Mao's Revenge

Jaron Lanier is a man of many talents--virtual-reality pioneer, New Age composer, visual artist and artificial-intelligence scientist. Now Lanier has taken on another role: dyspeptic critic of the surging trend of digital collectivism, an ethic that celebrates and exploits the ability of the Web to aggregate the preferences and behaviors of millions of people. In a recent essay posted on the Web site, Lanier disparages the recent spate of efforts that rely on conscious collaboration (like the anyone-can-participate online reference work Wikipedia) or passive polling (the so-called meta sites like Digg, which draw on user response to rank news articles and blog postings). To Lanier these represent a rejection of individual expression and creativity. To emphasize the enormity of this movement, Lanier titled his essay "Digital Maoism."

Yes, to Lanier, subsuming one's identity into an electronically aggregated mass is akin to the mob fervor seen in China during the chairman's rule. "If you look at the history of youth cultural movements, they tend to go one of two ways," he explains. "One is in the direction of individual expression and creativity; the best example is the '60s. The other way is to lose themselves in the collective, binding themselves into a gang--as in the Cultural Revolution."

Lanier's rant was the equivalent of poking a stick into a beehive--or, more specifically, the "hive mind" of the modern Internet. Books like James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds" and Kevin Kelly's "Out of Control" have provided a philosophical underpinning for the idea that the world benefits when people participate in unpredictable, emergent enterprises. Google's search engine uses the linking behavior of the Web to determine the relevance of search queries. The open-source movement believes that bottom-up software development is more effective than the top-down variety.

But the output of such efforts, says Lanier, is often the lowest common denominator, an inevitable consequence, he writes, of the "stupid and boring" hive mind. Not surprisingly, the targets of his criticism are crying foul.

"Lanier is objecting to the writing style of the Wikipedia being neutral rather than biased," says Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's cofounder. Kelly also thinks that Lanier's criticism is off base. "There's no evidence that [the hive mind] subsumes individual expression."

Lanier has done us a service by warning that the pedestrian preferences of the hive mind all too often overwhelm the truly essential. But let's face it--Chairman Mao would have hated the Internet.