The Technium

Believing the Impossible


[Translations: Japanese]

Every year John Brockman hosts the annual World Question on his Edge site. At the end of the year he asks his circle of scientists and thinkers “a question they are asking themselves.” This year I suggested the question. It is: What have you changed your mind about? I have lots of things I have changed my mind about, which is perhaps why I asked the question. I am very interested in how and why people change their mind, so the resulting 165 replies to this question are well worth reading. It was hard to choose one mind-change, but I settled on a recent one. My answer for Edge is reproduced here.

Much of what I believed about human nature, and the nature of knowledge, has been upended by the Wikipedia. I knew that the human propensity for mischief among the young and bored — of which there were many online — would make an encyclopedia editable by anyone an impossibility. I also knew that even among the responsible contributors, the temptation to exaggerate and misremember what we think we know was inescapable, adding to the impossibility of a reliable text. I knew from my own 20-year experience online that you could not rely on what you read in a random posting, and believed that an aggregation of random contributions would be a total mess. Even unedited web pages created by experts failed to impress me, so an entire encyclopedia written by unedited amateurs, not to mention ignoramuses, seemed destined to be junk.

Everything I knew about the structure of information convinced me that knowledge would not spontaneously emerge from data, without a lot of energy and intelligence deliberately directed to transforming it. All the attempts at headless collective writing I had been involved with in the past only generated forgettable trash. Why would anything online be any different?

So when the first incarnation of the Wikipedia launched in 2000 (then called Nupedia) I gave it a look, and was not surprised that it never took off. There was a laborious process of top-down editing and re-writing that discouraged a would-be random contributor. When the back-office wiki created to facilitate the administration of the Nupedia text became the main event and anyone could edit as well as post an article, I expected even less from the effort, now re-named Wikipedia.

Wiki-Bomb

A mind-grenade as iconographic for this generation as a nuclear bomb was for the last.

How wrong I was. The success of the Wikipedia keeps surpassing my expectations. Despite the flaws of human nature, it keeps getting better. Both the weakness and virtues of individuals are transformed into common wealth, with a minimum of rules and elites. It turns out that with the right tools it is easier to restore damage text (the revert function on Wikipedia) than to create damage text (vandalism) in the first place, and so the good enough article prospers and continues. With the right tools, it turns out the collaborative community can outpace the same number of ambitious individuals competing.

It has always been clear that collectives amplify power — that is what cities and civilizations are — but what’s been the big surprise for me is how minimal the tools and oversight are needed. The bureaucracy of Wikipedia is relatively so small as to be invisible. It’s the Wiki’s embedded code-based governance, versus manager-based governance that is the real news. Yet the greatest surprise brought by the Wikipedia is that we still don’t know how far this power can go. We haven’t seen the limits of wiki-ized intelligence. Can it make textbooks, music and movies? What about law and political governance?

Before we say, “Impossible!” I say, let’s see. I know all the reasons why law can never be written by know-nothing amateurs. But having already changed my mind once on this, I am slow to jump to conclusions again. The Wikipedia is impossible, but here it is. It is one of those things impossible in theory, but possible in practice. Once you confront the fact that it works, you have to shift your expectation of what else that is impossible in theory might work in practice.

I am not the only one who has had his mind changed about this. The reality of a working Wikipedia has made a type of communitarian socialism not only thinkable, but desirable. Along with other tools such as open-source software and open-source everything, this communtarian bias runs deep in the online world.

In other words it runs deep in this young next generation. It may take several decades for this shifting world perspective to show its full colors.  When you grow up knowing rather than admitting that such a thing as the Wikipedia works; when it is obvious to you that open source software is better; when you are certain that sharing your photos and other data yields more than safeguarding them — then these assumptions will become a platform for a yet more radical embrace of the commonwealth. I hate to say it but there is a new type of communism or socialism loose in the world, although neither of these outdated and tinged terms can accurately capture what is new about it.

The Wikipedia has changed my mind, a fairly steady individualist, and lead me toward this new social sphere. I am now much more interested in both the new power of the collective, and the new obligations stemming from individuals toward the collective. In addition to expanding civil rights, I want to expand civil duties. I am convinced that the full impact of the Wikipedia is still subterranean, and that its mind-changing power is working subconsciously on the global millennial generation, providing them with an existence proof of a beneficial hive mind, and an appreciation for believing in the impossible.

That’s what it’s done for me.




Comments
  • http://theconnective.org Eyal Sivan

    Kevin,

    Thank you for your feedback. In reaction, I finally put some time into cleaning up my own blog on the subject at http://theconnective.org.

    In fact, the first post is about you.

    If you have a chance to read it, I would very much value your opinion (please let me know if you don’t feel comfortable with how I’ve used your name and I will revise the post).

  • http://www.theconnective.org Eyal Sivan

    Kevin, your post is inspiring. The Internet is slowly but surely demonstrating the emergent intelligence inherent in volitional, self-organizing networks-of-interest. It is becoming what its early inhabitants always wanted it to be.

    I have been interested in this subject since the early 1990′s, and I am I am very proud to say that one of my biggest influences is your book ‘Out of Control’. I read it almost a decade ago, but to this day, it still leaves an impression on me.

    There was one statement in your post I found particularly interesting: ‘collectives amplify power’.

    Frankly, I find it strange to describe Wikipedia (and other self-organizing systems) as ‘collectives’. Collectives, like cities and civilizations, are not volitional (you are born into them) or distributed (they are typically top-down).

    As an individualist, surely you are familiar with Rand’s ‘objectivism’ and and its position on collectives. Rand, like most of her contemporaries, positions Collectivism and Individualism (Objectivism) as polar opposites.

    What is fascinating to me is that this “new type of communism or socialism” is not what scholars or philosophers would describe as communism or socialism at all. Collectives don’t just amplify power, they concentrate it. Where is the implicit vertical-of-power in Wikipedia? Where is the Lenin or the Mao? Non-existent.

    The word ‘collective’ does not describe what is happening. I think that word means something else, something that is becoming a bygone of the industrial age. In fact, I believe ‘collectives’ are the very antithesis, the ‘enemy’ if you will, of efforts like Wikipedia.

    Many years ago I tried to articulate this idea, and in doing so invented a term which I much prefer: connective.

    A connective (noun) refers to a distributed network-of-interest (social, economic, political, etc.) made up of voluntary participants each seeking to achieve an individual goal.

    As in: a connective, to be connective, connectivism, or even, The Connective.

    I’ve been trying to start a proper blog on this subject at http://www.theconnective.org, but can’t seem to find the time to do it justice. It’s still a sad work in progess, a mess of ideas.

    I would love your feedback, as I’m sure I would find it as inspiring as the article above. Maybe I’ll finally get off my ass and change the world.

    An enormous fan,

    -Eyal Sivan

    • Kevin Kelly

      Eyal Sivan,

      I agree that collective — and socialism and communism — are not the right terms. I really like your new term connective – and promise to borrow it.

  • http://camefix-artglass.blogspot.com/ Lesley

    This idea of collective intelligence is’nt new. Bees ants fish and animals that swarm use it. We talk abour ‘word of mouth’ and now ‘viral advertising’. Freecycle is a good example of this. I ask for a sofa and a stranger will give me one-or, if I can offer a sofa to a group of strangers, one of whom will want it.

  • InfinitiMoon

    Thing is, this is nothing new. The only real difference is, perhaps, the accessibility of the medium, the malleability of the material, and the broad scope of the target.

    As evidence, I’d point you to the United States Constitution. What was proposed by the Founding Fathers was universally declared “impossible.” A government of the people, by the people, for the people was nonsense. It was widely assumed that the people needed to be managed by a small group of intellectuals and figureheads to inspire the masses if anything was ever going to get done. People weren’t supposed to govern themselves, it would be chaos.

    This is, of course, why it was called the Grand Experiment, and up until recently it has proven its detractors wrong. It really works, when allowed to function as intended. Mistakes are made, perhaps no fewer than in other government forms, but at least they are “our” mistakes and not the mistakes of the king, and thus we would have motivation inherent in our own liberty to make sure we didn’t repeat the same mistakes.

    Of course, ultimately, what will bring down Wikipedia is the same thing that is bringing down the U. S. form of government. Over-management. As soon as the administrators start to shut down, to limit, to “guide,” to control, the system begins to lose its cohesiveness. It begins to shift from a collaborative “us” to an antagonistic “us vs. them.” If Wikipedia ever were to decide to constrain the freedom that its users enjoy currently, no matter how logical and reasonable it may sound to do so, it will start to decline.

    I’m sure if I thought about it a little more, I could come up with other instances of the phenomenon you rediscovered. All told, though, you’ve made a good assessment.

  • Dov Henis

    Why Life’s Genesis Is Unrepeatable

    QUOTE (HenisDov @ May 18 2007, PhysForum)
    A. If one accepts, intuitively and logically, Pasteur’s observation …. We are just beginning to comprehend the nature of the raw material called Life and that the purpose of OUR life is ours to choose and develop and follow.
    Dov

    I am asked, by TracerTong, two questions:

    A. Shouldn’t it (life’s genesis) be repeatable? Wouldn’t scientists have already been able to repeat it?

    B. What about ‘spiritual’ happenings? Is it logical to assume only ‘natural’ genesis?

    My answers:

    A. Today’s “scientists” are unable to “repeat it” because (1) they do not know how the first “life” arose and (2) they do not and will never know and will not be able to duplicate the environments and circumstances of genesis and (3) they do not and will never know and will never be able to repeat the environments and circumstances of post genesis evolution.

    B. “Spiritual happenings” are virtual reality affairs. They are feasible only for living organisms that have a culture, i.e. that have a pattern of sensings and reactions to the sensings. Genes, and therefore also genomes, are organisms and display virtual reality phenomena, therefore also multicelled organisms, like dogs and humans, display such “spiritual” phenomena.

    Dov Henis
    (Comments From The 22nd Century)
    Life’s Manifest
    http://www.the-scientist.com/community/posts/list/112.page#578
    EVOLUTION Beyond Darwin 200
    http://www.physforum.com/index.php?showtopic=14988&st=405&#entry396201
    http://www.the-scientist.com/community/posts/list/100/122.page#1407