conflict between the users and the owners.

Small communities do not suffer from that, because the owner is seen as a peer.

The naive conclusion would be to accept that it’s impossible to scale any internet community. But that would be forgetting, well, the subject of this post: Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is a fully ad-hoc voluntary social structure. Wikipedia is a precious example that a social system not based on violently enforced coercion is possible.

Modern Social media

Maybe Wikipedia’s success lies in its users being complete, unrepented nerds, scholars and other academic weirdos. The kind of people who just enjoy endless consensus-building exercises. Which the least of them could drain all patience out of any normal individual.

This might explain why Wikipedia succeeded where many are struggling.

Honestly I don’t know I just find this interesting.