Ill-Applied Historical Analogies #246 in a series: ‘Digital Maoism’

Jaron Lanier has beheld Web 2.0 and lo, he is not best pleased.

Lanier, best known for popularising VR in the 80s (and looking like an even less attractive version of Mick Hucknall than Mick Hucknall – terrifying proof of which after the jump), fears that in the rush to long march to the collective generation/management of digital content, we all risk losing our very souls themselves identities. Web 2.0, he thinks, is based on the essential premise that ‘somehow the masses of people will always be right’…which really isn’t even close to ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ (the approved terminology of the Chinese Communist Party, fact-fans) – I mean, can you imagine the CCP promulgating something like Wikipedia, which Lanier rails against as the digital manifestation of a baying gang of villagers: ‘you have no idea what knowledge any of them have… essentially they lose themselves, they become a mob.’ Good Lord, China won’t even let you Google properly, nevermind freely contribute to a knowledge source without being constantly monitored by a censor who’s just as likely to send you to a prison camp in the northwern Yangtze valley as he is to ‘recommend this comment to a friend.’

Maoism, like all bastardised forms of applied communism in the twentieth century, relies upon the centralised control of the collective ‘mob’ (and how offensive is that term for wikipedia users, many of whom are perfectly lovely people who want to add to the sum total of available reliable knowedge?) – the promise (yet unfulfilled, natch) of Web 2.0 is the total lack of a digital politburo. Maoism was about the organised, directed violence of the previously unorganised rural population. Which could hardly be any further from, say, a 12 year-old girl’s myspace page.

Or at least, so one would hope.

Dan O'Connor

Dan is responsible for translating social media research into the analytic and conceptual frameworks which underpin the team’s product and service development. He is particularly interested in how social media has changed the ways in which people exchange information within networks, and the impact that these changes have had on traditionally top-down information systems, such as those prevalent within the health, education and NGO sectors, where he leads RMM’s activities.

Dan’s focus upon health and education stems from his background in academia: He has a PhD in History and, as well as being Head of Research at RMM, he is a member of faculty at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. He has published and lectured widely on the ethics of social media use within healthcare systems, and is involved in the application of social media in medical education at Johns Hopkins hospital.

Dan likes cooking, martinis, and irony. Frequently at the same time.

10 responses to “Ill-Applied Historical Analogies #246 in a series: ‘Digital Maoism’”

  1. Charles Frith

    First came across this subject a while back on Big Shiny Thing I think and while I think any system is bound to have it’s excesses I don’t agree with Jaron Lanier’s Digital Maoism given that the direction for control is in completely the other direction! The people never had a say in China. Ever!

    Other than that, can you imagine if there was a free market economy in China and no centrally controlled levers during the SAR’s period? Every restaurant in Beijing was shut down and I’m sure that could not happen elsewhere. Of course if it wasn’t for that central control it might not have kicked off in the first place but you get my point I hope.

    Maybe I’ll be picked up on this in the future for being completely wrong and then torn to shreds like the bulletin board discussion on huge CPU memory in 10 years time.

    We’ll see :)

  2. Dan

    I’m not sure that the ability to shut down restaurants is necessarily a quality unique to Chinese Communism. I have no doubt that the US Dept. of Homeland Security could have a fairly decent stab at it if they wanted to. Indeed, the PATRIOT act makes it possible for them to do just that for ‘security reasons’.

    The real problem with Lanier is that he’s over-committed to a fairly outmoded Enlightenment notion of the Individual who may have thrived in his 80s VR paradise (‘be who you want to be!’) but who is rather subsumed into a more social space in web2.0. Equally, he focuses too much on production and not consumption. Much of the collectively produced knowledge in web2.0 is there because individuals wanted it. There’s still a market, the consumers are just looking for the product in new places.

  3. Charles Frith

    I’d be the first to agree that the current U.S.administration has ushered in an ear of big government not unlike totalitarian states. Not what I would call traditional conservative ideology.

    However if you look at say the legislation to ban gambling on the internet in the U.S. that still took a bill to go through the house with sub comittee hearings. When China woke up to it’s SARS responsiblity they just shut the restaurant business down overnight.

  4. Nigel Shardlow

    I’m sure the US could no more shut down all restaurants in a major city than they could clear US airspace in a couple of hours.


  5. Dan

    The US govt can declare martial law ‘in case of rebellion or invasion’ when ‘the public safety may require it’… which could pretty much eman anything – certainly closing down some restaurants.

  6. Charles Frith

    Dan, I’ve just come back here for to cut ‘n paste and see you’ve responded. I think that in fact we’re in violent agreement? Maoist Myspace is never going to happen, and is oxymoronic for a top down style of goverment. So is Lanier’s ill conceived digital Maoism but for different reasons.

    I still think China is more geared up for centralised decision taking though. Even compared to the frightening implications of the Patriot Act, which ushered the decline of Habeas Corpus.

  7. Dan

    Absolutely – there’s no doubt that on a day-to-day basis, China is all about the centralisation. The US has the potential mechanisms in place, but they’re hampered (thankfully) by various checks and balances, including a free(ish) media and an active civil society, both of which China very obviously lacks.

  8. Charles Frith

    Dan. I’m in Beijing and i can’t set up a Wiki. I am not very happy about this. Amazing how life taunts us isn’t it?

  9. Dan O'Connor

    Life, as I have often said, is a consistent series of tiny disappointments which eventually amass unto such a point as to render one insensible.

    What *are* you doing in Beijing?

  10. Charles Frith

    Didn’t see that comment from you. I’m living off the fat of the land :) On the advertising gravy train. No seriously I’m heading up planning here for JWT. Now then I just saw this news and it makes me think that there is something in centrally controlled decision making. The UK is still faffing about on this.

    Let me know if you are ever in this neck of the woods. Best for 2008 Dan.

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