Sunday, January 28, 2007

Collective Ignorance

"Collective intelligence," perhaps best exemplified by the work of Pierre Lévy, who has been recently popularized by Henry Jenkins, has been central to much contemporary cybertheory. Nonetheless, Malcolm Gladwell has been questioning the wisdom of collective intelligence in recent years. In Blink, he shows how groups of New York City police officers and Southern California antiquities experts can reach the wrong decisions, although discrete individuals might otherwise see essential errors. In his new article on Enron in The New Yorker, "Open Secrets: Enron, intelligence, and the perils of too much information," Gladwell implicitly goes after collective intelligence again, pointing out that the Bush administration has thrown human resources at foreign policy issues and yet failed to differentiate between a "mystery" (in which information is contradictory, complex, or inconclusive) and a "puzzle" (in which information is simply insufficient). I disagree with Gladwell's proposition that the Enron executives shouldn't be judged too harshly, given their public disclosures, since there's still a good legal case to be made for fraudulent business practices. However, I do agree with his contention that in the current war on terror we probably need more analysts and fewer spies to arrive at better decision-making.

Of course, I often rely on collective intelligence when I travel. The aggregation of reviews on sites like TripAdvisor helps me find smaller hotels without flashy advertising that have excellent service and amenities that the major travel guides may miss. I've also been fortunate to have benefited from collective intelligence practices from my hosts, such as the Goodwill Guides in Japan, who match visitors to volunteer club members.

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