5.01.2012

Wisdom of crowds

Inspired by +Gideon Rosenblatt's thread, an discussion of the "wisdom" of crowds.

Aristotle distinguished between five "intellectual virtues". These virtues are:

epistemescientific knowledge. Think of it as "books smarts".
technecraft knowledge. Think of it as skills and abilities, or "street smarts". This is where we get our word "technology". 
phronesis: intelligence
nous: understanding
sophia: wisdom

These distinctions are very interesting; you can read more here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicomachean_Ethics#Book_VI:_Intellectual_virtue

I have a lot to say about techne, obviously, but the two terms that are of interest to us here are intelligence and wisdom

Aristotle thinks we are always aimed and directed at goals or projects, what he calls a telos, or an end. So intelligence is about our ability to realize those ends, and how well we can do it. There are lots of ways of accomplishing a goal, and our intelligence is, in a sense, a measure of our ability to do it. The better you are at seeing means and opportunities for accomplishing your ends and the more these ends result in living a flourishing, happy life, the more intelligent you are. At least, that's what Aristotle means by pronesis, more or less. 

My favorite example of intelligence comes Herbert Simon, I think, but I can't find the reference. Simon asks us to consider two magnets. Magnets "want" to be near each other, to get as close to each other as possible. If you put two magnets on opposite sides of a wall, and if they are strong enough, the magnets will stick to the opposing sides of the wall because that is as close as they can get. Now consider Romeo and Juliet. If you put them on the opposite sides of a wall, they won't settle for hugging the wall with their partner on the other side, they will find ways of climbing over the wall, or knocking it down, or otherwise overcoming the obstacle to realizing their goals. This is why Romeo and Juliet are intelligent, and magnets aren't. 

In contrast, wisdom for Aristotle is the results of one's life experiences. It has nothing much to do with intelligence in particular; rather, it is about the accumulated understanding of a lived life. So, for instance, I sometimes call my mom for advice, not because she is the best problem solver in the world, but just because she's seen a lot of things, and that base of experience can help guide my own decisions. That base of experience is what makes my mom wise, and it's a different sort of thing than intelligence. 

Alright, I think that puts us in a position to ask what kind of activity is the "how many uncheerios are in this jar?" guessing game. 

Well, let's be systematic. Is it an example of intelligence? Well,there's definitely intelligent activity going on. Each individual is using some method for determining the number. Some of them are wild guesses, some of them might be the result of more careful ways of counting and estimating. All of them were trying to reach the same goal, though, and so all of them were more or less intelligent guesses. 

But is this an example of collective intelligence? Well, no, not really. The collective doesn't really have any goals apart from the goals of each individual, and there is no cooperation for using the collective resources for in systematic ways for accomplishing some collective goal. The idea here is just that everyone guesses, and someone gets it right, hopefully. The chances of someone getting it right increase the more people participate in the game, but that doesn't mean we are being any more intelligent collectively about actually determining the number. So I don't think this counts as an example of collective intelligence.

What about wisdom, of the sort that Suroweicki suggests and motivates the post? Well, first of all this doesn't look much like individual wisdom. Unless the participants are trained and experienced guessers at cheerios-in-jars games, they probably don't bring much unique individual wisdom to bear on their guess. They'll need some wisdom if they want to guess intelligently, but not of any particularly interesting sort other than standard experiences with cheerios and jars. 

What about collective wisdom? Of course, Surowiecki isn't doing Aristotle scholarship, but I think the phrase isn't completely misusing the word "wisdom" when attributing it to the crowd. The crowd is wise, not because any individual themselves is wise, but because (purportedly) through the effort of each individual guess, the correct answer will eventually arise. That answer was arrived at through the intelligent activity of perhaps a single individual, who might have been just guessing wildly; but because of the dynamics of the crowd, we can let them all just guess, and we can be relatively sure that the right answers will eventually be in that mix somewhere. 

We are collectively wise, because there's enough of us doing enough diverse things that the necessary experience for solving whatever problems we face are undoubtedly hidden among us somewhere. But this doesn't mean the collective is intelligent. Collective intelligence is about the collective's ability to perform some specific task or accomplish some specific goals. We are collectively intelligent in many ways, but guessing the cheerios in the jar is not one of them, because it isn't really an activity that we are doing together, even if we can, together, harvest the collective results. 

The upshot is that you can't rely on the wisdom of crowds to do anything by itself. A wise crowd that lacks the intelligence to act on any of that wisdom to improve its condition doesn't help much at all. So we need to deliberately work really hard to make the crowd smart, so that we can find those pearls of wisdom where they lurk, and make sure they rise to a position visible enough to have those goals realized.


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Original thread: https://plus.google.com/u/0/117828903900236363024/posts/1sEwpEAsBKs