Why the Crowd has no Wisdom

Before I even got this post out of the box, the thesis was pushed into international publication by the Boston Globe’s Alex Beam : Alex takes Wikipedia to task, for good reason, but then ties it back to the problem – we are trusting in the wisdom of crowds when we have no evidence that crowds are “wise.” They are not even smart. In fact, my mother thought pretty low of the crowd. Given the Internet Age, we have elevated busy bloggers to philosopher king status now. Beam reminds in My Sticky Wiki how lucky we are Wikipedia works at all. Given his (and my) recent experiences::

“Wikipedia has had plenty of bad publicity lately. Allow me to bring you up to date. Last month, Middlebury College’s history department banned the use of Wikipedia citations in exams or papers, because an error about Japanese history — since corrected — showed up in several exams. Last week, a prominent, pseudonymous Wiki contributor lionized by The New Yorker as a tenured professor of religion turned out to be … a 24-year- old who used the book “Catholicism for Dummies” to write and edit entries.

The proverbial bottom line is that the theoretical underpinning of Wikipedia, the fashionable notion of “crowdsourcing,” or “the wisdom of crowds,” is nonsense. There is no wisdom in crowds. The crowd drinks Coke. The crowd elects George Bush or — God forbid — John Kerry. The crowd accepts authority unquestioningly, especially when it’s dressed up as a “cool” new information source. So who would you rather have write your encyclopedia entries? Bertrand Russell, T.H. Huxley, and Benedetto Croce, who wrote for the Britannica? Or … EssJay?

Well enough. Wikipedia is an information ecology that begs for real knowledge problems. Use with caution. Colbert’s Wikiality is a great example. Stephen publicly games Wikipedia to kind of prove how people can change a media’s representation of reality. (Have you checked on the African elephants lately? Read the histories to see how much activity happens over a given time.)

None of this is wisdom. There is no agreement that this is so. Wisdom can be considered an emergent pattern of meaning from participants in a dedicated search for meaning and guidance. Collective wisdom emerges from a dialogic engagement among observers that have actually pondered a situation. We can facilitate collective wisdom (see Dialogic Design), but a collection of knowledgeable observers, on the Net or any other media, does not “create” wisdom automatically. It appears we require an equilibrium of both intent (will) and emergence (listening for patterns).

We may be taking a meaningful divergence toward a new function of knowledge management, that aims at eliciting the wisdom from a situation. The context of that situation, rather than personal knowledge, then prevails. Where knowledge is the entry fee we pay to generate wisdom from the group, it is not the outcome of the group. More knowledge is not what we need, even validated and tangible knowledge drawn from tacit holdings of smart people.

“Knowledge” often suggests.that we will privilege the knowing, experience, and rationalization of persuasive individuals within a group. Some potential clients see dialogic design in this way right away – they think the idea is to draw forth the best ideas and use a no-gaming process to winnow the wheat from chaff. Instead, we are seeking the emergence of a true group wisdom that was not possible or available in any other setting. Wisdom is beyond what we don’t know (DK) that we know – its the DK that we DK but that has tremendous capacity for motivation and meaning.

This is not anything like Suroweicki’s Wisdom of Crowds. The problem with the Wisdom of the Crowd notion is that it is not wisdom at all – it is social sentiment only, and the best you can achieve is popularity. Wisdom comes from learning, exchange, and emergence in a smaller group dedicated to learning and acting in a common domain. Perhaps this has not been made clear enough in the centuries before …

Explore posts in the same categories: Dialogic Design, Information Ecology, Knowledge strategy, Wicked complexity

4 Comments on “Why the Crowd has no Wisdom”

  1. Thanks for some excellent thought-provoking statements. I was wondering whether wisdom (or more accurately, transforming knowledge into wisdom) is not a highly individualistic trait? No doubt the wisdom of the crowd is a misnomer, as you have most eloquently illustrated. However, there is also no guarantee that a small group will transform individual knowledge contributions to wisdom. Well they may transform these individual knowledge contributions to group knowledge, which is more than the sum of the individual bits of knowledge. But is that necessarily wisdom? Is there really anything which can be called group wisdom? As an individual, I can learn from a small group and over a period of time, I might transform my accumulated learning (including learning acquired through experience) into wisdom.

    What I wish to submit here is that (a) wisdom is a individualistic process; (b) small group processes, whether you can call them IM or SDP or SDD or DD, provide insights which add to the collective knowledge and may incrementally add to one’s wisdom; and (c) there are no shortcuts to wisdom, which takes its own time to mature in an individual through the collective impact of all incremental learning one goes through in life.

    Sorry for such a long comment.

  2. If we want to use Wikipedia as a test case for the wisdom of crowds, then let’s test the right thing. Trotting out examples of individuals who make fraudulent claims for themselves or who knowingly or unwitting post false or bad information is not counter-evidence to the purported wisdom of the Wikipedia crowd.

    There are at least two models for the crowd who wisdom should be put to the test:

    model A is made up of contributors to Wikipedia

    model B includes model A but also the wider user community of Wikipedia

    Now I think you can test either A or B and find ample evidence that these crowds generate at least two kinds of meaningful wisdom.

    The first kind of wisdom Wikipedia generates is implicit and I’d call it knowledge temperance. What I mean by that is that people accept that the knowledge generated by Wikipedia is not infallible or beyond revision or questioning. In fact, that is the very foundation of Wikipedia’s model. The broader claim, that this source of knowledge is superior to others, and that the source of that superiority resides in the “crowdsourcing” of encyclopedic knowledge is perhaps debatable, but is rarely put to the test in a very sophisticated way.

    The second kind of wisdom is that which Eric Raymond attributed to the open source community with the phrase: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. Which is to say, that a system of networked individuals which facilitates the extension and constant revision of a body of practical knowledge is very wise indeed. This is not at all the same thing as claiming that the content is universally wise. But anyone who would make such a claim for encyclopedic knowledge is on shaky ground to begin with.

    Ultimately, however, the crowd includes this meta-level discussion and I think that there is mounting evidence that the crowd is wiser than many sometimes think. Perhaps, an important point is that wisdom is not what we once thought it was.

  3. I can appreicate that there are very real public goods from crowd-sourced information resources. These are very valuable, if not actually social in their deployment. For example, Wikipedia adapts very well to a model of sequential editorship, which tends toward a mean of comprehensive coverage and even accuracy, over time. But Iit begs the question, how is this wisdom?

    I’m not tamping down the value of these socially-developed resources in any way (except perhaps prediction markets, which tend to prove that the majority is wrong), My strong point, and not to get too philosophical, is that we devalue what we mean by wisdom. If these resources reveal sociallly-produced wisdom, where is the value-added over the
    efficiency of having many enthusiasts contribute? The open source example may yield this depth over time. Perhaps all contributors become better coders – or, perhaps they become sloppy and fast, knowing someobody else will repair the bugs.

    Is there real learning that leads to wisdom? Good, and often efficient, results yes. Bug bug-free code is not a test of “wise.” But it is a type of social knowing. Wisdom is more related to an emergent depth of understanding that leads to a renewed capacity for action. You see this in dialogue, and it may be possible to facilitate something like this online. That’s my interest, and why the distinction is made.

  4. […] 23, 2007 In Why the Crowd Has No Wisdom I pushed several issues with the “wisdom of the crowd” […]

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