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Jaron Lanier – “A Rebel in Cyberspace, Fighting Collectivism”

By 30 July 2010 No Comment

Therese Poletti in Market Watch reviews a book that I missed when it came out six months ago, but will surely catch up with – You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier, described by the NYTimes in the words used as the title of this post.

The NYT said:

In [an earlier] manifesto Mr. Lanier argued that design (or ratification) by committee often does not result in the best product, and that the new collectivist ethos — embodied by everything from Wikipedia to “American Idol” to Google searches — diminishes the importance and uniqueness of the individual voice, and that the “hive mind” can easily lead to mob rule.  Now, in his impassioned new book . . .  Mr. Lanier expands this thesis further, looking at the implications that digital Maoism or “cybernetic totalism” have for our society at large.

Jaron Lanier (from Edge)

The NYT also likened Lanier to Digital Society favorite Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur:

Like Andrew Keen . . . Mr. Lanier is most eloquent on how intellectual property is threatened by the economics of free Internet content, crowd dynamics and the popularity of aggregator sites. “An impenetrable tone deafness rules Silicon Valley when it comes to the idea of authorship.’

The review (by Michiko Kakuitani) has a lot more meat, and is well worth reading on its own. So are Poletti’s Market Watch comments, Lanier’s own oped in the Wall St. Journal last January, and an interview with him printed on the Amazon site for the book. Samples of the last:

Question: Why has the idea that “the content wants to be free” (and the unrelenting embrace of the concept) been such a setback? What dangers do you see this leading to?

Jaron Lanier: The original turn of phrase was “Information wants to be free.” And the problem with that is that it anthropomorphizes information. Information doesn’t deserve to be free. It is an abstract tool; a useful fantasy, a nothing. It is nonexistent until and unless a person experiences it in a useful way. What we have done in the last decade is give information more rights than are given to people. . . . .

Question: In You Are Not a Gadget, you argue that idea that the collective is smarter than the individual is wrong. Why is this?

Jaron Lanier: There are some cases where a group of people can do a better job of solving certain kinds of problems than individuals. One example is setting a price in a marketplace. Another example is an election process to choose a politician. All such examples involve what can be called optimization, where the concerns of many individuals are reconciled. There are other cases that involve creativity and imagination. A crowd process generally fails in these cases. The phrase “Design by Committee” is treated as derogatory for good reason. That is why a collective of programmers can copy UNIX but cannot invent the iPhone.

In the book, I go into considerably more detail about the differences between the two types of problem solving. Creativity requires periodic, temporary “encapsulation” as opposed to the kind of constant global openness suggested by the slogan “information wants to be free.” Biological cells have walls, academics employ temporary secrecy before they publish, and real authors with real voices might want to polish a text before releasing it. In all these cases, encapsulation is what allows for the possibility of testing and feedback that enables a quest for excellence. To be constantly diffused in a global mush is to embrace mundanity.

A wise man, this Jaron Lanier. His book is even now winging its way to my Kindle. And his 2006 essay from Edge, entitled DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism, is printing out in hard copy so I can savor it.

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