Wisdom of Crowds JUL 14 2004
"The problem with the global village is all the global village idiots."
-- Paul Ginsparg
"You don't do good software design by committee."
-- Donald Norman
"There's no justice like angry-mob justice."
-- Principal Seymour Skinner
"A person is smart. People are stupid."
-- Agent K
The wisdom of crowds you say? As Surowiecki explains, yes, but only under the right conditions. In order for a crowd to be smart, he says it needs to satisfy four conditions:
1. Diversity. A group with many different points of view will make better decisions than one where everyone knows the same information. Think multi-disciplinary teams building Web sites...programmers, designers, biz dev, QA folks, end users, and copywriters all contributing to the process, each has a unique view of what the final product should be. Contrast that with, say, the President of the US and his Cabinet.
2. Independence. "People's opinions are not determined by those around them." AKA, avoiding the circular mill problem.
3. Decentralization. "Power does not fully reside in one central location, and many of the important decisions are made by individuals based on their own local and specific knowledge rather than by an omniscient or farseeing planner." The open source software development process is an example of effect decentralization in action.
4. Aggregation. You need some way of determining the group's answer from the individual responses of its members. The evils of design by committee are due in part to the lack of correct aggregation of information. A better way to harness a group for the purpose of designing something would be for the group's opinion to be aggregated by an individual who is skilled at incorporating differing viewpoints into a single shared vision and for everyone in the group to be aware of that process (good managers do this). Aggregation seems to be the most tricky of the four conditions to satisfy because there are so many different ways to aggregate opinion, not all of which are right for a given situation.
Satisfy those four conditions and you've hopefully cancelled out some of the error involved in all decision making:
If you ask a large enough group of diverse, independent people to make a prediciton or estimate a probability, and then everage those estimates, the errors of each of them makes in coming up with an answer will cancel themselves out. Each person's guess, you might say, has two components: information and error. Subtract the error, and you're left with the information.
There's more info on the book at the Wisdom of Crowds Web site and in various tangential articles Surowiecki's written:
- Search and Destroy (on Google bombs)
- The Pipeline Problem (drug companies)
- Hail to the Geek (government and information flow)
- Going Dutch (IPOs)
- The Coup De Grasso (fairness in business)
- Open Wide (movies and "non-informative information cascades")