Let a hundred flowers bloom

Credit: Geek and poke. Used under CC BY 3.0.

Jaron Lanier is probably best know as the man that coined the phrase “Virtual Reality”. He has just come up with a new one: “Digital Maoism”. In an article in the webzine Edge, titled Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism, Lanier launches an attack on the “foolish collectivism” and “hive mind” that he thinks manifests itself through through such phenomenon as wikis, blogs, and other forms of expression that remixes, aggregates and compounds.

Lanier's main point seems to be that quality requires individual effort. What is produced by the collective is bland at its best (and useless, ugly and misleading at its worst). He believes that the lack of a coherent voice or design sensibility in an esthetic sense is one negative quality that charcterises both free software, and Wikipedia.

While, Lanier's essay is original and provocative, it is also – at least in my opinion – at bit over the top. Wikis and blogs has never been seriously proposed as replacements for original and unique expression. For instance, I would never use Wikipedia in the same way I would use a real encyclopedia, but that doesn't mean that Wikipedia is useless. But to me, at last, they are interesting alternative structures for organising and locating information that I use along with the old structures (i.e. peers, libraries, encyclopedias and other edited publications). Free and open source software is simply an alternative to non-free software. I use free software when free software fits the problem at hand (which it does in more and more situations), but I don't attach any special meaning to it beyond it being an option.

“Let a hundred flowers bloom” is a quote attributed to China's late dictator, chairman Mao. (Apparently Mao used this statement as a ploy to “smoke out” anyone having ideas and opinions that diverged from the party line and punish them. So while Lanier clearly is no fan of Chinese Maoism, it is guilty of far worse crimes than being “bland“.) But to me, the hundred flowers is still the metaphor that most adequately covers the creativity and diversity that characterises the remix culture that Lanier despises. Like Lanier, I also enjoy the coherent voice and the aesthetic sensibility of the individual artist, I just don't understand why there is a need to position individual expression against collective creation – when there is enough space on the Internet for both.


It's a bit over the top, but I do think the individual creation looses more of its value in the collective creation, it might well depend on how one can decipher the individual from the collective.