Accountabilities of crowds

Cross-posted to HASTAC blog. I’m posting a lot lately. It must be finals week.

Google Image Result for I’ve been worrying about the wisdom of the wisdom of crowds lately, as evidenced by my Mechanical Turk post. “Wisdom of crowds” is a Silicon Valley religion, like libertarianism and market liberalism. (I’m going off of participant-observation from 10 years of being a valley citizen myself*, but Fred Turner documents these threads carefully.) I find “wisdom of crowds” to have a dark side to “wisdom” that comes from slivers of contributions made by people who don’t know what they’re contributing to and likely don’t have a chance to profit from their participation. Amazon Mechanical Turk, where many people make about a dollar an hour making extra cash to make ends meet, is an example of this dark side. What are ethical conditions under which crowds should labor? (I asked 67 Mechanical Turk workers this very question myself: 67 Turkers Bills of Rights.)

Not only do conditions of work become difficult to account for when the workers are millions of microtime workers. Emergent genderings, racializations, and other modes of differential injustice also are hard to track down. Wikipedia’s story of open participation and user agency becomes a cover story for not worrying about how power and authority gets distributed. For example, I strongly suspect there’s a bias against women in who is considered notable enough to have a biography. I’ve known several women who have had the appropriateness of having wikipedia biographies challenged (danah boyd, for example) while less notable men go unchallenged. Like with the liberal politics of individual choice markets, lots of people get a vote but the powerful often set the agenda and win. And like neoliberal racial politics, when everything is about individual choices and agency — when practically anyone can edit an article — we don’t have to talk about race and gender, right?

Both Wikipedia and wisdom of crowds logic generally have a commitment to emergence and a commitment to getting the right answer — the neutral, objective truth. And in their attention to outcome and mass, the people get blurred.


*I heard one Silicon Valley CEO rationalize cooperating with Chinese censorship laws by explaining that doing business with China bolsters its middle class, which leads to democracy. I’m not saying “omg how could you do business with that regime” — no government is perfect, so it is about what kinds of business. But markets and democracy are well-yoked in Silicon Valley entrepreneurial do-gooding.

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4 Responses
  1. huh, i’ve only read rehashes of turner’s stuff and i guess they weren’t very good. i saw him speak alongside old WELL/whole earth catalog people at a panel of the sort i was talking about. i have such a negative reaction to those people (like you do, except my impression is more emotional and less thought-out 🙂 ) i guess it’s easy to lump him in with them.

    i do think notions of cyberdemocracy and activism like he’s talking about in your interview though, go right along with this sort of technoidealist wisdom-of-crowds-worship.

    on resume experiments, this one (on race via names) is pretty amazing => bertrand and mullainathan =>

  2. Lilly says:

    Yeah, the danah boyd post is an anecdote, but there’s lots of evidence in sociology that simply labeling a resume with a woman’s name changes assessments of merits for the worse so it’s an educated hypothesis that there is likely gender bias in notability challenges. I would love to do the analysis some time but I haven’t had the time to yet.

    And for being “not from silicon valley” — I actually said I was in the valley for 10 years. I meant it more as I am from the valley. This worry comes completely from being in the valley, being really into the seeming democracy of wisdom of crowds stuff, and I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a while. Did you read turner’s book? I haven’t but I took his class, have heard him speak, and interviewed him along with Alex Steffen of WorldChanging for ambidextrous. And he is actually pretty critical of silicon valley types. I had the impression that John Markoff’s “what the dormouse said,” which tells some of the same story that fred tells, is the butt kissy version. Fred is the one that actually got me thinking about how there is a darker side to flat hierarchies where nobody looks like they’re in charge. Why the hostility towards fred’s work?

  3. hah, I can’t believe you say “i’m not silicon valley” then turn around and cite Turner — someone who thinks those old people with some little discussion board in the 80’s are big important people in history. i sometimes think he wrote that book to suck up to those people; they’re now rich old entrepreneur/hippies who’ll always invite him to speak at their conferences where they talk about how great each other is.

    “wisdom of crowds” always had a mob rule undertone to me. but that’s how societies work.

    btw i read that danah boyd post and see a lot of whining that wikipedia isn’t perfect and relies on mainstream media. (i’m puzzled how else to measure notability, but ok.) But absolutely *no* evidence of sexist treatment. Do you have evidence?

  4. zelda says:

    “open participation and user agency becomes a cover story for not worrying about how power and authority gets distributed”

    This is hardly surprising in America, with its perma-mantras of freedom and equality. “Open participation” is a new code term for some version of “equality” “equal opportunity” or “equal access” (depending on context), while “user agency” is code for “individual freedom”. In this case, the freedom to participate– or not. This simplistic understanding of freedom is why one of the constant problems in teaching here in America is the persistent student belief that they can make everything all right (unspoken part: for themselves) by turning off the tv, not looking at the ad, not buying the bad product, just saying no. (I don’t mean to be unfair to students– clearly it’s a problem in the population as a whole.) This mindset, of course, works against any major degree of civic engagement. Why bother to change anything when you can–or think you can–just ignore it?