The stupidity of crowds


One of the many privileges of my job is chairing events in our lecture programme. Sometimes it can be nerve-racking. So it was last night. Not only did we have an all star cast, but so broad was the subject matter there was the danger we would end up having parallel, tenuously linked, debates.

More through luck than my own judgement a core question did emerge, and one on which views are widely divergent. In essence it was this: does the economic crisis point to a future in which expertise and authority are even more widely dispersed or to the reverse: the need for a renewal and reassertion of hierarchical oversight?

Don Tapscott, global business guru and best-selling author of Wikinomics invited us to understand a future in which ubiquitous technological capacity and know-how fundamentally undermine structures of control. Organisations need to abandon the goal of monopolising knowledge and policing the boundary between themselves and the outside world, instead accepting transparency and finding ways of tapping into the power of networks and the dispersed knowledge of the on-line public sphere.

In contrast, Lord Eatwell, one of the UK’s most distinguished economists, argued that the origins of the crisis lay in the failure of Governments and publics to understand the inherently irrational nature of markets. Indeed, that which Don Tapscott celebrated - transparency and mass communication - contributed to the scale of the crisis by accelerating the fever of debt fuelled speculation, and legitimising the hubristic individualism that led so many - from the politicians and bankers to the over indebted householder - to believe they could defy gravity.

Dan Hind’s contribution was to recognise the need for authority but to demand that this be held properly to account. He argued, for example, for public funding of independent investigations into the actions of corporations and Governments.

Finally, Andrew Keen, who can always be relied upon to be provocative, linked Don Tapscott’s fascination with the technological skills of his own children to a wider social malaise in which elders (for which read experts and those in positions of authority) have abandoned their responsibility to guide and, if necessary, control the young.

As you will by now have grasped, to call this debate wide ranging would be an understatement. It was one of those conversations that you simply have to let rattle around in your head until some part of it emerges that you can get to grips with or turn into a more concrete dilemma. Of course, my own bias as an advocate of cultural theory will be to look for ways in which new, more powerful and relevant, forms of regulation, and the power of mass collaboration, can somehow be brought together in new clumsy solutions. Ours is a world where the capacity to tap into the wisdom of crowds is matched by the catastrophic dangers of capitulating before the stupidity of crowds. Regulation cannot work without participation and consent; collaboration must be guided (as it is in Wikipedia).

As I left last night a number of people thanked the RSA for the event (and Encyclopaedia Britannica for sponsoring it) and urged us to return to these issues.

We will.

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