ia play

the good life in a digital age

when crowds are wise

I realised the other day I’ve never actually read James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and that was undermining my ability to spot when senior management were systematically misusing the concept. So I got a copy from Swapshop – these are really not the sort of books you should ever have to spend money on.

I’ve been slightly resistent to reading it. At university David Gauntlett introduced us to Charles Mackay’s the Madness of Crowds during lectures about moral hysteria about media (and Victorian moral outrage at the bicycle, if I remember rightly). ‘Madness’ is not the easiest of reads but the stuff on tulip mania makes your jaw drop at times. It may have been my rosy memories of those lectures that made me irritated at Surowiecki’s concept.

Now Surowiecki isn’t rejecting that groups of people sometimes (frequently?) do intensely stupid things. He is more interested in describing the conditions under which a crowd can be surprisingly smart. The book should really be called ‘When Crowds are Wise’.

I haven’t finished it yet and don’t really feel like it would matter if I don’t. ‘Wisdom’ and other pop theory books are more tightly written than ‘Madness’ but the structure is repetitive and they outstay their welcome pretty quickly. Tellingly, most are expansions of magazine articles, expanded (or padded) with a series of anecdotes and a smattering of scientific studies that are briefly skimmed over. They make me crave depth. But maybe not as much depth as Mackay gives you!

Pop theory books are such easy targets, I shouldn’t really expend energy on them. Just read ValleyWag instead.

Written by Karen

February 10th, 2008 at 9:53 am

Posted in books,psychology