FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Mindless "Hive Mind"

Consultant, author and filmmaker Jaron Lanier offers a stinging rebuttal to the claims that the "wisdom of crowds" is smarter than individuals in an essay titled "Digital Maoism."  In it, he argues that "foolish collectivism" that typically drives Wikipedia and digg is eclipsing individual expertise, with inaccuracies and loss of focus as the result.

As an example, Lanier cites his experience with the a relatively new meta-site called popurls, which aggregates the most popular links from digg, del.icio.us and similar sites.  "In the last few days," he writes, "an experimental approach to diabetes management has been announced that might prevent nerve damage. That's huge news for tens of millions of Americans. It is not mentioned on popurls. Popurls does clue us in to this news: 'Student sets simultaneous world ice cream-eating record, worst ever ice cream headache.'"

Lanier doesn't totally dismiss collective intelligence, but he cautions against putting too much credence or confidence in it, particularly when it gravitates toward hype, trivia and mediocrity.  "Every authentic example of collective intelligence that I am aware of," he writes, "also shows how that collective was guided or inspired by well-meaning individuals. These people focused the collective and in some cases also corrected for some of the common hive mind failure modes. The balancing of influence between people and collectives is the heart of the design of democracies, scientific communities, and many other long-standing projects."

Some may dismiss Lanier as an elitist, but he makes some very sound points that explain in part why collective tools such as wikis are still, for the most part, on the periphery.  Collective intelligence remains immature, and it's still up to the early adopters to strike a balance between leveraging group intelligence and helping others interpret and direct that intelligence.