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Pathfinders: Crowd Atlas

Crowds are supposed to be predictable, but they’re not, and you can never be entirely sure what they’re going to think and do next. The British governing class found that out just recently when, to its disgust and embarrassment, the death of one particularly obnoxious old fart in her care home at the Ritz prompted, not the expected outpouring of respectful eulogies, but thoroughly tasteless ‘death parties’ and the explosive propulsion up the pop charts of a silly song entitled ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’.

The nature of crowds is changing. They used to be made up of bystanders, innocent and often ignorant observers at some remove from the action. Today, crowds are the action, the mass protagonist, a new type of collective intellectual resource made possible by the wired world. According to the reasoning, if one person with a computer is smart, then a crowd of ‘n’ people is smart to the power of ‘n’. If the individual knows her local geography, then the crowd is an atlas. This collective thinktanking is called crowdsourcing  and is all the rage these days among nerds, netheads, geeks, social media junkies and other tech-savvies who despite this probably get out more than we do. Normally they see themselves as virtuous heralds of a bright and innocent future, but in Boston Massachusetts after the recent marathon bombing, it all went hideously wrong. A crowdsourced amateur photo-enquiry was launched and the wrong people got ‘identified’ as bombers, forcing them into hiding in fear of their lives. The organiser on Reddit issued a sincere and abashed apology, but the fiasco was a sobering lesson to the digerati that despite their supposed sophistication and tech know-how, there’s still a fine line between a crowd and a lynch mob.

Crowdsourced labour in the form of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk comes in for sharp criticism too, on the grounds that it exploits a great number of anonymous workers who get paid next to nothing for their efforts. Though it’s true the contributors don’t get paid much, this overlooks their intrinsic motivations. They’re not really in it for the money anyway.

Crowdsourcing is generating a lot of excitement. Crowdsourcing is already being used as a translation service, beating the pants out of machine translators. There is talk of using it as a missing persons agency. It has already been used to solve a number of scientific and technological problems including some prize competitions, such as the Netflix algorithm Challenge, the DARPA balloon experiment and the X Prize. It is an increasingly favoured form of low-risk investment, used to fund start-ups traditional investors wouldn’t look at. Now Crowdmed, a start-up medical diagnostic service, is hoping to exploit this collective intelligence in a novel way (‘How crowds, not doctors or supercomputers, could diagnose rare diseases’,, 16 April).

The implications for capitalism are ambiguous. Of course it is all in favour of innovation which leads to new sales and new profits. But is there a downside of having smart crowds? Could it be that crowdsourcing is smuggling in, and is itself part of, a set of new crowd-based political attitudes too?

Those that believe that nothing ever changes must have their heads inserted somewhere dank and dark, because we are living in the middle of one of the greatest human revolutions of all time, and nobody is really sure where it’s taking us. Politically, ideas which seemed immutable are being challenged openly, specifically ideas about leaders and followers, and the sacred cow of private ownership. A significant property of aggregated humans is that they are more knowledgeable and hence more likely to come up with right answers than individuals, even individual experts. This is one of the founding principle of socialism, so it’s not surprising that it’s spawning challenges to old capitalist shibboleths. First there is Open Source, the idea that information wants to be free and that therefore intellectual ideas and collaboration should be free too. From this follows by extension the idea that all software should be free, and not just software. There is considerable and growing opposition to genome patenting, on the grounds that living organisms should not be owned. An extension of this militancy against ownership is the aspiring ‘respectability’ of digital piracy culture, and the hero-worship of Julian Assange and Wikileaks. With 3D printing the militancy will extend beyond the binary into the physical. And in response to a recession which is blatantly massacring the livelihoods of the world’s poor while leaving the rich not only untouched but actually richer than ever, we see the new moral challenges of the Occupy Movement and other related protests. As the stock of politicians falls ever lower, and with it the credibility of sole leadership as a concept, the smart crowd brings with it a new sense of potency. Taking all this together, are we seeing the emergence of some kind of broad-based communistic trend? 

We wish. To be sure, these aren’t new protests or impulses, and the digital pioneers don’t necessarily join the dots and see their ideals as logically anti-capitalist. Each generation reinvents the ideas afresh, as if they had never been conceived before, but there is something different this time round. Now they have a radical new force behind them, the engine of a communications revolution. There’s a sense of a monstrous genie climbing out of a tiny bottle. Workers have always been angry and uppity, but now they’ve got something which is genuinely dangerous to capitalism. They’ve got smart.

In terms of material productive capability, the world could have turned socialist a hundred years ago. But culturally and socially it was still backward, mired in tribal prejudices and rigid top-down control of information. Instead of turning socialist it turned to world war, twice. Could it do so again, in an age where your ‘enemy’ is an email away and every skirmish and scandal is on Youtube? Maybe, but we hope not.

Capitalism doesn’t like too much democracy. No democracy is bad for business, but too much is worse. Capitalist leaders depend on a kind of confidence trick in which ‘democracy’ means ‘rule by the people’ as long as the people are kept disorganised, confused and distracted, in fear of ‘chaos’ and the spectre of ‘mob-rule’. But democracy and mob-rule are the same thing, the only difference being information. When you have a globally-connected population with good information, new things are possible, politically as well as technologically.

The digerati are excited and for good reason. It’s as if the Earth is slowly growing itself a brain, huge, superfast and super-connected. Not too many of them yet are asking the key question a socialist would ask – will such a sentient super-entity tolerate a regime in which one tiny portion of it, like a malignant cancer, is allowed to destroy the entire organism in blind reckless pursuit of its own growth? Would a thinking, rational planet tolerate capitalism? Even leaving aside any moral questions of social justice, such a tolerance would surely be seen as ultimately suicidal. In the long run, a wired world would have to reject such destructive lack of concern for its best collective interests. And if in the long run, why not in the short run? Why not now, in fact? What is there to wait for?

Can capitalism continue to keep control when such questions are hanging in the air? That depends on the people, and that is the trouble with crowds. You can never be entirely sure what they’re going to think and do next.