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Ice Cream vs. Earthquakes: The Meta Battle

Great long quote from Jaron Lanier’s essay on Digital Maoism

Kevin Kelly, the former editor of Whole Earth Review and the founding Executive Editor of Wired, is a friend and someone who has been thinking about what he and others call the “Hive Mind.” He runs a Website called Cool Tools that’s a cross between a blog and the old Whole Earth Catalog. On Cool Tools, the contributors, including me, are not a hive because we are identified.

In March, Kelly reviewed a variety of “Consensus Web filters” such as “Digg” and “Reddit” that assemble material every day from all the myriad of other aggregating sites. Such sites intend to be more Meta than the sites they aggregate. There is no person taking responsibility for what appears on them, only an algorithm. The hope seems to be that the most Meta site will become the mother of all bottlenecks and receive infinite funding.

That new magnitude of Meta-ness lasted only amonth. In April, Kelly reviewed a site called “popurls” that aggregates consensus Web filtering sites…and there was a new “most Meta”. We now are reading what a collectivity algorithm derives from what other collectivity algorithms derived from what collectives chose from what a population of mostly amateur writers wrote anonymously.

Is “popurls” any good? I am writing this on May 27, 2006. In the last few days an experimental approach to diabetes management has been announced that might prevent nerve damage. That’s huge news for tens of millions of Americans. It is not mentioned on popurls. Popurls does clue us in to this news: “Student sets simultaneous world ice cream-eating record, worst ever ice cream headache.” Mainstream news sources all lead today with a serious earthquake in Java. Popurls includes a few mentions of the event, but they are buried within the aggregation of aggregate news sites like Google News. The reason the quake appears on popurls at all can be discovered only if you dig through all the aggregating layers to find the original sources, which are those rare entries actually created by professional writers and editors who sign their names. But at the layer of popurls, the ice cream story and the Javanese earthquake are at best equals, without context or authorship.

Kevin Kelly says of the “popurls” site, “There’s no better way to watch the hive mind.” But the hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?

Update: listen to the great one hour discussion on Lanier’s essay on open source radio (mp3). Includes a discussion with Dave Weinberger, Ze Frank, James Surowiecki.

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