Wikipedia is just one of the new infrastructures for collective knowledge that are appearing. Others are flickr and del.icio.us, to name a few. I am using the word infrastructure here precisely because these are platforms on which multiple users converge, creating a collective value.
These infrastructures are typically heralded as ‘a good thing’, for a number of reasons, one of them being that ‘collective knowledge’ can be superior to biased individual opinions. [Update: I described a somewhat similar example in unsollicited mail prevention earlier.]
In the online magazine Edge however, Jaron Lanier raises some concerns. In an essay called “DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism” he deconstructs the situations where collectivism works, and more importantly, where it does not work.
His essay starts with a description of his repeated efforts to correct his wikipedia entry, which incorrectly identifies him as a filmmaker. I am sure it must have been giving him the same uncanny feeling that I described last week as ‘your identity in neon lights’.
His main concerns are that there is a tendency to dehumanize the collective, and to worship its answers unconditionally. As Lanier states, the collective can be smart, “… except when intelligent thought really matters. In that case the average idea can be quite wrong, and only the best ideas have lasting value.”
Go read the article to dive into an entertaining and deeper exploration on the smartness of collectives.