Group wisdom or herd mentality?

Artist and computer scientist Jason Lanier has a new essay titled “Digital Maoism” in which he takes issues with “the idea that the collective is all-wise.”

This is an issue on which I’ve ranted a time or two in the past and so I nodded approvingly when Lanier wrote:

“A core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds. This is analogous to the claims of Hyper-Libertarians who put infinite faith in a free market … Compounding the problem is that new business models for people who think and write have not appeared as quickly as we all hoped. Newspapers, for instance, are on the whole facing a grim decline … Google News is for the moment better funded and enjoys a more secure future than most of the rather small number of fine reporters around the world who ultimately create most of its content. The aggregator is richer than the aggregated.”

I recently noted that Google News was the third-most trusted news brand in a 10-nation survey (see page 6 of PDF). And it doesn’t pay journalists to collect journalism! So Lanier is preaching to the choir on that point.

While he acknowledges the value and strength of group action, as do I, the question is how to support original thinking in an online world in which it makes economic sense to build audiences around free content. That’s a tough nut to crack. In the meantime Lanier would at least like to puncture the aura of infallibility around group think.

On a tangentially related note, a news story out of China talks about “Internet hunting” — using public forums to expose moral transgressions in an online echo of the Cultural Revolution. The only connection between the news story and the essay is that both should serve to remind us that online communites, being communities of people, are more likely to reflect the imperfections of their members than they are to create some new and more perfect whole.