ETech – Independent Individuals and Wise Crowds

James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds
Problems around collective intelligence. In the last five years, there’s been a lot of interest in collaboration (wiki, Linux, social software, google, delicioius). Large groups of people coming together to work on complex problems and solve them. All these movements have something in common. Not all forms of collective action are created equal. They can create worse solutions.

The idea behind the Wisdom of Crowds is by aggregating judgments, you come with a better outcome. This model works well if there is a true answer (if God could tell us the answer). Contrast this to Linux. A small number of people make the decision on what gets incorporated into the kernel. But lots of developers collaborate on submitting the best thing. With ants, you have lots of dumb agents running around, but they interact together to achieve stunning results. They’re incredibly efficient at finding food. Ants do this by following very simple rules and pay attention to those around them. Interaction is the key to intelligence.

But human beings aren’t ants. We don’t have the biological programming in us to communicate collective intelligence. We have no equivalent in the human world. Eg. if there’s too much interaction between humans, the dumber it’s possible for us to become (because of group think). Human beings herd. We tend to stick to what others do (it’s better to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally). Humans like the comfort of the crowd. Another things humans do is imitate. We’re imitation machines. We do it to learn quickly. “If someone is doing something valuable, then other people should do it too.” Economists call this an information cascade–once a cascade gets going, it’s hard for one person not to do what everyone else does. When people don’t think for themselves, then the group collectively gets dumber.

How can you have interaction without information cascades? Some things worth thinking about: 1) the ties you have should remain loose. Don’t become tightly networked with other people. Loose ties minimize the influence of those around you have on you. 2) try to keep oneself exposed to as many perspectives as possible. Inserting randomness is important in the kind of information you’re drawing on. Diversity is a good thing. This has interesting implications for the blogosphere and in orgnizations–you want groups to maintain communication cross hierarchies to maintain diversity.

“The crowd” only works right if the connections between everyone is different. Avoid a super tightly networked model. This was an excellent presentation. Not one power-point. 😉