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There's something wrong with consensus

<![CDATA[I've been wrestling with the current passion for consensus. There's a destructive faith in the magic of the wisdom of crowds that is regurgitated by people talking about emergence, folksonomy and just about every form of social network that threatens to bring social progress to a grinding halt. Why? Because committees seldom if ever drive […]

<![CDATA[I've been wrestling with the current passion for consensus. There's a destructive faith in the magic of the wisdom of crowds that is regurgitated by people talking about emergence, folksonomy and just about every form of social network that threatens to bring social progress to a grinding halt. Why? Because committees seldom if ever drive positive change. See the Russian Revolution for the most tragic example of committee-driven change, but you can see it in any group that falls back on consensus for every decision rather than trusting individual inspiration.
The problem is that any time you write that you don't believe in the absolute value of the community's efforts, you become an elitist. I don't question the value of communal effort and consensus, I just don't think it is sufficient to make society a better place. People matter more that crowds of people, according to the Enlightenment view of human value, but that supreme faith in the individual is fading fast—at every degree of the political-philosophical spectrum. This is a tragic fact and it makes me fear for my kids' future.
It takes individuals acting utterly alone, clinging to their vision, too. That said, what started as the following notes in my notebook is taking shape in my head as a kind of manifesto yet to be released:

Success is believed to be primarily collective, yet it is essentially individual. It appears collective because accomplishments are judged by others, but even the smallest changes come from an individual.

Hard rationalism is being replaced by soft collectivism in which consensus is valued over truth.

Those were my notes. Fact is, in political efforts, the emergence community got its ass kicked by the martial approach to organizing of the right using the same technologies, in which millions of people sublimate their specific political identity. The technologies of collaboration are useful, but they institutionalize modes of thought that suggest if contributions aren’t heavily vetted they aren’t worthwhile. Vetting is good, but suggesting that the individual must accept the input of others and integrate it in order to gain acceptance is dangerous.
Great changes and important stands against negative changes in society come from the individual, standing alone or working in small groups who resist broader social mores until, eventually, resistance fails and the ideas that individual or group tested, perfected and promoted are accepted, finally, as a “truth.”
Today, I was reading Mike Godwin’s Reason interview with Neal Stephenson, who said:

Stephenson: This probably won’t do anything to endear me or Wink to thE typical reason reader, but I was made aware of him by a Jesuit priest of leftish tendencies who had been reading his stuff.

It’s almost always a disaster when a novelist decides to become political. So let me just make a few observations here on a human level—which is within my comfort zone as a novelist—and leave it at that.

It’s clear that the body politic is subject to power disorders. By this I mean events where some person or group suddenly concentrates a lot of power and abuses it. Power disorders frequently come as a surprise, and cause a lot of damage. This has been true since the beginning of human history. Exactly how and why power disorders occur is poorly understood.

We are in a position akin to that of early physicians who could see that people were getting sick but couldn’t do anything about it, because they didn’t understand the underlying causes. They knew of a few tricks that seemed to work. For example, nailing up plague houses tended to limit the spread of plague. But even the smart doctors tended to fall under the sway of pet theories that were wrong, such as the idea that diseases were caused by imbalanced humors or bad air. Once that happened, they ignored evidence that contradicted their theory. They became so invested in that theory that they treated any new ideas as threats. But from time to time you’d see someone like John Snow, who would point out, “Look, everyone who draws water from Well X is getting cholera.” Then he went and removed the pump handle from Well X and people stopped getting cholera. They still didn’t understand germ theory, but they were getting closer.

We can make a loose analogy to the way that people have addressed the problem of power disorders. We don’t really understand them. We know that there are a couple of tricks that seem to help, such as the rule of law and separation of powers. Beyond that, people tend to fall under the sway of this or that pet theory. And so you’ll get perfectly intelligent people saying, “All of our problems would be solved if only the workers controlled the means of production,” or what have you. Once they’ve settled on a totalizing political theory, they see everything through that lens and are hostile to other notions.

Wink’s interpretation of the New Testament is that Jesus was not a pacifist milksop but (among other things) was encouraging people to resist the dominant power system of the era, that being the Roman Empire. Mind you, Wink is no fan of violence either, and he devotes a lot of ink to attacking what he calls the Myth of Redemptive Violence, which he sees as a meme by which domination systems are perpetuated. But he is clearly all in favor of people standing up against oppressive power systems of all stripes.

Carrying that forward to the present day, Wink takes a general interest in people in various places who are getting the shaft. He develops an empirical science of shaftology, if you will. (Of course he doesn’t call it shaftology; that’s just my name for it.) He goes all over the world and looks at different kinds of people who are obviously getting the shaft, be they blacks in apartheid South Africa, South American peasants, or residents of inner-city neighborhoods dominated by gangs. He looks for connections among all of these situations and in this way develops the idea of domination systems. It’s not germ theory and modern antibiotics, but it is, at the very least, a kind of epidemiology of power disorders. And even people who can’t stomach the religious content of his work might take a few cues from this epidemiological, as opposed to theoretical/ideological, approach.

Reason: The Baroque Cycle suggests that there are sometimes great explosions of creativity, followed by that creative energy’s recombining and eventual crystallization into new forms—social, technological, political. Are we seeing a similar degree of explosive progress in the modern U.S.?

Stephenson: The success of the U.S. has not come from one consistent cause, as far as I can make out. Instead the U.S. will find a way to succeed for a few decades based on one thing, then, when that peters out, move on to another. Sometimes there is trouble during the transitions. So, in the early-to-mid-19th century, it was all about expansion westward and a colossal growth in population. After the Civil War, it was about exploitation of the world’s richest resource base: iron, steel, coal, the railways, and later oil.

For much of the 20th century it was about science and technology. The heyday was the Second World War, when we had not just the Manhattan Project but also the Radiation Lab at MIT and a large cryptology industry all cooking along at the same time. The war led into the nuclear arms race and the space race, which led in turn to the revolution in electronics, computers, the Internet, etc. If the emblematic figures of earlier eras were the pioneer with his Kentucky rifle, or the Gilded Age plutocrat, then for the era from, say, 1940 to 2000 it was the engineer, the geek, the scientist. It’s no coincidence that this era is also when science fiction has flourished, and in which the whole idea of the Future became current. After all, if you’re living in a technocratic society, it seems perfectly reasonable to try to predict the future by extrapolating trends in science and engineering.

It is quite obvious to me that the U.S. is turning away from all of this. It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works; the depiction of technical sorts in popular culture has been overwhelmingly negative for at least a generation now. More recently, the cultural right has apparently decided that it doesn’t care for some of what scientists have to say. So the technical class is caught in a pincer between these two wings of the so-called culture war. Of course the broad mass of people don’t belong to one wing or the other. But science is all about diligence, hard sustained work over long stretches of time, sweating the details, and abstract thinking, none of which is really being fostered by mainstream culture.

Since our prosperity and our military security for the last three or four generations have been rooted in science and technology, it would therefore seem that we’re coming to the end of one era and about to move into another. Whether it’s going to be better or worse is difficult for me to say. The obvious guess would be “worse.” If I really wanted to turn this into a jeremiad, I could hold forth on that for a while. But as mentioned before, this country has always found a new way to move forward and be prosperous. So maybe we’ll get lucky again. In the meantime, efforts to predict the future by extrapolating trends in the world of science and technology are apt to feel a lot less compelling than they might have in 1955.


7 replies on “There's something wrong with consensus”

I agree that there are sectors in which consensus is over-rated–say, NGO sectors that assume that the term ‘civil society’ refers to a consensus about interaction or some open source accounts that assume that distributed work flows together because there is an underlying consensus. But, I disagree that the best alternative is the lone individual. And, I disagree with the presumption that today all sectors support consensus: the Bush doctrine is very much based in a go-it-alone attitude, hero at the top, screw what the masses think, sort of orientation. The idea of an isolated individual actually doesn’t make much sense–no one survives alone. There isn’t even a person outside of socialitity–we are linguistic beings and there is no such thing as a private language. So, this leaves, then, looking for better ways to think about interconnection, mediation, relationships, networks, etc. And here it seems to me important to acknowledge conflict, dissensus, confusions, mixed motives, and unintended consequences. This is still pretty abstract, but it avoids the oscillation between two equally implausible alternatives: the individual and the unified (consensus) group.

And I agree with Jodi,a nd with your insisghts, Mitch. One of the lessons I took away from Suroweiki’s “Wisdom of Crowds” was that useful “crowd” wisdom tends to come from effective aggregation of work a diverse group who work towards conclusions independently. The keys here are “effective aggregation”, independence on individual level, and diversity.

I guess the problem is that I am not talking about isolated individuals, but committed individuals who are willing to stand apart. The forces of conformity are at an all-time high, to the degree that our individual language will be buried under waves of consensus-based tagging projects that overwhelm the meaning an individual creates.
I agree with both of you that aggregation is valuable, but what I see is a kind of cult of consensus developing, especially in the center and left as they try to compete with the right’s rather martial approach to supporting a strong leader that gains them a slight majority in plural societies.

A cult of consensus (like any cult) is a bad idea. Agreed. At the same time, effective action requires more than isolated individuals–it requires coalitions, alliances, persuasion, negotiation, etc. One might think of any small organization–from an academic department to a city council–getting things accomplished generally requires majorities, or very strong, allied, minorities.
On tagging: this doesn’t strike me as so frightening. A library of congress classification on a book can’t do justice to it’s content. Neither can it’s title. A map doesn’t fully document it’s terraing–it would then be that terrain. So, tagging is one way to organize data collaboratively. It can be fun. And, yes, this fun has the risk of reducing a content to a conventional label. But, that could also bring or deliver that content more effectively.
Your best point: commitment. This is really what it takes, individuals committed to go against the grain and find ways to work together against the conventional. You are also right to mention ‘slight majority in plural societies.’ In my hysterical leftist misery, I tend to forget this absolutely key fact.

Jodi—Obviously, I agree with your point about effective action. The concern I am working on expressing, though, has to do with the desirability of consensus as conformity, which is what I see being promoted by a poor understanding of consensus, especially by the emergence/crowd wisdom trope.
I used the example of tagging very purposefully, because I do think that the assumption that systems of automated consensus-based data organization carry artifacts created by assumptions and power-based influence far into the future, permanently shaping organizations and societies. I wrote a chapter of the book, Creating a Learning Culture, on this topic, urging organizations to develop a kind of historiography of technologically transmitted assumptions. The rough draft is here, but, of course, you should urge folks to buy the book.
On commitment: The big test of commitment comes when you choose to stand alone, not when people start to gather round you. The far right is pretty smug right now because they interpret their position as being surrounded by supporters, when in reality they are merely standing to most voters’ right.

Your point about tagging carrying assumptions and power-based influence into the future is really great. I hadn’t thought of that. That makes a lot of sense. Do you have any examples? I don’t need any to be convinced of the conceptual point; I was just wondering.
On the test of commitment–I agree with emphases on political will and responsibility but am wary of cowboy-like individualism. It may be that we are using different languages to describe something similar. Or that we simply disagree on this point. Nevertheless, the larger issue of consensus we agree on and I look forward to reading your chapter.

I’m not advocating cowboy-like individualism, just individualism in the sense that a person must maintain an intellectually complete and honest view of the world. Hence, my example of Rousseau’s Solitary Walker the other day on my blog….
There are some examples of technology carrying vestiges of past power relationships in the essay I mentioned.

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