Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Web 2.0: The Sleep of Reason, "Digital Maoism," etcetera, etcetera

Interesting article by Michael Gorman on the Britannica Blog (Web 2.0: The Sleep of Reason). When everyone is talking Web 2.0, I was curious to learn what this earth-shaking new technology is going to be. I don't find answers anywhere. Articles online just confuse and befuddle poor me, instead of giving information about what this new technology would entail, there's a lot of drivel about what its impact would be. Gorman has a point in that earlier the world had depended on individual experts (you know,the learned professorial types) whose findings were published in scholarly journals and books, which had editors, fact-checkers, proof-readers, etc. who acted as the gatekeepers to knowledge and learning. Let's call this the scientific method of disseminating learning.

No longer! In the wired world the Internet is acting on collective information gathering, and publishing online in media such as Wikipedia. Anyone can post/edit an article on Wikipedia as if he'she is an authority on the subject. Gorman quotes Jaron Lanier who called this "digital Maoism," or the communist idea of collectivism. But didn't collectivism fail? It must be recollected that Mao led his peasants to revolution promising them something as revolutionary as Web 2.0, but look how China has turned to capitalism to bale it out of crushing poverty. Excerpts from Gorman's article:

"Expertise and high standards in scholarship and publishing are certainly translatable into the digital age, but there are many obstacles blocking the transition. One chief obstacle is the notion that Jaron Lanier has called “digital Maoism” (in his May 2006 essay of that name on the Edge website). He defines this “new online collectivism” as “nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force.” This “wisdom of the crowds” and “hive mind” mentality is a direct assault on the tradition of individualism in scholarship that has been paramount in Western societies at least since the Renaissance and, before then, can be seen in the Church Fathers and the Greek philosophers, among others. Digital Maoism is an unholy brew made up of the digital utopianism that hailed the Internet as the second coming of Haight-Ashbury — everyone’s tripping and it’s all free; pop sociology derived from misreading books such as James Surowiecki’s 2004 The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations; a desire to...."

I agree with Gorman that when attempt is made to distill wisdom through the funnel of collectivism - as for example in the Wikipedia - it is difficult to prove the expertise of the person who is writing it, and one doesn't know if one's leg is being pulled. For example Jaron Lanier mentions that his Wikipedia entry identifies him as a film maker though he has made one unsuccessful documentary long ago. As another book argues, the gatekeepers are not the editors at the publishing end of knowledge and wisdom but at the receiving end, i.e., the readers. That's what we are witnessing of late.

Publishing companies are no longer the gate-keepers of what should be published. They are more worried about the business of selling books, rather than looking at the scientific dissemination of organizing learning, knowledge or literature. The onus of doing all the aforementioned now rests with literary agents, who are/were: copyright lawyers, graduate school dropouts, failed writers/editors, and the like. And they have very little time to vett the huge quantities of literature they get because they are running after the few celebrities who are already authors. Get the point? Grumble, mumble! Gorman, I am with you on this!

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