Alex Wright

Probability, Superstition and Ideology revisited

January 3, 2006

Gartner's Nick Gall sent along a few thoughts on my earlier post Probability, Superstition and Ideology (itself a commentary on earlier posts by Nick Carr and Chris Anderson). With Nick's permission, I've excerpted his comments here:

"The image of a powerful technology emerging through collectivist force, but incurring individual failures along the way, strikes me as a useful metaphor for networked information systems." [quoting me]

It's also a useful metaphor for free markets. In fact, the two dueling symbols of emergent (collectivist) systems could be Rome's Fasces and Adam Smith's Invisible Hand.

The free market has incurred lots of "individual failures" along the way and more than "a few individual twigs [got] fractured around the edges". In fact, it was the large numbers of people that were getting the short end of the stick (NPI) in free markets that led certain ideologues (yes, both sides of the issue have ideologues) to demand centralized, state-controlled economies.

Believe me. I think free markets are far from perfect, as are Wikipedia and Google, and all the other emergent social networks born of the Web. But the WRONG answer is to slap traditional forms of centralized control on them. That will surely kill them. The key is to add a minimal set of controls, bit by bit, learning as we are going, to keep such systems at the edge of chaos without tipping over into complete chaos. This is how we "tune" the free market to avoid excessive "individual failures" and it's how we should tune Wikipedia et al.

The key point is, since emergent systems exist only at the edge of chaos, you can't have the good unintended consequences of an emergent system without the bad. I.E., you can't have the emergent order without some chaos; or in your terms, wield a powerful fasces without breaking a few sticks. Contrary to the tone of Alex's piece, these ideas are deeply moored in the realities of human behavior.

The deep irony of Alex's piece is that it is usually those who argue for centralized authority who end up wielding the fasces, not the advocates of decentralization and empowerment of the individual. Give me Adam Smith's Invisible Hand any day. That's what drives Wikipedia.

I agree that emergent systems require "careful scrutiny and critical thinking", but I find Carr's mean-spirited diatribes anything but. Carr is the definition of a "sensationalist" writer, not a careful one, e.g., his hatchet job The amorality of Web 2.0 ("Wikipedia isn't very good at all") and of course the sensationalistic IT Doesn't Matter.

I was going to post this as a comment on Alex's blog, but since it doesn't seem to accept comments, I'm cc'ing him. (I like the perspectives in your blog Alex, I just can't understand how someone with Faith in Graffiti, can lack faith in Wikipedia. )
Nick's point about free markets is well taken. I agree that light regulation is probably the right answer to reining in the potentially destabilizing flaws of bottom-up systems; and I'm certainly not advocating central planning as the right answer to any of this. On reflection, I was probably overstating the case for effect. But I do think that writers like Carr offer a useful (if admittedly strident) counterpoint to the rhetorical zeal that seems to swell up around these systems.

As for comments, I tend to share Mark Bernstein's skepticism, namely that comments encourage Usenet-style off-handedness at the expense of more thoughtful discourse. "Literature," as Gertrude Stein said, "is not remarks." In a perfect world, we would have Nelsonian deep links, but in today's real world Web the closest thing we have is the spam sinkhole of trackbacks. I may yet bite the bullet and open up comments one of these days; but for now I'm going to make a new year's resolution to practice what I preach and try to engage more directly when I encounter thoughtful commentary like Nick's.

File under: Informatics

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