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Review-a-Day
Esquire
Wednesday, June 16th, 2004


 

The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations

by James Surowiecki

Brilliance by Committee

A review by Anna Godbersen

We like to think of genius as the property of a few rugged and quirky individuals. Crowds are hardly as glamorous at best conformist, and at worst dangerous, as in the case of mob riots. But James Surowiecki puts aside these tropes and argues, persuasively, that just the opposite is true: Groups are capable of solving big problems in science, business, and society, with greater accuracy and reliability than individuals, even if those individuals are the ones we worship as experts.

The Wisdom of Crowds opens with a series of cases in which collective knowledge trumps "expert" knowledge, including Google searches, decision markets, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Surowiecki then goes about illuminating and complicating his thesis. A group is not always smarter than an individual, of course. (We can all think of examples of frenzied crowds and mass delusions.) To really work, the wise crowd must benefit from such conditions as diversity of opinion, decentralization, and independence. Groups that are too similar will have fewer possible answers to any given question; the members of small, close-knit groups will conform rather than act on their own information. The wise crowd must, additionally, have a good system for collecting its knowledge. Surowiecki illustrates each of these caveats with academic studies (most performed on monkeys and beleaguered grad students), historical anecdotes, and current events. (The failures of the intelligence community around the time of September 11, 2001 are ripe for dissection.)

Surowiecki is the New Yorker's business columnist, and at times his book feels like a series of carefully constructed pieces rather than a whole work. Still, he writes with the patience and geniality of a beloved professor, and his arguments are invariably witty and to the point. The Wisdom of Crowds draws a clear, erudite picture of the mechanisms by which our mass society works, and it is a refreshingly hopeful one.


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