Individualism in the networked world

Evolving thought:

One of the large challenges of the 21st century is going to be reconciling our increasingly networked world with traditional notions of individualism.

The more I look at a networked world – not in some geopolitical sense but on a day to day experience for everyone – the more it appears that many of the core to elements of liberal individualism are going to be challenged. Authorship is a great example of this dynamic playing out – yes Wikipedia makes it impossible to identify who an author is – but even tweets, and blogs and all forms of digital medium confuse who is the original author of a work. More over, we may no longer live in a world of unique individual thought. As Kevin Kelly so remarkably documents in What Technology Wants by looking at patent submissions and scientific papers, it is increasingly apparent that technologies are being simultaneously discovered everywhere, the notion of attributing something to an individual may be at best difficult, at worst impossibly random.

And of course networked systems disproportionately reward hubs. Hubs in a network attract more traffic (ideas/money/anything) and therefor may appear to many others in the network as the source of these ideas as they are shared out. I for example get to hear more about open data, or technology and government, then many other people, as a result my thinking gets to be pushed further and faster allowing me to in turn share more ideas that are of interest and attract still more connections. I benefit not simply from inherent individual abilities, but from the structure of, and my location in, a network.

Of course, socialist collectivism is going to be challenged as well in some different way but I think that may be less traumatic for our political systems the a direct challenge to individualism – something many centrist and right leaning parties may struggle with.

This is all still half formed but mental note for myself. More thinking/research on this needed. Open to ideas, articles, etc…

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Adriel Hampton

It doesn’t sound like you coming at this from the perspective that “traditional notions of individualism” (and whose traditions?) have some kind of ultimate value. You’ve laid out some concerns about authorship; what other valuable attributes of 20th century western thought would we suffer by losing?

Alicia Mazzara

I am not so sure that a loss of individualism is necessarily as damaging to the socio-political environment as a loss of social collectivism. Technology may connect us to people half-way across the globe, but sometimes it reinforces a separateness in our local communities. Both of these strike me as core components of a well-functioning democratic society.