4016 Fall07 Questions and Discussion 3
Class Question: What would Sunstein say to Lanier?
This week's respondent: Eric
Sunstein's Infotopia I,II,III
For the most part, the types and nature of group decision making that Sunstein presents are convincing, even if they come ad nauseum. Being a chess nut, I have to quibble with the Kasparov v. World match cited as a powerful example of group decision making. In that case, the group wasn’t thinking together so much as researching candidate moves together, and when looked at in that light it’s a wonder to me that Kasparov won, since the research capability and resources of one person pales in comparison to those of a numerous and specialized group. I don’t think Sunstein’s point regarding the potential power of the Jury/Condorcet method relies solely or even heavily on this example. But, just to even that detraction (should it be accepted), I’d like to add some anecdotal evidence to Sunstein’s presentation. I don’t know how many members of the class have ever played the board game Trivial Pursuit, but while reading these chapters I was continually reminded of tortuous negotiations with friends and family over which of many candidate answers to chose in pursuit of one more piece of the pie. In so many cases teams manage to talk themselves out of their first guess/suggestion, which inevitably proves correct. Even when this trend has become well established over many years, anytime I play the game there are at least several, if not numerous, examples of this phenomena.
Cass Sunstein’s claim that “we can now understand that even under ideal conditions, emphasized by proponents of deliberation, group members can be led to err, not despite deliberation but because of it” is presented as a robust conclusion. From my reading, the ideal conditions he refers to are those summed up by Jurgen Habermas’ concept of the “ideal speech situation”, as quoted on pp.71-2: “Rational discourse is supposed to be public and inclusive, to grant equal communication rights for participants, to require sincerity and to diffuse any kind of force other than the forceless force of the better argument. This communicative structure is expected to create a deliberative space for the mobilization of the best available contributions for the most relevant topics.” In my opinion, these conditions are not given the treatment necessary for the broad strokes of Sunstein’s conclusions at the end of chapter three. I would say not only is Habermas given comparatively short shrift, but also that Sunstein’s notion that groups tend to err under ideal conditions has been set up as a straw man. If the last sentence of chapter three is any indication, the Internet is poised to bowl him over.
One thing that might be useful is to discuss Habermas’ conditions, and which of them relate to Sunstein’s fallacies of groupthink. To my mind, the requirements of inclusion, equal rights, and sincerity account for many of Sunstein’s ways that groups err, including individual deference to experts, cost/benefit analysis of information withholding, cognitive centrality/peripherality, hidden profiles, and information cascades. I’d have to have read more Habermas to say whether that first set of conditions is responsible for the “diffusion” of forces such as Sunstein’s status etc. or whether it is a distinct condition. Just like with the Jury/Condorcet theorem, we’d do well to ask when, if at all, Habermas’ conditions are possible. Also, the idea that these conditions enable a “mobilization” clearly entails some purpose toward which conversants aim, and it would be fruitful to ask how the having of purposes does or doesn’t make groups susceptible to several of the polarization tendencies elucidated later in chap.3
Is there a meaningful difference between how well a group recollects knowledge according to hidden profiles and outlier expertise, and the production of knowledge by expert consensus? This turns on what it means to be “correct” in Sunstein’s terminology, and there is more to be said on that score. As Sunstein noted, how should “correctness” be measured in non-binary/non-factual questions? A further question is, in the case of knowledge production as distinct from recollection, what is the standard against which groups should be measured to determine whether they could have done better?
Moglen's dotCommunist Manifesto
Eben Moglen’s dotCommunist Manifesto is nothing if not provocative. As for the claim that “our theoretical conclusions are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer,” (p.8) he must not consider Marx and/or Engels to be universal reformer, because he’s certainly borrowing the ideas and principles of that tradition.
It seems to me that there is a superficial inconsistency early in the argument that, if we could reconcile, might give a good handle on the neo-marxist argument. The question is whether the idea that a new era, ushered in by the bourgeoisie-as-sorcerer’s apprentice, and under which “children liberated from tending a productive machine” are “compulsorily enlisted in tending the machinery of consumption,” (p.2) can exist simultaneously with the notion that “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” (p.3) If we can sort out just how there can be a bourgeois epoch to speak of while the means of production and social conditions are nevertheless in flux, we’ll be on the same page as Moglen with respect to the Marxist tradition.
Moglen somewhat curtails his re-cap of the communist narrative with this passage:
“With the adoption of digital technology, the system of mass consumer production supported by mass consumer culture gave birth to new social conditions out of which a new structure of class antagonism precipitates” (p.3)
For me, “gave birth” is a telling choice of words, in that it is reminiscent of the historical determinism of vulgar Marxism – this new structure simply arose by digital fiat. The suggestion that the private ownership of ideas, protected by copyright, patent, and other laws, is in danger given the zero marginal cost of digital reproduction is certainly true. Moglen is consistent throughout the piece in claiming that this “anarchist mode of propertyless production” dooms ownership because digital knowledge-workers become “radicalized by the conflict between what they know is possible and what the ideology of the bourgeois compels them to accept” (p.4). His is a vision of fraternal association whereby knowledge, technology, and culture simply flow between newly-connected creators who have been liberated from the vagaries of industrial capitalist exploitation.
As far as the digital production, reproduction, and transmission of culture is concerned, I am on board. And I’d better be, because as Moglen says, even the bourgeoisie-as-sorcerer’s apprentice can’t undo what has been done. But does it make sense to speak of our computer laden world as propertyless? Ask someone how free they are to associate via digital flow without a computer or the means to afford personal or even communal Internet access. No doubt Moglen knows more about technical issues, but I also fail to see how electromagnetic frequencies are going to be opened to the public simply because programmers can remotely write code or college students can share music in a torrent of bits.
And what types of association are we “enabled” to undertake? Will a meaningful multiplicity of human relationships and interactions be afforded by a sedentary, computing lifestyle? Of course emerging possibilities ala Nintendo’s Wii may promise a less sedentary computing experience, but how many other humans are in the room, and does one even leave it? It isn’t obvious to me that “the advance of a digital society” necessarily “replaces the isolation of the creators” (p.4).
It also isn’t obvious to me how tenets 3 and 6 are consistent with the message. I think it’s safe to say that anyone who undertakes the “development of electromagnetic spectrum infrastructure” is squarely within the mode of industrial capital. “Protection for the integrity of creative works” is in severe need of un-packing, especially given its resemblance to copyright and the “innovation doesn’t happen without incentive” argument Moglen denies on page 8.
All this said, I’m hopeful that digital possibilities accomplish much of what the manifesto foretells. But with most of these digital hopes I see analog obstacles, and those don’t flow so readily.
Lanier's Digital Maoism
For me, however insightful Lanier’s comments on Wikipedia and its lack of context are, it is his elucidation of the larger problem of the disappearance of individuals from the internet that is most interesting. “There’s a frenetic race taking place online to become the most ‘Meta’ site, to be the highest level aggregator, subsuming the identity of all other sites.” (p.5) Lanier re-traces the development of comparatively innocuous web trends, and concludes that “In the last year or two the trend has been to remove the scent of people, so as to come as close as possible to simulating the appearance of content emerging out of the Web as if it were speaking to us as a supernatural oracle. This is where the use of the Internet crosses the line into delusion” (p.5). This expresses (better) the worry I’ve discussed above regarding the kinds of association humans might have in Moglen’s vision. There is no doubt a lot more to be said on whether technological interaction is irretrievably of this character, or whether Moglen’s hopes for associative flow can retain humanistic value.
Just to being the conversation regarding what Sunstein might say to Lanier, there seems to be at least some areas of overlapping agreement on the facts of group behavior. For instance, compare Lanier’s outline of the conditions for effective collective thought:
“The collective is more likely to be smart when it isn’t defining its own questions, when the goodness of an answer can be evaluated by a simple result…and when the information system which informs the collective is filtered by a quality control mechanism that relies on individuals to a high degree. Under those circumstances, a collective can be smarter than a person. Break any one of those conditions and the collective becomes unreliable or worse” (p.10).
To me, this echoes Sunstein’s claims that 1) statistical groups perform very highly on binary questions and 2) deliberative groups are only useful when individual information exchange takes place.
To finish Lanier’s passage: “Meanwhile, an individual best achieves optimal stupidity on those rare occasions when one is both given substantial powers and insulated from the results of his or her actions. If the above criteria have any merit, then there is an unfortunate convergence. The setup for the most stupid collective is also the setup for the most stupid individuals” (p.10).
So while for Lanier there is hopeful historical precedent for the success of the purposeful combination of the individual and collective mind (democracy, science), the flip side of that coin is not a pretty picture.
I’ll be at Ruthie’s discussion section on Wed., so if anyone wants to get to arguing about all this, see you there!
Frank suggested that we all check out this poster:
On the Class Discussion
On a somewhat tangential note, I recall Elias Canetti's 1981 book Crowds and Power discussing many contexts in which the sort of 'magical' experience emerges in situations involving crowds and groups; there might be some examples there which offer alternative discussion points from the 'guess the weight of the pig' experience discussed in class, however magical that might have been for the people involved.
Will 20:11, 19 September 2007 (EDT)