On Lanier’s Digital Maoism

I’ve now finished reading the whole essay and all the comments. Fascinating. Lanier says some very interesting things, as do his critics.

  • I could regurgitate all the things said and summarise them for you, but that’s not my style.
  • I could write a long impassioned response to the essay, pretending to be learned enough to join the luminaries that have already done so. But somehow that doesn’t grab me either.
  • I could try rewriting Cluetrain within a single post, but that’s hard for a person whose precis at school was three times the length of the passage to be summarised :-( So I won’t do that.

What I can and will do is try and articulate why I find social software of value, both as an individual as well as when participating in a group, be it family and friends, firm, or even society…..And thereby seek to refute Lanier’s two main points: the apparent loss of valuable individualism and the risk of generating aggregated pap and then making decisions using the pap.

  • As an overlay on the internet and the web, social software is first and foremost about connecting people. It allows you to connect to people you don’t know; with collaborative filtering, it allows you to connect to people with similar interests, but not necessarily similar views.
  • This is very powerful, since you are able to converse with people who care about similar things; mutual admiration societies, while a risk, tend not to form, because the similarity is about the interests rather than the views held about those interests.
  • Networks form as a result, networks bound by relationships between people.  The conversations between connected individuals become micromarkets, a patchwork of distributed, often overlapping, groups. People participate in these markets because there is a strong sense of community, yet with individual freedoms retained, even enhanced.
  • This communal bonhomie allows a number of very powerful things to happen; people give freely of their time and of their skill, with nothing to gain but respect and recognition from their micromarket, the peers whose approval they see as valuable; people help each other, work with each other; people teach each other, learn from each other.
  • All this is about individuals working together. Not the technology. What the technology does is reduce the barriers to entry, reduce disenfranchisement;  reduce the search costs and connection costs; allow the conversations to persist and be searchable and findable; provide a rich context; have low maintenance costs; where relevant, allow people to work in small groups bringing their communal, often amateur, expertise to bear on lots of small problems. Massively parallel meets EF Schumacher.
  • As the people experiment with the technology, new processes emerge; many of these processes are necessarily lightweight and non-intrusive, in order to preserve the individual freedoms as well as the communal value.
  • The distributed nature of all this also makes other things happen; it allows a community to respond faster to things as a result of three characteristics; small agile groups; networked non-hierarchical relationships; low barriers to entry.
  • The people, the processes and the technology, taken together, are slowly forming a new culture. A culture where traditional governance models are inappropriate, where co-creation is common, where communal ownership is the norm.
  • This is not just about Wikipedia or even just about the Blogosphere. Social software is about people and relationships and conversations and markets. Enfranchising people to do things they have never been able to do, some of which their forebears could do (but on much smaller scales).
  • Social software is explicitly about the individual and about preserving the individual, but in the context of the groups that individual belongs to. The technology allows us to scale all this, and as a result we need to build better tools. Tools better at publishing, at searching and finding, at connecting, at aggregating, at filtering and even at visualising. Today’s tools are a good start, no more than that.
  • The experimentation phase we are in has already paid great dividends, Wikipedia is a good example of that. And there will be a number of serendipitous communal finds as we continue to experiment. Finds that relate to rediscovery of communal arts and crafts, art and music, that relate to new ways of learning and teaching, that relate to new forms of creativity, new ways of being rewarded for individual and collective creativity. Finds that relate to better understanding of ourselves and our ability to look after ourselves, repair ourselves, enrich ourselves.
  • We need to continue experimenting. And for that we need open minds, soft hands and a willingness to work together without seeking to polarise opinion through sensationalism.

4 thoughts on “On Lanier’s Digital Maoism”

  1. JP, you can probably guess from some of my other comments that I tend to side with Lanier on this one; but, hopefully, you have recognized that my favorite expression in any debate is, “Yes, but …!” My rule of thumb (which I like to think of a cynicism with a smile) is: If you provide an opportunity that is so simple that any idiot can use it, then many (if not most) of them will! As far as I am concerned, this rule applies to Google (as anyone who has ever observed search behavior over a large user population will confirm); and the ease-of-use of both wiki and blog technology means that neither of them is immune. The only remedy can be found in nineteenth-century advice:

    The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.
    -John Philpot Curran: Speech upon the Right of Election, 1790. (Speeches. Dublin, 1808.)

    This citation can be found at:


    This blog is an excellent example of vigilance in the name of rich conversation, making it a Maxwell’s Demon to counter the effect of entropy, which is the subject of many of my Cassandra-like warnings. Keep up the good fight!

  2. I found the article and comments I read interesting, however I think the real problem pointed out by the article is not that the ‘collective’ does not always have the right answer, which of course it always does, but rather that the collective always has both the right answer(s) and the wrong answer(s) and we have not found any real reliable method of telling them apart except individual expertise and judgment.
    I do think that the relatively new digital media has opened the discussion ( of anything) to a much wider field of individuals than ever before within a lifetime. Throughout most of our history it took decades to widely disseminate an idea and several lifetimes to discuss it, edit it, push it back out to the world and finally get to a point where a large percentage of those concerned were satisfied with the thought as currently expressed. This collective editing timeline has been shortened spectacularily. It is hardly surprising that we are not sure about validity of this incredibly speeded process. We can not even guess how long it now takes to ‘stand the test of time’.
    But now as before all we have is the collective’s response to the insights of individuals who have been in turn guided and inspired by the voice of the collective. The only thing that has changed is the breadth of the editing base and the speed of the editing response.

  3. Whilst I revel in the many conversations I’m having in disparate groups and whilst it is undeniable that new ideas are co-created and honed quicker than ever before, I still have to remind myself that all these conversations collectively involve a relatively small proportion of the population.

    When you step back into the offline world, it is startling to see how slowly the vast majority of new ideas are disseminated.

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