Jaron Lanier on the stupidity of the hive mind [1]

[ Tue. May. 30. 2006 ]

Jaron Lanier [4], who more or less invented virtual reality in the 1980s (making me a lifelong Lanier fan), has published a fascinating Edge essay on Digital Maosim: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism [5].

The opening gambit is: "The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?" What he is pointing to is the collective output exemplified by Wikipedia etc, meta-sources of informaiton such as Google, and meta-meta-meta sources such as (in increasing order of meta-ness), Boing Boing, Digg and Popurls.


It's not hard to see why the fallacy of collectivism has become so popular in big organizations: If the principle is correct, then individuals should not be required to take on risks or responsibilities. We live in times of tremendous uncertainties coupled with infinite liability phobia, and we must function within institutions that are loyal to no executive, much less to any lower level member. Every individual who is afraid to say the wrong thing within his or her organization is safer when hiding behind a wiki or some other Meta aggregation ritual.


I've participated in a number of elite, well-paid wikis and Meta-surveys lately and have had a chance to observe the results. I have even been part of a wiki about wikis. What I've seen is a loss of insight and subtlety, a disregard for the nuances of considered opinions, and an increased tendency to enshrine the official or normative beliefs of an organization. Why isn't everyone screaming about the recent epidemic of inappropriate uses of the collective? It seems to me the reason is that bad old ideas look confusingly fresh when they are packaged as technology.

Why do we do it? As Lanier points out later:


It's safer to be the aggregator of the collective. You get to include all sorts of material without committing to anything. You can be superficially interesting without having to worry about the possibility of being wrong.

Comment: Edge [6] is based on the idea of accumulating the knowledge of a very small number of the world's smartest people -- more or less the opposite of Google or Wikipedia