James Surowiecki: the Wisdom of Crowds

In May 2016, at the CMX Summit East, James Surowiecki gave a talk entitled The Power of the Collective. Essentially it was a promotion of much the same message he launched in his book The Wisdom of Crowds, published way back in 2004.

I thought I’d explore it, in order to compare and contrast the message with Douglas Murray’s appearance on this blog on 19 March, and his latest book The Madness of Crowds. Are they contradicting each other?

No.

Let’s get the rhetor stuff out of the way quickly so as to get on to Surowiecki’s message. He speaks well, shooting from the hip as a proper speaker should. Voice projection is good, diction good, generous expressive gestures. Being picky I’d have liked him to maintain broad brushstrokes a little more, as he occasionally gets bogged down in detail. He should try to save the detail for his anecdotes which are excellent – particularly the last.

His only apparent stage-craft failing is a lack of light-consciousness because he too often drifts stage-right, putting his face into the gloomy penumbra of the spotlight-edge, and occasionally actually moving completely out of it into stygian darkness. That spotlight is not fixed, it’s a follow-spot, so a slap on the wrist is due its operator; but if Surowiecki had learned the actor’s trick of ‘loving’ his light in order constantly to be seen at his best advantage, he would never have gone into darkness.

The people are always smarter than their masters.

That’s an anonymous aphorism I first picked up on decades ago, and subsequent experience has always confirmed it. It’s not that the masters are thick, though quite often they are a little – that’s a result of the type of mentality that wants to obtain fame or power – but the main reason is well-described in Surowiecki’s speech. Breadth and depth of experience and opinion will always make a community’s judgement better than those who claim to lead it. That’s why I detest calling politicians ‘leaders’. They are not: they are representatives.

The way optimally to harness the wisdom of the crowd is by democracy, free speech, and small government.

Wherefore therefore Douglas Murray’s “Madness of Crowds” in all this? Murray clearly shows us the consequence of silenced dissent, no-platforming, the revolting bigotry of political correctness, hate-filled hate-laws, and so on. Surowiecki clearly shows us the brilliance of a community consisting of the widest possible divergence of opinion and experience. Murray and Surowiecki are on the same side.

Though small, there has to be a government. There has to be a group of representatives, empowered by the rest of us to take rapid decisions when – for instance – a deadly virus threatens us.

But for my money the most dangerous and widespread disease now threatening our planet and the people upon it is what I call bureaucritis. We are threatened by the inexorable growth of an international army of parasitic, unaccountable, self-perpetuating, self-regarding, and monumentally unimpressive pen-pushers. They are drones when they should be workers. They constantly fail in their judgement and urgently need to be brought to heel – or, in many cases, put out to grass.

How? Don’t ask me: I’m not wise enough to supply an answer to that. I’m not a diverse community.

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