“The Wisdom of Crowds” and the colors of collective intelligence

This morning received an email from a friend with “Re: something’s emerging:” on the subject line. It called my attention to a new book on The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki, a columnist at The New Yorker. I googled it and found out that it is not published yet but has already 425 pages carrying its reference, as of today.
The message threw off what I was planning to do today because I instantaneously became very curious of what’s happening, went to the Q&A section of the booksite, and found reasons for both some concerns and joyful anticipation of the book. (I will follow this entry about the concerns with one about the joyful anticipation, in the next couple of days.)


Responding to the question “under what circumstances is the crowd smarter” Surowiecki gave a list of four key qualities. According to the Publishers Weekly’s editorial review:
“If four basic conditions are met, a crowd’s ‘collective intelligence’ will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, Surowiecki says, even if members of the crowd don’t know all the facts or choose, individually, to act irrationally. ‘Wise crowds’ need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions.”
In the Q&A, Surowiecki says: “the people in the crowd need to be independent, so that they pay attention mostly to their own information, and not worrying about what everyone around them thinks.” The examples he gives are: “On the one hand, big organizations–like a company or a government agency–count as crowds. And so do small groups, like a team of scientists working on a problem. But just as interested–maybe even more interested–in groups that aren’t really aware themselves as groups, like bettors on a horse race or investors in the stock market.”


That raises an interesting questions. Can collective intelligence really be created from individuals acting at their the common denominator of greed and personal gain at the expense of others?

I guess it depends whether we define CI through Orange or Yellow, in Spiral Dynamics language. According to Dr. Don Beck’s “Never-Ending Upward Quest”, the basic theme of what he labels as the “Orange” value meme is “Act in your own self-interest by playing the game to win.” The basic theme of the Yellow is “Live fully and responsibly as what you are and learn to become.”

My concern has to do with the possibility that the meaning of “collective intelligence” meme–enriched by the lifelong work of Doug Engelbart, Tom Atlee, Juanita Brown and other CI pioneers–will get associated with the version by which people striving for collective intelligence or wisdom are encouraged to not pay attention to one another. When that happens, then lots of confusion about the CI meme–and the evolutionary capabilities that it could unleash–will settle in. Given the dominance of orange in the culture, it is almost unavoidable. In fact, it has already started. Take a look at this appraisal on the book cover:
“It has become increasingly recognized that the average opinions of groups is frequently more accurate than most individuals in the group. As a special case, economists have spoken of the role of markets in assembling dispersed information. The author has written a most interesting survey of the many studies in this area and discussed the limits as well as the achievements of self-organization.” [Kenneth Arrow, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and Professor of Economics (Emeritus), Stanford University]
I don’t doubt that Professor Kenneth Arrow knows what he is talking about when refers to self-organization from average opinions of groups with dispersed and disconnected members. I even admit that I need to understand better his perspective.
However, when we want to seed and grow CI from a “Yellow” or “Turquoise” perspective, we will need to target very different enabling conditions. According to Don Beck, the basic theme of the Turquoise value meme is “Experience the wholeness of existence through mind and spirit.” Its characteristics are:

  • The world is a single, dynamic organism with its own collective mind
  • Self is both distinct and a blended part of a larger, compassionate whole
  • Everything connects to everything else in ecological alignments
  • Energy and information permeate the Earth’s total environment
  • Holistic, intuitive thinking and cooperative actions are to be expected

So, a Turquoise CI will be very different from an Orange one. There’s nothing wrong with either but labeling two so widely different phenomena with the same term calls for enhanced awareness of the color of CI that we are discussing. And one more thing:
Fans of 2nd Tier (Yellow and Turquoise) CI need to step up their efforts to collaboratively cultivate and spread the theory and practices of CI with a 2nd Tier meaning. That is, if we prefer to not have the CI concept anchored in the public mind as the newest Orange fad.

This entry was posted in Cognitive Relations, Spiral Dynamics & the Colors of CI. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to “The Wisdom of Crowds” and the colors of collective intelligence

  1. Tom Atlee says:

    Thanks for your very provocative thoughts about how collective intelligence might manifest at different levels of the Spiral Dynamics developmental model.
    Since systems manifest emergent phenomena over and above the phenomena associated with their individual parts (e.g., water has wetness not characteristic of its component oxygen and hydrogen atoms separately) I think it is possible to have social systems (such as markets) operating at a different level than their individual components. To use SD language, a Yellow market can arrange things so that Orange individual and corporate behaviors add up to Yellow outcomes.
    I’m personally fascinated by the seemingly blind collective intelligence power of mass self-organization-through-self-interest (as contrasted with “collaborative dialogue towards wisdom for the common good” which is the primary factor in my theories). Although my own theories do not adequately address market-type collective intelligence, I think that the self-organizing power of markets is fairly obvious and potentially very useful. As per the previous paragraph, I believe that self-interest-based markets can be designed to serve higher-order collective intelligence.
    The trick with markets (as with other social systems) is to design them so that individual actors acting in their own self-interest NATURALLY act in the interests of the whole, as well — or at least their collective actions add up to benign/beneficial outcomes for the whole. The fault with current markets is with their design. The current design alienates, fragments, and destroys. But that is not the fault of market operations, per se, even though they are based on self-interest. It is the fault of the particular market designs we use.
    Ultimately, the reductionist super-valuation of money above all other values — as institutionalized nationally and internationally by the dominant Gross Domestic Product statistic and organizationally by the corporate quarterly bottom line and financially by such absurdities as derivatives and money markets — lies at the heart of the market’s danger. This core problem can be approached in a variety of ways, two of which I am particularly familiar with:
    First Approach: Internalize all costs into the prices of goods and services. Currently many of the social and environmental costs of production, promotion, distribution, delivery, use and disposal of goods and services are paid by consumers or by the society at large in ways disconnected from those products and services. For example, taxes finance cleanups of business-generated toxics… everyone’s health care costs rise to cover treatments for cancers caused by specific carcenogenic economic activities… everyone’s lives are stressed by the overwork and pace of modern economic activity… insurance and food costs are rising rapidly due to the wild weather characteristic of global climate change triggered by corporate decisions about fossil fuels…. If such costs were internalized into the prices of things, self-interested consumers would prefer benign, sustainable products and services simply because they were cheaper than harmful products and services. Under these conditions, the market would work its wonders on behalf of the whole instead of only on behalf of corporate profits — even though it was based on financial self-interest.
    Second Approach: Consumers, investors and taxpayers bring ethical and other considerations to their choices regarding the use of their money. Stockholder activism, “triple bottom line” business (good for profits, society and the environment), socially conscious investment, socially conscious consumerism (including the simplicity movement, buy-local programs and consumer boycotts) and various taxpayer initiatives (including war tax resistance) and socially conscious taxes (like “green taxes”) are all manifestations of this trend. In this case, public pressure (often guided by leaders who can show how social and environmental health serve people’s self-interest) moves economic and political decision-making beyond the reductionist bottom line. One of the most powerful proposals is William Greider’s suggestion that the six trillion dollars of pension funds — the invisible thousand pound gorilla of the investment world — be turned to socially responsible investments (see his The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy, or a summary like http://www.socialaction.com/11-2003/changing_capitalism.phtml). (Note that the current bankruptcy and privatization of government services — even extending to the military through government’s use of mercenaries — is a counter-trend to all this, destroying our primary means of caring for our commons and reducing everything to profit-making.)
    As Frances Moore Lappe and others have pointed out, in most cases pursuit of self-interest REQUIRES taking into account the interests of others and the larger world. That is what society is all about, and what makes democracy particularly interesting. Ultimately, ENLIGHTENED self-interest understands that everything is connected, and FUNCTIONS at the higher levels that Spiral Dynamics describes as “second tier” even when it is not motivated by higher VALUES. In a properly designed market economic system — which included appropriate education, feedback dynamics, standards and incentives — the everyday self-interested activities of less-conscious individuals would mimic (and be led or influenced by) the more holistic or altruistic activities of more enlightened individuals.
    Of course, when the economy is under the political and media control of gigantic corporations unfettered by most forms of answerability and balancing-feedback dynamics, this allows a runaway reinforcing-feedback dynamic in which the self-interest of those non-organic entities can ignore the common good and progressively empower itself until it has completely destroyed the commons. So part of the redesign of the markets includes a redesign of the character and role of corporations (e.g., the elimination of “corporate personhood,” community review of corporate charters, limits on media ownership and political activity, etc.) — a need foreseen even by Jefferson and Madison, who wanted limitations on corporate power written into the Bill of Rights.
    I find myself repeatedly called to point out the role of mechanistic-seeming systemic factors in both human consciousness and life-serving social transformation. I believe our fundamental challenge is to CONSCIOUSLY co-create the systems, infrastructure, cultures and institutions that will, in their turn, shape us, our consciousness and our behavior. Doing that wisely is the ultimate (and newly urgent) goal of democracy.
    I think that citizen deliberative councils, broad public dialogue, electoral reform, improved knowledge systems, market redefinitions and many other factors can and will play a role in increasing our collective intelligence at the societal level. My question is how the meta-dialogues will be convened and facilitated that will enable these diverse strands to weave themselves into empowerment. I know you are trying to do that. So am I. I suspect that the folks at What is Enlightenment? magazine will be doing more of that in the near future.
    Something is indeed emerging.
    Coheartedly,
    Tom

    Like

    • Acknowledging the reality of all you say re memes and markets and emergent properties, there is a fundamental property of markets that has, in my assessment, now made markets more of a risk than a benefit to humanity generally.

      Markets cannot value real abundance of anything other than at zero. This is a profound issue in two different ways.

      We now have the technical capacity of providing an abundance of all of the essential goods and services to everyone, yet there is not (nor can there be) any market incentive to deliver that essential abundance to those who need it. Worse, not only is there no market incentive to deliver abundance, there is actually a strong market incentive to prevent any abundance from forming.

      This creates a vast and real injustice, when billions of people experience the reality that they are prevented from having the essentials of life simply to maintain the profits of large corporations and their shareholders.

      We now have the technology to deliver an abundance of a large and expanding set of goods and services to every person on the planet, yet we are prevented from doing so by the incentives of the market, which now dominate our social and legal systems.

      Thus it is clear to me that we need to go beyond markets.

      If one looks at evolution, it is possible to characterise it as competition in action, but it is also possible to characterise all major advances in evolution as new levels of cooperative behaviour (with attendant stabilising strategies to prevent invasion by cheats).

      It is clear to me that humanity is now poised at an inflection point, where it is possible to create a cooperative that empowers all individuals in the free exploration of the infinite possibility spaces available; and it is not yet a certainty that we will in fact take that path.

      What is clear to me, is that markets, and market based memes are amongst the greatest dangers facing humanity.

      Like

      • George Pór says:

        hi Ted,
        Thank you for your substantive comment that I couldn’t have written any better!

        “We now have the technology to deliver an abundance of a large and expanding set of goods and services to every person on the planet, yet we are prevented from doing so by the incentives of the market, which now dominate our social and legal systems. Thus it is clear to me that we need to go beyond markets.”

        The good news is that it is getting clear also for millions of people living in/for the commons/peer-to-peer/open source paradigm.

        The privateers of the market need the “wisdom of crowds” technologies to try predicting its future moves, driven by the greed built in the system.
        The commoneers of the new paradigm need true collective intelligence and wisdom growing out from their conversations, driven by the common good.
        You can find more about the later in the excellent blog of Tom Atlee on Comparing “the wisdom of crowds” to real collective wisdom.

        Like

  2. The Wisdom of Crowds

    One of the reasons Google is so interesting (apart from its upcoming IPO) is that the company has learned to harness the collective intelligence of vast numbers of people, says James Surwiecki, author of a new book called The Wisdom…

    Like

  3. When community intelligence becomes market intelligence…

    Have you ever wondered what is common in “community intelligence,” “swarm intelligence,” “smart mobs” and “tipping points”? According to market intelligence guru, Britton Manasco, they are all about a “drift toward potential innovations that draw on t…

    Like

  4. Flying the colours of collective intelligence

    When community intelligence becomes market intelligence…

    Like

  5. Leif Utne says:

    Fascinating discussion. I wrote an article last year in Utne about a web-based computer game that amounts to just the kind of market you describe, Tom.
    The game, called QUEST, is essentially a Sim City for real live cities. In one version, created for the Vancouver, BC, area, players are shown statistics and aerial maps of what the Vancouver region will look like in the year 2040 if current trends continue — in land use, water and air quality, forestry, tax policy, etc. Then players can rewind and, like in Sim City, tweak all of those variables and re-run the model until they create the future of their liking. Finally, they can save the data as they’ve customized it and have it sent to local and regional planning officials.
    Tens of thousands of people in the Vancouver region have played the game in the last several years. The most striking thing the game developers have found is that, regardless of where players put themselves on the political spectrum — tree-huggers and tree-cutters alike — the future scenarios they ultimately choose are remarkably similar, clustered in a surprisingly narrow band. And that band is much more “sustainable” than the one Vancouver is currently headed for.
    It seems to me that QUEST is a model of exactly the kind of higher-tier idea market you suggest. It invites people to design urban planning scenarios based on their own personal, private interest, but by providing really good feedback information, and incorporating data in ways that internalize the costs — maps of what the smog and suburban sprawl will look like in 40 years — it achieves higher-tier results.
    Dave Biggs, the CEO of Envision Tools, the maker of QUEST, told me: “Sustainability is the choices people make when they understand the consequences of their decisions.”
    Check out:
    my article about QUEST: http://www.utne.com/pub/2003_115/promo/10224-1.html
    Envision Tools’ website: http://www.envisiontools.com

    Like

  6. Noel Moore says:

    I am delighted to discover this blog. For many years I have been interested in collective intelligence and now I find informed dis ussion on the subject.I think collec tive intelligence is a result of a change in the way people think, and this in turn has been brought aout by a change in the technologyu and mindset of communications and management. For the past 5,000 years we have been locked into a pyramid ( top down, hierarchical ) mindset that developed wjhen Cheops built the first pyramid.
    It was the building of the pyramid, not the pyramid itself that was important. Before it was built Egypt was a collection of villages, each with its own small irrigation system.After it was built the infrastructure was in place for macro projects like a national irrigation system that made Egypt the economic superpower of the ancient world.
    The Greeks borrowed the concept from Cheops, adapted it to their logic and group mind via Euclid and passed it on to the Romans who passed it on to the Church. The nation state and the corporation are built according to the vertical and coercive information matrix.
    Today the geodesic dome created by satellites and the Internet have changed the matrix. It is an interactive communications environment that makes Group Think and Collective Intelligence possible.
    I have written about this and so has Peter Huber in The Geodesic Network. It is the new paradigm. You are on to something important.
    Noel Moore

    Like

  7. Cecil Treadwell says:

    Having read the 81-page first chapter of Greg Palast’s expanded election edition of “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy”,(see http://www.GregPalast.com),
    I have been quite taken by the compelling premise of James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom Of Crowds”. The first chapter of Greg Palast’s book describes in great detail how election officials in Florida used illegal tactics to steal the last presidential election. The wisdom of the national crowd (electorate) was not allowed to express itself. I am currently reading both books, but I can’t think of a better example of how the designs of an elite have brought us to a situation where the people in power got there dishonestly and dishonorably and against the choice of the majority of voters, with the person who was actually chosen by the majority of the electorate not even in the White House. We are paying a heavy heavy price for this right now!!!

    Like

  8. Triple Bottom Line Investing

    New report proposes a set ofTriple Business schools are including courses on socially responsible investing, SRI, TBLI, sustainability, corp…

    Like

  9. Pingback: Wisdom of crowds | Ted Howard NZ's Blog

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s