According to James, Surowiecki, there are “precise conditions under which crowds do better than experts — it depends on there being a diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization, and a way to derive a collective decision — but almost as soon as he published it, “the wisdom of crowds” was used to refer to everything from choosing presidents, to the making of best-selling fashions, to voting for your favorite on American Idol. That we’ve so stretched this phrase shows just how excited we were about the new possibilities for social knowledge.”
— Weinberger, Too Big to Know, p. 51
Before discussing the “wisdom of crowds,” I must say that I, being a powerless and position-less person myself, am in full support of the democratization of knowledge: the ideological enfranchisement of those beyond the walls of the university, corporation, or state apparatus. It is in support of this cause, however, that I caution against the unadulterated encouragement of crowd-sourcing. Upon reading the above passage reproduced from Weinberger, two caution-induced reactions came to mind.
The first concerns the four “precise conditions” Surowiecki delineates as necessary for crowds to outperform experts. I do not object to those criteria per se, they seem rather comprehensive. I see as problematic, however, a crowd’s or mob’s ability to insure that it possesses a diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization, and a way to derive a collective decision. I expect, instead, a crowd to, by “virtue” of the myth of majoritarian exceptionalism, assume that it possesses those four qualities without for a moment engaging in self-reflection. No member of that crowd will have the compunction to admit that he or she has subordinated his or her individual will to that of the crowd, but all too often this subordination is a prerequisite for membership in a crowd. This phenomenon is everywhere visible on the internet and is even facilitated by the pre-existing methods of digital voice. The act of “voting,” “liking,” “thumbs-upping,” or “plus-ing,” is an act that couples your identity to that of others in a sort of digital bandwagon, a coupling that, obviously, demands the dissipation of individual identity. When one engages is one of these acts of “speech,” one necessarily dissolves one’s individuality into a pool composed of many people, but only one opinion, rather than a diversity thereof. This process, by way of “voting,” in addition to eliminating diversity of opinion, and independence, automatically generates a hierarchy of participants, distinguishing those who actually express themselves, positing opinions, and those, sadly much larger in number, who merely say “Yeah!” or “Fuck that!,” rather than expressing an opinion of their own. By these processes we can see how often and effortlessly a crowd on the internet can fail to satisfy several of Surowiecki’s precise conditions.
In addition to lacking faith in the ability of a crowd to often-enough maintain its diversity of opinion, independence of constituent components, decentralization, and ability to derive a collective decision, I have further hesitations regarding passing the torch from experts to crowds. Though, as I said, I agree that those four conditions are satisfactory with regard to the standards of the crowd, they only regard half of problem-solving: the solver (in some cases, the crowd). It is my opinion that a crowd, even when properly constituted so as to satisfy those four precise conditions, is not always the best vehicle by which to solve a problem. I think another, equally rigorous, set of conditions ought to be established to determine, given any problem at hand, whether a cohort of hyper-specialized experts or a crowd of generalists (or some cooperative mixture) would most effectively address the problem. It is after this determination has been made and responsibility for the problem has been given to a crowd that the four precise conditions for successful crowd operation become relevant.