Poking a Stick Into The 'Hive Mind'

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 Edge.org, 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 an alarming decision--rejecting individual expression and creativity to become part of a faceless mob. To emphasize the enormity of this movement, Lanier titled his essay with a fearsome moniker: "Digital Maoism."

Yes, to Lanier, subsuming one's identity into an electronically aggregated mass (even by such innocent acts as tweaking a Wikipedia item or giving a rating to a comment on the Slashdot discussion board) is akin to the rabidly destructive 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 widely circulated online rant was the equivalent of poking a stick into a beehive--or, more specifically, the much-celebrated "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 entire Web to determine the relevance of search queries. The open-source movement believes that the bottom-up method of software development is more effective than when elite designers dictate what code should be written.

But the output of such efforts, says Lanier, is often a mundane reflection of 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. Wales admits that sometimes the lack of an all-controlling editor leads Wikipedia to sometimes indefensible imbalances (for instance, the entry on "Star Trek"'s Mr. Spock is more than twice as long as the item about Flaubert). But he contends that's just a temporary effect of the geeky flavor of the burgeoning Wikipedia community in this early stage. Author Kevin Kelly also thinks that Lanier's criticism is off base. "The hive mind can't do everything, but it's not stupid and boring," he says. "There's no evidence that it subsumes individual expression."

Kelly's point is well taken--the same powerful Internet technology that aggregates our behavior also empowers us to assert ourselves individually. There has never been an easier way for people to distribute creative content. 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.