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Copyright

Title: The Wisdom of Crowds
Author: James Surowiecki
Publisher: Doubleday
Copyright: 2005
ISBN: 0385503865
Pages: 296
Price: $25.00
Rating: 80%

This book's subtitle is much more telling than its title: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. This verbose subtitle attempts to explain what the book is really about; without it, one could easily assume that the title is a joke, for we all know that crowds and mobs are notorious for approaching the lowest common denominator. 

Yet James Surowiecki, business columnist for the New Yorker, spends some 300 pages telling us the contrary: he says, "when our imperfect judgments are aggregated in the right way, our collective intelligence is often excellent." Starting with a banal example of a contest where visitors to a livestock fair estimated the weight of an ox, Surowiecki goes on to examine what he organizes in three distinct types of problems: cognition problems, where there is a definite solution; coordination problems, such as those about driving in traffic or buying and selling in markets; and cooperation problems, which, as the name suggests, involve groups of people working together to attain a common goal. 

The first part of the book is about "theory", the ideas behind the three different types of problems. Surowiecki explains these different problems and how "crowds" react, how they provide answers almost in spite of themselves. The second part looks more at specific examples of how these ideas all fit together in the real world. While the first part does contain real examples, the focus in the second part is different and more specific. 

Interestingly, the first part of the book grabbed my attention, and I found it full of interesting ideas. The second part seemed like Surowiecki was trying to push a lot of square pegs into round holes to confirm his theory, and at times I felt confused. His examples ranged at times from those where a crowd did better than an individual (such as the stock market "intuiting" which company was responsible for the Challenger space shuttle disaster), to cases where crowds are hopeless mobs just following the first lemming (such as stock market bubbles). In fact, the disparity in these examples led me to wonder whether Surowiecki really was trying to show that crowds were wiser than individuals? He presents many examples of when crowds are not more intelligent; so many that one can easily forget his initial premise. 

By the somewhat abrupt conclusion, discussing democracy, and saying, "the solutions to cooperation and coordination problems are real in the sense that they work," a statement that would have made William James proud, I was buffeted between belief and disbelief, between agreement and disaccord, not truly clear about all that I had just read. Some of the anecdotal examples could be construed to suggest one "theory", whereas others seem to refute it. The lack of clarity, and the attempt to fit evidence into a hypothesis that clearly did not want to stick together seamlessly, made me feel, after closing this book, that not only I, but also the author was not sure what he really wanted to say.

Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn (kirk@mcelhearn.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.