Cognitive Biases, The Nucleus Accumbens, and the Problems of Collectivism (and other things Web 2.0)

I've been watching the debate surrounding Jaron Lanier's essay on the 'hive mind' and the critical responses to his piece. This is something I think about a lot, and I have to say that by and large I come down on the side of Nick Carr, although for different reasons.

You see, I have goals. Some of them

I don't think the criticism of Wikipedia or the hive mind in general should be that it is crappy work. My concern, and the criticism I put forth against most things web2.0 is that this collectivism causes people to seek popularity over advancement of knowledge, and that creates problems. The problem with Web2.0 is that it rewards popularity over and above anything else, and the problem with popularity (particularly popularity on the web) is that it is driven primarily by short-term reward systems in the brain.

People are ultimately driven by incentives, and regardless of what the Web2.0 gurus say, I do not believe it is altruism. Successful open source software is the exception, not the rule. How else do you explain companies like Prodigii that help open source companies find funding? Why would open source programmers want to make their project commercial? Incentives.

If the primary incentive is to become popular, and popularity is primarily driven by short-term reward circuits in the brain, then popularity causes short term thinking. Many entrepreneurs have ignored the idea of providing any real economic value in exchange for the latest tweak on an idea. The incentive is not to put your head down and build something remarkable that makes people more productive or makes life easier. The incentive is to build something fast that people like because it's new and entertaining, and then hope a large tech company is dumb enough to buy it. If you read reddit or digg regularly, you would come to believe that entrepreneur = 1 man web design company and programmer = web programmer. I'm not saying these definitions are false, just that they are incomplete. But the hive mind will accept incomplete because they prefer breath over depth.

The other thing that keeps creeping into the discussion is the idea of markets as wisdom of the crowds and the prototypical example of good collective decision making. However, market prices do not always reflect inherent economic value in the short term. Market prices are simply the prices at which the given supply can be cleared. The hive mind is the biggest problem with markets. People buy/invest according to what is popular instead of what is valuable to them.

I look at it this way. Collectivism is an attempt to say that 26 people each running a mile is somehow as impressive as one person running all 26. Each person has the 'edge competency' to run one mile. If you get in a situation where you need someone to go the whole 26, you are screwed because no one is prepared for it.

So what it all boils down to is this:

The new online collectivism is a drain on the economy because it shifts resources away from long-term goals and towards short-term popularity

Some problems take a long time to solve, and we are sucking resources away from those problems. It is the intellectual equivalent of buying things now with debt instead of saving and investing.

Don't get me wrong. Popularity is not inherently evil, and neither is collaboration. What I dislike is this idea that Web2.0 somehow defines a great new paradigm shift that will kill the old school companies that don't embrace it. Let's be honest. All this stuff is right for a few niche applications. Let's keep it in context.

People inherently have a depth and complexity that we are not encouraging or embracing when we encourage collectivism. I think that over time the unfulfilled need of that part of our psyche will build and build to the point that there will be a (admittedly paradoxical) "popular backlash against popularity." Web 3.0 will be about the "new individualism."

That is how I feel today. I struggle with grasping all the implications of this topic, as is probably apparent by my randomness in the post, but it helps me to work through this and write out my thoughts, disconnected as they are. I hope on some level it makes you think, regardless of whether or not you agree with the main points.