From the Boidem - April
28 , 2006*: Are crowds really
occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life
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.
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.
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 historysuggesting 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.
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
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.
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.
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