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social science

Online Collective Hazards

I grew up in New Mexico near Jaron Lanier. His father was my teacher at Sunday school. I had different attitudes than Jaron. He seemed strange, somewhat of a 1960’s anachronism. He was slightly older than me, by at least 10 years. His mother was gone, somewhat of a mystery.

Growing up with goats

Mr. Lanier (Ellery maybe), and Jaron lived in a geodesic dome house. Mr. Lanier raised goats. They drank goat’s milk. Lots of it. Say what you will about food not causing acne. I know that certain high fat foods give me acne, even now. Drinking only goat’s milk gave Mr. Lanier, and Jaron, terrible acne. Mr. Lanier told me that Jaron’s acne got a lot better when he left home. Mr. Lanier could see that I was also afflicted, with or without goat’s milk.

Jaron took music theory and other classes at New Mexico State University. His father was so proud of him. Mr. Lanier was a very decent single parent. My mother was a junior high school teacher. She told me that Jaron was well cared for (despite the acne).

Mr. Lanier was a good Hebrew school teacher. I think he may have been a patient of my father’s, but I’m not certain.

A different sort of crowd-sourced experience

I saw Jaron at the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings a few times. I was too shy to ever speak to him.

This was the time I remember best. Jaron was with a group. All were teenagers or early 20’s. There were a few girls wearing black clothes. I was watching while they talked. Obviously, they got quite a bit of attention, although the farmer’s market was crowded and noisy, held outside, downtown, in a long shaded area in front of local stores that have now been replaced by The Mall. Jaron squeezed the butt of one of the all black-clothed girls. I was watching as he got ready and did it. She shrieked. I was scared Jaron would get in trouble. She turned, saw it was Jaron, smiled, looked happy. He laughed. He had a deep voice, which I hadn’t expected. The crowd got in the way of my view, and they were gone. That was the last time I saw Jaron Lanier.

Excerpt from Beware The Online Collective, by Jaron Lanier (27 Dec 2006) via Edge Conversations

There are a lot of recent examples of collectivity online. There’s the Wikipedia, which has absorbed a lot of the energy that used to go into individual, expressive websites, into one bland, master description of reality.

Yet another, which deserves special attention, is the unfortunate design feature in most blog software that practically encourages spontaneous pseudonym creation. That has led to the global flood of anonymous mob-like commentary.

I remember the first time I noticed myself becoming mean when I left an anonymous comment on a blog. What is it about that situation that seems to bring out the worst in people so often? It’s a shame, because the benefits of blogs (such as that citizen journalists can pool resources to do research that otherwise might not get done) get cancelled out. Blogs often lead to such divisiveness that people end up caring more about clan membership than truth after a while.

The Web 2.0 notion is that an entrepreneur comes up with some scheme that attracts huge numbers of people to participate in an activity online — then you can “monetize” at an astronomical level by offering a way to bring ads or online purchasing to people… What is amazing about this idea is that the people are the value and they also pay for the value they provide instead of being paid for it. The whole cycle is remarkably efficient and concentrates giant fortunes faster than any other business scheme in history. 

I guess Jaron Lanier IS a visionary. He was saw this trend six, seven years ago. It hadn’t even crossed my mind until recently, hasn’t occurred to some even now.

The essay continues, looking now toward possibilities for the future, some of which have come to pass already, but with yet unknown consequences:

Instead of asking people to create videos or avatars, which require creativity and commitment, just watch their clicks, have them take surveys, have them tweak collective works, add anonymous, unconsidered remarks, etc. This trend… encourages people to lose themselves into group think.

What’s to stop an online mass of anonymous but connected people from suddenly turning into a mean mob, just like masses of people have time and time again in the history of every human culture?

In all instances, emphasis mine.

I find myself thinking along similar lines. Jaron has expressed these and other ideas in his infrequent essays of the past ten years. I am happy that he found a home for himself with Microsoft Research. I wish I could have an opportunity to talk with him again, ask about his father, tell him that I agree with much of what he writes about.

Some additional essays, including one of the best of the lot, Digital Maoism, accompanies Jaron Lanier’s biographical page on the Edge website.

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