Crowds good? . . . Yes, so long as, and then . . .

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.

German refusing to 'heil'

Thoughts on David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know

“There were certainly facts before the start of the nineteenth century; it was a fact that the ocean was salty even before humans first tasted it, and it was a fact that polio is caused by a virus even before we had discovered viruses. But only recently have facts emerged as the general foundation of knowledge and the final resort of disagreements.” (pp. 24)

I believe that the above excerpt intends explain the radical change of human society through the widespread dispersion of data; and the analysis of that data to be interpreted as facts. Weinberger precedes the excerpt with the facts presented by former President Clinton concerning his administration’s progress toward lowering welfare recipients and finding them suitable jobs, Weinberger does this to show the modern style of presenting data as facts to suit the current argument. The effects on the human experience are that life is a revolving door of information being spread so fast that the data must be presented as fact to be accepted in any way. Within this ultra streamlined style of data comes a concern; now more than ever it takes an educated person to properly distinguish between data and fact. Using the example of President Clinton’s speech again, President Clinton presents what most would consider to be facts, however as Weinberger hints at those “facts” may be just data because the former President has hand selected his facts to prove his point.

The primary difference between data and fact is the idea that facts are often influenced and biased towards the person creating the fact. As an example a German textbook will have a very different perspective of World War II than a American textbook. Its because of this change in society that the new human divide will exist, the people able to separate data from fact will be more in tune with the new information age that the Internet has accelerated so rapidly. Hopefully as the ability to access the Internet continues to spread the literacy of defining facts and data also spreads creating the ideal future that many yearn for where information and knowledge are valued and the understanding of others becomes and expectation rather than something to progress towards.



Re: Book Shaped Thought

“At last thought has a medium that helps it past the limitations of physical books that brought us to think of long-form thought as the highest and most natural shape knowledge could assume.” (pp.96)

I am not an expert on authorship, readership, or book history, nor have I sufficiently read or am familiar with David Weinberg’s writing to understand the complexities of his views. I’m sure he has forgotten more about the above fields than I’ll ever know. However, at least from my cursory reading, the above passage seems blanketing, inappropriately worded, or possibly wrong.

I should articulate that it appears I’m somewhat more conservative than Weinberger, at least after my limited, vicarious exposure to him through Too Big to Know. Even still, I agree with him on nearly all points. Networking, and most significantly the Internet, has changed the way in which have to think of and make use of knowledge. Times are changing, and I consider it for the better.

That being stated, it’s hard to completely agree with the above-quoted passage. I surrender the fact that the printed form is somewhat limited transferring knowledge and long-form thought has disadvantages, but I’d argue that digital mediums do not supplant the physical book. They simply avow new perspectives, and these perspectives, while novel, are no more important than others.

I wouldn’t argue that the spirit of the passage is in agreement with his central discussion, that networked knowledge allows consumers partake of it in personal, natural, and dynamic ways, but the above passage, at least to me, seems to ignore the benefits of long-form thought in authorship and scholarship.

Weinberger addresses the benefits of book authorship on page 103, but I think he ignores the point of my contention. While true the exacting path of the printed form is inflexible, it clarifies and codifies a writer’s thoughts. More than a product of expertise, the printed, long-form is an authorial tool. It solidifies position. Books may be the ideal environment for such modalities of thought, I’d hardly say they limit others.

Comments on “Too Big To Know” by Benjamin Ignac

The smartest person in the room is not the person standing at the front lecturing us, and it is not the collective wisdom of those in the room. The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it.” (From “Too Big To Know” by David Weinberger)

After reading the first few chapters of David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know I realized how true this statement is. Although we have individuals who have respectable amounts of expert knowledge in certain areas (phDs, instructors) we are now able to access most of that knowledge online where larger number of people can share this knowledge. Knowledge diffusion leads to this new revolution where everyone can be an expert. The cumulative knowledge of the crowd is also dynamic as it changes through time and space. New facts are discovered, different points of views are added, theories are proven or disproven… We all complete each other’s way of knowing. That is how the smartest person in the room is the room itself. In my opinion, the room can best be represented by the internet which is almost a superorganic entity that grows beyond itself and beyond us. A large portion of our lives happens in this room.  This digital network of people and ideas is vast and full of possibilities. Once everyone has access to this network, the whole world becomes the room where each of us is a contributor. Unfortunately, not all people have equal access to the internet and even if they do, they would not all have the same power. Some people’s voices are louder than other’s. Furthermore, there are some issues related to the filtering of the diffused knowledge in the present day society. For example, we have no filters for the information on the internet. All people are free to contribute and this leads to an information overload. Important information might get overshadowed by trivial contributions.

hello, group 3! let’s get started, shall we?

This is one of the three online workspaces we’ll have for our digital humanities intro class: we’ll have one at the individual level, the group level, and the course level.

  • The individual level is the domain you’ll set up for yourself via (or you will use a domain you already own). The domain will have a subdomain that we will have each of you set aside as an individual course portfolio, a kind of scrapbook of your work in the class — we’ll have further instructions on this going forward.
  • The group blogs will be a place for ongoing reflections we ask you to develop, interesting links you find, and any other relevant comments or questions you’d like to share. Because each group blog is a subsection of the class, we hope that you’ll find the number of contributors is large enough that you get a good sense of a variety of ways to approach the course materials, while not being so large a number that it is burdensome to visit consistently and check in. You can also subscribe to the rss feed and have the posts delivered to you.
  • The course blog lets us put the course materials up on the open web, where others can find them — which makes them potentially useful in a way that keeping them under wraps in d2l does not. It will also serve as a site for aggregating all the posts from all the group blogs so that we have a 10,000 foot overview of your ideas and questions — the rss feeds from each of the group blogs will allow us to have the posts show up here. And this is also a place for the instructors to post ideas, questions, links, and reflections as well as we move through the semester.
  • Stay tuned for your first posting assignment!