The Wisdom of Crowds (James Surowiecki)

This book is a few years old now, and I read it some 18 months ago, but I want to include my review here since the intriguing concept persists in sociology and culture.

What a curious phrase is “wisdom of crowds.” Like you, I had heard of the “madness of crowds” and “unruly mobs” … but wisdom? The concept is the subject of the book of the same name by James Surowiecki.

Surowiecki’s premise in The Wisdom of Crowds is that the Many are usually smarter than the Few. Ask a crowd to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar and their average will probably be closer to truth than most — if not all — the individuals involved.

Poll the studio audience of the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” game show and they have the right answer more than 90% of the time — a far better average than the individual “expert” that the game’s player typically relies upon more.

Using example after example, Surowiecki builds up a compelling case that almost any problem, whether simple or complex, should be posed to a large group of people whose members are left to think as individuals (no persuading debates, endorsements, peer pressures, factions, etc.). That group’s aggregated opinions will almost always find a better solution than even the smartest individual. The most amazing case he presented involved a submarine missing in the Atlantic. A group of naval specialists — each expert in something different (ocean current, hydrodynamics, submarine engines, etc.) — predicted widely different locations for the vessel. All were wrong. But when the investigation leader combined their separate predictions, he found the sub on the ocean floor only about 200 yards off target.

Every person has one puzzle piece — a unique perspective on a problem, a different bit of information. Combine the pieces and the group solves the whole puzzle. In Surowiecki’s words, “the crowd is holding a nearly complete picture of the world in its collective brain.” One person’s bias, error, or underestimation is canceled by someone else’s bias, error, or overestimation. Under the right circumstances, the Crowd gets it right more often than the experts.

I disagreed with some of the book’s specifics, but found it hard to discount Surowiecki’s basic premise as he applied it to problem-solving, investigations, the Internet, science, corporations, capitalism, and democracy. The social networking revolution on the Internet right now (with personal websites, blogs, wikis, and tagging) is a perfect example of the Wisdom of Crowds. There’s no formal structure; no central committee calling the shots. And yet, as a crowd, the Social Web is assembling, interacting, and meeting needs in ways no one could have conjured or designed by himself.

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