The Foolishness of Crowds

Importing the wiki model of policymaking will mean less democracy, not more. A response to Beth Simone Noveck.

By Andrew Keen

Tagged Governancetechnology

Without a trace of irony, Beth Simone Noveck, a law professor and thus paragon of the professional elite, favorably quotes the George Bernard Shaw adage that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity” [“Wiki-Government,” Issue #7]. Does Shaw really mean to indict all professions? In addition to medical doctors (against whom Shaw ran his own vendetta), that must include civil engineers, librarians, architects, nuclear scientists, high-school teachers, and nanotechnologists. When it comes to politics, would Shaw include the professional bureaucrats who successfully engineered the New Deal programs? Is Shaw saying that self-interested professionals consciously conspire against “ordinary people”? Maybe, maybe not. But Noveck does indeed appear to be straight-faced in her concurrence, particularly since she adds that “nowhere is this more the case than in a democracy.”

Noveck offers a radical solution to what she believes is the problem
of professional expertise in a democracy. She calls this
“wiki-government,” and it represents the revenge of the laity against
the professions. Through open-source technologies like wikis, Noveck’s
solution empowers the laity to collectively participate in government.
By enabling ordinary citizens to collectivize their wisdom, Noveck says
that wiki-government will not only make decision-making more
democratic, but also more expert.

There is more than a trace of postmodern epistemological anarchism
here, a not-so-implicit rejection of what Noveck calls Max Weber’s
“detached and strictly objective expert” who, we are left to assume,
can never truly be either detached or objective. And if all human
deployment of knowledge is unavoidably biased, then what? Doesn’t that
make government–one of the most authoritative purveyors of expert
knowledge–a self-evident racket, the ultimate conspiracy?

Noveck’s purportedly progressive vision of twenty-first century
American government revolves around the latest cult of the crowd–a
communitarian romanticism representing the second coming of
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Rousseau 2.0, in the binary geek-speak of
Silicon Valley). Like the proto-totalitarian Rousseau, Noveck thinks
that groups of people are both politically wiser and braver than
individuals: “Speaking truth to power is easiest to do–and more
accurate–when spoken not as an individual but as a group,” she argues.
But Noveck does not cite historical examples of groups speaking “truth
to power,” and there are countless examples–from the bloody excesses of
the French Revolutionary crowd to the lynch mob–that prove just the
opposite. In fact, when it comes to truth telling, it normally has been
individuals–Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Vaclav Havel, Anna
Politkovskaya, Aung San Suu Kyi–who have uttered the first words
against power. The crowd, if ever, generally appears later, after the
initial truth-telling.

And, in America, that crowd often has the dissonant cadence of a
mob. Switch on the AM radio dial and you can hear this crowd baying for
blood on call-in shows and ranting the same anti-elitist sentiment as
Noveck. No doubt some of them even quote Shaw as they bloviate about
how government is a self-evident racket, the ultimate conspiracy. The
critical issue, to which Noveck and the digital populists don’t face
up, is that more political participation neither means better
democracy, nor does it guarantee more efficient government. In fact, it
often results in the reverse: Mob rule is mob rule, whether it is
electromagnetically broadcasted on the wireless or digitally streamed
from the Web.

I am not sure whether Noveck has been tuning in to talk radio, but
she has certainly been spending a lot of time the Internet. It is here
that she has discovered the cure to the professional “conspiracy
against the laity.” Her holy grail is called “open-source technology,”
such as “wikis,” which subvert all traditional hierarchies by allowing
everyone, irrespective of their qualifications, to participate in

It’s probably no coincidence that open-source technology was
invented in California’s Silicon Valley; these knowledge-sharing tools
having all the lawless charm of the gold-rush American West. Like
mid-nineteenth-century California, the only rule about wikis is that
they have no rules: Nobody is in charge of determining who can and
can’t author a wiki, anyone can become a contributor, anyone can edit
the work of another writer, and anyone can come along and (re)edit the
original edit. This is, of course, technology created by and designed
for libertarians. The traditional hierarchies of knowledge
communities–from professional subject experts to professional editors
to professional fact-checkers–are made redundant. On Wikipedia, the
established expert and the professional elite are no more authoritative
or believable than the laity. As Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s Ayn
Rand-worshipping founder, openly boasts, he has no more faith in the
knowledge of a Harvard professor than in a high-school kid. And, on
Wikipedia, Wales doesn’t need to; both the professor and kid have the
same intellectual authority, which is really the same as saying that
neither has any authority at all. Open-source technology, in other
words, is a conspiracy of the laity against professionals.

Wiki-government, then, is about the public storming the Bastille of
expertise and citizens seizing the Winter Palace of the professional
elite. So what’s wrong with that? After all, no government,
particularly the American version of recent years, is error-free.
Wouldn’t it be marvelous to have both more experts and more democracy
in government?

Of course it would. But applying open-source technology to
government won’t do the trick. Noveck’s theory might be seductive, but
the practice will actually result in less democracy and less expertise.
Her logic is premised on the supposed success of open-source media
projects like New Assignment, YouTube, OhMyNews, and Simon &
Schuster’s MediaPredict. If open-source digital media projects work,
her logic goes, then digital government will also work.

But this is wrong. Open source hasn’t worked in media, and it won’t
work in policymaking. Without citing any specific stories, Noveck
claims that the citizen journalist website New Assignment “produce[s]
stories as good as any found in a national magazine.” That all depends
what you mean by the word “good.” She might be right that the
volunteers behind New Assignment are as ethically good–as in civically
correct–as any hard bitten, gin-soaked professional. But Noveck doesn’t
cite any concrete examples of “good” (as in quality) political stories
because there don’t seem to be any; even Wired magazine’s Jeff
Howe, one of crowd-sourced journalism’s most rabid evangelizers,
described the experiment as a “highly satisfying failure.”

Noveck falls into a similar trap in her praise of the open-source
video sharing website YouTube. She says it has generated “brilliant art
films,” but she fails to name the digital auteurs behind these
masterpieces. This is because much of YouTube’s content is posted
anonymously. Without a traditional editorial staff, nobody knows who is
authoring much of its content. Not surprisingly, often the most
“brilliant” amateur work turns out to be the professional production of
advertising companies, political parties, or corporations, from a
widely viewed satirical video about Al Gore anonymously posted by a
Texas p.r. firm to the anti-Hillary Clinton viral hit “Vote Different”
anonymously posted by a staffer at a Web company working for Barack
Obama. Rather than a paragon of cultural democracy, YouTube should
actually represent a wake-up call to idealists like Noveck wishing to
export the open-source media model into government.

Noveck also fails to grasp the destructive ways in which
crowd–sourcing sites are undermining the concept of expertise. On
Wikipedia, for example, there are no epistemological hierarchies, no
central editors identifying credible writers or determining what entry
is more important than other entries. Instead of radical democracy,
Wikipedia is radically absurd. It manifests the surrealist vision of a
Jorge Luis Borges or a Stephen Colbert–indeed, the Wikipedia entry on
Colbert’s concept of “truthiness” (his joke about the subjective
epistemology of right-wing pundits) is almost as meticulously footnoted
as the entry on “truth,” the central concept in the history of Western
philosophy. There are, in fact, some things that are more important to
know than others, and we rely on professional editors, educators, and
experts to tell us which. But Wikipedia sacrifices concrete content in
favor of abstract form: What we celebrate is not the information it
delivers so much as the democratized method by which it is produced. In
our increasingly information-hungry economy, that seems like a direct
route to a serious famine of useful knowledge.

Noveck’s plan to apply wiki-techniques to patent review processes
seems, on the surface, to avoid some of these. The general public does
not completely replace the patent reviewer; they only provide
additional information. But she never really explains who, exactly,
will differentiate the advice of the crank from the credible hobbyist.
Rather, she relies on the crowd to do her policing, weeding out good
ideas from bad on its own. But this crowd is not a suitable gatekeeper
for distinguishing the credibility of volunteer bureaucrats. Left
unaccountable, it is liable to offer incomplete information or, in its
deliberations, degenerate into a mob.

In addition to Rousseau, Noveck claims Aristotle as a theoretical father of wiki-government. But it was Aristotle who, in The Politics, recognized that radical democracy naturally leads to oligarchy, and today’s Internet confirms Aristotle’s fear of radical democracy’s unintended consequences. Open-source technology is actually creating a new, often anonymous class of digital oligarchs on wisdom-of-the-crowd sites like Wikipedia, Digg, and Reddit. This über-volunteer oligarchy is the new Internet elite–an unaccountable, anonymous, and, as the Wall Street Journal revealed in an expose of this new class, sometimes even dishonest aristocracy of “amateurs” who are using this new media to further their own careers as taste-makers.

It is this group of online activists who are willing to spend their
time in endlessly arcane disputes for no obvious financial reward. And
the same would be true in wiki-government. Most genuine graduate
students want to earn their degrees rather than become pro bono
government workers. Most consultants–at least those who don’t have
trust funds–need to be financially rewarded for their expertise. But
this open-source model fails to address the defining reality of
twenty-first-century life: our common scarcity of time. Whether or not
we share Noveck’s idealism about open-source decision-making, most us
don’t have the time–outside our jobs and family lives–to give away our
specialized labor for free. So this admittedly well-meaning experiment
will become vulnerable to a much smaller group of activists who–for
reasons both fair and foul–will come to monopolize wiki-government.

Noveck does acknowledge that “competitive self-interest will be one
of the drivers causing people to get involved.” But, in contrast with
government bureaucrats who are paid a financial wage for their
expertise, she fails to establish a coherent economic model for
volunteer wiki-wonks. She suggests “prizes,” “rewards,” and a “monetary
bounty” to create incentives for the distributed digital citizenry. But
turning government into a lottery would mean that the majority of
wiki-governors wouldn’t win the prizes and thus would still be giving
away their labor for free.

Am I saying that all activities are only worthwhile if they make you
money, that there is no place for volunteerism or public service in our
democracy? No. Let’s not confuse traditional political activism with
participation in wiki-government. The prior is a democratic obligation
of American citizens; the latter, I fear, is an attempt to get service
for free. Particularly in a country hostile toward the authority of
central government and federal taxation, wiki-government could become
an excuse to outsource government to voluntary American citizens.

Ironically, Noveck’s seemingly progressive idealism could even be
hijacked by libertarians who believe that American government is a
self-evident racket, the ultimate conspiracy. They could use Noveck’s
utopia of selfless activism as an excuse to fire all professional
officials and replace them with a pure wiki-democracy of those who have
the time and the money to get involved. Open-source technology would
make traditional government entirely redundant, thereby emancipating
America forever from the permanent embarrassment of a professional
political elite. Then we’d be free from the tyranny of the state. We
could all become unpaid government bureaucrats, technology finally
having allowed us to realize our true humanity.

I’m joking, of course. But the problem is that such libertarian
nonsense is not only being peddled by the crazies on the blogosphere,
but also by well-meaning academics like Noveck.

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Andrew Keen is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and the author of The Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet Is Killing Our Culture.

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