Those of us who have been watching groups of MMO players already knew, of course, that the aggregated intelligence of large groups can be awesome and frightening. Those who have watched the burgeoning genre of Alternate Reality Games know that the players in those games can solve deeply complex problems cooperatively.
But that’s not the sort of problem-solving that this book is discussing.
In those other cases, it’s the presence of a wide array of specialists that generally makes the difference. In Surowiecki’s world, it’s the presence of a wide array of people, period, that allows startlingly accurate assessments to come forth.
Ask one person to guess how many jelly beans in a jar, and they’ll prove fairly unskilled–even if they are a jelly bean expert (the most notable quality of the jelly bean expert will be that they will overestimate their accuracy).
Take a crowd of random people, ask them all to guess, then average the results, and somehow you’ll get an answer that is remarkably accurate. Like, within a couple percentage points.
In other words, SirBruce should quit trying to get developers to leak numbers to him; he’d probably get more accurate results by just asking everyone who comes to the site to provide an answer, then averaging the results.
The problems with this sort of approach, of course, are that people influence each other. When monolithic blocks appear within the group, you’ll start to get inaccuracies. When apparently authoritative sources of information start broadcasting their impressions of reality, it’ll distort the result. The results in markets are bubbles and crashes. The result, perhaps, in democracies, is ideological partisanship.
Based on my reading of the book, the sorts of problems that this collective wisdom solves are complex but limited. A huge amount of the examples in the book involve examples exactly like the jelly beans–quantitative assessment. The bulk of them can be divided into
- coordination problems, which are essentially forms of self-organizing behavior, many of which seem to echo the power-law observations in books such as The Tipping Point or my personal favorite explanation of small worlds phenomena, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked. (Got email from him today, I need to reply… hmm.< ---gratuitous name-drop.)
- cooperation problems which largely echo discussions about tit-for-tat strategies, trust networks, etc.
One thing where I was left hanging was whether or not this wisdom of crowds phenomenon can assist with creative problems. After all, the repeated creative story is very different from what is described in this book; it usually involves intersecting disciplines or schools of thought, and then someone who essentially integrates things. Breakthrough products are often created by teams that are very much infected by groupthink–what in this book is decried is described as an effective way to create a skunkworks team in Peopleware.
All in all, this is a valuable read that may well illuminate many aspects of decisions you see taken around you, the nature of leadership, and so on, but I’d definitely want to put it in context with other worldviews before letting it take on too much significance in your daily life. These days are exciting, because it seems like every few months or years, we get another good, solid description of a chunk of the elephant; but as usual, the way the world works is proving to be quite like the pachyderm of the fable: hard to describe except in isolate pieces.