Friday, December 15, 2006

Digital Maoism

It was the first time that I had been utterly demolished in an intellectual argument.

Winter quarter, freshman year, I had innocently joined SLE and written my first paper on how, to (wincingly) quote myself, Paul advocates the “subordination of the individual to the larger Christian community in order to prevent sinfulness,” while Mark and John’s Jesus “preaches liberation of the individual from the repressive and unnecessary Mosaic law.” I was all proud of my argument, even if I had to shove aside a few impertinent details to make my case (“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” Matthew 5:17). Then Suzanne Greenberg, in typical Suzanne-Greenberg-style, completely obliterated me by arguing that the Biblical concept of the individual at the time was completely different from the way in which I used it.

How was I supposed to defend my thesis against that? Though by chance I had been briefly exposed to Focault-style genealogy of thought in the previous quarter (we read Discipline & Punish in my Soviet history class), I was completely at a loss for an answer.

And rightly so. Confusion about what constitutes individuals and collectives play seems to be an easy error to commit; it has crept into the essay “Digital Maoism” by Jaron Lainier, corrupting what is otherwise one of the most insightful essays of the year.

Lainier’s convincingly argued thesis is that certain institutions on the Internet, like Wikipedia and meta-sites, are designed in a way that perverts the Internet into a tool for facilitating a hive mind. “The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people,” writes Lainier. “The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we're devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.”

Lainier points out that collectives do have important functions, but that these functions should work hand-in-hand with individuals. “A marketplace can't exist only on the basis of having prices determined by competition,” he writes. “It also needs entrepreneurs to come up with the products that are competing in the first place.” But while prices are a result of everyone having input, “when a collective designs a product, you get design by committee, which is a derogatory expression for a reason.” A turn of phrase that should warm the heart of any Rand fan.

Lainier, however, starts to get into logical hot water when he starts to, as I did, use phrases loosely. By a collective he means any body of people that come together to make a decision. But when he fails to make a decision between, for example, the market forces as collective and voting as collective, he misses an important distinction familiar to libertarians: process. If all collectives are equivalent, whence Robert’s Rules of Order? Or, how well would the market work if we all got together and voted on prices, or who gets how much of what good?

While phrased as such, these are not merely abstract questions. Lainier has some very interesting points to make about proper role of collectives: He argues that, for example, collectives function optimally when they don’t formulate their own question, when the quality of their result can easily be evaluated, and when quality-control mechanisms run by individuals are in place. “Under those circumstances, a collective can be smarter than a person,” Lainier writes. “Break any one of those conditions and the collective becomes unreliable or worse.”

But perhaps in a bow to traditional ideas about collectives, he is unable to turn a critical enough eye on them. Witness this passage:

“There are certain types of answers that ought not be provided by an individual. When a government bureaucrat sets a price, for instance, the result is often inferior to the answer that would come from a reasonably informed collective that is reasonably free of manipulation or runaway internal resonances.”

A government bureaucrat’s actions are a stereotypical example of individual behaviour? Only in the obvious sense, in that they were committed by a moral agent. As the fact that Nixon’s price-wage-freezes were approved by Congress should indicate, government decisions are every bit as “collective” as actions of the market. Or more, considering that government consists of people choosing for other people, while the market exemplifies people choosing for themselves.

I wouldn’t complain so much, except that the above quote also made it into the New York Times Magazine, and makes Lainier look a lot dumber than he is. Ideas have consequences, and oversimplification can be dangerous. “We have to be careful here,” as one of my professors loves to say. Beware.

**The piece can be found here: **