Boston Review — Lindsey Gilbert: The Networked Era (Michael Nielsen)
LG: What about humanities and the arts? Would there be any way to use online tools there to amplify our collective intelligence, or is the idea of collaborative art an oxymoron?
MN: Well, there are lots of experiments. There have been things like attempts to do collective drawing applications, where hopefully you get lots of artists to come in together and maybe create something beautiful. Unfortunately, mostly they haven’t worked very well. I’m optimistic that maybe what’s going on is that we just haven’t found quite the right pattern yet. You do see some very beautiful things done occasionally. On YouTube, there are some beautiful collective choirs, where hundreds of people from all over the world will contribute a YouTube clip of themselves singing some song. The collective can have its kind of beauty in that way. It seems to me that we are still lacking some key ideas or key tools necessary to do that really well. We don’t yet have a group da Vinci. We can’t take a thousand people and get something like the Mona Lisa.
LG: In Reinventing Discovery you talk about “citizen science.” I’m wondering what that is. All of us have free time. Should we be spending it on citizen science? Can amateurs and hobbyists really contribute to scientific discovery?
MN: For hundreds of years now, amateurs have participated in science in various ways. One area where they’ve done a lot is in ornithology. Amateur birdwatchers have been really important for a long time. The exciting thing that’s happening now are these new citizen science projects, which connect amateurs with, say, the astronomy community (or many different scientific communities) to help out in solving some of the problems that astronomers have. There’s a nice project called Galaxy Zoo, which involves a quarter of a million people who are helping to analyze galaxy images. They’ve made all sorts of discoveries. They’ve written 22 scientific papers, and they’ve discovered an entirely new class of galaxy, among other things. You ask whether or not we should take some of our spare time and do it. I don’t know. I don’t think there is a moral dimension to it. It’s not a question of whether people should or not. It’s just a question of whether or not they’d enjoy doing it and maybe get some value or meaning out of it for themselves.