Why the Crowd has no Wisdom

Peter JonesDialogic Design, Information Ecology

Before I even got this post out of the box, the thesis was pushed into international publication by the Boston Globe’s Alex Beam : Alex takes Wikipedia to task, for good reason, but then ties it back to the problem – we are trusting in the wisdom of crowds when we have no evidence that crowds are “wise.” They are not even smart. In fact, my mother thought pretty low of the crowd. Given the Internet Age, we have elevated busy bloggers to philosopher king status now. Beam reminds in My Sticky Wiki how lucky we are Wikipedia works at all. Given his (and my) recent experiences::

“Wikipedia has had plenty of bad publicity lately. Allow me to bring you up to date. Last month, Middlebury College’s history department banned the use of Wikipedia citations in exams or papers, because an error about Japanese history — since corrected — showed up in several exams. Last week, a prominent, pseudonymous Wiki contributor lionized by The New Yorker as a tenured professor of religion turned out to be … a 24-year- old who used the book “Catholicism for Dummies” to write and edit entries.

The proverbial bottom line is that the theoretical underpinning of Wikipedia, the fashionable notion of “crowdsourcing,” or “the wisdom of crowds,” is nonsense. There is no wisdom in crowds. The crowd drinks Coke. The crowd elects George Bush or — God forbid — John Kerry. The crowd accepts authority unquestioningly, especially when it’s dressed up as a “cool” new information source. So who would you rather have write your encyclopedia entries? Bertrand Russell, T.H. Huxley, and Benedetto Croce, who wrote for the Britannica? Or … EssJay?

Well enough. Wikipedia is an information ecology that begs for real knowledge problems. Use with caution. Colbert’s Wikiality is a great example. Stephen publicly games Wikipedia to kind of prove how people can change a media’s representation of reality. (Have you checked on the African elephants lately? Read the histories to see how much activity happens over a given time.)

None of this is wisdom. There is no agreement that this is so. Wisdom can be considered an emergent pattern of meaning from participants in a dedicated search for meaning and guidance. Collective wisdom emerges from a dialogic engagement among observers that have actually pondered a situation. We can facilitate collective wisdom (see Dialogic Design), but a collection of knowledgeable observers, on the Net or any other media, does not “create” wisdom automatically. It appears we require an equilibrium of both intent (will) and emergence (listening for patterns).

We may be taking a meaningful divergence toward a new function of knowledge management, that aims at eliciting the wisdom from a situation. The context of that situation, rather than personal knowledge, then prevails. Where knowledge is the entry fee we pay to generate wisdom from the group, it is not the outcome of the group. More knowledge is not what we need, even validated and tangible knowledge drawn from tacit holdings of smart people.

“Knowledge” often suggests.that we will privilege the knowing, experience, and rationalization of persuasive individuals within a group. Some potential clients see dialogic design in this way right away – they think the idea is to draw forth the best ideas and use a no-gaming process to winnow the wheat from chaff. Instead, we are seeking the emergence of a true group wisdom that was not possible or available in any other setting. Wisdom is beyond what we don’t know (DK) that we know – its the DK that we DK but that has tremendous capacity for motivation and meaning.

This is not anything like Suroweicki’s Wisdom of Crowds. The problem with the Wisdom of the Crowd notion is that it is not wisdom at all – it is social sentiment only, and the best you can achieve is popularity. Wisdom comes from learning, exchange, and emergence in a smaller group dedicated to learning and acting in a common domain. Perhaps this has not been made clear enough in the centuries before …