Monday, September 05, 2005

Response to 'Genesis': Online Thought Collectives

While reading his book, I can't help feeling like the thought collective “apprentice” Fleck describes in section three of the fourth chapter. Thought collectives and linkages, passive and active connections: all of these terms are new to me (though I find myself accepting the underlying concepts). No doubt Fleck would say that this is because I already am a member of a thought collective that is open to thinking in this style (20th century rhetorical studies). Nevertheless, I still feel a little overwhelmed by the information, especially his terminology, which I found that he spent little time explaining. (I’m not talking about the medical jargon here; I assume he was writing to other physicians and researchers and felt that those terms did not need explaining, and what I missed there did not seem vital.)

I think the history of the book is also interesting in relation to the ideas it contains. Could it be said that the book was not generally accepted or noted in its time for reasons having to do with the accepted notions of scientific theories that were prevalent at the time of its publication? The editors mention the book being much discussed at the time of its release, but in the foreword, Thomas S. Kuhn seems to indicate that the book was either forgotten or ignored, at least in the U.S. Obviously, it had some impact, but I would think the argument could be made that Fleck was ahead of his time.

My personal concerns with technology seem to dovetail with Fleck’s ideas about thought collectives. While reading, I became particularly interested in how his ideas apply to online, self-consciously anonymous thought collectives. Two well-known examples are the Internet Movie Database ( and Wikipedia ( Both of these databases were assembled through volunteer information (though in each case this information is controlled by editors and subject to strict rules as to what will and will not be included). More recently assembles information about the damage done by Hurricane Katrina (see the story in Wired News,2904,68743,00.html?tw=rss.TEK). In each of these three instances, the thought collective decides which information is relevant and which is not to the style of the collective. In the case of scipionus, the information is limited to current damage and flood levels, explicitly excluding mere descriptions and pre-flood place markers.

In the Wired article, the creator of scipionus mentions that his site might be a model for how federal and state governments might respond to similar disasters in the future. An interesting research project might be preparing a set of guidelines or rules for posts to a disaster management site like scipionus that is similar to the monitored posts at Wikipedia and the iMDb. The theories of Fleck might be useful for generating such a set of guidelines, though I’m sure some of the books we will read later in the semester will provide a more structured framework for such a study.

(Sorry the links are so clumsy; I'm new at this.)


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