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Interactivity: The "Wisdom" of Crowds?

James Surowiecki has released a book called The Wisdom of Crowds. There is a trend toward placing more and more emphasis on ideas about the collective, and safe to say that finding ways to help people learn more effectively together is important. We can see ideas like this being captured in ideas like collective intelligence, connected intelligence, smart mobs, and now the wisdom of crowds. Collective - connected - smart - wisdom. Yet, there is a possibility that these ideas can be taken to extremes...

In Smart Mobs: The Wisdom of Crowds I found the basic premise that Suroweicki uses to develop the idea of wisdom being present in crowds:

The book's premise is that "large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliantóbetter at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future."

Of course, it is immediately obvious that this is not a hard and fast rule, therefore, the wisdom of crowds is not a hard and fast rule either. It is not a difficult task to: a) provide examples of when large groups of people are not smarter than a few; or b) provide examples when an individual or small group of people acted more intelligently than a larger crowd.

In an except from the book we read about the power of using group intelligence to solve the questions presented on the television show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." However, one must remember that one becomes a millionaire on this show by being adept at trivial pursuit, and this can hardly be equated with anything we would remotely refer to as "wisdom." It is only obvious to say that more than one mind will hold more trivia than a single mind and that by accessing more than one mind there is a greater probability that the right answer can be found.

Yet, knowing more, or knowledge as quantity, does not mean that wisdom is somehow increased. There is a tendency to confuse the idea of having more information or knowledge available with having greater intelligence, or in this case having greater wisdom.

The second example in the excerpt retrieves the mis-guided premise that statisitcal correlation in research reveals underlying principles or generalizations.

In another experiment students were asked to look at ten piles of buckshot—each a slightly different size than the rest—that had been glued to a piece of white cardboard, and rank them by size. This time, the group's guess was 94.5 percent accurate. A classic demonstration of group intelligence is the jelly-beans-in-the-jar experiment, in which invariably the group's estimate is superior to the vast majority of the individual guesses. When finance professor Jack Treynor ran the experiment in his class with a jar that held 850 beans, the group estimate was 871. Only one of the fifty-six people in the class made a better guess.

Buckshot and jelly-beans. Here intelligence is equated with guessing and statistically speaking larger numbers of people will statistically guess about quantities of buckshot or jelly-beans more accurately. Yet the underlying context is one of trivial pursuit once again. It is not a foundation to speak about intelligence or wisdom.

Of course, this is only an excerpt and comng to general conclusions from it are to be avoided. I do, however, wonder why Random House would use an except that in no way speaks to the title of the book. Would people be inspired to purchase this book after reading this excerpt?

So far, of the five senses of the word wisdom, we are limited to thinking about it in terms of quantity of knowledge and the underlying assumption that more is better. Yet exploring the other sense of the word offered on WordNet, we see no connection with the "wisdom of crowds" to erudition, common sense, insight, or understanding. This is not a mere excerise in semantics. Further, there seems to be a blurring of the distinction between wisdom and intelligence. One would not say that the words have been used incorrectly, however, they have been used in very simplistic and narrowly-defined terms.

In the question and answer with the author we read:

A "crowd," in the sense that I use the word in the book, is really any group of people who can act collectively to make decisions and solve problems.

This may be example of creating a sense of the word crowd that doesn't exist. The underlying assumption is that a "crowd" can act collectively to "solve problems" and "make decisions." But on what level does this problem-solving and decision-making occur? And what is the underlying value of this with respect to "wisdom?"

The paradox of the wisdom of crowds is that the best group decisions come from lots of independent individual decisions.

So the paradox involves the idea that the best meta-decision comes from people not thinking together, but instead thinking apart and not being influenced by one another. And there is wisdom in this? Perhaps the point is that maintaining as sense of independence in the decision-making process is assisted by not being biased by the views of other and that somehwere in a collection of disparate and disconnected decisions a best possible one will emerge.

I think the most important lesson is not to rely on the wisdom of one or two experts or leaders when making difficult decisions. That doesn't mean that expertise is irrelevant, or that we don't need smart people. It just means that together all of us know more than any one of us does.

It is difficult to understand this statement without reading the book, for one wonders what wisdom as accumulation of knowledge is always best, or what constitutes a "difficult" decision. However, to make the conclusion that "all of us together know more that any one of us" is a blindingly obvious reality in terms of facts and information, but would shatter to pieces if this accumulation was referenced against the other characteristics of wisdom such as common sense, insight, erudition, and understanding.

All of these concerns may be completely resolved in the book. I simply don't know. I haven't read it. If these concerns are dealt with, however, the way it has been marketed is clearly lacking substance. And if this is the case, a great disservice has been done to the author.

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