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<nettime> Ippolita Collective, In the Facebook Aquarium, Part III (secti
Patrice Riemens on Thu, 14 Aug 2014 17:50:00 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Ippolita Collective, In the Facebook Aquarium, Part III (section 5)

Ippolita Collective, In the Facebook Aquarium Part III

The Freedoms of the Net

Mass participation (section 5)

The best known instance of mass participation is Wikipedia, the universal
encyclopedia numbering now several million entries in dozens of languages,
and which is fed by the contributions of millions of volunteers worldwide.
It is a astounding experience, and also in many aspects a very innovative
one compared to traditional models of collective participation. It is also
unique in the sense that as one of the most used and visited websites on
the net, it does not finance itself through advertisements, but lives
exclusively from donations. But its principal virtue lies in the fact that
it puts the emphasis on the non-economic incentives which inspire
internauts to collaborate on a project that goes beyond the somewhat musty
discourse of the 'gift economy'. One can better call it an economy of
attention and recognition. Indeed, what really motivates Wikipedia
collaborators, is the acknowledgement they receive from their peers, and
the desire they have to see their competence put to use an recognized on a
large(r) scale [27].

Nonetheless, numerous  elements of criticisms can be levelled against
Wikipedia. (Core) Collaborators of the site have started to behave like
censors and wish to distinguish themselves from the mass of users (instead
of helping them to build up their own role in a creative fashion).
Symptoms of hierarchy and domination have appeared within Wikipedia,
conflicts have been smouldering among 'wikipedians', and the lore of mass
participation is morphing into complex techno-bureaucracies functioning as
gate keepers. By now it is essential to 'de-sanctify' the Wikipedia myth:
the on-line encyclopedia is _not_ the outcome of the collaboration of
human being all united by the same ideal. It is, even in absolute terms,
mostly the collaboration between human beings and /bots/. Bots are small
programmes performing fully automated tasks (without human intervention).
/Rambot/, for instance, created over thirty thousand entries on cities in
the world, extracting data from the CIA-published /World Factbook/ and
from US civil registries. As of now, bots account for 20% of the Wikipedia
entries [28x], bringing forth a highly complex socio-technical phenomenon,
on which Bruno Latour, with his 'parliament of things', appears to strike
an totally clear and relevant chord [29].  Wikipedia fans or Wikipedia
bashers, all must admit that social interaction in these kinds of systems
is conducted through programmed and automated protocols. One sees then
that sensitive issues, such as the reliability of knowledge, are
increasingly entrusted to the care of machines. Then how does the process
of unfolding hierarchies work, between reliable and untrustworthy
knowledge, and between human and 'mechanical' contributions? Source
validation, conflict-avoidance protocol elaboration and common resource
allotment allocation are as many urgent issues still awaiting resolution.

Taken on the whole, and despite enormous differences, Wikipedia's modus
operandi is the same as that of the four giants of the digital world:
Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple. Theirs is the logic of accumulation,
of the large numbers and of the power of the masses. Even though they do
not broadcast like traditional media they too aspire to hegemony. They
compete fiercely among each other because they want to win over a larger
public and achieve a higher level of consensus [30]. And as they extol the
virtues of the 'long tail' made up of the thousands of individuals for
whom mass communication is not good enough, they actually function like
aggregators and focus far more on quantity than on quality. Their slogan
/mass elitism/ is an oxymoron probably more appropriate than they have
bargained for.

So, if it is essential to limit the number of participants for a
conviviality place to function properly, does that mean that the masses
are doomed to content themselves with triviality and live under  the
compulsion of self-promotion and self-exploitation as a consequence? The
author of 'The Wisdom of Crowds', James Surowiecki, disagrees. In his book
Surowiecki tries, on an ideological plane, to demonstrate that a randomly
chosen (large) group of people together possess more competence than one
of a few highly intelligent and well-prepared persons. The idea of the
wisdom of crowds is not so much that such a group will always provide a
better response, but that, on average, it will (tend to)come up with a
better solution than one individual alone would; with other words, a
composite crowd is, on average, apt to make better decisions than one
expert. We have already said that it was important to discuss the actual
role of experts, and even to flip their power back at them. When technical
knowledge is exclusively beholden, or outsourced to specialised experts,
they quickly loose the ability to realize what their general
responsibility entails in the usage that is made of their knowledge power.
Every one of them stay on her/his own plot, maintains contact with her/his
constituents (clients), and protects her/his own lobby's interests. While
at the same time access to knowledge is lost for the citizens/ the common

Hence, there are necessary conditions to be fulfilled in order for diffuse
collective wisdom to express itself:

Not all crowds (groups) are wise. Consider, for example, mobs or crazed
investors in a stock market bubble. According to Surowiecki, these key
criteria separate wise crowds from irrational ones:

- Diversity of opinion: Each person should have private information even
if it's   just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
- Independence: People's opinions aren't determined by the opinions of
those around them.
- Decentralisation: People are able to specialize and draw on local
- Aggregation: Some mechanism exists for turning private judgements into a
collective decision.

Suriowecki emphasizes the importance of diversity ("as a value in
itself"), and of independence, because the best collective decisions are
the outcome of disagreement and discussions, not of pre-arranged consensus
or compromises. By marshalling very convincing examples, among them the
development of the GNU/Linux operating system and the collaboration
between laboratories worldwide leading to the discovery of SARS (severe
acute respiratory syndrome, or atypical pneumonia), Surowiecki shows that,
as paradoxical as it might look given the mental habitus of a majority
directed by proxy (of a minority supposed to represent the majority
-transl), group intelligence is superior provided that everyone in it acts
in the most independent way possible. Individual autonomy is key to a well
functioning collective, provided agreement has been reached beforehand on
effective rules about sharing and (the) repartition (of tasks).

But when one observes the concrete activities of an individual engaging
with a (social) network, one sees immediately that decisions-taking is not
the only issue at stake. What foremost matters is to enjoy being on a
common trajectory, to savour the pleasure of coming together, to explore
unknown domains in the creation of common projects, to meet other people,
and also simply, to be together in between amicable agreements and the
occasional disputes. A crowd becomes only interesting when one comes
nearer to it, and discovers the differences which make it up and the
personal histories intermingling to form a collective narrative. See from
afar, people are mere numbers in statistics, and insignificant dots [32].
Participation is only worthwhile if individuals are into a personal
growing-up process. And there is no difference in this between the 'real'
and the 'virtual' world. Surowiecki is, again, invaluable to our argument,
and this precisely because we do not share at all his exuberant faith in
the masses, and neither do we regarding his predilection for business.

<< Diversity is in fact more important in small groups and in formal
organisations than in larger collectives, like markets of electoral
constituencies, and this for a very simple reason: most markets, given
their size and the fact that anyone with money can enter them ? without
need to be either introduced or recruited into them ? means that a minimum
level of diversity is always assured. >> [33]

The issue of size is hence closely linked to the one about the economy. A
long tradition of (human) thought shows that the project called 'economy'
(as abstraction), which literally means "rule-norm-law of the
house-environment" (and by extension, habitat) as opposed to 'ecology',
which is the "discourse on the house-environment-habitat". With other
words, a discourse that has the economy as its starting point cannot have
social well-being as its aim, even if it pretends the contrary, because
the social and the economic are grounded on different premisses. And yet
there has been no dearth of attempts, often successful, to win over the
practices of social ecology into the economic sphere. A 'new' technology ?
or one being presented as such ? which might fulfil some diffuse
well-being, works usually as an effective sesame to gain access to
available energies (resources) [34]

This is in any case the firm belief of the proponents of 'Wikinomy' like
Tapscott and Williams, and also of those who go for 'Socialnomics' like
Qualman [35]. These new economic and social theories do not longer
forefront competition but co-operation. The main idea, depicted as a
milestone discovery, being that collaboration produces more added value
than competition. Outside the world of business this observation would be
considered hackneyed in the extreme, but indeed, in the corporate sphere,
it went down like a bomb. Wikinomy then is based on four principles:
/openness/, the interaction between peers (meaning an 'autonomous'
assemblage of people within the firm); /sharing/ (firms must put their
know-how at the disposal of their 'ecosystem' which is made up of clients,
suppliers, and partners, so as to foster synergic growth strategies);
/global activity/presence/ (no borders}; and /business/, first and last.

The most interesting concept in this is that of /openness/ because it
evidences the transformation of dynamic ecological equilibrium into
economic extraction. It can be seen as the outcome of the neo-liberal
capture of the idea of freedom. Just like as in the spicy case of /Open
Source/, where the freedom aspect of free software, vexatious to the free
marketeers, was quickly transformed into openness, where the firm, which
is by tradition a closed shop given to competition, realises its alleged
freedom in the form of opening up to the  outside. In the same manner, the
open society is being hailed as the natural upshot of the libertarian
openness of on-line sociality.

Firms nowadays have boundaries which are increasingly porous and less and
less secure. They outsource, and the strict separation between work and
leisure time is waning, not because technology shifts chink time away from
work in favour of sociality, but because every moment is now devoted to
profit earning. Firms will hand out their employees mobile phones for
free, unlimited call plans included, so that they are always reachable,
always in touch with each other, and always productive even outside their
paid working hours. They are in fact actors on permanent call, but are not
acknowledged as such. They are the true slaves of the self-exploitation
unleashed by the Wikinomy, automata who seamlessly compose the digital
culture's humongous serial work while probably thinking of themselves as
the stakeholders in the Net's Collective Intelligence. They then feel
compelled to adopt an absurd, totally huxleyan posture, and to participate
in the commonwealth by exercising their power as consumers. But if growth
is mandatory, it might take little time before not going into debt will be
considered immoral, and that calling for de-growth will be taken for a
subversive activity.

If the masses are so intelligent and so eager to collaborate, then one
could imagine that keyboard activism would be a residual phenomenon, and
that mass democracy would be just around the corner. But this is not the
case, simply because a group does not necessarily function better than a
single individual. The sum total of a large number of single, almost
undifferentiated (interchangeable) individuals with limited capabilities,
not very prone to engage in discussions, and with little time at their
disposal to contribute to the building of a common world, will for sure
generate a great number of clicks on advertisement banners, but will not
end up into collective participation as a source of great hopes.

Much longer before Silicon Valley got a crunch on the wisdom of crowds,
psychologists had found out that the performance of individuals in and as
a group could be less than when they were working on their own. Synergy is
not a conditioned response. In 1882, the French agronomist Maximilien
Ringelmann conducted the following experiment in the field - literaly:
four people were asked to pull on a rope, firstly all together, then one
after the other, with the rope being attached to a dynamometer (to measure
the force of traction). Ringelmann was surprised to discover that the sum
total of the individually exercised pulls was significantly higher than
that of the group. Many more studies have confirmed this 'Ringelmann
effect', and have shown that people will generally devote less efforts to
a task when accomplished together with others. This non-synergic effect is
the most notable with simple, repetitive tasks, in which every link in the
chain has a possibly important role to play, yet can be taken by anyone
indiscriminately: to clap at the theatre venue, to vote, to click on
'Like', etc. When individual differences are not highlighted, an increase
in the number of participants often results in results going from bad to
worse as the peer pressure diminishes together with (the appreciation of)
distinctive characteristics. Why should we commit ourselves and go the
extra mile if anyone can click 'Like' in our stead?

It is not advisable to try to distinguish oneself in a mass since the
identity of group is based on homology, not on exception. To put it
tritely, an atomised individual, permanently taught to be as
interchangeable as possible with any other 'atom', must develop 'standard'
characteristics so as to be attractive in the global market, in an endless
repetition of the identical, with minimal variations already pre-formated
by the profiling system. Conversely, an autonomous individual will be the
more interesting because sHe is unique, endowed with specific
characteristics, and so becomes a mixture of various ingredients and
experiences which are (well-nigh) impossible to reproduce. It is
reasonable to think that such an individual will join various groups, not
for the sake of self-promotion, but for the pleasure of sharing and
meeting with other, like-minded individuals. To belong to a community, to
an organized network functioning like a 'we' means to feel represented,
not because one has the right of veto or of vote, but because one has a
direct influence on the network, because one can have influence on others
and in turn be influenced by them. One swaps experiences and make changes
happen by building a common history together. This is a necessarily
complex and dynamic equilibrium where mutual limits and boundaries are
constantly (re)negotiated.

It is not possible to imagine (the existence/ possibility of) once and for
all formatted individuals, shaped by stringent parameters, as are the
(virtual) actors of the (idealised) libertarian market, acting in
perfectly and totally pre-programmed groups, and sticking to the letter to
a manifesto or a letter of intent. On the other hand, even an individual's
most extraordinary (weird?) competences need to find a way to blend within
an organised network, as the mere fact of not to be part of a mass does
not mean diminishing control. On the contrary, control at the minute level
also exists in small group, and in is even in these that it is at its most
intense. One person's error can cause the fall of all. The discontent of
the one can infect all others, conflicts then can grow out of proportions
sickening and blacking out any positive vision.

There is however, a big difference between control managed by automatic
systems with profit as motive, as in the case of mass profiling, and the
mutual control exercised by members of a small group. The ties which make
the network emerge within a group build up around everyone's affinity are
also trust relationships. One knows one can rely one others' opinion and
use the group as a sounding board. Social control can then also function
as a guarantee for individual autonomy, especially in times of despondency
and fatigue, when an individual is no longer very clear-headed and start
behaving funny, boring, our outright destructive/aggressive. As keepers of
a shared history, and thus also our own history, the others are the ones
who can remind us that we not always been suffering and in despair. And
that in the past we have made major contributions and that there is no
reason why we will not do so in the future. Attention and recognition is
the currency that circulates in an organised network. It is the time that
we spend to weave these ties, either in full measure, or at least as a
principal and privileged activity, which makes the experience priceless.

(to be continued)
next time: Beyond technophobia: let's build convivial technologies
(section 6)

[31] Quoted from the Wikipedia entry on The Wisdom of Crowds:
after James Surowiecki, /The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter
Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies,
Societies and Nations/
NYC, Doubleday, Anchor, 2004
[32] We may refer here to the famous words spoken by Orson Welles and
Joseph Cotten on the value of human life, atop the Ferris wheel in Vienna
Prater amusement park in Carol Reeds memorable film /The Third Man/
(1949). Looking down on the people below from his vantage point, Lime
(Orson Welles) compares them to dots, and says that it would be
insignificant if one of them or a few of them "stopped moving, forever".
[33] James Surowiecki, /op. Cit./ p ...? (the quote is (re-)translated
from the book since I have no access to the original, and the passage did
not feature in the GoogleBooks excerpts: http://bit.ly/1oGB1ue
[34] A good overview of the ambiguity prevailing with respect to
technology and social ecology is provided by Murray Bookchin's book /The
Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy/ Palo Alto,
Cheshire Books, 1982, especially Chapters IX and X on 'Two Images of
Technology' and on the 'Social Matrix of Technology'.
Bookchin's book is downloadable in its entirety on several sites, like:
[35] Don Tapscott, Anthony D Williams, /Wikinomics: /How Mass
Collaboration Changes Everything/ Portfolio, 2006: 
Even more 'disrupting' is Erik Qualman's /Socialnomics: How Social Media
Transform the Way We Live and Do Business, NYC, Wiley, 2009.
GoogleBooks excerpts at: http://bit.ly/1yroDUA


Translated by Patrice Riemens
This translation project is supported and facilitated by:
The Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences
The Antenna Foundation, Nijmegen
(http://www.antenna.nl - Dutch site)
(http://www.antenna.nl/indexeng.html - english site under construction)
Casa Nostra, Vogogna-Ossola, Italy

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