Digital Weimarism?

Not to join in on the Wikipedia-hating fest, but here’s a not-exactly new article from last May about what the author, Jaron Lanier, calls the “digital Maoism” latent in the collectivist nature of Wikipedia and online enterprises of a similar nature. The inaccuracies of Wikipedia, like the mediocrities of American Idol and the inanities of electoral politics, are well-known, but these often do not subvert the ideological commitment to the wisdom of the liberated masses even on the part of libertarians who may not trust mass political movements at all but are willing to indulge a similar impulse under the guise of imposing the “free-market” model anywhere and everywhere.

But the goal of Wikipedia and the free market are not the same. I had some experience with this on a personal level last year, when the president of of an organization of which I was a member was attempting to make some of the more technical positions, like archivist, treasurer, etc. non-elective and filled by his appointment (I think there was to be some group veto power built in). He didn’t succeed, but I agreed with his position. And I even came to feel that really the only area where collective will or the wishes of the majority represents a superior criterion of determination is where, somewhat tautalogically, the wishes of the most people is itself the issue and the goal. The market is one such area: since the goal is to give the most people possible what they want, letting them decide seems to be the best way of doing so. Where another standard determines value, there are probably few areas where a single intelligent and well-informed individual could probably not choose better than a popular vote. An encyclopedia is such a case, since its goal is offer accurate, relevant and objective knowledge. Popularity doesn’t have anything intrinsically to do with this ideal.

On the other hand, the idea of a meritocracy is often confused with that of collectivity. The process of breaking down discriminatory barriers to the flow of information, so that everyone’s ideas have access to a general public and can shine on their merits, may superficially resemble a collectivity in that a lot of the currently existing distinctions and boundaries between people would cease to exist, but it’s not at all actuated on the same principles. A collective is predicated on the idea that no individual ideas or people are better than any others, and a meritocracy is predicated on the contrary view. And while I’m not as wedded to the importance of individual “personality” in web content for its own sake as the author seems to be, the anonymity of something like Wikipedia certainly seems prone to lowering the sense of responsibility for one’s words on the part of the content generators and uncritical acceptance of the source on the part of the readers.

In defense of Wikipedia, I have to admit that I often use it (though not here in China, where it’s blocked), because it has the same innate appeal that encyclopedias have always had, namely convenience. An entry will usually have at least one or two pertinent bits of information, even though often as not it’s just the spelling of a name in Russian or Chinese that I’m after, and it’s still quicker than sifting through even an average Google search. And it should also be said that the likening of “digital Maoism” to real Maoism is rather hyperbolic to say the least. Even at the structural level mass political movements are significantly different than the anonymous “hive activity” of sites like Wikipedia. As much as I disagree with much of the analysis in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, she does suggest convincingly, whether intentionally or not, that 20th century totalitarian movements came as close as perhaps is possible to true one-man rule. Through constant terrorization and destabilization of the population and government the totalitarian dictators managed essentially to destroy all other previously-existing centers of authority or power and to prevent any new ones from forming, thus rendering every other member of society relatively powerless. This is why totalitarianism can never be enshrined into the abstract form of the government, since any law decreeing the form of government would itself limit the personal prerogative of the dictator. This is what makes it so baffling that Arendt believes the dictator in a totalitarian system to be eminently replaceable, when history suggests just the opposite.

In any case, Wikipedia ostensibly has no dictatorial figure setting it in motion and directing it, largely because, probably, it has no real power. In any organization where real power is at stake, the hive will inevitably fall under the control of those who want that power most. So if anything it is not the model of but the model of the precursor of tyrannical collectivism.

Leave a Reply

If your comment doesn't appear right away, it was probably eaten by our spam-killing bot. If your comment was not, in fact, spam (and if you're actually reading this, it probably wasn't), please send me an email and I'll try to extricate your comment from our electronic spam purgatory.