The New Socialism,  Kevin Kelly

The global rush to connect is giving rise to a new type of socialism. Wikipedia is but one of a host of striking examples of this social form of collective action. Unlike anti-American socialisms that have come before, digital socialism is an American innovation: “old-school socialism was an arm of the state, digital socialism is socialism without the state.” Detached from a government body, existing within the space of the borderless internet, digital socialism finds itself free to function as socialism was originally intended. Kelly suggests that internet users (the masses) “own the means of production [and] work toward a common goal and share their products in common.” Kelly draws upon the 4 categories that we’ve encountered before in Clay Shirky’s book: sharing, cooperation, collaboration, and collectivism. Digital socialism, according to Kelly, embodies the promise of the collectivist ideal. Digital networks can be considered an “emerging design space in which decentralized public coordination can solve problems and create things that neither pure communism nor pure capitalism can.” We are more or less familiar with the power that digital socialism might yield in the context of Wikipedia, but Kelly points to its incredible potential. Kiva and PatientsLikeMe are the tip of the ice berg. The logic of digital socialism can be applied to problems that under current systems seem unsolvable.

Kelly points out that digital socialism is capable of surviving without the government as an authoritative figure. He is suggesting that the government can benefit from the “rising tide of sharing, cooperation, collaboration, and collectivism.” Do you consider the government willing and/or capable of implementing such practices? By doing so, could our culture shift away from capitalism and closer to a new socialism?

Digital Maoism, Jaron Lanier

Lanier is quick to assert that he is not critical of Wikipedia in and of itself, but rather of its rapid and, in his opinion, misplaced rise to social importance. The logic of the wiki is that with a sufficient number of contributors over a sufficient amount of time the problems of content or code will be incrementally worked out. Lanier argues that wikis do not consistently work out their kinks over time. He points to specific areas of expertise that are well-suited for the Wikipedia platform. They tend to be less contentious issues, or subject matters that require a great deal of specific knowledge that is not widely available. Wikipedia articles are tailor made for subjects that have a self-selective group of passionate contributors. Lanier admits that this where the accuracy of Wikipedia exceeds that of Britannica or other edited volumes. This does not hold true across the board. Lanier criticizes the erasure of personality that is essential to projects like Wikipedia. For Lanier, the Web gains its value through the connections that are maintained between actual individuals, not between the individual and “the hive.” The individual is crucial to the process because the collective cannot be trusted to resolve every kink or make every important decision. This is especially true for sites like “Meta” where these problems are worked out by way of an algorithm. Being “Meta” is a concept being applied to organizations outside the sphere of cyberspace, including government entities and large corporations, based on the assumption that less individual contribution is necessary when collective work can be implemented.

-In the case of Meta sites, how is relying on an algorithm a poor display of what’s popular on the Internet. If anything, it’s the most reliable, whereas a human observer (the individual) can make a mistake, or can allow his biases to affect his decision of what topics are worth following on the Web? Quality control aside, the purpose of the algorithm is to bring forth the most popular items on the Web, the purpose is not to decide what’s worthy of being the most popular items.

-On a personal level, do you see dangers in websites like Wikipedia and Myspace? Do you think the sites are reliable? If not, are there changes that can be made to make them safer and more stable or is this simply the nature of the internet community?

(Summaries and questions written ‘collectively’ by Marisa, Elizabeth, and Natalie.)

5 Responses to “Digital Socialism”

  1. tommers says:

    It is indeed striking that Marx’s and Engels’ idea actually emerged spontaneously (not through oversight by a transitory body-politic as they had planned for the Russian model), albeit quite a few decades later than they had hoped. However, this isn’t that surprising, considering the freedom and equality the internet grants to those individuals fortunate enough to have reliable access to it. However, as we have seen in the past and still see in the present, the US government is far too entrenched in its ideology of self-reliance and rugged individualism to even consider a transition to such a system, regardless of the benefits. The government will even contradict its own ideology in order to maintain it!

    This sounds like a really dumb sentence, but here is what I mean: the US is so committed to upholding its stereotype of the good, old, hardworking American farmer — simply trying to carve out an existence for himself and his family on his own little tract of land — that, at the expense of the country as a whole, it sinks billions of dollars every year in subsidies into supporting the highly inefficient lifestyle of those individuals! What happened to self-reliance and individualism there?! If they couldn’t survive in the wilderness out West by themselves, shouldn’t that be their burden to bear? Time to move to a city, perhaps?

    However, the image these people espouse is far more important to the US system than the tangible financial benefits it would receive from allocating these farmers’ resources differently. In my opinion, such adherence to traditional symbolism is what will prevent a US transition to what you suggest might be a much more efficient system (even if it is drafted in polished, academic form).


    With regard to the second reading:

    Wikipedia seems to be a platform which individuals or groups essentially lobby to post information in a specific format, like special interest groups lobby the government on issues relevant to them. If you’re taking the time and effort to inform someone on a topic, biases will obviously creep in! However I continue to believe that the presence of outside observers with the power to edit articles polices at least somewhat these biases. Why should we mistrust “the hive”? A single contribution from someone knowledgeable in the subject multiplied by some extremely large number = the culling of inaccurate information from, and insertion of more accurate information into a particular article. The “invidual” that Lanier so exalts is far more prone to make a biased assessment of the topic and, having been dubbed an “expert” by some politically polarized academic institution or another (and we all know they are). Furthermore, the fact that the individual is BETTER (more easily) ABLE to make a decision than a collective should in no way suggest that the individual is actually ABLE TO MAKE A BETTER DECISION.

  2. danjones says:

    I liked having these pieces in conversation with each other, and I think they provided good counter points, but they both could have used some more development (and I’m sure that both authors have done this in the years since publishing). I especially had some trouble with the first article, not least of all because of its complete lack of understanding of socialism as sketched by Marx. When you actually look at some of the important tenets and ideas of Marxism, Kelly’s “new socialism” appears a lot less new and a lot less like socialism. The basic problem is his presentation of socialism as something fundamentally tied to centralized state control. In fact, in his foundational writings on the State and Socialism, Lenin advocated for the final “withering away” of the former in the full realization of the latter. Kelly’s picture of socialism is really one of Stalinism, which is far, far, away from Marx’s vision, as incomplete as it was. Kelly’s excitement about “new socialism” as great and different because of its respect for the individual and for expression and lack of centralized control isn’t founded on any critique of actual socialist writings. What is new and exciting about emerging collectivism on the web is the ease with which post-capitalist and anti-authoritarian spaces are created. It isn’t a revolutionary way of thinking about organizing people, just a radically new way of actually doing it.

  3. Kevin says:

    I think that digital socialism doesn’t really affect the government as of now. It is true that in the future, as we become even more connected through digital means, that it will dramatically affect the way we conduct business. But I do agree that, as of now, the government can benefit from this new means of collaboration and communication. Although I don’t feel it will get to the point of us, as a society, moving away from capitalism. Most of the digital socialism is done without pay. Once money is involved, it becomes an entirely different story.

    As for the legitimacy of Wikipedia, it has definitely improved with time as more people contribute to it. I use it as a quick resource. However, I would never lists Wikipedia as a primary source in writing a paper. The one thing it is good for is it sets up the initial base of research. Instead of using the actual article, the links and references listed are very useful in directing me to actual articles on the Internet.

  4. Kristen Kim says:

    I like Wikipedia, but yes, there is a danger in relying too much on “meta” sites as such. However, if I’m using Wikipedia as a base for researching something, I always fact check with other more legitimate sources and have never come across huge discrepancies. But as Kevin mentioned, professors always clarify that Wikipedia should NOT be a paper source. I personally never felt a huge need for its improvement because I’ve always found it to be close to, if not exactly, factual. There is always self-policing and the links on the bottom help make sure the information on the site is correct. I’m afraid I don’t 100% grasp the algorithm method of meta sites though.

    Tom also brings up a point that I’ve been pondering about – the individual vs. the collective. I too would think the individual is (at least) equally prone to making biased assessments.

  5. janakalnina says:

    When algorithms sort content into lists of most popular stories, the focus is generally on how many times that story has been read/viewed. So popular content is essentially viral content – can be atrocious or enlightening, but either way, the numbers determine rank. And who can really determine “worth?” I don’t think anyone can – it really becomes too subjective. When we look at popular content, we just have to keep in mind that it is popular because it is most viewed. I don’t believe we have a measure for quality, or if we even need one. But I suppose it is possible for algorithms to detect a basic level of quality – grammar, sentence structure, spelling. As for quality or relevancy of content, algorithms could only function by detecting ratings, comments, sharing, etc. to determine whether the story is being received positively or negatively.

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