Jaron Lanier’s rant against online collectivism and its relational alternative

Jaron Lanier has just written one of those potential much-talked about essays, which is essentially a rant about certain types of reductionist, lowest-common-denominator, forms of online collectivism, for Edge. They form the danger of the dark side of peer to peer processes, where the balance between group think and individual genius gets lost in favour of the former.

What we are witnessing today is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective. Numerous elite organizations have been swept off their feet by the idea. They are inspired by the rise of the Wikipedia, by the wealth of Google, and by the rush of entrepreneurs to be the most Meta. Government agencies, top corporate planning departments, and major universities have all gotten the bug.

The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.?

My problem with the essay is that it can be read as presenting a false alternative between a continuation of the hyper-individualist status quo, and such reductionist collectivism. I believe that the emergence of peer to peer is a much more fundamental cultural shift, which, while building on the achievements of individuality, focuses on the reconnection of it. This is my explanation from the P2P Manifesto:

A new articulation between the individual and the collective

One of the key insights of psychologist Clare Graves interpretation of human cultural evolution, is the idea of the changing balance, over time, between the two poles of the individual and the collective. In the popularization of his research by the Spiral Dynamics systems, they see the tribal era as characterized by collective harmony, but also as a culture of stagnation. Out of this harmony, strong individuals are born, heroes and conquerors, which will their people and others into the creation of larger entities. These leaders are considered divinities themselves and thus in certain senses are ˜beyond the law”, which they have themselves constituted through their conquest. It is against this “divine individualism” that a religious reaction is born, very evident in the monotheistic religions, which stresses the existence of a transcendent divine order (rather than the immanent order of paganism), to which even the sovereign must obey. Thus a more communal/collective order is created. But again, this situation is overturned when a new individual ethos arises, which will be reflected in the growth of capitalism. It is based on individuals, and collective individuals, which think strategically in terms of their own interest. In the words of anthropologist Louis Dumont, we moved from a situation of wholism, in which the empirical individuals saw themselves foremost as part of a whole, towards individualism as an ideology , positing atomistic individuals, in need of socialization. They transferred their powers to collective individuals, such as the king, the people, the nation, which could act in their name, and created a sacrificial unity through the institutions of modernity. (In section 3.3.C. , I have tried to show how peer to peer tries to avoid the creation of collective individuals, through the creation of objective algorhythms which express the communal wisdom of a collective.)

This articulation, based on a autonomous self in a society which he himself creates through the social contract, has been changing in postmodernity. Simondon, a French philosopher of technology with an important posthumous following in the French-speaking world, has argued that what was typical for modernity was to ‘extract the individual dimension’ of every aspect of reality, of things/processes that are also always-already related . And what is needed to renew thought, he argued, was not to go back to premodern wholism, but to systematically build on the proposition that ‘everything is related’, while retaining the achievements of modern thought, i.e. the equally important centrality of individuality. Thus individuality then comes to be seen as constituted by relations , from relations.

This proposition, that the individual is now seen as always-already part of various social fields, as a singular composite being, no longer in need of socialization, but rather in need of individuation, seems to be one of the main achievements of what could be called ‘postmodern thought’. Atomistic individualism is rejected in favor of the view of a relational self , a new balance between individual agency and collective communion.

In my opinion, as a necessary complement and advance to postmodern thought, it is necessary to take a third step, i.e. not to be content with both a recognition of individuality, and its foundation in relationality, but to also recognize the level of the collective, i.e. the field in which the relationships occur.

If we only see relationships, we forget about the whole, which is society itself (and its sub-fields). Society is more than just the sum of its “relationship parts”. Society sets up a ‘protocol’, in which these relationships can occur, it forms the agents in their subjectivity, and consists of norms which enable or disable certain type of relationships. Thus we have agents, relationships, and fields. Finally, if we want to integrate the subjective element of human intentionality, it is necessary to introduce a fourth element: the object of the sociality.

Indeed, human agents never just ‘relate’ in the abstract, agents always relate around an object, in a concrete fashion. Swarming insects do not seem to have such an object, they just follow instructions and signals, without a view of the whole, but mammals do. For example, bands of wolves congregate around the object of the prey. It is the object that energizes the relationships, that mobilizes the action. Humans can have more abstract objects, that are located in a temporal future, as an object of desire. We perform the object in our minds, and activate ourselves to realize them individually or collectively. P2P projects organize themselves around such common project, and my own Peer to Peer theory is an attempt to create an object that can inspire social and political change.

In summary, for a comprehensive view of the collective, it is now customary to distinguish 1) the totality of relations; 2) the field in which these relations operate, up to the macro-field of society itself, which establishes the ‘protocol’ of what is possible and not; 3) the object of the relationship (“object-oriented sociality”), i.e. the pre-formed ideal which inspires the common action. That sociality is ‘object-oriented’ is an important antidote to any ‘flatland’, i.e. ‘merely objective’ network theory, on which many failed social networking experiments are based. This idea that the field of relations is the only important dimension of reality, while forgetting human intentionality . What we need is a subjective-objective approach to networks.

In conclusion, this turn to the collective that the emergence of peer to peer represent does not in any way present a loss of individuality, even of individualism. Rather it ‘transcends and includes’ individualism and collectivism in a new unity, which I would like to call ‘cooperative individualism’. The cooperativity is not necessarily intentional (i.e. the result of conscious altruism), but constitutive of our being, and the best applications of P2P, are based on this idea. Similar to Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand, the best designed collaborative systems take advantage of the self-interest of the users, turning it into collective benefit.

This recognition would help in distinguishing transformative P2P conceptions from regressive interpretations harking back to premodern communion. I find this distinction well expressed by Charlene Spretnak, cited by John Heron in a debate with the conception of an ‘inclusional self’ by Ted Lumley of Goodshare.org:

“The ecological/cosmological sense of uniqueness coupled with intersubjectivity and interbeing ¦ One can accurately speak of the ˜autonomy” of an individual only by incorporating a sense of the dynamic web of relationships that are constitutive for that being at a given moment.”

In any case, the balance is again moving towards the collective. But if the new forms of collective recognize individuality and even individualism, they are not merely individualist in nature, meaning: they are not collective individuals, rather, the new collective expresses itself in the creation of the common. The collective is no longer the local ˜wholistic and oppressive” community, and it is no longer the contractually based society with its institutions, now also seen as oppressive. The new commons is not a unified and transcendent collective individual, but a collection of large number of singular projects, constituting a multitude .

This whole change in ontology and epistemology, in ways of feeling and being, in ways of knowing and apprehending the world, has been prefigured amongst social scientists and philosophers, including the hard sciences such as physics and biology .

An important change has been the overthrow of the Cartesian subject-object split. No longer is the ˜individual self” looking at the world as an object. Since postmodernity has established that the individual is composed and traversed by numerous social fields (of power, of the unconscious, class relations, gender, etc…), and since he/she has become aware of this, the subject is now seen (after his death as an “essence” and a historical construct had been announced by Foucault), as a perpetual process of becoming (subjectivation). His knowing is now subjective-objective and truth-building has been transformed from objective and mono-perspectival to multiperspectival. This individual operates not in a dead space of objects, but in a network of flows. Space is dynamical, perpetually co-created by the actions of the individuals and in peer to peer processes, where the digital noosphere is an extraordinary medium for generating signals emanating from this dynamical space. The individuals in peer groups, which are thus not ˜transcendent” collective individuals, are in a constant adaptive behavior. Thus peer to peer is global from the start, it is incorporated in its practice. It is an expression not of globalization, the worldwide system of domination, but of globality, the growing interconnected of human relationships.

Peer to peer is to be regarded as a new form of social exchange, creating its equivalent form of subjectivation, and itself reflecting the new forms of subjectivation. P2P, interpreted here as a positive and normative ethos that is implicit in the logic of its practice, though it rejects the ideology of individualism, does not in any way endanger the achievements of the modern individual, in terms of the desire and achievement of personal autonomy, authenticity, etc ¦. It is no transcendent power that demands sacrifice of self: in Negrian terms, it is fully immanent, participants are not given anything up, and unlike the contractual vision, which is fictitious in any case, the participation is entirely voluntary. Thus what it reflects is an expansion of ethics: the desire to create and share, to produce something useful. The individual who joins a P2P project, puts his being, unadulterated, in the service of the construction of a common resource. Implicit is not just a concern for the narrow group, not just intersubjective relations, but the whole social field surrounding it.

An important aspect is the issue of value, both the value in the sense of what is exchanged on a market, and the value in the sense of ethical meaningfulness, i.e. what we value. Peer to peer produces for use value, not exchange value. The wider community therefore derives ‘use value’ from this common form of production. Participants themselves derive value in two different ways: first, the uptake or not of the ‘production’ is a sign of the relative value of the product in its wider field of related offerings. Participants will partake in the general recognition/valuation of the project in the wider society. Second, within, a similar form of recognition will operate according to the contribution of participants. The process is often measured or aided by social accounting tools specifically designed to that effect, and individual recognition of effort is always a key element of open source projects. Peer to peer is therefore also a process of social recognition and valuation, that replaces or complements money as a token of social recognition.

How does a successful P2P project operate, in terms of reconciling the individual and the collective?

Imagine a successful meeting of minds: individual ideas are confronted, but also changed in the process, through the free association born of the encounter with other intelligences. Thus eventually a common idea emerges, that has integrated the differences, not subsumed them. The participants do not feel they have made concessions or compromises, but feel that the new common integration is based on their ideas. There has been no minority, which has succumbed to the majority. There has been no ˜representation”, or loss of difference. Such is the true process of peer to peer.

An important philosophical change has been the abandonment of the unifying universalism of the Enlightenment project. Universality was to be attained by striving to unity, by the transcendence of representation of political power. But this unity meant sacrifice of difference. Today, the new epistemological and ontological requirement that P2P reflects, is not abstract universalism, but the concrete universality of a commons which has not sacrificed difference. This is the truth that the new concept of multitude, developed by Toni Negri and inspired by Spinoza, expresses. P2P is not predicated on representation and unity, but of the full expression of difference.

4 Comments Jaron Lanier’s rant against online collectivism and its relational alternative

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  3. AvatarMichel

    posted this comment in the aftermath of your own provocative one in
    the aftermath of my little
    Lanier/Brockman rant. The payoff really arrives with the last
    paragraph but I think you have to
    walk through what precedes it to enjoy that payoff. It is interesting
    to see the deeper ethical
    and epistemological underpinnings that appear to draw us quite as much
    as the appealing democratic
    politics do to the emerging p2p culture.

    On a separate note, now that my PhD has been awarded and my first
    difficult semester of teaching
    multiple courses is successfully behind me, I mean to devote myself to
    some long-postponed
    theoretical work I expect to be much more rewarding — among this a
    long close reading of some of
    your formulations on p2p with an eye to sketching out the many
    resonances I find there with my own
    thinking. I’ll let you know when I manage to come up with something
    substantial at last. Best to
    you, d

    Here’s the comment from my blog:

    I am deeply indebted personally to the account of agency I learned from
    my mentor Judith Butler,
    an account that is central to my conception of a nonthreatened
    interdependent but “individualist”
    agency of a kind I think is complementary to the one you invoke here. I
    discussed (and
    idiosyncratically elaborated) Butler’s view of post-sovereign
    “performative” agency in a section
    of the first chapter of my dissertation, entitled “Sovereign or
    Subject?” excerpted here:

    In a nutshell, for Butler: �To become a subject means to be subjected
    to a set of implicit and
    explicit norms that govern the kind of speech that will be legible as
    the speech of a subject.�

    To be a subject is always crucially to be intelligible as a subject.
    And this intelligibility is
    in turn crucially a matter of being (treated as) a competent speaker of
    the language of agency,
    competent in the intelligible citation of agency�s proper conventions.
    But just because a language
    is sufficiently stable as an object that one can usually reliably
    distinguish competent from
    incompetent speakers of that language, this does not foreclose the
    capacity of those very
    speakers, precisely because they are competent, to reform their
    language in speaking it, through
    figurative language or coinages, for example. Citation is almost never
    recitation, almost never a
    perfect repetition of some established norm. �To be constituted by
    language is to be produced
    within a given network of power/discourse which is open to
    resignification, redeployment,
    subversive citation from within, and interruption and inadvertent
    convergences with other such
    networks,� Butler goes on to say. And ��[a]gency� is to be found
    precisely at such junctures where
    discourse is renewed.�

    Language is competent to produce effects in the world (notice even in
    their most trivially
    �descriptive� registers languages risk the proposal of sufficient
    similarities among the play of
    differences in the environment on the basis of which one attends and
    acts decisively and then
    differentially succeeds or not in manipulating that environment and
    anticipating experience), and
    the competent speaker of language is thereby more or less efficacious
    for it. But a linguistic
    account of agency can never afford the consoling fantasy of omnipotent
    invulnerability. The
    interminable play of differences, among them the key instance of an
    ineradicable difference
    between world and word, provide the constant and conspicuous occasion
    for failure and frustration.
    Neither can a linguistic account of agency afford the consoling fantasy
    of omnipotent autonomy.
    Language confers intelligibility, and so its special measure of
    independent existence, only as a
    function of an ineliminable interdependence of speakers.

    �Untethering the speech act from the sovereign subject,� writes Butler,
    �founds an alternative
    notion of agency and, ultimately, of responsibility, one that more
    fully acknowledges the way in
    which the subject is constituted in language, how what it creates is
    also what it derives from
    elsewhere.� She goes on to emphasize that �[w]hereas some critics
    mistake the critique of
    sovereignty for the demolition of agency, I propose that agency begins
    where sovereignty wanes.�

    This is a stronger claim by far than that a linguistic account of
    agency affords adequate agency
    to satisfy our legitimate needs, despite, say, its registration of a
    disconcerting or unappealing
    vulnerability and radical dependency for the agent so construed. Hers
    is not necessarily a plea
    for a more modest accounting of agency. If efficacy is indeed
    importantly a function of
    intelligibility, then the radical inter-dependency of linguistic
    practice is a general condition
    for agency, even if it is frequently the occasion for its particular
    frustration as well. If
    freedom is indeed importantly a function of the open-ended character of
    linguistic practice, then
    the radical vulnerability of language to error, misinterpretation, and
    misunderstanding is a
    condition for agency as well, because it is the condition for the
    openness of language to
    improvisation, novelty, and poetry.

    The disavowal of this dependency and vulnerability at the heart of the
    sovereign figuration of
    agency is not of course the same as the accomplishment of the autonomy
    and invulnerability it
    pines for, but on the contrary Butler suggests �weakens the sense of
    self, establish[ing] its
    ostensible autonomy on fragile grounds� requir[ing] a repeated and
    systematic repudiation of
    others in order to acquire and maintain the appearance of autonomy.�
    What is wanted instead, she
    proposes, are �fundamentally more capacious, generous, and
    �unthreatened� bearings of the self in
    the midst of community� for which linguistic as opposed to sovereign
    accounts of agency have a
    more conspicuous affinity.

    Dale Carrico, PhD
    Lecturer, Department of Rhetoric, UC Berkeley
    Visiting Faculty, San Francisco Art Institute
    Home Page:

  4. AvatarMichel

    Michel Bauwens: apologies for mishandling the comment above. It was sent in by Dale Carrico through email, and I was in the process of editing it when I accidentally hit the return button.

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