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Jaron Lanier (and me) on Radio Open Source

Christopher Lydon had me on in the final segment of Open Source Radio to talk with Jaron Lanier about his article, “Digital Maoism.” I came on after James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds argued with Jaron about whether crowds are ever wise, although there was more agreement than argument. Suroweicki made one of the right points: Jaron focuses on a few examples that Jaron considers to be negative, slighting the importance of collective thinking in top down environments.

Then Ze Frank , the comedian, came on to talk about his experience letting readers write comedy for him on a wiki. He was the most serious and thoughtful of us all, I thought. Damn comedians. (I’m a big Ze Frank fan.)

Then I came on. I’m not happy with how I did. I tried to say that Jaron is warning us of something, but his examples of the danger don’t hold up and, even if they did, they are exceptions, not a trend. The article focuses heavily on Wikipedia. But the Web isn’t really becoming like Wikipedia, and Wikipedia isn’t the result of “hive mind,” which I take to mean people who all believe the same thing, just as Maoists supposedly all chant out of the Little Red Book. In truth, Wikipedia results from vigorous conversation (and some rigorous administration, but I left that out), the opposite of hive mind. Not to mention, I don’t agree that Wikipedia is an example of what’s wrong with the Web. Yes, it’s voiceless, but that’s appropriate for an encyclopedia, and it is definitely not typical of the Web. Jaron denied that he meant “hive mind” as anything negative — then what is his article about? — and repeatedly went back to his unsupported assertion that anonymity dehumanizes discussions. (I have a cheap suspicion that his animosity towards anonymity has something to do with the fact that Jaron is a highly visible public personality and thus thinks we all should be equally comfortable speaking strongly in public. But we’re not all like that.)

BTW, Jaron claimed on-air that his research shows that the more edited a Wikipedia article is, the less accurate it is. I wish I’d said that that research should have been included in “Digital Maoism.” It would have made the piece much stronger. I hope he publishes that research now.

And since this is my blog, I’m going to take the opportunity to dispute Jaron’s on-air denial that his article is mainly negative about blogging. Here is the substantive paragraph about blogging:

…it must at least be pointed out that writing professionally and well takes time and that most authors need to be paid to take that time. In this regard, blogging is not writing. For example, it’s easy to be loved as a blogger. All you have to do is play to the crowd. Or you can flame the crowd to get attention. Nothing is wrong with either of those activities. What I think of as real writing, however, writing meant to last, is something else. It involves articulating a perspective that is not just reactive to yesterday’s moves in a conversation.

If you’re going to lob handgrenades, you ought not later claim that the handgrenades were meant only in the best sense.

Clay Shirky’s excellent response to Jaron’s article is here. You can listen to the Radio Open Source show in its entirety here. I’m afraid to. [Tags: ]

5 Responses to “Jaron Lanier (and me) on Radio Open Source”

  1. Regarding: “that his article is mainly negative about blogging” – I think it’s negative about certain blog evangelism, but that is justified. Pre-emptively, let me rebut the two-step which comes out of that debate:

    [Reposting some previous comment material, since it’s relevant]

    For whatever insight it yields, the sort of “Is it a floor wax or a dessert topping?” (both!) argument is one of the aspects I find so frustrating.

    There’s a path which runs:

    1) Blogging is your own unedited voice, your personal spin, the perspective you, yes, you, bring to the universe …

    Well, who in the world cares about my little spin or perspective, beyond a few friends or fans? Why should I spend so much time writing, except as a hobby? And if it’s just a personal hobby, in the same sense of train-spotting or bird-watching, why should anyone care outside of the other offbeat hobbyists?

    [Then we go to]

    2) Blogging is *citizen journalism*, it is We The Media, it is Emergent Democracy, it is the reworking of society itself …

    But it sure looks like the same-old same-old crowd of A-list’ers having the audience, and why should I care that a few pundits and want-to-be-pundits are fighting over the very few available spots? Either you’re part of that network, with all its incestuousness and rivalries, or you’re the equivalent of a guy standing on a soapbox ranting to passers-by, for all the effect you have.

    [Switch! Go back to #1]

    [Eventually, jump out of the loop, to]

    3) Blogging is undefinable, ineffable, outside of time and space. No judgment can be made, because there are no rules to it besides the rules we each make.

    One large reason for this dance is a deep issue as follows:

    a) Many evangelists of blogging want social credentials for the activity as important or significant, and hence appeal to journalism or reporting

    b) When it’s pointed out that very little journalism or reporting is done, the reply is “It’s not journalism or reporting, it’s *blogging*, so none of that applies”.

    c) Given this contradiction, then we go to, if you don’t like it, don’t read it – which is not an answer to the problem.

    No matter how many times this is analyzed, the imperatives above still drive more go-arounds of the issue.

  2. Personally, this entire bruhaha strikes me as a tempest in a blogspot, with Jason Lanier (re)assuming his usual position as iconoclast. But before I completely discredit my comments by resorting to a stream of ad hominem pokes, the point that Lanier is missing on blogging, I think, is that, unlike writing, blogging is not a literate pursuit. In this statement, I am not being perjorative, but rather, precise: writing is a consequence of mass literacy, quite Gutenbergian in its constructs and artefacts, and especially in the authority and societal value placed on the author. Blogging, on the other hand, is a UCaPP act (ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity). It is an amplification of voice that may or may not be heard, and certainly not heard consistenly. It is a different type of artefact that has more to do with Manual Castells than Max Weber. The issue of authority and value changes in the UCaPP world, and, frankly, I don’t think that we yet understand fully how those are constructed. Lanier’s position is not difficult to understand: like most of the rest of us over the age of 21, Lanier is part of the “fogey generation” who has had to adopt and adapt to a world that has become something different than the one in which we were originally socialized.

  3. What a tangled web y’all have woven. And imprecise, IMO, as well.

    Some bloggers spend a lot of time and energy posting; others shoot from the hip. And some seem to arise from an inappropriate orifice. My “post-happy hour” blogs tend to be less well crafted than the prime ones. This is gonna be one of the second group (class?).

    But I really wanna talk ’bout anonymity. We have two blogs about Colorado politics on the WWW. One allows anonymous posts (; the other doesn’t ( The threads on CoPols invariably end up with flaming and nastiness. I requested the moderator to require valid addies but he ignored me; I now ignore the blog responses to posts. OTOH, the SoapBlox blog actually has intelligent discussions without flaming. Is this a coincidence? I don’t think so.

    Even frontier towns wanted a marshal to keep some kind of order. Those of us on the cyberfrontier need some kind of law and order as well, minimal though it might be. The other extreme from anarchy are the bloggers who are too strict: “our way or the highway” (talk radio minions), *no* negativity (all happy, all the time), don’t criticize our staff (Ariana Huffington recently), and various antisarcasm/ anticriticism controlling list nannies.

    I manage several political e-lists. I regular ask for input from the list users (to me, those ARE the list owners) about criteria for behavioural limits. I have found these change after I allow the permitted guidelines to actually be followed. Sometimes the results are amusing as the proponents of “openness” find themselves peeved by the practice of “openness” and its consequences and then forgot it was their idea.

    Changing the subject, the very concept of a “hive mentality”, even without the Borg connotation, strikes me as innane on blogs or even Wikis. I haven’t seen one blog or wiki (except for those regularly purged of offending opinions) where there is any mental accord. Hardly a “hive mentality” unless they are schizoid.

    One more thing while I’m wasting your time: screw Mark’s “fogey generation” generalization. I’m 63 yo and my first machine was a TRS-80 with 4K. (“Who would need anymore?”, a famous guru said and then I laughed! I would have! I just couldn’t afford it then!) To quote one of my HS English teachers, “All generalizations are false, including this one [about fogeys].” Let’s stick to actual (as opposed to virtual) facts.

    I’ve tried to be brief. I failed. TS.

  4. I just had a listen to the full broadcast, and what struck me about this – and many other similar conversations – is the complete lack of a historical context. The assumption is that we (in the Western world, and this is a tacit assumption that underlies all these conversations) have always had authors, and have always had the authority of authors, and that the literate world that emerged from the 18th century is the so-called gold standard.


    Excuse me for self-promoting here, David, but what we’re dealing with is the evolution of what is, has been, and will be valued as knowledge, who decides, and who controls access. It was different 3000 years ago, it was different in the first millennium, and it was different again from the last half of the second millennium. It’s changing now, and we’re only half-way through the change (which will take another century and a half, give or take a few decades). For a historical perspective, with a research-based take on how knowledge is being constructed among “professional knowledge makers” (i.e. academics) that looks a whole lot like the wiki process, people are welcome to have a look at Why Johnny and Janey Can’t Read, and Why Mr. and Ms. Smith Can’t Teach [pdf].

  5. What Lanier means by “hive-mind” in the Wikipedia context, I think, is that there’s nothing tangible, no one exactly real there, to answer the phone when he wants to call to complain about his listing, no one who can do anything about it. Yet there is something there that keeps changing his bio back to inaccuracy when he tries to set it straight. Something without traditional human individuality.
    That faceless thing, in aggregate the composite eye, the reduction-past-corporeal tangibility, that’s a sort-of pretty-much hive-thing.
    Also any – and there have been many – terms of definition that get thrown at that larger presence, made up of everyone who posts things at a proprietary net location and the things they post there, especially fatuous nonsense like “blogging is…” or “blogging is not…” seems mostly to come from ego-based or fear-based responses.
    “I know” or “They better stop, or I’ll be out of a career”.
    Very little of it seems unbiased unvested research-based.
    It’s similar, on a much smaller scale, to the way we attempt to describe the universe – using the parts we can see and measure and conjecture toward as stand-ins for the whole – and the arrogant pitfall of that, which keeps showing up time and again, that it’s way too big to carry those names and descriptions without looking silly and undignified.

Web Joho only

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