The Wisdom of Crowds

There is one book that is never far from me, especially if I have my laptop to hand, that book is ‘The Wisdom of Crowds‘ by James Surowiecki.  It’s about five years since the book was first published and I was handed a ‘free’ copy by the author at a promotion event held at Yahoo!’s Sunnyvale office in California.  A big crowd of geeks had packed in to listen to a panel discuss the wisdom of crowds and how they used the idea in their businesses, the author chaired the panel and pulled in the audience for ‘crowd’ participation.

I recall most if not all the examples discussed were about using prediction markets and that some used cash to show commitment to the prediction by an individual while others just used some token currency.  As I listened to all these examples I could not help but hear a voice shouting in my head, ‘there is no need to use cash, the currency of ones life should be used.’    What is the currency of life?  Now five years on, answering what the currency of life looks like is starting to take shape for me.  If asked for a short answer I would say, information is the currency of life.  To the interstellar, ‘can information escape from black holes’ to the origins of life at conception, information contained in DNA is exchanged to create new life.  A bit like energy in physics, many different ways to make it (information) but all with universal measurement to quantify it.   Five years ago, FB and Twitter were seeding social networks, SV had escaped the .com fallout years and web2.0 was the new buzz.  This is producing lots of new content on the web, content made mainly of text, numbers, pictures, video, musics and other media.  The text authored being described as the ‘bread crumbs’ of one activity or life online.  Or the information left in the wake of living our lives.

We all author our life and some of the this captured online, still such a small part of the information we create everyday but in term of our entire history this small quantity of web data is the most valuable aggregation of life information ever captured in our evolution.  With such diversity of information even within text can a universal ‘law’ be found to connect it all together?  Can the wisdom of crowds mathematics be applied?  The history of crowd mathematics is summarised in this video.  The expert elite looking for scientific justification for their superiority found out the opposite.  Nature already harness the wisdom of crowds as this video illustrates, simple bottom up ‘rules’ to create visually complex looking sights.  The mathematics of chaos also shows the link between chaos and order is not that one is the opposite of the other, but to get order, repeated patterns, chaos needs to be present.   All this is fair enough but what is the purpose of it all?

Now, that is a question.  Like the elitist looking for evidence to justify their point of view or a flock of birds feeding together to maximize their safety, a purpose is always evident.  The wisdom of the crowd or the collective intelligence expressed by society is being used to support life all the time.  But what is the purpose of life?  That expressed by all living entities in  real time and going to be lived (the future).  There is no definitive answer, everything is relative?   I think there is still vast benefits from harnessing the wisdom of the crowds still to be discovered.  Taking this back to the level of text describing life.  Each of us use different words to describe our lifestyle but we may participate in the same activity e.g. swimming.  The first challenge is to find a universal way to allow this diversity of description to exist while having some ability to connect all individuals.  With this established then a journey to increasing granularity of connection can be achieved e.g. finding a swimming to finding a a swimmer with a shoulder injury looking for the best information to get fit again?

Four guiding conditions are set out in the book and others sight them as necessary to harness a crowds collective wisdom.  Of course these should be crowd sourced!  These are

Diversity

Decentralized

Independence

Aggregation mechanism

The book goes on at length about these condition and the observed negative outcomes that can results when they are broken.  But outcomes are always subjective?  I think these conditions are great introductions to forming a science behind the idea of collective intelligence but I reckon we can shoot for some universal rules that sort of use the crowd to source the ‘right crowd’ i.e. self form to eliminate group think that leads to negative outcomes.