Saturday, September 15, 2007

Cultural anthropology & the web

IMHO - the internet is at its coolest when it lets you visit easily with neat people from all over the country, and across the world. It can also be at its worst then. The value of the internet 'hive mind' is inevitably tied to the value of collective humanity everywhere - which can mean 'the mob mind' instead of the 'think tank' effect.

What's more - we all tend to look for the things that interest us and people who will appreciate us to share it with, rather than spending a lot of time seeing what 'the other side' thinks. As long as humans can collect with like-minded folks from elsewhere the internet has personal value, but its ability to 'shape mankind' is then limited to what appeals to that same mankind. You will not make opera lovers out of rock & rollers - Rather, both will find forums that reinforce their own view of the music world. Each group becomes its own village, and like the villagers of old, they reinforce their collective values on one another. If anything, this ability to seek 'your kind' has proved narrowing to some souls who came seeking only to affirm their own values at the expense of respecting that of others - reinforcing their innate tendency toward bigotry. Only those who come with an open-mind can expect to have it broadened further by the people and information available on the 'net.

This is because many people are followers, and most of us are 'herd-minded,' following the authorities/influences we find in our 'home' forums on the net. This natural effect has been made even stronger by the extreme value our culture has put on 'experts' and 'professionally-run' institutions. People in most 1st world countries have been trained to honor doctors, schoolmasters, and 'stars' from their earliest days. (Patrick Henry would be appalled, but then a lot of things in our modern world would appall that free-thinking firebrand.) Some leaders are elected in freely made forums, but most come to power by gaining 'popularity' (which may be honestly merited or gained by manipulation). Other forums are managed by the 'noble & patronage' model - as the sponsor &/or chosen community moderator for a company or group becomes the one the 'vassals' seek to please for goodies & recognition).

This is all part of the 'hive mind' experience - dedicated miniature mobs led by bad people as well as good - and either possibly manipulated by powerful monied &/or political groups. Yes, the free(r) interaction between the best minds in the world has the potential to be of incalculable benefit to mankind, but it would be foolish to forget this 'other' aspect.

I think we don't need to redefine ethics, rhetoric, authorship etc as much as we need to make sure we apply it in our own circles, and hope whatever good influence we can exert will be expanded upon by others - otherwise we will find that virtual mobs, like personal ones, will tend toward the lowest common denominators led by the loudest voices (as opposed to the wisest or kindest)...which in turn brings to mind innumerable Terry Pratchett comments about mobs - so, of course the book I was looking to quote from has gone missing this afternoon. I did find this one online, however:

"The kicking and punching stopped only when it became apparent that all the mob was attacking was itself. And, since the IQ of a mob is the IQ of its most stupid member divided by the number of mobsters, it was never very clear to anyone what had happened." Terry Pratchett Maskerade

IMHO the internet is less a shaper of mankind than a reflection of its perpetual political tendencies...a swiftly changing reflection, but a virtual echo nonetheless.

[OT:: My thanks to the guys who have begun compiling many of Pratchett's best quotes. One day I am sure Terry will be listed right next to Samuel Johnson & Oscar Wilde. Meantime, I am very glad these fans are filling in the gap!]

ed:: Meant to mention that Terry Pratchett has done plenty of thinking about hive minds versus mob minds in his books. He makes a number of interesting observations about it - also using natural imagery - especially in Lords & Ladies where Terry shows the 'queen bee' as an effective force for good when 'led' by Granny Weatherwax.]


David said...

I think you have touched on a very potent problem of the internet and one that we all tend to tend toward. (In fact, I remember seeing this very thing happen in the Myst community before I dropped out of it.) It is far easier for me - and for anyone, really - to find people who I agree with and won't challenge me rather than seeking to broaden my horizons through conflict and serious thought. Having now seen some of this first-hand, I can say that many companies whose services are creating and maintaining social-based websites have noticed precisely what you speak of, and are designing their sites around it. "Micro-communities" is what it's called: put the conservatives over here and the liberals over there to keep them happy with their like-minded folk and prevent those nasty flame wars that start when they get together. Mob mentality isn't discouraged, it's encouraged (so long as the mobs don't meet). It's all very insular, but then again it reflects the real-world culture, in which political people of one persuasion or another choose the news station that best suits them, and the religious people hang out with like-minded religious people, and so forth.

What you said about applying this in our own circles is extremely wise, I think. But I do think it is probably important to expand those circles all the same (oh no, scary!).

Love the Pratchett quote, of course; I well remember that one. I was just thinking about another one of his other books, Carpe Jugulum, the other day. The kind of literature that sticks with you I suppose. :)

Shushan said...

Great thoughts, David :))

We all look for 'homey' spaces. That isn't bad in and of itself, but I am absolutely agreed with you that we should actively seek out the better voices from other points of view so we don't get too insular.

& Yeah, I was thinking of another quote too but this was the one I could find. lol

Mom felt it was a great quote for the ideas presented because she said it marks a sort of ruler as the quality of the communities we are in. Any type of government can work when people treat each other with respect, but those run by someone using mob-tactics to maintain control are going to end up like the quote - kicking & punching each other when their designated 'pariahs' aren't handy.

Shushan said...

drat- I meant OF the communities we are in. heh

This post kicked off a lot of discussion around the house. Becka may yet post her own thoughts, but I will have to add Tom's for him.

He said that everytime someone says 'hive mind' he thinks of the license plates he's seen with things like 'Queen Bee" on them. He feels that those plates summate the danger of viewing ourselves this way - someone always wants to be Queen B or 'Main Bee" and have everyone else be their mindless drones, serving their egos.

Something about 'main bee' tickled my funny bone - made me wonder if a Conneticut Bee or a Quilting Bee couldn't Bee (hehe) just as good.

Which got me called silly ::grin::

More seriously, I do understand there is sometimes a positive collective effect in gatherings online. 'Hive Mind' is just the latest Buzzzz word for the older 'think tank' ;)

From what I have read they mean that hives seem to use more intelligence collectively than they do as individuals, and there is a hope that humans can add to each other's creativity and intelligence similarly. This was one of the original purposes of the internet!

Certainly *I* have been inspired by people on the internet. I don't know that I couldn't have been inspired by people near me offline, but the fact is it is easier to find every kind of person online and grow in some direction or another.

But even growth is a choice, imho. I don't see it as inevitable with the internet.

Rebehm said...

What an interesting post, Mom. :)

The imagery the phrase "hive mind" brings to my mind is actually of a wasp's or yellow jacket's nest. Wasps are often quite aggressive here. When they decide to claim an area, they will seek to drive out anything that may prevent them from taking it over - even if said obstacle was not antagonizing them.

One wasp by itself can usually "bee" shooed away without much trouble. However, if you've got the whole hive or even just part of it trying - it turns ugly fast. One poor guy was killed by a yellow jacket hive in the ground where he was mowing.

Only regular bees offer good stuff like honey and beeswax to their neighbors. What they offer can be very, very good - their products can even be used for healing others.

Shushan said...

hhmmm.. good thing I checked my compy one more time. That was quick, kiddo! :D

On one level your imagery expresses nicely the inherent strength of collective action - but I think maybe it also shows the weakness of calling a 'hive mind' an evolutionary tool.

After all, the instance you mentioned, you have an example of a 'hive mind' of small creatures bringing down a larger, more intelligent, more capable entity by acting together -whether by instinct or at the behest of the nest's leader. The net effect is a immediate reduction in intelligent action around the hive. The hive doesn't 'grow' from the experience in any meaningful fashion. Its their biggest weapon and they use it often- driving other minds away.

Yes, your father saw that potentiality too.

All Queen Bees want to be able to claim all the abilities and collective powers of those under them. Makes them seem much bigger than a dragonfly when swarmed by attendants - as long as observers don't look *too* closely.

I don't know that people who who use the phrase mean to be that literal, but all natural imagery can provide unexpected food for thought...

Reminds me of the example I read of the philosopher who stared at a wall for long hours, and when he got up, his intense study of it had enlightened him further.

Life is a great teacher for those who can stand to listen. :-)

Dana said...

It helps us do the same old things faster and to a greater degree, ie., form cliques and filter interactions.

Shushan said...

That's a good point, Dana. I think you are right. Whichever way we were going we tend to get there faster 'with a little help from our friends.'