NECC – Keynote

Martin Levins
30 June, 2008
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James Surowiecki

James’ "The wisdom of crowds" is the topic here.

He goes through several examples ranging from predictive economic, electoral and sports markets where the crowd generates surprisingly accurate results.

He relates this to the delicious and flickr tagging exercises and to Google’s ability to find what you want using, essentially, the wisdom of the crowded internet.

The argument extends to the wikipedia idea that chaos can conceal an order.

He compares to the common perceptions of crowd behaviour in terms of stock market bubbles bursting and meetings, where everyone becomes as dumb as the dumbest person attending.

But, he maintains that groups can be "made smart" if three conditions are met:

We need to aggregate individual ideas to corporate: like the wikipedia idea, or the Vox Populi idea of Sir Francis Galton

We also need cognitive diversity: people who look at problems from different perspectives and use different heuristics to solve problems. Scott Page’s "The Difference" illustrates this by pitting the best of the best against a random collection of those who are not so good. The random collection always beats the best of the best.

So, when assembling a group, look for diversity in as diverse a fashion as you can. A good reason to include the teacher who opposes technology on the panel for ICT implementation at the school.

Makes less likely that everyone makes the same mistake. Also, you get a stochastic scatter that will probably contain the real answer to the problem.

You like to work with people who think like you, but making groups composed of like minded people, leads to groupthink and subsequent dumbing down. There’s a positive feedback loop here where we are convinced that what we are saying is right, even if it’s wrong.

Think if this as an ecosystem where diversity makes adaptation more rapid. De Bono’s hats strike again, although you only have 6 bits of diversity here.

This is more than a simple Devil’s advocate, particularly if the same person performs that function. Hence our IT opponent shouldn’t be on the team all the time as we’ll just listen and categorise that view as wrong. The benefits of diversity has now been lost.

Thirdly, crowds need to be made of independent individuals. Bit of a throwback to Monty Python’s Life of Brian here:

Crowd: "we’re all individuals"
Individual: "I’m not"
But think of the undergraduate prank of assembling a few people to stare at the sky. The more assembled, the more punters attracted. We have evolved an agonistic behaviour which has done us well for defence and to reign in outrageous behaviour that may compromise the tribe, but it inhibits limb sitting (or at least going out on them)

Web 2 technologies may provide sufficient anonymity as to make individuals more prepared to risk proposing new ideas

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