I’m currently reading a book by Jaron Lanier entitled You Are Not a Gadget. Janier has become a sceptic about ideas such as crowdsourcing and, therefore, even apparent success stories like Wikipedia, and warns against what he calls “the hive mind.” One of his targets is the idea that a large number of small contributions from anonymous individuals can be equivalent to the output of a single, great, creative mind. As he writes,
even if we could network all the potential aliens in the galaxy — quadrillions of them, perhaps — and get each of them to contribute some seconds to a physics wiki, we would not replicate the achievements of even one mediocre physicist, much less a great one.
I’m not altogether convinced by his arguments — there’s a critical review here — but it’s a thoughtful work and Lanier makes some good points. As a computer scientist who is responsible for popularizing the term “virtual reality,” he can hardly be accused of being a mere Luddite. A Romantic, perhaps, but not a Luddite, and if that’s a fault, it’s perhaps a lesser one.
In any case, the book is a useful counterbalance to works such as Yochai Benkler‘s The Wealth of Networks, with which I (as a member of the GNU/Linux community) am more naturally sympathetic.
It may be true that crowdsourcing works best when it is coordinated by a small number of talented individuals, perhaps, in fact, by just one. Lots of free/open-source software projects are like this. At least until recently, Linus Torvalds has remained actively in control of changes to the Linux kernel, and the very successful and creative Ubuntu Linux distribution has been headed by Mark Shuttleworth, who (only partly in jest, I suspect) refers to himself as a SABDFL (self-appointed, benevolent, dictator for life).
Individual creativity and collective input may be complementary, rather than opposed.
But the other feature of the free/open-source software community is that it is a meritocracy
. Anyone can contribute code, but if your code is not good, you’ll receive no respect. If, as some people are proposing, we “open-source” academic research and teaching, we must somehow find ways of maintaining the meritocratic aspects of university life.