Review: The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

On: September 17, 2007
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About Maarten van Sprang
Maarten has a Bachelor degree in Communication and Multimedia Design and is working for Humanique as an interaction designer. Right now he is also finishing his thesis on the New Media Master at the University of Amsterdam. He's is very interested in new media (obviously), gaming and music.

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This book is a bundle of theories and case studies which Surowiecki uses to convince the reader that a diverse crowd can come up with better answers and solutions than a single group of experts.

The cases he brings forth vary between downright obvious and fantastically revealing examples. For instance the story about cascades, in which people tend to follow other people merely on the fact that if they think it’s good, it will be worthwhile for me. It’s something we experience everyday: if a restaurant is empty, we will not go there because the food might be awful. Same with the internet and computer applications, if everyone uses Google and Microsoft Powerpoint those have to be pretty good applications, but it does not mean they are best suited for you, it means that they are generally the best options for the majority of the crowd.

In his conquest for search for the ultimate answer (42?) to complicated questions and predictions he divides the problems into three different categories: cognition problems, coordination problems and cooperation problems. The first deals with market issues (like the case with the Challenger) the second with coordination problems like the flow of pedestrians and how the are able not to hit each other (which seems like an individual action but really is a collective effort) and the last one decentralization and how open-source software can flourish with the help of others. In the process of unravelling these three problems (or types of collective wisdom) he touches fields like politics, economics, sports, psychology, biology and everyday life examples.

One of the key elements to a successful product/business/answer is decentralization. Not only in the sense of “working apart together” but also in giving everyone the change to add to the solution, not just a team of experts, because they are used to think in an automated pattern. Adding people without the expertise to a group, might result in getting answers which the experts would have never thought of.

The idea of the wisdom of the crowds also takes decentralization as a given and a good, since it implies that if you set a crowd of self-interested, independent people to work in a decentralized way on the same problem, instead of trying to direct their efforts from the top down, their collective solution is likely to be better than any other solution you could come up with

To reinforce that quote he uses the example of Linux and how this open-source application has to eventually be the best program around, and the same goes for Wikipedia which is based on the same foundation.

According to Surowiecki we have to stop “chasing the expert” and turn decision-making into a collective effort. When a diverse group of people come up with an answer is likely to be better than the smartest person in that group, or even a group of experts. In that sense the writer clearly made his point, but he does have the tendency to jump from one example to another without clarifying why they are relevant. It’s a nice read and some of the cases are very interesting and revealing but at the end it’s just a bit too much. It’s a nice read and he does get the message across with a few very useful conclusions but at the end the vast number of the cases doesn’t seem to add that much to the story anymore.

Then again, paradoxical it’s only just one expert who wrote the book…

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