Crowdsourcing usually refers to the aggregation of small decisions made by a lot of people. For example, aggregating the votes on a singer on American Idol is crowdsourcing. While much judgement might have gone behind the decision, the decision itself is simple. Voting in general — whether for presidents or for performers — is a crowdsourcing problem. Another tacit assumption behind crowdsourcing is that the decisions are taken at about the same time — while voting is spread across a whole day, a day is a relatively short time in the life of a presidency.The internet is the ideal medium for aggregation. Crowdsourcing usually refers to the aggregation of small decisions made by a lot of people. For example, aggregating the votes on a singer on American Idol is crowdsourcing. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is crowdsourcing. I want go beyond crowdsourcing into craftsourcing.

There’s that famous saying from the Hsin Hsin Ming: before enlightenment, chooping wood, carrying water; after enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water. I can’t think of a better evocation of the daily craft of contemplation. That focus on craft is central to every deep human tradition I know. When I was a mathematician, I used to practice mathematics several hours every day. Now, I spent a similar amount of time in philosophical and scientific practice. Craftsourcing involves deeper engagement with learning and knowledge. It’s practitioners need to give more of themselves and engage deeply with each other’s ideas and decisions. The classic modern example might be academic labor — the solution to Fermat’s last theorem involved the labor of several people across centuries, each one of whom engaged deeply with previous generations of scholars. Craftsourcing is spread both across space and across time.

Both crowd- and craft- sourcing are ancient social capabilities, but the internet has definitely revolutionized their scope and their reach. Crowdsourcing is at the heart of the major internet companies business model — Facebook, Google, Amazon are all based on aggregating the preferences of millions of people’s beliefs and decisions. Craftsourcing is not as developed, since it takes more effort and has fewer obvious economic benefits, but Wikipedia is arguably our best example of craftsourcing, where hundreds of thousands of people have given their time freely to produce the best encyclopedia on the history of our species. More recently, the polymath projects have created much excitement around collaborative solution of math problems, but true craftsourcing remains rare. Unlike crowdsourcing, which has produced businesses such as Google and Facebook that simply couldn’t exist in a previous era, we are yet to see craftsourcing produce knowledge of a kind that no one has produced before.

The contemplative traditions are ancient examples of craftsourcing — the daily life of the monastery is around the slow but steady practice of the contemplative craft. Can we recreate that experience on the internet? I doubt if purely virtual interactions can replicate the mentor-apprentice relationship, but a combination of virtual and physical interaction might be able to go a long way.

This week’s Links:

  1. Chu Hsi’s Learning to be a Sage, or how to become a true master.

  2. When two modern sages met: Einstein meets Tagore.


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