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SUROWIECKI is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he writes the popular business column, 'The Financial Page.' His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Artforum, Wired, and Slate. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1906, Francis Galton, known for his work on statistics and heredity, came across a weight-judging contest at the West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition. This encounter was to challenge the foundations of his life's study. An ox was on display and for six-pence fair-goers could buy a stamped and numbered ticket, fill in their names and their guesses of the animal's weight after it had been slaughtered and dressed. The best guess received a prize. Eight hundred people tried their luck. They were diverse. Many had no knowledge of livestock; others were butchers and farmers. In Galton's mind this was a perfect analogy for democracy. He wanted to prove the average voter was capable of very little. Yet to his surprise, when he averaged the guesses, the total came to 1197 pounds. After the ox had been slaughtered, it weighted 1198. James Surowiecki takes Galton's counterintuitive notion and explores its ramification for business, government, science and the economy. It is a book about the world as it is. At the same time, it is a book about the world as it might be. Most of us believe that valuable nuggets of knowledge are concentrated in few minds. We believe the solution to our complex problems lies in finding the right person. When all we have to do, Surowiecki demonstrates over and over, is ask the gathered crowd. The well-written book is divided into two parts. The first deals with theory; the second offers case studies. Believe it or not, I found it to be a page-turner. The author has that precious ability to render the complex in simple, understandable and interesting prose. I have long been an admirer of H. L. Mencken who once wrote, "No one is this world, so far as I know, has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people." By the time I finished this book, I believed Mencken was wrong.
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 is, essentially, a thoroughly accessible and readable tome on applied behavioral economics and game theory. I know that doesn't sound too exciting, but this actually is a fascinating book that is something of a page turner if you have even the most vestigial interest in the topic. The premise isn't new-those who are denizens of Wall Street and know Robert Prechter's oft cited work with Elliott Wave Theory will know something of the underlying premises of the book. However, Surowiecki takes this notion and moves well beyond the confined world if inventing (though he covers that as well) to apply the principles he delineates to life in general-behavior in traffic, tracking and responding to disease, navigating the internet and so on. The strength of the boom is Surowiecki's ability to render the underpinnings of his theoretical paradigm in easily understandable terms and examples. Additionally, the book features an excellent opening that provides a wonderful foundation as regards applied behavioral economics and game theory in general. On the other hand, Surowiecki tends to play both sides of the street. He uses his "expert" position on the subject to configure his arguments and analysis to tilt the weight of evidence behind his theory in many cases. In other words, his familiarity with where he wants this to go influences his choices of examples. Moreover, he relies on too few examples in too many cases. For example, the world of wall Street should have provided a wealth of examples as to the validity-and the errors-inherent in his theory.Read more ›
This is one of the most entertaining and intellectually engaging books I've come across in a long while. Surowiecki has a gift for making complex ideas accessible, and he has a wonderful eye for the telling anecdote. His thesis about the intelligence of groups made up of diverse, independent decision-makers seems initially counterintuitive, but by the end of the book it seems almost obvious, because of all the evidence Surowiecki piles up on its behalf. The book does cover a lot of ground in not very much space, and the pace of the argument is at times too fast. But the throughline of the argument is almost always clear, and the stories Surowiecki tells are often memorable. The chapter on NASA's mismanagement of the Columbia mission and the tale of how a man named John Craven relied on collective wisdom to find a lost submarine are especially striking. This is one of those books that I expect people will still be talking about and referring to years or even decades from now. It's also a book that I hope will have a concrete impact on the way that people make decisions, since the implications of Surowiecki's argument are radical in the best way.
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Upon hearing about a book on "the wisdom of crowds", I expected it to answer three qeustions: Are crowds wise?, When are they wise?, and Why are they wise? Sadly, this book answers none of them. Are crowds wise? Surowiecki fills his pages with unconvincing anecdotes. He has only a handful of real studies and he buries them randomly throughout the book. Worse, Surowiecki sometimes describes a study that would be easy to conduct, but instead of doing it he simply tells us what he expects the results would be. And despite the book's constant championing of dissent, Surowiecki offers no evidence that cuts against his argument. Instead, every failure of a crowd simply helps prove his thesis, since he claims it failed because it violated one of his vaugely-stated rules. When are crowds wise? Surowiecki offers only untested speculation. He claims they need "diversity, independence, and a particular kind of decentralization" (oddly, by decentralization Surowiecki appears to mean aggregation). Surowiecki never defines any of these particularly clearly but instead gives lots of examples. This makes them useless as predictors of a crowd's intelligence which is probably why Surowiecki makes no attempt to test them. Why are crowds wise? Surowiecki doesn't even bother to answer this one, even though it's the first half of the books subtitle. He considers the question briefly on page 10, only to spout some empty sayings (crowds are "information minus error") and wonder in amazement ("who knew ... we can collectively make so much sense") before finally concluding "You could say it's as if we've been programmed to be collectively smart." Perhaps noticing these weaknesses, Surowiecki gets all this out of the way in the first 40% of the book.Read more ›