Monday, January 17, 2005

blind pass

This recent exchange between James Surowiecki and Malcolm Gladwell on Slate vis a vis their recent books has much to offer.

As both agree, they come at the question of the authority of deliberative expertise from different places, but they share the glory in undermining our confidence in the authority of cognitive mastery.

It's a little surprising that they seem to exchange blind spots along the way. Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds is essentially about the limits on an individual's powers to grasp objective data. That is, any single judgment is, according to his argument, more blind than an aggregate of individual judgments formed independently about the same data. Somehow a collective -- which must be distinguished sharply from a group, which has already developed its groupness through discussions leading to jointly preferring certain assumptions and factors over others -- tends to be less blind, more open to more kinds of information, enabling its individual judgments' errors to offset each other, leading to greater accuracy. (Sorry this is infinitely less elegantly stated than Surowiecki's expression of it, but I don't have his book at hand to refer to.)

That is to say, Surowiecki is talking about augmenting our powers of judgment in cases where judgment is necessary because computation is not possible. We might need more than one small brain to help understand unfamiliar modes and manners of newfangled terrorists, but we don't need more than one person to tell us that 2 + 2 = 4. What this also means is that Surowiecki is for the most part not talking about modes of action. He is not arguing that there would be a better result if 10 randomly chosen fans all tried to skate better than Michelle Kwan - especially if they all had to use the same pair of skates at the same time! His book documents how we might form more reliable judgments through aggregation, not perform more successful feats of prowess.

On the other hand, Gladwell's argument in Blink points more toward the sort of total intuitional instantaneity that informs the performer who can do what the normal human cannot do. It is about action, feats of unusual derring-do successfully carried out. It is also about how people can fail to see how certain seemingly fair judgments have been biased by determinations made before they even began to judge -- his story, for example, of orchestral auditions in which the percentage of women hired rose after judges were blocked from viewing whether the auditioners were male or female. We can all relate to instances in which conclusions were foregone long before the alleged process of investigation got underway. E.g., "blind" dates.

Surowiecki's theme is about the hole in our minds qua mind: We with our isolated views miss things that multiple views often don't miss, at least as much. Gladwell is talking about the normal cognitive distortions that come between what we think we are doing and our ability to do it, and about the rare individuals who surehandedly make the right move when thinking too much or even at all would only mislead them.

Surowiecki is working on hunches played in the face of limitations of view - the something that one doesn't see that the Other may see. This is the stake claimed by the swarming, correcting mode of blogging, and its remote border is the ultimate Limitation that separates us from that which is not us. Gladwell on the other hand is talking about illusions that baffle us because we "know" we did not put them there. This is the realm of dream, of mythmaking, of "backstage" mechanisms that seem to always anticipate and direct what we think we know about what we think we see. It is also the mode of overconfident authorities.

So perhaps it "fits" that they arrive at a place in their conversation where each sees the other's book as complementing his own. This could be the case to a degree, but it also seems not the case insofar as two different kinds of knowledges are in play: in one, the self can be corrected by the other; in the other, the self can only realize its aim by outwitting itself.


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