Saturday, February 12, 2011

Wisdom of the Rat - In Defense of Network Production

This post is pretty much straight from some NYU work. It discusses a critical notion of network production, the idea of publish-then-filter (based on market selection) rather than filter-then-publish (credential then trust as authority). It's part of the broader notion of the thesis that as transaction costs decline and the benefit of making upfront investments and decisions declines, it makes more and more sense to do these things ad hoc, tailored to each situation and for each particular question.

In Pixar’s award winning animated feature Ratatouille, genius is found in the most unlikely of places. Remy, the story’s rodent hero, comes from a long line of undifferentiating rats, who eat whatever they find, garbage or otherwise. But Remy is different. His profound love of food and flavor drives him to the culinary arts and a secret career in the strictly-gated circles of Parisian haute cuisine. What sets Remy off on his journey is the motto of the chef Gusteau, “anybody can cook.” At first, Remy interprets this, optimistically enough, to mean that cooking is for everyone – that if they try, all people can understand its beauty and create great things. By the end of the film though, it becomes clear the slogan embodies a narrower, if still encouraging, meaning. It’s not that cooking is easy and with a little effort, everyone can master it – some people will always be better than others (as the film's obliging foil Linguine comes ultimately to realize). But the idea is that genius might be found anywhere, and you don’t know who that great cook is going to be. It might be someone unexpected or uncredentialed... perhaps someone not even human.

Remy’s journey is of course emblematic of the production studio behind its creation, the upstart Pixar, who believed it could bring beauty and inspiration to that oft disregarded genre of animation. But it also brings valuable insight to this week’s discussion on new modes of production and how crowdsourcing is changing methods of labor on the Internet.

While I disagreed with much of it, I really enjoyed the video at the bottom of the Wolfshead post, featuring commentary from Andrew Keen and others criticizing crowdsourcing as diffusing knowledge by superseding traditional notions of credentialing. Keen compares enthusiasm for web 2.0 technologies and their empowering of everyday individuals over established experts to the theosophy of Rousseau. This he frames as belief in the inner greatness of man and the innocence of youth (e.g. Emile), gradually corrupted by society. The analogy however is off. Keen paints web enthusiasts as Remy at first interprets Gusteau’s motto... as a belief that we all have it inside of us, that anyone can cook. This is not right. What the web enthusiast rejects is not the notion that an expert might be better informed, but merely the credentialing system that, due to historical constraints no longer in place, assumes this necessarily to be the case.

In Ratatoullie, Remy’s culinary talent is portrayed as in conflict with the established French
cooking scene. In the end, he’s basically right and they’re basically wrong. This is the point Keen seems not to be able to sign onto. In the video, he and others seem constantly to lament the idea that on Wikipedia,14-year-old kids can correct well established professors.

To begin with, the proposed conflict is again misleading... often it’s in fact traditional experts writing articles in their areas of focus, but just doing so voluntarily. Moreover, something like Wikipedia covers areas far beyond the spheres in which ‘experts’ typically operate, for instance obscure MMOGs or very local subjects. In these cases, not only might a particular 14- year-old in fact be the most qualified to comment (if that 14-year-old was say the highest ranking in the game or happened to be on hand at the scene), but even if he weren’t, it’s him or no one, and I’d think something is better than nothing.

But these are merely side points. In the web context, the real counter to Keen is that it’s not a question of justifying credentials, but rather of letting content stand for itself. If a professor writes a Wiki on a subject she knows a great deal about, that’s great. If a 14-year- old then comes along and corrects some piece of it, the community has the opportunity to decide whether this correction is right or wrong. This doesn’t mean ignoring credentials... if the professor supported her facts with a link to her own or someone else’s published paper, whereas the 14-year-old had much less established references, the professor’s should win out. It’s a question of opening the production process to market/democratic selection to determine.

Keen of course dismisses this as the core problem inherent in the Cult of the Amateur... that it creates what comedian Stephen Colbert calls ‘truthiness,’ where fact is determined by the whims of the crowd rather than by reality and the individuals qualified to judge it. This is misleading though, for there’s no such thing as objective reality. All ‘facts’ are subjective... they are simply proposals that society has generally accepted as true. Often, we designate certain individuals (like scientists or academics) to tell us what's true, and then simply trust them. But there’s no reason to believe these individuals always are 100% correct about everything they discuss. New media collaboration platforms such as Wikipedia offer the opportunity to balance this trust with input and evaluation from a much wider group.

To the extent there are systematic biases in any collaborative production system, such as those Wolfshead laments, it should be worked to correct these. And new media literacies are absolutely required to help us understand the limitations of this new form of information production and the appropriate ways to negotiate its products. But collaborative, democratized production is an evolutionary process that is constantly expanding the record of human knowledge at a rate far beyond any effort previously. And empirical evidence suggests it’s working pretty well – independent studies show time and again quality of the average Wikipedia article to be on par with that of an average encyclopedia Brittanica article. It would be a shame to disregard this incredible resource.

As Ratatouille’s Anton Ego points out, “the world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends.” Without a doubt, I believe Wikipedia and crowdsourced production in general belong in this category -- and, quite certainly, I intend to be one of them.

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