Stealth socialism

Stealth socialism

Why crowdsourcing isn’t always wise.

An interview with Jaron Lanier, the futurist and virtual reality pioneer: CIO: Your book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, challenges the value of crowdsourcing. What's wrong with the hive mind on the Internet?

The fad is to assume that groups are always smarter than individual people. Somehow some magic wisdom will come about if you form a mob instead of having people work as individuals.

It does work sometimes: A crowd of buyers sets a price in a marketplace. But it only works if you want output of a single result. Otherwise, you get design by committee. You get features added to services without anyone looking at the whole complex picture of what you're trying to build.

There's nothing wrong with soliciting feedback and ideas, but you can't design a complex system that way. You get appeasement to this or that concern, like the health care bill. It breaks the heart of every idealistic person to say this, but sometimes there can be too much democracy.

The equivalent for CIOs might be scope creep on a project. No one's saying "no."

That's not how you create real value. CIOs and IT departments should look at the perception of their value. CEOs will say, "Why are we paying you if the crowd can do it?"

What should IT leaders do about that?

Know that crowds and people are different. Every design decision should be worshipful of the value of individuals and their separate contributions and knowledge, rather than averaging everything out to please an amorphous crowd. You shouldn't have stealth socialism enter into a company through the IT department.

Explain what you mean by 'stealth socialism.'

One of the big crazes is open software development where people work as if on the Linux model. There's a weird ideology among some developers that if software is open and crowdsourced, it's intrinsically better. Mediocre software made openly is sometimes more valued than other software made in a closed way.

People perceive value that isn't really in the code. It doesn't matter how software was created. You should make decisions based on the raw facts: What does this software cost and will it do what I need?

Why does it happen?

There are two stakeholders who benefit from it: lazy software designers and users who avoid responsibility because there's no one person accountable for the final product. No one gets the blame when it fails. When money's on the table, and accountability's on the table, people get smarter. Good development is about individuals who are competent and can be held accountable.

Do CIOs have a moral responsibility to try to get their companies to bring civility to the Internet?

That's an extremely interesting question. When you crowdsource or allow anonymity on the Internet, people act as a mob. They get mean. Does it happen inside enterprises? Sure. I've seen a degree of rudeness or cynicism that might not have happened if there were a less mob-like quality to the structure of the enterprise. I can't say I have a solution, but to mitigate it, you have to be aware of it. Occasionally, there's the person who might have something important to say who won't say it unless they're anonymous, like a whistle-blower. But anonymity should be an extraordinarily unusual option. It shouldn't be the standard.

What are you working on now?

Advanced user interfaces where your body is an avatar that uses multitouch technology to interact with data. In 10 years, people will look at business models in video-game style, not in a spreadsheet. Human brains are better optimized for that than for looking at a bunch of cells with numbers. Anything that works in entertainment will eventually find its way into business productivity. It's just slow.

Jaron Lanier is scholar-at-large with Microsoft. The views he expresses here are his own.

A reader reacts:

Nevyn Hira, Events Co-ordinator for Auckland Linux Groups ( and Originator of Promoters of Open INformation and Technology in Schools (, writes:

Jaron Lanier has a very biased view and an interview with him should

perhaps be balanced up by a counter argument.

The article was rather insulting - relying on the use of ethos,

rather than logos, to persuade the readers to take up arms against

projects that may be the result of an Open Source model. Even the

word "socialism" in the title leads to this.

I don't know if Jaron just can't see this, or whether he chooses to

ignore it, but the additional value placed on Open Source Software

isn't as much about functionality as it is about being able to fix it.

There is inherent value in being able to fix a problem with a piece

of software rather than relying on the vendor to make any such fixes.

The fixes, in most cases, won't be made by the vendor who has more

interest in selling the next version of their software which may have

fixed that particular issue. In addition to this, there is value in

being able to add functionality to a piece of software or having that

software being able to interface with another piece of software or

even, customising that software to your needs. Having the source code

is a lot of value in and of itself.

Having a crowd review source is much less likely to cause harm to

data/a computer etc. if many eyes have seen it. Look at the malware

out there in the open. Open Source software has the huge advantage

that if there is something morally outrageous in the code, then it is

soon purged from the code. Having someone to blame offers only a

perceived recourse. Almost all end user license agreements absolves

the company making the software of all and any responsibility.

Meaning if the use of the software results in the corruption of data,

then you have absolutely no recourse. You can't sue them as you

agreed to their terms and conditions. Software does not even legally

have to do what it states it does. Open source software actually

reduces the risk that you're actually installing a piece of software

designed to spy on you or cause your system harm.

The idea that having these benefits and relying on this model of

software development is somehow a socialist thing to do leads me to

believe that Jaron can not find logical arguments to support his

position and instead relies on trying to elicit an emotional response.

sent via email

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