From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

April 28 , 2006*: Are crowds really that smart?

Crowds have quite a history. They've been credited, and blamed, for more than their fair share of significant historic events. If we believe the conventional wisdom, they've been responsible both for overthrowing kings and for inciting lynchings. They've been a catalyst for major social upheavals. Lately, with the addition of mobile phones and additional communications technologies, we've learned (though apparently not for the first time) that they're capable of possessing a wisdom above and beyond the sum of the individuals who comprise them.

Seeing myself (at least some of the time) as a populist, I have to confess that I like this idea. When I hear Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man I swell with pride, even if it's not exactly me that's being fanfared. I grew up in a time when "let the people decide" (and similar slogans) was a rallying cry, a motto that seemed to take pride in identifying with what "the powers that be" perceived as rabble. It was a time when a collective "we" seemed to be in the process of miraculously emerging from an amorphous and almost identityless mass. Only much later did I realize that "the people" had already decided, and that the decisions that they had reached were, to my mind, and again and again, the wrong ones.

The idea of crowds as a moving force in social movements isn't new (though just what we mean by new isn't exactly clear). George Rude's "The Crowd in History" was first published in 1964 making it, I guess, rather modern. Though in its day it quickly became a classic, today, on Amazon, nobody has reviewed it. This suggests that Rude's observations quickly made the transition from originality and novelty to conventional wisdom to ... the dustbin perhaps, in little more than a generation. The tagline for the book reads:

This book offers an innovative discussion of the role of ordinary people in some of the turning-points of European history
suggesting that, until Rude's book, history was understood as little more than the actions of the powerful (what I tend to call the junior high school take on history). But considerably before Rude Bertold Brecht hinted that historical scholarship was in need of being viewed "from the bottom up", as a remembering of those forgotten, of those written out of the books. And I'm sure that there are numerous other examples.

Either because it's become mainstream or because it's been forgotten, Rude's book doesn't make waves. On the other hand, crowds seem to be making a comeback. Among the most visible signs of this comeback is a recent book by James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds. But this time something different is happening. Surowiecki doesn't attempt to give us a "from the bottom up" view of history. Instead, he submits modern evidence that suggests (some might even say "proves") that groups of people acting together are better at solving problems than are individuals. Surowiecki doesn't claim that all crowds are wise (though it's a fair guess than any particular member of a crowd at any given point in time is convinced that the particular crowd that he or she is a member of is a wise one). He delineates four characteristics of crowds that enable it to act wisely, or to reach wise decisions. So this particular incarnation of the crowd is very different than Rude's - yet there still seems to be an underlying similarity that spans the forty years between the two. This similarity might best be defined as an anti-elitism, an inherent populism, that can be found in both of these crowd scenarios.

Is this approach justified? I have no intention of critiquing Surowiecki's book here - alongside numerous items that cause me to raise an eyebrow and ask "is that so?", there's also much I can agree with. But beyond the claims made in the book, what I find most interesting is the extent to which its central thesis, that collective intelligence holds a power greater than that of the individual, reflects a central myth of the internet ethos. To me this aspect of the book is obvious, but for some reason it doesn't seem to get mentioned in the numerous reviews of the book I've read. Though many of the reviews consider its central thesis to be ground-breaking, to my mind it seems little more than a reflection of an already well-established internet zeitgeist - what we might best refer to as the formation of the collective brain.

Examples abound. The best known today are probably Google's Page Rank and the Wikipedia. Each of these, in its own way, suggests that in some mysterious manner, true worth can spring from an amorphous crowd. But these are perhaps only the tip of the iceberg, the frontrunners in the crowd. Not far behind, we can find Smart Mobs - almost random collections of people brought together via mobile telephones, coalescing for the moment, making their point and dispersing. Social bookmarking, and perhaps blogging itself are further examples. Perhaps we should even include the inordinate amount of quaint PowerPoint presentations (actually and truly, while writing that sentence, yet another of these came into my inbox) that traverse the globe.

There probably really are empirical and objective criteria for deciding whether a crowd has made an intelligent decision, but I'd be willing to bet that most of us would judge a crowd to be deciding correctly if what it decides coincides with our own opinions. And of course it's also a matter of Chou En Lai style historic perspective. Was the crowd that helped bring about the French Revolution acting intelligently? Louis XVI probably didn't think so, and quite a number of people who today are disenchanted by the modern liberal state probably no longer think so either. Then again, in another generation, within a different political reality, perhaps they'll once again think that this was a smart crowd.

In my more skeptical moments I tend to see the smart crowd movement as little more than a sign that the internet is still going through adolescence. Many netizens honestly believe that the internet can make a significant contribution to bringing about world peace, that it can be a force for positive public opinion. They're convinced that better decisions can be reached if we can make information more readily available to everyone. I admit that I often subscribe to many of these same notions (and even when I don't, I suppose that I would like to). But when it comes to crowds and their ability to act wisely, my gut feeling tells me that rather than right decisions springing from a crowd, deciding to belong to the right crowd is what truly makes a difference.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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