The Anti-Authoritarian Age

In a compelling post Chris Anderson claims that people are unconfortable with distributed systems “[b]ecause these systems operate on the alien logic of probabilistic statistics, which sacrifices perfection at the microscale for optimization at the macroscale.”

I suspect one could make an even stronger claim closer to people’s actual thoughts, which aren’t about probability: people crave authority, and any system that doesn’t claim authority is suspect.

The most extreme example does not involve the web, blogs, wikipedia, markets, or democracy, all of which Anderson mentions. Science is the extreme example, and its dual, religion.

Science disclaims authority and certain knowledge. Even scientific “laws” are subject to continued investigation, criticism, and revision. Religions claim certain knowledge with no evidence, only assertions of authority, and count billions as believers.

Distributed systems sacrifice claims of perfection for optimization at the macroscale.

What wikipedia really needs is the pope to declare certain articles .

On the subject of response to the ongoing rounds of wikipedia criticism, this otherwise excellent post from Rob Kaye is pretty typical:

The Wikipedians will carry on their work and in another 5 years time it will be better than encyclopedia britannica — its only a matter of time.

For me this time is measured in negative years. I loved paper encyclopedias as a kid (but was always skeptical of their content–very incomplete at best). I haven’t looked at one in years. I use wikipedia every day.

Not having access to a paper encyclopedia means I have more shelf space to work with. Not having access to wikipedia would be a severe annoyance. In another 5 years time it would be a severe disability.

Addendum 20051225: I forgot to mention another example of ready acceptance of bogus authority versus rejection of uncertain discovery: the WMD excuse for invading Iraq versus the horror at an .

3 Responses

  1. zeevveez says:

    This authority problem will get worse in the near future
    since Web 2.0 is about micro-contents that are torn from the
    original article – so that the author is forgotten at
    the end of the day.
    It looks like you appreciate encyclopedias a little too much.
    IMO they are old macro content monsters that have to be
    shattered to atoms of knowledge and rearranged according to
    users needs.
    See more on

  2. [...] Yes, it is the anti-authoritarian age. Time: But 2006 gave us some ideas. This is an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person. [...]

  3. [...] That depends on the subject of optimism. I think people tend to be dangerously optimisic about the outcomes of authoritarian processes, including both obvious societywide authoritarianism and conscious decisions made by individuals, but dangerously pessimistic about decentralized processes, including listening to external advice at the individual level. [...]

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