The Hivemind, Groupthink, Social Media and Individuality

I recently finished the fantastic book by Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget and one fairly central theme was how humans interact en masse. Much of the Internet often centres on this idea of the “hivemind” and harnessing little quanta of intelligence from a vast number of Internet-connected people to some end. Wikipedia is a prime example of this — lots of (often) anonymous people creating, editing and tweaking articles about…well, pretty much everything.

The hivemind was always an idea that both intrigued and perplexed me. I love the idea that we can harness intelligence in a similar way to harness spare compute cycles (i.e., SETI) and emergent or self-organizational behaviour continues to fascinate me. However, I’ve never been completely comfortable with how viable this is taken at an human-intellectual level. A compute cycle is a known entity ? if it changes, it scales in size which affords you more work. Human intelligence is very much an unknown, in both scale and quality.

Wikipedia seems like a great example of how this might work. However, the anonymity behind Wikipedia makes it hard to ascertain how much of it is truly the hivemind at work, versus several experts or fans creating information that is subsequently updated as time moves forward (aside: he makes an interesting parallel between Wikipedia and the Bible). Much of Lanier’s arguments against Wikipedia seem aimed more at the cultural ? search engines increasingly point to Wikipedia as the first listing, taking relevance away from other peripheral sites. As Wikipedia aims to be encyclopedic in nature, human opinions, insights and extremism is (often) missing from entries. Rightly or wrongly, it is these thoughts and opinions that gives us our rich and diverse global cultures.

The concern is that “hivemind” projects combined with the cloud-computing Overlords’ search algorithms is leading the human race down a path that inherently limits rather than frees the information we have readily accessible to us. While I have a small issue with his choice of words, the sentiment is beautifully summarized as:

“We should not seek to make the pack mentality efficient. We should seek to inspire the phenomena of individual intelligence.” – Jaron Lanier

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