Category Archives: jaron_lanier

jaron lanier’s essay on “the hazards of the new online collectivism”

In late May John Brockman’s Edge website published an essay by Jaron Lanier“Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism”. Lanier’s essay caused quite a flurry of comment both pro and con. Recently someone interested in the work of the Institute asked me my opinion. I thought that in light of Dan’s reportage from the Wikimania conference in Cambridge i would share my thoughts about Jaron’s critique of Wikipedia . . .
I read the article the day it was first posted on The Edge and thought it so significant and so wrong that I wrote Jaron asking if the Institute could publish a version in a form similar to Gamer Theory that would enable readers to comment on specific passages as well as on the whole. Jaron referred me to John Brockman (publisher of The Edge), who although he acknowledged the request never got back to us with an answer.
From my perspective there are two main problems with Jaron’s outlook.
a) Jaron misunderstands the Wikipedia. In a traditional encyclopedia, experts write articles that are permanently encased in authoritative editions. The writing and editing goes on behind the scenes, effectively hiding the process that produces the published article. The standalone nature of print encyclopedias also means that any discussion about articles is essentially private and hidden from collective view. The Wikipedia is a quite different sort of publication, which frankly needs to be read in a new way. Jaron focuses on the “finished piece”, ie. the latest version of a Wikipedia article. In fact what is most illuminative is the back-and-forth that occurs between a topic’s many author/editors. I think there is a lot to be learned by studying the points of dissent; indeed the “truth” is likely to be found in the interstices, where different points of view collide. Network-authored works need to be read in a new way that allows one to focus on the process as well as the end product.
b) At its core, Jaron’s piece defends the traditional role of the independent author, particularly the hierarchy that renders readers as passive recipients of an author’s wisdom. Jaron is fundamentally resistant to the new emerging sense of the author as moderator — someone able to marshal “the wisdom of the network.”
I also think it is interesting that Jaron titles his article Digital Maoism, with which he hopes to tar the Wikipedia with the brush of bottom-up collectivism. My guess is that Jaron is unaware of Mao’s famous quote: “truth emerges in the course of struggle [around ideas]”. Indeed, what I prize most about the Wikipedia is that it acknowledges the messiness of knowledge and the process by which useful knowledge and wisdom accrete over time.

shirky (and others) respond to lanier’s “digital maoism”

Clay Shirky has written an excellent rebuttal of Jaron Lanier’s wrong-headed critique of collaborative peer production on the Internet: “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism.” Shirky’s response is one of about a dozen just posted on, which also published Lanier’s essay.
Shirky begins by taking down Lanier’s straw man, the cliché of the “hive mind,” or mob, that propels collective enterprises like Wikipedia: “…the target of the piece, the hive mind, is just a catchphrase, used by people who don’t understand how things like Wikipedia really work.”
He then explains how they work:

Wikipedia is best viewed as an engaged community that uses a large and growing number of regulatory mechanisms to manage a huge set of proposed edits. “Digital Maoism” specifically rejects that point of view, setting up a false contrast with open source projects like Linux, when in fact the motivations of contributors are much the same. With both systems, there are a huge number of casual contributors and a small number of dedicated maintainers, and in both systems part of the motivation comes from appreciation of knowledgeable peers rather than the general public. Contra Lanier, individual motivations in Wikipedia are not only alive and well, it would collapse without them.

(Worth reading in connection this is Shirky’s well-considered defense of Wkipedia’s new “semi-protection” measures, which some have decried as the death of the Wikipedia dream.)
I haven’t finished reading through all the Edge responses, but was particularly delighted by this one from Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, creators of History Flow, a tool that visualizes the revision histories of Wikipedia articles. Building History Flow taught them how to read Wikipedia in a more sophisticated way, making sense of its various “arenas of context” — the “talk” pages and massive edit trails underlying every article. In their Edge note, Viegas and Wattenberg show off their superior reading skills by deconstructing the facile opening of Lanier’s essay, the story of his repeated, and ultimately futile, attempts to fix an innacuracy in his Wikipediated biography.

Here’s a magic trick for you: Go to a long or controversial Wikipedia page (say, “Jaron Lanier”). Click on the tab marked “discussion” at the top. Abracadabra: context!
These efforts can also be seen through another arena of context: Wikipedia’s visible, trackable edit history. The reverts that erased Lanier’s own edits show this process in action. Clicking on the “history” tab of the article shows that a reader — identified only by an anonymous IP address — inserted a series of increasingly frustrated complaints into the body of the article. Although the remarks did include statements like “This is Jaron — really,” another reader evidently decided the anonymous editor was more likely to be a vandal than the real Jaron. While Wikipedia failed this Jaron Lanier Turing test, it was seemingly set up for failure: would he expect the editors of Britannica to take corrections from a random email address? What he didn’t provide, ironically, was the context and identity that Wikipedia thrives on. A meaningful user name, or simply comments on the talk page, might have saved his edits from the axe.

Another respondent, Dan Gillmor, makes a nice meta-comment on the discussion:

The collected thoughts from people responding to Jaron Lanier’s essay are not a hive mind, but they’ve done a better job of dissecting his provocative essay than any one of us could have done. Which is precisely the point.