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Rage against the machine |


Rage against the machine


Computer scientist and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier has published You Are Not A Gadget, a collection of his essays — some would call them rants — about the Web. The short version: Lanier is not happy with what the Web has become.

In Digital Maoism, an essay he wrote for in 2006, Lanier noted that the Web promotes the idea that the collective — many people — is smarter than the individual. (This new online collectivism is not the same as representative democracy: elections are determined by the votes of each and every individual. There is a balance of influence between individuals and the collective.)

Lanier offers this prime example of an “online fetish site for foolish collectivism”: Wikipedia. The problem, he writes, is “in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it’s been elevated to such importance so quickly.”

Wikipedia, for the Luddites among us, is a site that allows users (practically anyone) to write and edit its contents. It’s a collective effort — you can detect traces of its unnamed authors — and it has an unshakeable faith in the wisdom of crowds. Any mistakes that arise will be corrected in time. Everyone is an expert. Ah, but is everyone really an expert?

It’s easy enough to find authorities on certain subjects — say, the recent winners of American Idol, or the amounts of money given away on Wowowee — but the more arcane, esoteric, nerdcore topics need true specialists. For the more specialized information, wikis often rely on texts cloned from university and laboratory websites.

“And when that happens,” Lanier writes, “each text loses part of its value. Since search engines are now more likely to point you to the wikified versions, the Web has lost some of its flavor in casual use.

When you see the context in which something was written and you know who the author was beyond just a name, you learn so much more that when you find the same text placed in the anonymous, faux-authoritative, anti-contextual brew of the Wikipedia. The question isn’t just one of authentication and accountability, though those are important, but something more subtle. A voice should be sensed as a whole. You have to have a chance to sense personality in order for language to have its full meaning.”

At which point I got out of my chair and applauded. He had me at “personality.” Lanier goes on to say that personality, the scent of human beings, is being removed from the Web to make it look like content is emerging from the Web itself. Overdramatic, yes, but he has a point.

Say you have a personal website, and every day you post your ideas and observations on it. You take responsibility for what you have written. A machine trawls your site, takes your material, and posts it to some aggregating site along with a jillion other things. Then a robot from an aggregator of aggregating sites comes along and does the same thing. It gets more and more Meta, and farther and farther away from you, the source of the material. The goal is to become the most Meta site, get the most readers, and get the most funds and advertising.

You take responsibility for what’s on your website, but no person takes responsibility for the aggregator of aggregators of aggregators sites. Their contributors are not identified; they are a hive mind.

Where did the information come from? Well, uh, the Web.

What about you, the originator? What about authorship and context?

Well, um, it’s a brave new world. Don’t be so old-fashioned, join the hive. “It’s safer to be the aggregator of the collective,” Lanier points out. “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.”

Which is not to say that the collective is always stupid (or the individual always intelligent). According to Lanier, the collective can be smart when it isn’t defining its own questions, when it is called upon to produce a simple answer (such as a number), and when it is guided by well-meaning, qualified individuals.

Interestingly enough, the individual is most stupid when she is given great power but is not required to take responsibility for the consequences of her actions. An unfortunate convergence, Lanier adds.

“The setup for the most stupid collective is also the setup for the most stupid individuals.”

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