Monday, March 12, 2012

James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds" (Steak Knives)

I picked this up in December as a side-read based on professional interest, and figured I'd wrap it up in a few days.  Cultural Studies 'texts' often get read that way, so why should this one be different?  I read it piecemeal, a few pages at a time, overlapping with other books, primarily because I had a hard time engaging with it.  It was finished by late January.

Cultural Studies reading goes one of two ways, I find.  An author can latch on to something insightful and brilliant, pulling the reader along and providing meaty context to support their idea.  Surowiecki's text is of the second variety; great idea at core, but poorly strung together by too many far flung and disparate examples to hang as a compellingly articulated thesis or even a good read.

That's not to say I disagree with the thesis.  I see this at play in work life, and it's certainly gained traction in the wider consumer research/insight field - that large groups of non-experts can (and often do) deliver better answers than a handful of 'expert opinions.'  Rather than traditional polling, for example, we find that idea 'markets' can arrive at better answers by having participants speculate on what they *think* the outcome will be, rather than what they'd *like* the outcome to be.  This is a stripped-down summary of the general idea, of course, but a simple internet search or trip to Wikipedia will catch you up if you're so inclined.

The trouble with the text is that it comes across as a long line of anecdotes that reiterate rather than build on the core idea.  More examples are great, but when you reach a critical mass, 'more' doesn't lend the argument greater strength.  Rather, it makes you wonder how the author might have used all those pages to put some pragmatic meat around the bones.  What do we do with this idea, anyway?  What do we miss or gain by moving to idea markets?

The author does use one compelling example that touches on such implications.  The idea of a 'terrorism futures market' struck a chord in the early 00's, leading to disgust and outrage for the idea that people could 'bet' on where/when an attack might take place.  I'll concede that at surface, this does sound macabre and inappropriate.  But the use of the predictive market here is meant to provide better tools to anticipate and prevent attacks by tapping into a pool of collective wisdom that's more reliable than one homeland security talking head's opinion (or the collective opinion of 3 networks' hired goons/pundits, for that matter).  This story itself is one worth looking into in greater detail, so follow the link above for one take on it.  It was certainly a highlight of the text for me.

Ultimately, this is 'Steak Knives' for import and implications.  I'd give it 'You're Fired' for delivery.  Find a good summary online somewhere and leave it at that.

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