When I started reading Collaborative Futures I wanted to agree with their notion that greater collaboration is better for society. However, the further I read the more uneasy I began to feel. The authors of this collaboratively written work provide a nuanced examination of the benefits and potential pitfalls of collaboration. I fully support the notion that groups working collaboratively are better at problem solving and innovating more creative solutions to problems. This seems to work best in small scale collaborations where trust can be established, direct communication is possible, and the goals and organization of the project are clearly understood. My uneasiness comes in when the discussion shifts to large scale open collaborations. While such collaborations could be beneficial to society, they seem to be based on an altruistic notion of humanity that, from my perspective, does not exist.
Collaborative Futures tries to separate social and cultural production from the economic market economy. Yet, the authors also elicit a Bourdieuian analysis of their project when they invoke the term “cultural capital.” The invocation of Bourdieu negates the notion of altruism since, according to Bourdieu, all human action is interested action. Individuals will always act, consciously or not, in what they believe to be their best interests. This goes beyond the notion of economic incentive however to include the accrual of other types of capital. In this sense, the Free Culture movement establishes its own economy based on social and symbolic capital rather than monetary capital.
If we see large scale collaborations as establishing their own economies, then we have to acknowledge that they are also sites of power struggle. Does the open structure of large scale open collaboration open the possibility that a small well organized group could infiltrate and wield the power of the larger collective towards their own ends? Does the very nature of collaboration drive towards a state of “group think” in which dissension is silenced by the tyranny of the majority?
The authors begin to problemitize this situation in their discussion of Stephen Colbert’s actions on Wikipedia. Noticing the potential for a “group think” mentality on Wikipedia, Stephen Colbert coined the term “Wikiality” to describe to describe a phenomenon where a group of people can alter perception of truth through collaboration and corroboration on Wikipedia. He and his views adjusted the wiki page on elephants “claiming that the elephant population in Africa had tripled in the past 6 months (Collaborative Futures 53). Wikipedia responded by locking the article and deleting Colbert’s account.
I see two potentially disturbing power dynamics in this situation that raise questions:
- Who has the power to determine the ethics of the collaboration? Wikipedia removed Colbert’s claims, and his viewers’ corroboration of those claims, claiming site vandalism. While Colbert’s claims were blatantly false (it is satire after all), and were easily detected and removed as false claims. But what happens in murkier territory? The talk page for the Oberammergau Passion Play records a debate among wikipedia editors about whether or not to include the claims of anti-semitism in the play. Ultimately a version of the anti-semetic argument remain in the article (at least as of 3/2/2014), but is it possible that this significant element in the history of the play could be erased in service of an editor’s, or group of editors’, personal/political opinion that this aspect is no longer important? Who makes these decisions? On what basis?
- The issue of “Wikiality” itself raises interesting questions in terms of collaboration and corroboration. “Wikiality” as Colbert uses it is a form of group think in which a group of people can will facts into existence through repetition. In editing the wikipage for The Lost Colony play, I ran into trouble when i tried to check and add citations for existing information on the page. It was impossible to tell what information on the internet served as sources for the wiki and which were merely citing the wiki as the authority. In this instance the collaboration becomes the corroboration making claims appear to be facts. How do we avoid the dangers of this self-feedback loop?