Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Lanier: Digital Mao, and Wisdom of the Crowds.

Wisdom of the crowds posits that the group collective is smarter than the individual on account of the average of all guesses of a cow’s weight being its actual weight. Lanier would have us believe otherwise.

First, let’s turn attention to the Wiki, Lanier’s first objection and erroneous information in the entry on him. This happens, no doubt. For some reason there’s an entry on me (which I didn’t write), and for a short time in there it suggested I created something that I didn’t (and don’t think it even exists.) It’s fixed now, as has Lanier’s entry – in fact his is corrected to include his own criticism of Wikipedia. However, this false information is still floating about the Internet on other aggregator sites that pulled from Wiki but apparently never refresh from it. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Sousanis) So mistakes get made, but mistakes also get fixed. This is true in anything, I think of the few times I’ve been interviewed for publication, and stunned to see the inaccuracy of what shows up in print. And that is taken as gospel. So accuracy is not guaranteed anywhere (raising a whole set of philosophical questions) and wikipedia’s strength is in the multiple eyes overseeing it and able to continually correct it. So to that end, as a resource it’s a great starting point and handy in a pinch. Realizing its strengths and its limitations helps. To those of us referenced therein and find the version of our lives misrepresented, well, I suppose we could end up in the Star instead….

Concerning the fear that kids will be using this for everything – well, they used to use the encyclopedia for everything too, so the problem isn’t new. Engendering the importance of research, investigation, is essential, and creating something that is theirs, that seems key. Then they’ll use whatever tools work best. To that end, the New York Times ran an article on kids using YouTube for research projects. One quote from the article: “Video is part of the discovery process,” he said. “Depending on the user and the type of content, users may want to start with video or text.” Read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/18/business/media/18ping.html?scp=4&sq=youtube%20school%20work&st=cse

Where I think Lanier runs slightly off course is conflating Wikipedia with fears about collective intelligence. We’re not expecting an individual voice to come through, though an editorial tone of how Wikipedia articles are written I believe is coming into existence. We don’t read it for its value as literature, but on its value to lead us to the source for literature.

Where I think he’s totally on the right track is here: 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.

It’s not clear that the Internet is connecting us together more, or wasting our time (he said, clicking back and forth between tabbed windows and the essay he’s writing...) Concerning blogging, he says this: The question of new business models for content creators on the Internet is a profound and difficult topic in itself, but it must at least be pointed out that writing professionally and well takes time and that most authors need to be paid to take that time. In this regard, blogging is not writing.
Here, I agree and disagree. Blogging as blurting out opinions, I concur – that’s not writing. However, blogging as a tool to disperse writing to an audience, well, that’s not such a bad thing. (I’m not sure I’ll count this blog as writing, it’s probably the closest to actual blogging that I can come.) Case in point from my own life, when my brother and I started www.thedetroiter.com in 2002, we had in mind a magazine. Blog tech made it possible for us to post our stuff ourselves, without having to html format anything (although we also did that for special features) and organize it in a database. So the blog was a tool, though we used it the same way we would for in print articles (in fact my brother’s articles often appeared in print before we ran them on the web.) We were never capable of writing a quick rant and signing off (and that’s more or less true in this more private blog as well.) The beauty of blogs and YouTube comes in making publishing of sorts as accessible and ubiquitous as a pencil. Simultaneously, the ugliness of blogs and YouTube comes in making publishing of sorts as accessible and ubiquitous as a pencil.

But Lanier’s major issue is: the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective.” I don’t know if we really believe this, even with the rise of Wikipedia. Fierce individuality and worship of the celebrity of individual thrives in the face of the collective. Let’s return to the wisdom of the crowds and connect it to Lanier’s piece with a number of analogies. Yes, we’re good at guessing weights if enough answers are sought, but that says little about creating something interesting or of value. Think about cooking. If we’ve done it well, we keep each ingredient distinct, even as they work in the service of the whole, as opposed to mush. This is true in art and music as well. In averaging out – we lose bright lights, contrast, our vision is blurred with nothing to distinguish. Fades to gray, to mush, we need the language of opposites. Thus in the collective – everything has an equal voice all at once, nothing can be heard and nothing important emerges. History is a pastiche of individual voices, as opposed to the instantaneous collective – the mob, where nothing is distinct….

Perhaps that’s a useful way of looking at it. The knowledge we have today is certainly the work of a collective. But they are a collective of individuals, of layers of thoughts over time. Instant collectives lack distinct voices, American Idol produces nothing. It’s a decision we have a vote in but not a voice and not ownership. We have ownership over our ideas, over the things we create – and that’s the defense against the hive mind. Taking ownership of ourselves and being enable by our connections rather than disabled. In the next piece tying Castells and Dyson’s works together we’ll mention that networks are good for strong individuals and bad for weak. That seems to fit right in here as more and more voices are being lost. – N

More on average: In the discussion group, Michael offered the idea of King Lear written as a Wiki. Seems like it would lack something – even if in other ways it have all these eyes and minds making it better. I suggest these things lose their voice, a smattering of average. If we call that distinctive quality “signature” it’s erased, written over – something essential is lost in the process….

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