Friday, July 16, 2004

wisdom all too human

Societies throughout history have recognized the hazards of groupthink and made arrangements to guard against it. The shaman, the wise woman and similar figures all represent institutionalized outlets for alternative points of view. In the European carnival tradition, a "king of fools" was permitted to mock the authorities, at least for a day or two. In some cultures, people resorted to vision quests or hallucinogens — anything to get out of the box. Because, while the capacity for groupthink is an endearing part of our legacy as social animals, it's also a common precondition for self-destruction. Barbara Ehrenreich

[Thomas L. Friedman is on leave until October (good riddance).]
Ehrenreich is zooming in on an issue more and more people are seeing, or, more accurately, feeling, sensing. The absence, for a long time in American public discourse, of what for want of a better term is common sense - the sense of a bunch of people large enough to be unable to agree.

While small groups, tight communities, mutually reinforce themselves in ways well detailed by James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds, large groups resist compatibility and have to deal with something very like chance, or fate (not a term he invokes).

What Surowiecki is on to is a mode of collective decision-making that doesn't fall neatly under cognitive models of deliberation, exchange of views, or consensus building. As he says,
The wisdom of crowds isn't about consensus. It really emerges from disagreement and even conflict.
What he calls "wisdom" is not what we think of as understanding or mastery of facts. Every day, Rumsfeld demonstrates that he is Master of some subset of knowledge. Surowiecki is pointing to what falls out of these centralized modes of totalizing knowledge. What they must be blind to, in order to see what they see. The crowd offers a more reliably diverse set of bets on outcomes, wagers as to what could happen than the Doms can reasonably entertain. The slot machine in the Senate.

This diversity, one must say, includes ignorance and what we normally like to think stupid, unassimilable, unspeakable. Which is why it often manifests itself under masks -- the fool, the outsider, the destabilizing woman -- when it appears at all.

Collective wisdom is not a sum, a total. It is a split, a downer, a break in the erotic consummations of knowers and known. It is that which ensures we will never all get along, agree, or be compatible in any jolly holistic way. To exercise such wisdom, Surowiecki tells us, requires sacrifice, surrender, defeat.

This hard risk means that juntas like those that run corporations, Congress or the White House will remain hostile to wisdom. There will always be another book telling us how to listen, how to manage, how to succeed, how to heal ourselves. Our addiction to this is stronger than dirt.

(This wysiwyg is the shit).


Blogger Jon Husband said...

Yes indeed. I hink there is an addiction on both sides, if we are to think of them as sides .. to the machine, to the making and gathering of wealth, power and control on the one, and to the essence of what is human and the virtues and positive impulses we all share, on the other. And I suppose it will be ever thus.

I read Ehrenreich's piece on the plane home yesterday, and enjoyed the depth and thoughtfulness.

7/16/2004 1:33 PM  

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