Collective Action is not Collectivism
June 2nd, 2006

I’m not going to get into a critique of Jaron Lanier’s Digital Maoism — indeed, I agree that new notions about collective intelligence and peer production should be viewed critically and not embraced in a spirit of magical thinking — but I find it strange that someone as educated as Jaron should fall into the same simple fallacy the Cato Institute fell for: collective action is not the same as collectivism. Commons-based peer production in Wikipedia, open source software, open source biology, prediction markets is collective action, not collectivism. Collective action involves freely chosen self-election (which is almost always coincident with self-interest) and distributed coordination; collectivism involves coercion and centralized control; treating the Internet as a commons doesn’t mean it is communist (tell that to Bezos, Yang, Filo, Brin or Page, to name just a few billionaires who managed to scrape together private property from the Internet commons). Hello? Can anybody spot the differences?

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1 - Sam Rose

We’ve been discussing this same thing over at CommunityWiki.

Thanks for addressing the important differences between “collectivism” and “collective action”.

2 - Rosanna Tarsiero

I think you are off base. The (unsaid) issue that was a stake in Lanier’s piece was his discomfort toward being defined in a way he thinks isn’t representative of his work, therefore the rant on something that isn’t really The issue at stake. And you can see that when he compares Wikipedia to Myspace and dares claming that the latter is a richer form of information *grin*

The guy (Lanier) has a problem with the fact that a group of people (wikipedia “writers”) decided how to define the life and goals of an individual. And this IS collectivism. You can’t really say that a place that, for example, doesn’t recognize individual authorships (not even with a name in the acknowledgements file) isn’t a form of collectivism. So actually open source software and biology aren’t quite the same thing.

It also cannot be denied that Wikipedia is litterally mass-production and, like any mass product (even if not for-profit), the quality is average-low and cannot be compared with top-notch products. I do use it when I don’t know a topic at all, but it’s just a starting point. And, I don’t expect quality. Wikipedia does have the “side effect” to induce in some illitterate minds the idea that all one needs is to read a summary of a synopsis of some given topic in order to know the given topic.

Like all individualistic persons, Lanier is just afraid to be deleted :)

As far as you are concerned, you might want to dig into the *communitarian* theory (which btw DOES have similarities with socialism!) especially how Amitai Etzioni applied it to online communities. That might help you backing up your claim that “collective action is not collectivism”… it has a lot of points in common, though, that could help your critique get more solid.

3 - Howard Rheingold

It’s easy enough to find out who Wikipedia authors are. Every single change has an identity — or an IP number, if the author doesn’t disclose an identity. And Wikipedia, more properly, is not mass production. It’s commons-based peer production. I highly recommend Benkler’s recent book, “The Wealth of Networks,” which I pointed out in a previous blog post.

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