Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Good, The Bad and the Collectivists...

Jaron Lanier is an interesting man. In many ways we couldn't be more different (humanist views, faith in newspaper reporting,  belief in man-made global warming, taste in hair, etc.),  but in his article on online collectivism, Digital Maoism, I find that he and I are very much aligned in our experiences and concerns with the push towards online collectivism. The article sums up the main problems of the collective fairly succinctly and with little of the blather that you might expect from the same subject written within the halls of academia. A practical man with decades of experience in technology as an instigator and creator as opposed to one who theorizes or debates endlessly to no real conclusion, Jared not only identifies the main problems with Collectivism as a goal, but also points out the usefulness of it in limited spheres of influence.

The problem and solution of collectivist output, or group-think, can be summed up in the following ideas: A Collective is best when...

... answering questions, not asking them, and outputs simple answers.
As Lanier points out, a collective is very good at guessing the number of jelly-beans in a jar or serving as the basis of Google's search engine algorithm. What it is not so good at is coming up with lasting ideas or products.

This is, at its base, due to the way the collective averages information to come to simple conclusion. This requires a simple question, like 'do you like X' or 'how much do you think X is worth.' Asking 'what is beauty' will get many, varied and often conflicting answers whose sum total is nonsensical at best. In effect, it is better to ask practical, easily definable questions of a collective, like 'on a scale of 1-10' and leave the vagaries of complex philosophical or creative thought to individuals.

A good example of this can be seen in the episode O' Brother, Where Art Thou. Homer's long-lost brother Herb steps down on the design of a new car to allow the 'average man,' Homer, design it instead. The result makes the Tucker Torpedo look like a 2011 Car & Driver Award Winner and destroys Herb's business (ironically, because the collectivist car industry hated it).

... it is tempered by procedure.
Many people in the United States bemoan the 'gridlock' that plagues congress. 'Congress is the opposite of Progress' some proclaim, and to an extent, that is not only true, but intended.

When they set up our system of government, our founding fathers knew that true democracy would lead to mob rule and that this was not a desirable thing. Even back in the 18th century, they understood the destructive properties of group-think, and (although they didn't have a name for it) the vulnerability of social networks to incitement and exploitation. Instead, they chose a representative form of government to establish a multi-layered process to slow down decision making and established rules to make sure that true majorities, not simple ones based on a fraction of a percentage point over 50, would steer the ship of state.

In this way, state autonomy was virtually guaranteed, as any decision made by the Federal government that affected the states as a whole was sure to be bogged down in debate and unlikely to pass. Only those ideas with true worth, those that could be agreed upon by a large majority of the union, would be allowed to change the entire fabric of the United States. The strength of this system was shown in the passing of the 13th amendment, which was legally above board, leaving the South no other recourse than to secede from the Union to avoid it's effects.

In the end, the United States is a very large collective, but by the use of procedure, we slow down the impulsive nature of collectivist thought, the 'Jitters' as Lanier referred to them, to keep the system from devolving into a constantly changing set of priorities based on whatever ideas are in vogue at the moment, allowing for maximum freedom and a clearly defined culture and set of standards.

... it is overseen and corrected by individuals.
The main complaint that Jared has about collectivist thought is that is terrible for creating, or using active discrimination in the selection of, ideas or products of lasting value. He uses the old and well worn cliché of a 'design by committee' as the perfect example of something a collective should never be allowed to do. I have first-hand experience of this.

In my first job out of college (donkey's years ago), I worked as the graphic designer for a small corporate entity named HBS Systems (the HBS stood for High Class Business Systems, leaving out the C and making the systems in HBS Systems redundant, a fine example of committee design all on its own). We had a hall of middle managers (I called it the Gauntlet) that had to have their say on everything that came out of my office. Products would go up on side of the hall and come down the other. Each manager would add notes on what they thought it needed to have changed (and they all commented), I would make the changes and then it would go back and the managers would then go about undoing the changes of other managers after they appeared. A single 8 page brochure was in the works before I started working there and, two years later, it still wasn't done.

The problem with this job was that as the graphic professional, I should have had some say over which ideas to implement or discard. Instead, my professional skills took a backseat to every mid-level executive in the building, including HR and accounting, and none of them could agree on anything. The individuals who should have had final say, the graphic professional and the head of the company, took second place to the collective of 'everymen' whose input could only make the final product 'average' at best.

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