The Limits of Crowds

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I really don’t like anonymity in a wiki format. It’s an immature thrill, it’s like being a [graffiti] tagger instead of a real artist, where you get to go do something that affects collective experience but you don’t really have to take responsibility. We have to make sure digital culture encourages responsible mature individuals as well as collective market judgments. I think blogs do, Wikipedias don’t.

Jaron Lanier

The reason why Wikipedia works is, in fact, that it’s not a hive mind, it’s not everybody saying the same thing, it’s not Maoism… it’s exactly the opposite. It’s a group of individuals who are having an extended conversation in which they are trying to get past themselves so they can get to something they agree on and write it down. This is exactly what a hive mind is not.

David Weinberger

A few weeks ago, computer scientist and future-thinker Jaron Lanier wrote an essay called Digital Maosim about the dangers of a “new online collectivism.” If it wasn’t quite, in the words of impresario John Brockman (for whom he’d written the essay), as if he’d “thrown a lit Molotov cocktail down towards Palo Alto from up in the Berkeley Hills,” it was pretty close:

The problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it’s been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is 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 is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it’s now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn’t make it any less dangerous.

Jaron Lanier, Digital Maosim

The essay has been batted around all over the blogosphere — and some of the batters have actually read it. Most people have focused on Lanier’s critique of Wikipedia, which is interesting and nuanced, but his argument is more far-ranging. Nearly every aspect of society — academia, business, pop culture, etc. — is endangered by the “fallacy of the infallible collective.” He moves from American Idol and “consensus web filters” to consulting companies and the culture of liability phobia, but his central thesis is clear: we’ve begun to trust, privilege, and rely on the wisdom of the collective over the wisdom of the individual… and the collective isn’t always wise.

What do you seek from the collective? What do you find there? When is the indivdual voice — yours or someone else’s — the only one that matters? And — here’s the rub — when is a collection of individual voices not a collective?

Jaron Lanier

Computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author at

Author, Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism,, 5/30/06

James Surowiecki

Author, The Wisdom of Crowds

Writer, Financial Page, The New Yorker

Ze Frank

Performance artist and comedian

David Weinberger

Blogger, Joho the Blog

Co-author, The Cluetrain Manifesto

Author, Small Pieces, Loosely Joined

Chris’s 2003 Interview with David Weinberger

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