Digital Maoism and the Wisdom of the Individual

Was most interested by Graham’s recent post regarding Digial Maoism on his new blog – Graham Brown runs World Wireless Forum. I’ll not repeat it all here, but his essential question was posed around what do we think of Web 2.0, do we use it? and secondly, do we trust it and what do we think of it?

My answer to the first question is of course, yes. The answer to the second, is that Web 2.0 is an irritatingly grey rather squishy concept, frequently used as a catch-all and often used to liven up an otherwise rather drab digital offering. It is a descriptor typical of our times – it sounds both as good and as bad as it is. No lesser that Tim Berners-Lee has rightly questioned whether the term has any real meaning.

Digital Maoism is an interesting concept, made only more so because ‘collective consciousness’ has undertones of traditionally negative concepts such as Big Brother, Marxist suppression of the masses for some misguided higher-good with an elite at the stern, or The Borg of Star Trek fame.

Succumbing to Wikipedia (I don’t have my pocket-Brittanica to hand) the knowledge mashup of the masses proclaims:

“”Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform. Chief among those rules is this: Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them.”

If this IS the true meaning of Web 2.0, a lot of people need re-educating. This in itself brings us full circle back to the concept of an ever-evolving proletariat encyclopaedia. Is some knowledge not pretty stationary or at least benefit from being so? Is there not some history which we know to be as it is, as it was, as it will be? What about basic science?

Perhaps we should step back slightly. The Oxford English dictionary defines an “encyclopaedia” as: a book or set of books giving information on many subjects or on many aspects of one subject, typically arranged alphabetically.

Looks like they have not updated their entry for the digital age. The Greek “enkuklopaideia” gives us a different spin: it means “all-round education” . Is this was Wikipedia delivers?

I find Wikipedia a highly useful resource, but I hope I would not take it’s entries as Gospel. Some of my personal issues with it are simple: What if I read an entry, in-between it having been hacked with rubbish and a moderator having made the corrections? Isn’t Wikipedia also open to bias based upon the prevailing social norms or media hype of the time or that generation? The answer is yes – but so are all publications.

In my travels I hear infinitely more talk of Ajax, shiny sites, gloopy logos, curvey boxes with mashups, social networking and wiki’s thrown in for good measure, in the same breath at Web 2.0; a few steps removed from O’Reilly’s “business revolution”.

In summary, I believe these are two different issues. Eventually Web 2.0 will find a permanent home and definition; lets just hope those that write that definition choose one that reflects the reality on the ground and not what they feel Web 2.0 “should have been”. As for the intelligence (or not) of the masses, I wonder if this whole debate, as many debates, only holds any water when you approach it from diametrically apposed positions. Black and white always makes for a good fight. Real life though, is more often grey.

I believe on balance that the digital age gives more a voice to the individual and to the minority, than it drowns that voice out. Applying this belief to the wisdom of crowds debate, there are some things for which the assembled hordes will do a great service. The social networks will evolve, improve and enhance services, decisions, knowledge; but human nature will not change.

A lone charismatic voice can be a powerful one, whether digital or purchased in flesh atop a soap box. Whether preaching truth, publishing the fact, or promoting a politic. For all our democratic or herding zeal, we the masses have shown more than a little penchant for being led. That has often been by an individual walking against the prevailing wind of the moment – (Churchill is a simple example, but I’m sure there are far better ones) and I don’t expect our taste for the lone ranger to diminish any time soon. Because of this, I believe the wisdom of the individual is safe.


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