Scott Rosenberg interviews Howard Rheingold for newassignment.net
May 22nd, 2007

Every ten years or so, Scott Rosenberg — Salon co-founder — interviews me. One of the best interviewers in the business. The last time, 1994, he interviewed me for the San Francisco Examiner. This time, the interview was for newassignment.net. It covers a lot of territory — technology determinism, why digital maoism is a terrible name for a flawed idea, why self-interest is necessary for crowdsourcing, how ATT is like the Terminator, why technology has been good to me and why I have second thoughts about it:

Obviously something has changed in collective action theory because we’re creating things like Wikipedia. There’s a sociologist by the name of Bruce Bimber who said, we need to reconceptualize something as sociologists, and I believe it has to do with where we locate as individuals the boundary between private and public. That immediately made sense to me.

I’m a big user of Delicious. I need to stash my bookmarks, and I need to assign tags to them so I can find them. That’s why I do it. However, by making that private act public, I not only contribute to creating a public good, I surface a lot of people whose own collections of private bookmarks become useful to me, because we have a shared interest. In fact it becomes a social network, a kind of knowledge community phenomenon there. So it’s like the light and the shadow, one doesn’t really exist without the other. If I didn’t have that individual need, I wouldn’t be contributing to this public good. If I didn’t choose, and the software didn’t make it easy for me to make that a public act, then that public good wouldn’t exist.

I think to the degree that we’re beginning to understand how these things work, you need that individual motivation, but you also need some way of aggregating those individual actions into something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. So Wikipedia is not a collection of individual edits. There is a process by which those individual edits build. The question of course is whether they’re building monotonically toward higher quality or whether it’s going to deteriorate monotonically — or whether there will just be untrustworthiness because there’s an unpredictable amount of noise in the system. We don’t know that. But there is a combination of individual expertise and authorship and some kind of social contract, collective process, community involved.

I do think there’s a lot of magical thinking around collective intelligence, swarm intelligence, wisdom of crowds. Again, that’s what science is for. Let’s find out by observation and experiment what the limits and the capabilities of these phenomena really are.


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