The Madness of Crowds and an Internet Delusion

Jaron Lanier performing at the Garden of Memory Solstice Concert June, 2009. Photo: Allan J. Cronin, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

Jaron Lanier performing at the Garden of Memory Solstice Concert June, 2009. Photo: Allan J. Cronin, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

By JOHN TIERNEY for the New York Times:

When does the wisdom of crowds give way to the meanness of mobs?

In the 1990s, Jaron Lanier was one of the digital pioneers hailing the wonderful possibilities that would be realized once the Internet allowed musicians, artists, scientists and engineers around the world to instantly share their work. Now, like a lot of us, he is having second thoughts.

Mr. Lanier, a musician and avant-garde computer scientist — he popularized the term “virtual reality” — wonders if the Web’s structure and ideology are fostering nasty group dynamics and mediocre collaborations. His new book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” is a manifesto against “hive thinking” and “digital Maoism,” by which he means the glorification of open-source software, free information and collective work at the expense of individual creativity.

He blames the Web’s tradition of “drive-by anonymity” for fostering vicious pack behavior on blogs, forums and social networks. He acknowledges the examples of generous collaboration, like Wikipedia, but argues that the mantras of “open culture” and “information wants to be free” have produced a destructive new social contract.

“The basic idea of this contract,” he writes, “is that authors, journalists, musicians and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.”

I find his critique intriguing, partly because Mr. Lanier isn’t your ordinary Luddite crank, and partly because I’ve felt the same kind of disappointment with the Web. In the 1990s, when I was writing paeans to the dawning spirit of digital collaboration, it didn’t occur to me that the Web’s “gift culture,” as anthropologists called it, could turn into a mandatory potlatch for so many professions — including my own.

So I have selfish reasons for appreciating Mr. Lanier’s complaints about masses of “digital peasants” being forced to provide free material to a few “lords of the clouds” like Google and YouTube. But I’m not sure Mr. Lanier has correctly diagnosed the causes of our discontent, particularly when he blames software design for leading to what he calls exploitative monopolies on the Web like Google…

[continues in the New York Times]

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  • SecretSteve

    Someone needs to find a way to monetize creative works on the web via microtransactions. People aren’t willing to pay $9.95 a month to NYT so they can read their favorite authors, but they might be willing to drop a quarter (or ten cents or five cents) for the specific articles they want.

    We need internet currency. Buy fifty “internet bucks” that you can spend in as small of a transaction as a single penny. Then you could have sites that let anyone put up any kind of content they want, at whatever price they want…and let the market decide what’s good. People can collaborate (or not) at will.

    Piracy would be the big problem with this, but sites that redistributed this material could be sued.

  • SecretSteve

    Someone needs to find a way to monetize creative works on the web via microtransactions. People aren't willing to pay $9.95 a month to NYT so they can read their favorite authors, but they might be willing to drop a quarter (or ten cents or five cents) for the specific articles they want.

    We need internet currency. Buy fifty “internet bucks” that you can spend in as small of a transaction as a single penny. Then you could have sites that let anyone put up any kind of content they want, at whatever price they want…and let the market decide what's good. People can collaborate (or not) at will.

    Piracy would be the big problem with this, but sites that redistributed this material could be sued.

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