Bismarck, the iPod and the crowd

Chris Lydon hosted a great Radio Open Source show today about the digital crowd featuring a conversation between James Surowiecki and Jaron Lanier. This is one the most salient issues in the Web 2.0 debate and Lydon should be commended for the wisdom of his choice of both subject and speakers. Not only did Wisdom of the Crowd Surowiecki and "Digital Maoism" Lanier take quite different ideological positions on the value of the digital crowd, but they also displayed contrary intellectual styles and media identities.

Lanier, who is a much wiser writer and thinker than speaker, sounded muddled, especially about his pet peeve of anonymous postings on Wikipedia. I heard Lanier speak a couple of months ago at Berkeley's Cybersalon and I also left that performance with more questions than answers. Then, as now, he manifests a frustrating mix of retreatist apologia and repressed polemical passion. He laughs nervously, says "you know" way too often for such a smart guy, and never fully articulates a position. Lanier brings out the psychoanalyst in me. I'm not sure if he needs to be hugged or beaten. When he speaks, I want to figure out what he's really thinking.

New Yorker writer Surowiecki, on the other hand, was clear, smooth and generally wrong. I found his signature position on the importance of crowd logic within organizations to be particularly unconvincing. Surowiecki argued that the wisdom of the crowd is especially valuable within large corporate and political organizations. My counter argument would be the example of Apple. What would have happened had the company, in the late Nineties, sought the direct input of employees on its strategic direction? It's hard to imagine that this would have resulted in the iPod, and Apple's historic second coming as a media company. The same is true of Virgin under Branson and Microsoft under Gates. In today's dynamic business environment, large enterprises need innovative, decisive leaders willing to take risks. The larger the organization, the greater the need for singular leadership. This is my unfashionably undemocratic Bismarck/Jobs theory of organizational success. It is only great men like Otto Von Bismarck and Steve Jobs who can unify Germany or create the iPod. The purpose of the crowd is to applaud politely from the sidelines.

Rather than evil or dangerous, I think the sum of the online crowd is simply dull, inoffensive and confused. The yawningly bland content on Wikipedia, a product of consensual "democratic" decision-making, is the best evidence of this. Individuals can think clearly; crowds don't think, they  compromise. Distinguished individuals dream up the iPod or unite Germany; the best that crowds can do, in contrast, is come up with colorless, consensual Wikipedian entries on the iPod and on the unification of Germany.