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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Giving myself enough rope

Another day of commuting and Podcast listening, and this morning it was Chris Lydon's Open Source discussion on The Limits of Crowds. It was inspired by an online essay one of the guests, Jaron Lanier, on Digital Maoism. He raises some interesting issues regarding the emergence of online collective wisdom, especially as reflected in Wikipedia. Lydon attempts to put Lanier up against The Wisdom of Crowds author, James Surowiecki, but it turns out there is more agreement than disagreement there since Lanier's point is actually complementary to Surowiecki's analysis (which really relies on the capacity of groups to generate a correct response to an objective query on the average...). Where things started to heat up was when David "Joho the Blog" Weinberger joined the frey and the challenged Lanier's basic points -- and vice versa. In between was the input of comic and performance artist Zefrank who was attempting to put the point into practice by having folks write a routine for him on a Wiki platform.

There are a number of interesting issues here, not the least being who you hold accountable for collective decisions made by crowds that go horribly wrong -- comparable to the ethical problem of "many hands" discussed by Dennis Thompson in a classic article. This ties in with the issue of anonymity in decision making, which can have both positive or negative coinseuqneces depending on the context. Perhaps more on that later....

Also for later, a discussion of whether the attraction of this new collectivism is another manifestation of a populist ideology that has become the defining characteristic of the contemporary push for democracy. I am doing an intermittent reading of John Lukacs' harangue on democracy which provides a sweeping critique of populism and I am finding his arguments relevant not merely to the "wisdom of crowds" thesis but also the politics surrounding political debates from flag burning amendments to global warming (see previous posts).

So much to tie together, so little string....


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