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Monday, May 21, 2007

Digital Maoism

posted by on May 21 at 11:20 AM

It looks like I am almost exactly a year late in stumbling upon this great essay, by computer visionary Jaron Lanier (the guy who coined the phrase “virtual reality”).

I found the essay because someone told me I had to read it for a feature I’m working on, and while it ends up being not quite right for my project, it has some fascinating things to say about digital mobs, the online race to be most meta, and how all of this is making everyone more stupid and disconnected (the opposite of what web utopians hope) while also resuscitating an old, dangerous idea: That the collective is smarter than individuals. Lanier writes:

The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?

If I’m bringing you news of an essay you heard about long ago, sorry, but it’s new to me, and here’s one passage that I found interesting. In it, Lanier dismisses blogging as the solution to the problem of the web aggregators making people dumber. I’m not sure I agree with him, but it’s something to chew on:

Compounding the problem is that new business models for people who think and write have not appeared as quickly as we all hoped. Newspapers, for instance, are on the whole facing a grim decline as the Internet takes over the feeding of curious eyes that hover over morning coffee and even worse, classified ads. In the new environment, Google News is for the moment better funded and enjoys a more secure future than most of the rather small number of fine reporters around the world who ultimately create most of its content. The aggregator is richer than the aggregated.

The question of new business models for content creators on the Internet is a profound and difficult topic in itself, but it must at least be pointed out that writing professionally and well takes time and that most authors need to be paid to take that time. In this regard, blogging is not writing. For example, it’s easy to be loved as a blogger. All you have to do is play to the crowd. Or you can flame the crowd to get attention. Nothing is wrong with either of those activities. What I think of as real writing, however, writing meant to last, is something else. It involves articulating a perspective that is not just reactive to yesterday’s moves in a conversation.

To read responses from a number of smart people who disagree with Lanier, click here.

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