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The Information Super-Sewer
Posted on Feb 15, 2010
By Chris Hedges
And yet the utopian promoters of the Internet tell us that the hive mind, the vast virtual collective, will propel us toward a brave new world. Lanier dismisses such visions as childish fantasy, one that allows many well-intentioned people to be seduced by an evolving nightmare.
“The crowd phenomenon exists, but the hive does not exist,” Lanier told me. “All there is, is a crowd phenomenon, which can often be dangerous. To a true believer, which I certainly am not, the hive is like the baby at the end of ‘2001 Space Odyssey.’ It is a super creature that surpasses humanity. To me it is the misinterpretation of the old crowd phenomenon with a digital vibe. It has all the same dangers. A crowd can turn into a mean mob all too easily, as it has throughout human history.”
“There are some things crowds can do, such as count the jelly beans in the jar or guess the weight of the ox,” Lanier added. “I acknowledge this phenomenon is real. But I propose that the line between when crowds can think effectively as a crowd and when they can’t is a little different. If you read [James] Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds,” he, as well as other theorists, say that if you want a crowd to be wise the key is to reduce the communication flow between the members so they do not influence each other, so they are truly independent and have separate sample points. It brings up an interesting paradox. The starting point for online crowd enthusiasts is that connection is good and everyone should be connected. But when they talk about what makes a crowd smart they say people should not be talking to each other. They should be isolated. There is a contradiction there. What makes a crowd smart is the type of question you ask. If you ask a group of informed people to choose a single numeric value such as the weight of an ox and they all have some reason to have a theory that is not entirely crazy they will center on the answer. You can get something useful. This phenomenon is what accounts for price fitting in capitalism. This is how markets can function. If you ask them to create anything, if you ask them to do something constructive or synthetic or engage in compound reasoning then they will fail. Then you get something dull or an averaging out. One danger of the crowd is violence, which is when they turn into a mob. The other is dullness or mundaneness, when you design by committee.”
Humans, like many other species, Lanier says, have a cognitive switch that permits us to be individuals or members of a mob. Once we enter the confines of what Lanier calls a clan, even a virtual clan, it possesses dynamics that appeal to the basest instincts within us. Technology evolves but human nature remains constant. The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history because human beings married the newly minted tools of efficient state bureaucracies and industrial slaughter with the dark impulses that have existed since the dawn of the human species.
“You become hypersensitive to the pecking order and to your sense of social status,” Lanier said of these virtual clans. “There is almost always the designated loser in your own group and the designated external enemy. There is the enemy below and the enemy afar. There become two classes of disenfranchised people. You enter into a constant obligation to defend your status which is always being contested. It is time-consuming to become a member of one of these things. I see a lot of designs on line that bring this out. There is a recognizable sequence, whether it is pianos, poodles or jihad; you see people forming into these clans. It is playing with fire. There are plenty of examples of evil in human history that did not involve this effect, such as Jack the Ripper, who worked alone. But most of the really bad examples of human behavior in history involve invoking this clan dynamic. No particular sort of person is immune to it. Geeks are no more immune to it than Germans or Russians or Japanese or Mongolians. It is part of our nature. It can be woken up without any leadership structure or politics. It happens. It is part of us. There is a switch inside of us waiting to be turned. And people can learn to manipulate the switch in others.”
“The Machine Stops,” a story published by E.M. Forster in 1909, paints a futuristic world where people are mesmerized by virtual reality. In Forster’s dystopia, human beings live in isolated, tiny subterranean rooms, like hives, where they are captivated by instant messages and cinematophoes—machines that project visual images. They cut themselves off from the external world and are absorbed by a bizarre pseudo-reality of voices, sounds, evanescent images and abstract sensations that can be evoked by pressing a few buttons. The access to the world of the Machine, which has replaced the real world with a virtual world, is provided by an omniscient impersonal voice.
We are, as Forster understood, seduced and then often enslaved by technology, from the combustion engine to computers to robotics. These marvels of humankind’s ingenuity are inevitably hijacked by modern slave masters who use the newest technologies to keep us impoverished, confused about our identity and passive. The Internet, designed by defense strategists to communicate after a nuclear attack, has become the latest technological instrument in the hands of those who are driving us into a state of neofeudalism. Technology is morally neutral. It serves the interests of those who control it. And those who control it today are ravishing journalism, culture and art while they herd the population into clans that fuel intolerance and hatred.
“A common rationalization in the fledgling world of digital cultures back then was that we were entering a transitional lull before a creative storm—or were already in the eye of the storm,” Lanier writes in his book. “But we were not passing through a momentary calm. We had, rather, entered a persistent somnolence, and I have come to believe that we will escape it only when we kill the hive.”
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