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More thoughts on The Wisdom of Crowds

February 6th, 2005 · 1 Comment

I failed to mention in my previous review that the reason I read James Surowiecki’s book was the simple fact that it was lying in Ted’s office. He is the one who ordered it from the library, and now he has posted his review. Ted and I have had a few conversations about the book. Although we both agree it could have been better, especially the second half, I think he enjoyed it more than I did.

The first five chapters of the book are the strongest, where Surowiecki tries to ferret out the principles and situations in which groups of people are wise/smart/effective. After that (over half the book), I felt that he kind of lost focus on the topic. While many of the anecdotes in the rest of the book are interesting, I felt a little shortchanged by the end.

Go read the rest of his review, complete with many quotes.

My previous post on the topic has received some interesting comments. Dr. Ernie shared his definition

Relative value
is best determined
by honest collaborative inquiry
into competing alternatives

Richard left me a thorough comment: I had forgotten that The Wisdom of Crowds was his favorite book of 2004!

He wrote:

If Surowiecki were to address your examples of people parking cars or teens, he would point out how heterogeneous they are. (Car-owners. Teens. That said, your first example is a better example than the second.) Also, with regards to people driving in cars, his book sort of addresses your objection by effectively giving up on explaining why traffic patterns are so dumb. His hold chapter on the subject could have been summarized by saying “you know, traffic isn’t something that the Wisdom of Crowds theory explains very well”.

Surowiecki would also address your objection that the human need for leaders and experts is false need, that leaders have been successful in convincing us that they are better decision makers or better with facts because they possess attributes (charisma, size, etc.) that are irrelevant. Also, he would probably say that we may *want* experts and leaders, but that we *shouldn’t* want them.

Anyway, the point of the book is that there are dumb crowds and smart crowds, and that the smart crowds can not only be identified but the conditions for a smart crowd can be created.

Thanks, Richard for your critique of my critique. Your summary helps me. Since I published my post, read your comment and talked to Ted more, I have been considering why I didn’t like the book and have come to these conclusions.

  1. I don’t disagree with Surowiecki’s conclusions – I agree with most of them – but I don’t think he needed to take 500 + pages (in the large print edition) to get there. The writing could have been more concise and clear… and made the same points. Richard, I like your summary of the traffic chapter; I found myself wondering what it was he was trying to say.
  2. I picked up the book hoping to find some direct answers to questions in my mind regarding the way crowds, or even two strangers, can behave. I think I felt frustrated because I couldn’t find what I was looking for in the book.
  3. Richard also mentioned The Tipping Point in his post on favorite books of 2004, saying that Gladwell and Surowiecki both attack conventional wisdom in an accessible way.. I read Tipping Point five years ago and I remember it. Malcolm Gladwell’s book was easier for me to understand and apply to my life. I remember how amazed I was to learn about the creation of Blue’s Clues, for example, or to try to figure out whether I was a “maven” etc. I could relate to it. I could see myself living in Gladwell’s theories.

    Surowiecki’s book leaves me wondering what to do. Most of my crowd experiences in my daily life at the moment are *dumb* ones, to use Richard’s summary term. While Surowiecki outlined what would be required to create a smart crowd, I think that it is not often possible to have all of those conditions. As I noted, I fear as a culture we are becoming less willing to listen to diversity. The Wisdom of Crowds seems more a collection of observations, or someone taking a theory and seeing how it fits or doesn’t fit here and there. What he highlights about group dynamics are true. I know from my experience. But I don’t feel I know what to do now in my daily life with what I’ve read.

Then Lucy added the comment

Sure, there are dumb crowds and smarts crowds and the conditions for smart crowds can be created. However, WILL they be created?

I think this is the key question to ask after reading The Wisdom of the Crowds.

Tags: books

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Lisa Chau // Feb 7, 2005 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks for bringing my attention to this book.

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