Monday, June 28, 2004

Mr. Zeitgeist

I can't imagine a book more relevant to blogging than The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations by James Surowiecki. It is like the outing of the latent understanding a few hundred thousand people have been chewing on for the past few years, in blogs, wikis, and other minimal barrier modes of publishing.

I'm still reading the book. Certain of its implications - of what it calls cognitive diversity, for example, are broad, fascinating and destined to be upsetting.

Surowiecki argues that the greater the diversity of any human group, the better the collective judgment. So including people who clearly have less than expert knowledge or information about something actually increases the chances that a group will arrive at the best answer. Why? In part because experts share narrow expertise that tends to view its subject through a largely redundant lens. Group homogeneity means less new information, entropy, greater chance of poor judgment.

This goes against much that we think we know about knowledge, intelligence, problem solving. Except that it rings true, so we knew it all along.

Since it is an argument against central authority, it largely works via anecdote and invokes studies across a range of disciplines. Its central insight bears the mantle of no single authority, which makes it a daring tome indeed. It's also very well written.

Here's an excerpt. Here's Surowiecki on his understanding of diversity.

I want to say more about this book, but need to finish it first. Love to hear from other readers.

11 Comments:

Blogger Dorothea said...

I have had this book on hold at the library for a month. I'm currently sixth in line for it. I'll let you know when I actually get to read it!

It does look fascinating.

6/28/2004 9:43 AM  
Blogger Jon Husband said...

the greater the diversity of any human group, the better the collective judgment. So including people who clearly have less than expert knowledge or information about something actually increases the chances that a group will arrive at the best answer. Why? In part because experts share narrow expertise that tends to view its subject through a largely redundant lens. Group homogeneity means less new information, entropy, greater chance of poor judgment.Blogging enables broad swathes of diversity, sans doute - Doc's scaffolding of knowledge and meaning created by sinking into, thinking through and linking onto what someone else has introduced or interpreted. Blogging also allows the deep dive into the minutiae of meaning, shining light onto the details, including various formats of the details (witness, for example the back and forth on burningbird about the definition(s) and use of "miscreant" and indeed the dialogue that develops from the beginning instantiations).

Broad and deep ... both/and. Certainly I have experienced an acceleration and deepening of learning, and the enabling of a personal practice of thinking, so to speak - one that is done in public or in a community, but a funny sort of community. Since it is one's own blog, no one else is forced in any way to be part of it, as opposed to other communities which form because of the constraints of time, place, ethnicity, parentage, sexuality, whatever.

I believe blogging, practiced without some of the artifiical-but-real boundaries placed on many activities and areas of endeavour, shows us the possibility of changing valences. It helps us touch and enact the latent potential of both individual minds struggling to express understanding and meaning clearly, and many minds coalescing on both the complexity and essence of many issues.

And it's all saved there on the screen, for us to wrestle with as often as needed.

In contrast, deep expertise (and perhaps wisdom) contained in one person's mind enabled by say academe or position in an organization or through recognition as an expert elsewhere, depends on narrow, rigid and relatively heavy filtering of various sorts in order to make the expertise available and/or useful. And can only truly contribute to widespread development if ways are found to share effectively and make the expertise/wisdom relevant to many different, diverse individual cognitions (like the good teachers can make happen).

he - I feel like there's so much that could be said here, wanna keep going - will stop ... and go find the book and read it.

6/28/2004 11:21 AM  
Blogger The Gluon said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6/28/2004 1:34 PM  
Blogger Ray Davis said...

I've been interested in this line of research for a while. (See Who's the Weirdo? and the entry after.)

Thanks for the pointer to the book; I look forward to looking through it. But I have to worry about the title's emphasis on "crowds" and "collective wisdom". Plenty of studies and life experiences indicate that community tends to stifle diversity. From your synopsis and links, it's clear that the author knows this -- but community also tends to simplify (and falsify) messages into what will support communal preconceptions, so he may have a hard time making that aspect heard.

6/28/2004 2:24 PM  
Blogger Ray Davis said...

Blogger did interesting things to that link, didn't it?

http://www.pseudopodium.org/ht-20020616.html#2002-06-29

6/28/2004 2:27 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

Jon, I can tell you're going to find this a stimulating read. Much has to do with modes of aggregation, since in this "funny community" no one can be trusted to get it right. I'll be looking for your thoughts.

6/28/2004 3:37 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

Ray, please ignore my hasty and reductive outline. I think you'll find your (entirely sensible) suspicions about communities and consensus are addressed in the book. One chapter is devoted to varieties of peer influence, mimicry, and homogenization. Surowiecki uses "crowds" precisely to distinguish random or disjointed groups from self-conscious communities.

6/28/2004 3:45 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

Dorothea, I'll be very interested in whether some of the patterns noted in the book relate to your experience of games (not to mention the gamesmanship of academia).

6/28/2004 3:48 PM  
Blogger Jon Husband said...

Nova Spivack on the ultimate wisdom from the ultimate crowd.

Lots of it is technical (kinda) stuff about metalanguage, but it is also pregnant with possibility if you will.

6/28/2004 8:34 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

Thanks for the pointer, Jon - a large and searching excursus there. I have only dipped in. I seem to have a constitutional aversion to the word "meme," which might pose a problem. I always fail to see the reason for using the word, except insofar as it gives us a kind of rigid marker to use in place of more elastic cognitive tropes like "idea," or "concept."

6/28/2004 11:44 PM  
Blogger Jon Husband said...

understand - I too consider "memes" pertinent ideas that get discussed a lot

6/28/2004 11:48 PM  

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