Collaboration, or collectivism? Jaron Lanier gets it wrong.

Jaron Lanier’s piece in the Wall Street Journal this week is an interesting but ultimately flawed analysis of ‘Digital Culture’ strengths and weaknesses. He starts off with a bold statement, one that raises ominous questions about the article’s accuracy and Lanier’s own understanding of english:

All too many of today's Internet buzzwords— including "Web 2.0," "Open Culture," "Free Software" and the "Long Tail"—are terms for a new kind of collectivism that has come to dominate the way many people participate in the online world.... There's no escaping collectivism in our online world. If you search about most any topic online, for instance, you will likely be directed first to Wikipedia, a collective effort.

Hating on Wikipedia has turned into a pretty popular pursuit over the past couple of years: last year there was a nice run on “OMG I found an error that stayed online for several hours” articles, and I’ve had some harsh words to say about Wikipedia’s devaluing of expertise in favor of citation. But none of that compares to Lanier’s wrongheaded muddling of ‘collaborative effort’ and ‘collectivism.’

Words have meaning – “collectivism” has distinct connotations, even if its textbook definition can be sliced and diced to mean something apolitical. Especially in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, it’s obvious that the word is meant to conjure up the dread specters of socialism and communism and the devaluing of the individual. The things Lanier actually talks about in his article are democratization, collaboration, and statistics-based automation. Interesting things can be said about all of those issues and their intersection in the new world of communication. Calling them ‘collectivism’ is not one of those interesting things, unfortunately.

At times, Lanier brushes up against an interesting premise. Putting publishing in the hands of everyone, and encouraging everyone to blog, tweet, post, stream, and so on has flooded our online media landscape with noise. (That’s the dark side of democratization.) Handing off tasks to a herd of software-developer cats does frequently result in flawed feature-checklist fodder. (That’s the dark side of collaboration.) And farming out all of our decisions to The Wisdom of Crowds does tug culture towards uniformity rather than uniqueness. (That’s the dark side of statistical automation.) Strangely enough, though, each example he cites undercuts what could have been a more interesting article.

Blogging leads to the devaluing of individual work? The drift towards media hypersaturation (and the resultant value-crash of ideas) didn’t start with online publishing. Every major shift in communication technology has produced a similar explosion in chaff: cheap printing, the phonograph, CB radio, cable television… Endless reality television and the rise of the 24/7 news cycle did far more than any Blogger or Twitter to kick-start the process of content inflation.

Collaborative work leads to mediocre products? I’d never argue that open source, collaborative development, and transparency produce inherently better results than closed teams. Bad ideas, inadequate skills, and dysfunctional groups can doom any project, whether it’s a closed commercial venture or an open source project. His oddball examples of ‘great proprietary software’ do nothing to contradict this! Adobe Flash owes its success to the difficulty of presenting multimedia consistently across incompatible proprietary operating systems, and Google’s PageRank algorithm relies on the same fire hose of information he rails against.

Citing PageRank as a positive example of individualism is especially ironic: his other objection is to the automation of taste in the form of computerized recommendations, statistical suggestions, and other ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ niceties. PageRank is the wisdom of crowds distilled into a 1-to-ten score, an automated tool for determining what pages ‘the crowd’ of Internet users consider the best source for information on particular subjects. I understand the distinction between the two – the Internet as a whole didn’t write the code that builds PageRank scores, and that work is what Lanier is applauding. But if the wisdom of crowds is a terrible tyrant, why applaud software that makes it even more influential?

Calling crowd-based knowledge ‘collectivism’ is even weirder. The ultimate case of crowd-based decision making is stock valuation: is Wall Street a hotbed of collectivism? Or has Lanier just hand-waved his way through the digital culture issues to get to the real meat? Buried in the middle of the article is the first hint of his real objections:

I was also part of a circle of friends who tried to imagine how computers would fit into the peoples' lives, including how people might make a living in the future.... We made a huge mistake in making [peoples' content on the internet] unpaid, and often anonymous, because those bad decisions robbed people of dignity.

Some would argue that dignity was robbed from individuals when creativity was productized – not when tools were put into their hands to create, and distribute, as they saw fit. Lanier grouses about the difficulty of making a living composing music and printing T-shirts, thrashes to and fro complaining about the economic dangers of robot manufacturing, and waxes poetic about the value of intellectual property.

His diagnosis of the problem in the article’s second half (collectivism undermined wages and intellectual property) is as lopsided as his language in the first half. Worker co-ops didn’t push automated manufacturing in the 70s, and passionate hippie-artists didn’t flood the market with Blink 182 soundalikes. The most radical of open source manifestos, the GNU Public License, relies on strong intellectual property protection to avoid being absorbed into commercial projects, and our nation’s Founding Fathers cited the ‘general good’ as the primary motivation for copy protection. Griping against ‘collective values’ may be cathartic, but it is a fundamentally flawed reading of intellectual property’s past, present, and future.

I am far from an ‘online culture cheerleader’, but Lanier’s article is an unfocused, wrongheaded rant from someone with an axe to grind about hippie idealism. If he truly regrets joining a grocery co-op in college, he should write an autobiography, not a WSJ op-ed about digital culture. Perhaps some cathartic blogging would do him good.

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