Algorithm ‘n’ Blues


One of the greatest changes represented by the Information Revolution has been the instant collectivization of knowledge, notably seen at Wikipedia but also manifest across the worlds of business, science, and learning. Essentially, the Internet has afforded an unprecedentedly rapid pooling of innovation and insight that has sped up decision-making and problem-solving in ways unimaginable just a few decades ago. Not only can individual computers process complex calculations in short periods, but computer links now permit thousands, or millions, or billions, of people to chip in ideas and opinions on given issues at the speed of electricity. Indeed, search engines like Google operate on formulae which measure the aggregate popularity of every entered word or phrase: each time you select a hit, you’re participating in a worldwide mini-referendum.

James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat are among many books which have addressed this development, while very opposite stands on the matter are taken by David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room and Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How Blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the Rest of Today’s User-generated Media Are Destroying Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values. What everyone agrees on is that power and influence have, more than ever, devolved down from VIPs in high office to anonymous hordes, the metaphorical offspring of Matt Drudge and Julian Assange: Nigerian spammers, Indian programmers, North American hacktivists, and the guy who did “Gangnam Style.” Beyond those, however, is the further implication that responsibility or authorship itself may become obsolete. It isn’t just that big changes can be effected by small people – Gavrilo Princip and Lee Harvey Oswald knew all about that – but that the very notions of singular personalities or exceptional gifts no longer obtain.

There’s an old joke that, in China, even if you’re a one-in-a-million kind of guy, there are still a thousand people exactly like you. That is, in fact, the Internet in microcosm: no matter what you say, purchase, look at, or look for online, you are almost certainly not alone. There’s also the familiar hypothesis that an infinite number of randomly keyboarding monkeys, supplied an infinite amount of paper over an infinite duration, would by pure accident replicate the complete works of Shakespeare. A few minutes’ search of the Web will show that far fewer humans take far less time to replicate a single conspiracy theory about Barack Obama, a snarky review of The Martian, a wacky skateboard video, or (it pains me to admit) a thoughtful blog post about the death of originality.  Where there’s one of anything on the Web, in other words, there’s probably at least a hundred more very similar to it, to the extent that it isn’t very important where any of them originated. As far as Google is concerned, each of us is but an anonymous drop in a torrential content stream.

Hollywood plagiarism lawsuits are notoriously difficult to prosecute, they say, since so many aspiring screenwriters have already copyrighted their own romantic comedies, crime thrillers, or sci-fi epics, and the templates for each are generic enough that countless scenarists, like the infinite monkeys, have come up with near-identical versions of them. What the litigants imagined was their private genius turns out to be something shared among numerous competitors they never knew existed.  But would-be Oscar-winners aren’t the only ones frustrated: this is the problem faced by intellectual property holders everywhere today. The Internet allows us to see just how commonly held many ideas really are, and it can precisely quantify the overall prevalence of statements or perceptions once considered the obscure tastes of negligible minorities. The troubling corollary of this is that it also allows us to see how truly rare are the unique talent, the independent mind, and the out-of-the-blue inspiration. In a world where everyone has a voice in the choir, are there still any soloists to distinguish?

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