Authority and the Collective

What creates authority? Is it common consensus, the same way an overabundance of faith makes religion more real? Or is authority a product of education?

That’s the debate that has recently been engaging bloggers and others online. A pair of articles came to my attention today, following the article from Michael Jensen in The Chronicle Review that I wrote about a couple days ago. Both articles, in their own ways, argue that collaboration online, the notion of the hive-mind, is essentially dehumanizing and harms our standards of intelligence.

Former ALA president and library science professor Michael Gorman, in a hotly commented two-part post to the Britannica.com blog, wonders where authority comes from in the digital age. It is appropriate that Gorman would write this essay for Britannica, considering the study in Nature last year that indicated the Encyclopedia Britannica was on equal footing with the peer-edited Wikipedia.

Gorman bases his model of authority on the only established one out there. “Print,” he writes, “does not necessarily bestow authenticity.” Just as “an increasing number of digital resources do not, by themselves, reflect an increase in expertise.” His point is this: being published or linked does not make you an authority in his terms, no matter how Google’s Page-Rank technology calls it. Instead of relying on search-bots and algorithms, Gorman suggests extending to the digital world the traditional of authority developed over centuries of print.

In the essay, Gorman refers to the argument behind Andrew Keen’s new book, The Cult of the Amateur–which is on hold for me at this very moment at Barnes & Noble. Though I haven’t read the book, it’s argument is already well-known to me. Keen believes the Web has brought culture to the point where expertise is worthless because everyone can be an expert on anything. This is similar to what Jensen said in the Review. Jensen argued that, without reform, Web 2.0 will revert the digital world to a state resembling the latter days of Usenet–a conflagration of uber-specific forums that are so technical that no common user could easily connect the dots.

What is needed is a human being to connect those dots. Therefore Gorman disdains collective endeavors like Wikipedia. The underlying reason I see is not that they are worthless. Instead, Gorman’s argument at some level is based on being uncomfortable with a model of intelligence that doesn’t fit with previous standards–the view where individuality is exalted and the human imagination is the most important measure of worth and validity. We have only to look to Emerson for a shining example of this humanism and the belief that all human beings contain a spark of the divine spirituality or intelligence.

On that note, we turn to Jaron Lanier’s May 2006 article “Digital Maoism,” in which he also takes issue with the dehumanizing aspects of collaborative online activities. Lanier works from a premise that he sees as central to the collaborative world. He writes that a “core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds.” But this is not true, he says, because texts rely on their personality to impart valuable information. Without that human essence, a text is “drivel.”

The pages of the Wikipedia are such “drivel,” he says, because the information is taken out of its original context in “the race to erase personality and be most Meta.” People can learn from Web pages and even blogs, but not from a “Meta” site like the Wikipedia, where information has been aggregated into one place, devoid of its original character. While he’s at it, Lanier condemns aggregator sites and (indirectly) RSS feed readers because they remove the “scent of people” from the Web. How can we get the experience of reading a text when its words are read out of their original placement? Human-run sites like Boing Boing, however, are acceptable because identifiable human beings are mediating the content instead of automatic filters.

His point, he says, is to “emphasize how premature and dangerous it is to lower the expectations we hold for individual human intellects.” In this he seems very much like Plato, worrying about the arrival of writing in ancient Greece. Plato worried that writing would destroy memory, and perhaps it did–but that destruction was only according to Plato’s terms. It doesn’t take much to think instead that writing “altered” memory. “Destruction” is relative, as are “expectations.” Lowering them in Lanier or Gorman’s views might be vastly different in other perceptions.

Lanier’s argument wanders from the Web and into the larger issues of authorship in the early 21st Century. Authorship and even intelligence as we know it are threatened in a world where intellectual property ceases to exist, as it does on Wikipedia. Soon, “the aggregator is richer than the aggregated,” and those who generate content lose their jobs. Writers can only write, it seems, if they are paid to do so (something I don’t mind, considering it’s what I get paid for). In all, Lanier is really making an argument for individuality, a kind of individuality that doesn’t immediately pander to the lowest common denominator. Instead, he wants an author, a by-god, genuine author to stand up for what he or she believes and make those statements to the world, paying no heed to how much attention or money there is to gain.

He returns to collectivism to praise certain elements of it, on condition:

The collective is more likely to be smart when it isn’t defining its own questions, when the goodness of an answer can be evaluated by a simple result (such as a single numeric value,) and when the information system which informs the collective is filtered by a quality control mechanism that relies on individuals to a high degree. Under those circumstances, a collective can be smarter than a person. Break any one of those conditions and the collective becomes unreliable or worse.

Web 2.0 and all collective, hive-mind enterprises on the Web must be controlled by someone at the top if they are to mean anything to Lanier, and I think Gorman would agree.

I don’t want to put either of these fine essays down. I just don’t happen to agree with everything they say. If we are rational, we cannot discount the collective as a valid “next step” in the evolution of intelligence. It is only when we base our analyses on fixed standards that we run into problems with collectivism.

That said, I do think that we are losing something in the ease of the collective. Do I want to stand up for it right now? No. I just want to propose an alternative reading of these two essays that plays with our standards of correctness and “good.” I’ll come back to what I think has been lost later.

Finally, I must point to the most profound observation Lanier makes: “Reading a Wikipedia entry,” he writes, “is like reading the bible closely. There are traces of the voice of various authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure.” Food for thought later…

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