SXSW Day Two: James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds


James Surowiecki, staff writer at the New Yorker, speaks about the future of tapping into the wisdom of the crowd

– Making a horseracing analogy to the wisdom of the crowds. As the odds go, so do the results. The idea is that based on the varied expertise of the crowds, the odds begin to stack up in order.

– The stock market taps into the wisdom of the crowd as well. 10 year periods, money managers – individuals – can’t beat the wisdom of the investment crowd. Forecasting works to a certain degree.

Wisdom of the crowds seems to be more about tapping into people to forecast results (in his mind). Interesting conversation, but it’s very much about capitalizing on people. So far…

Now James is talking about tapping into diversity, and how groups of less intelligent people up the solution factor when they’re introduced into a crowd of experts. They make the group smarter, which only seems to make sense based on each of our individual perspectives and life experiences. I mean, how do you quantify knowledge?

It’s a mistake to try to seek out the one or two experts to find a solution to your problem; experts don’t have a keen sence to the limits of their knowledge.

Well said, James. He’s heading in a direction that matches up with the thesis of Kent Bye at the Echo Chamber Project.

Diversity reduces the ills of homogenous thinking and automatically moves the role of the Devil’s Advocate about, keeping the viewpoint fresh.

Independence is about people making judgements upon their own knowledge, not piggybacking peer pressures. Group decisions can be madness (lynchings) or mediocre (business meeting); “we often put too much of a premium on consensus.” Instead of tapping into the intelligence of the people in the group, they go the opposite way. What we want is for people to act independent in the group, so those viewpoints can be culled for a greater knowledge; not the opposite.

Great analogy to opposite side of the street parking, where immitation works. If no one moves their car, street cleaning being suspended is the correct assumption.

But immitation is problematic if groups follow each other, nothing stands out as knowledge. Independence is problematic because people want to appear credible. Absolutely.

The transition to the internet…

He states that the problem of the internet is that it breaks down independence. “People get locked into relatively small worlds.” This is good for community, bad for collective intelligence. Circular mills are the result of such interactions; following the ant in front of each other to our own demise. One strength of the net is to randomize connections and sources of information. This is the fundamental lesson of collective intelligence on the net.

Ebb and flow; the iteration of input and output.

  • Interesting: A thought on how the wisdom of the crowd created the internet bubble burst, as fundamentals were thrown out the window in the stead of people’s perspectives. There needs to be balance to tap into the collective intelligence.
  • How many people to make a crowd? James says over 50, but research has shown that even in small groups, the collective intelligence surpasses the wisdom of larger crowds. It takes more work to tap into small groups, as diversity needs to be structured (in a sense).
  • Hierarchy is good for getting things done; it is not good for figuring out what to get done and how.

Closing statement:

We are living in a society that feels the need for individual power, leadership etc. Too much information diffused between people is ‘bad.’ The mix of bottom up knowledge with these top down constraints creates interesting times.

Disclaimer: This is live blogging; all quotes are paraphrases.