The Wisdom of the Hive: Is the Web a Threat to Creativity and Cultural Values?

The Wisdom of the Hive: Is the Web a Threat to Creativity and Cultural Values?

Technology November 10, 2011 / By Karen A. Frenkel
The Wisdom of the Hive: Is the Web a Threat to Creativity and Cultural Values?

Jaron Lanier rails against the social trends being fostered by the Internet-- its power to stifle creativity and encourage groupthink and a lynch-mob mentality.

To virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, nothing less than our culture and highest moral values are at stake thanks to theWorld Wide Web and certain destructive online behavior it facilitates. As evidence, he points out that during the 17 years since the Web took off, those who live off their brains—most writers, illustrators and musicians, for example—have experienced a worsening economic situation. In Lanier's view, content originators are only the first to feel the pain—their plight eventually will afflict everyone in the middle class, hampering their ability to earn money.

"Since more livelihoods should depend on brainpower as technology gets better, the direction we're going in is universal impoverishment," he tells Scientific American.

The disenchanted Lanier presents his views on Web-induced intellectual poverty, weighs in on whether information on the Web should be free (it shouldn't, he thinks), identifies several more areas of the Web that he believes are deficient, and explores what it means to be a person in the digital age in his new book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Knopf, 2010). He is hardly a Luddite and is renowned for creating innovative interfaces, including head-mounted displays that extended virtual reality's use in medicine, physics and neuroscience. Lanier is still a big fan of the Internet; it is the way Web technology is designed and being used that dismays him.

Lanier claims ideology and the Web's design—user interfaces and logins for example—marginalize individuals as "sources of fragments to be exploited by others." Of particular concern is "hive thinking," whereby personal expression counts for little and the creative process is harmed. Instead, he wrote, the hive mind esteems networked technologies and holds information stored in those networks—often referred to as "the cloud"—in higher regard than the people who create the information. Lanier worries that valuing the aggregate more than individuals will "leach" people of empathy and humanity.

Lanier, who is also a musician, is, for example, highly critical of "mashups," montages of borrowed bits of works by musicians, artists and journalists. Mashers (the people who create mashups) ultimately do broad damage because they rarely understand the originators' intents, according to Lanier; meanwhile artists can barely survive because they get no residuals for their work. In this way little original material is created and, consequently, our culture stagnates, Lanier wrote. "We can make culture and journalism into second-rate activities and spend centuries remixing the detritus of the 1960s and other eras from before individual creativity went out of fashion," he wrote, "or we can believe in ourselves.".

Metaphorically misspeaking
" Information wants to be free," the unofficial motto of the free content movement, anthropomorphizes data and leads people to believe the cloud is an intelligent, evolving life-form, even a "superhuman creature," Lanier argued in his book. He characterizes  "the Singularity"—a hypothesis posed by futurist and author Ray Kurzweil and others that technology will advance to the point that humans and machines essentially become one—as a new religion, and objects to its position that people will become immortal by uploading their thoughts and memories into a computer. He claims that the Singularity's adherents and "cybernetic totalists," who mistakenly apply computer science metaphors to people and reality, have lowered their standards for what counts as intelligence. When Lanier wrote that "information doesn't deserve to be free," he was emphasizing his counterclaim that information is not something to which human traits such as wants and needs should be attributed.

A staunch defender of the Singularity, Kurzweil insists that he is not underestimating the brain's capabilities, but rather that Lanier underestimates the amount of progress technology has enabled and will enable people to make. Kurzweil is satisfied that open-source and proprietary information will continue to coexist. And he contends that the open commons allows owners of information and intellectual property to license their contributions in different ways, and that people are free to develop their own pricing methods for the content they produce.

"Drive-by anonymity"
But it is hardly progress, Lanier argues, when Web user interfaces allow people to log in with pseudonyms and contribute to "drive-by anonymity." That easily devolves into moblike hounding, which in some extreme cases has ended in suicide, as with Korean movie star Choi Jin-sil in 2008. Such "trolling is not a string of isolated incidents," Lanier wrote, "but the status quo in the online world."

Despite Lanier's critique, he insists that he ardently believes in technology's potential to serve people. He calls for a "new digital humanism" that would honor and reward individual expression. A critical mass of people must "buy into a reciprocal social contract in which all find mutual benefit from the idea that people can earn money from brainpower," he tells Scientific American. His solution is a universal micropayment system that the government would oversee and that would provide access to content at reasonable prices. (Kurzweil argues that good payment models already exist, so there's no need for a centralized organization.)

Wiki science
Lanier asserts that science has so far escaped the influence of cybernetic totalists, but this may not last. His evidence? For one, he says, an idea posed by WIREDmagazine Editor in Chief Chris Anderson in an article entitled "The End of Theory"that "science should no longer seek theories that scientists can understand, because the digital cloud will understand them anyway." (Anderson declined to comment on Lanier's interpretation.)

Lanier also warns of applying the open, wiki approach to scientific research, which although not dominant now, is fashionable and becoming influential. Scientists should work with some degree of privacy, according to Lanier, first gathering and analyzing data and asking questions, then getting feedback from peers before publishing.

But some young scientists tell Lanier they intend to start wikilike work groups and expect questions about nature to "just emerge." They believe collectivism and the open process inherently add value, but Lanier argues that this cannot lead to creative science. Great scientists are always unusual and have differentiated points of view, he tells Scientific American, which is why they ask questions others don't. "Wikis might be impressive in terms of magnitude and a politically correct process, but they result in the mundane, self-satisfaction and a lessening of ambition—we already have encyclopedias," Lanier says. "To stand on the shoulders of giants you have to climb, offer your own unique perspective, be personally expressive. To be creative, even the driest scientist has to be a bit of an artist. This is worth a warning, and I'm trying to nip it in bud."

Ray of hope
Some of Lanier's critics say that he is focusing on the negative aspects of how the Web has evolved. To his point about cyber meanness, Kurzweil says, "This is what happens when you put people together. You can get the wisdom of crowds, but you can also get lynch mobs when you amplify the lowest common denominator. Lanier has been emphasizing the latter."

Kurzweil stresses the democratizing effect of technology, as evidenced by the blogosphere and social networks. "Overall communal thinking…amplifies human intelligence, getting to the heart of news in a matter of minutes or hours," he says, citing the role that Facebook and Twitter played in channeling protest information out of Iran following the most recent elections there.

Nevertheless, for Lanier, the "wisdom of the crowd" is like design by committee. An auction, for example, can determine the value of a car because the answer is a single number, but if the same crowd tries to design the ideal car for a market, no one will be satisfied, he says. That is because the wisdom of the crowd only works when the choices are simple, he adds. Appreciating creative expression, introspecting, asking tough questions, contributing original ideas—being more than a gadget, as the title of his book implies—is hard.


This article originally appeared at Scientific American

Jaron Lanier's profile at The New Yorker

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