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July 9, 2007

Just the Sum of Us: James Surowiecki On What Crowds Can and Cannot Do

Assignment Zero's final results appear on this week, starting today. In honor of that, here's the interview Emily Gordon of Emdashes (a blog about the New Yorker) did with James Surowiecki, the New Yorker writer and author of The Wisdom of Crowds. He's not a romantic.

Over at, Assignment Zero’s final package of articles and selected interviews is being published this week, the conclusion to an experiment that began in March. The different pieces are all about crowdsourcing and other forms of online collaboration. See

…and my intro note to the package of more than 80 interviews contributors did for Assignment Zero. (Thanks, contributors!) One of them follows. It’s by Emily Gordon, an editor at PRINT magazine and NYU grad who founded the blog, Emdashes, which is a) elegant and witty, and b.) all about the New Yorker. Take it away, Emily…

I met James Surowiecki in the late 1990s, when he was a freelance writer contributing to a diversity of publications, including Newsday’s book section, where I was his editor. He now writes The New Yorker’s weekly business column, “The Financial Page,” which ranges widely over national and international business news and consumer trends and provides analysis of all of the above. His book “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations” (Random House, 2004) was a best seller; perhaps even more relevantly, the title phrase — a play on Charles Mackay’s 1841 book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” — has become a familiar part of the lexicon.

Emily Gordon: Popular blogs, in theory, represent the will of the people, no matter how individually flavored they may be, and as we know, mass media, television and movie studios, and politicians are paying more and more attention to them. Does this represent a welcome acknowledgment of the wisdom of crowds, or are we simply creating and validating more “experts” who may or may not be true embodiments of the idea that the human sum is greater than its parts?

James Surowiecki: I’m glad that people in positions of power are paying more attention to what audiences, voters, etc., are really saying, and I think the boom in the number and quality of blogs is unquestionably a good thing. But I think it’s important to distinguish between the rise to prominence of individual bloggers and the wisdom of crowds. You only get real collective wisdom when you have some way of aggregating lots of different individual opinions to produce a collective judgment — the way at the race track all of the bets individual bettors make are put together to set the odds, or the way a voting system works. So while having some new voices get attention (the way the most famous bloggers do) is nice, it’s a long way from realizing the full potential of the Net. We need more ways to put together the opinions of the blogosphere to get a picture of what people really think.

Q: You note that the Web has made channeling or illuminating the wisdom of crowds much easier, but is it possible that the very form and habit of life online is making at least technologically capable crowds even smarter than they’ve ever been? Does the digital divide extend to this possible truth — that is, is it possible we’re leaving behind people without access to advanced technology in yet another way, in their ability to contribute to and benefit from at least this form of collective wisdom?

A: I do think that having access to the Web can make people smarter — but I’m biased, because I spend too much time online, so don’t trust my judgment on this question. So not being online probably could have certain costs aside from the obvious ones. But it’s definitely true that one of the consequences of the digital divide is exactly what you suggest: the “crowd” of people online is not as diverse as it could be, and therefore is probably less collectively smart than it might be, since we know that cognitive diversity is fundamental to collective wisdom.

Q: Can the former or even late members of a company or institution be considered part of that “crowd,” and if so, can they contribute, by past efforts or reputation, to its present influence or effectiveness?

A: I’ve never thought of it in that way, probably because I tend to think of the wisdom of crowds as a way of tapping the knowledge that people have in their heads right now. But it’s certainly true that any successful institution derives some of its strength and its reputation from what’s happened before, and in that sense the past does contribute to the present.

Q: Do you think that crowds’ clearly eager participation in sites like, which you discuss in your book, voting for “American Idol” contestants, and the countless other ways wired first-world life has become a lively participatory democracy, can or will re-translate into a more active, in-person engagement with lower-tech forms of collective action, like voting in greater numbers, political protests, environmental activism, global crises, and labor organizing?

A: The simple answer is: I don’t know. I think that it’s clear that lots and lots of people want their opinions to be heard — and want them to, in some sense, make a difference. And I hope that that will, at the very least, translate into people voting in greater numbers, and even contributing to political campaigns in greater numbers. (It’s possible we actually saw some evidence of this in 2006.) But there is a big gap between dialing a call-in number on “American Idol” and participating in a demonstration, let alone actually doing real labor organizing. The thing about lower-tech forms of collective action is that they’re often hard, not just in the sense of being demanding in terms of time and energy, but also in the sense that they require tremendous amounts of patience and a willingness to defer immediate gratification. Unlike electing Jordin Sparks this year’s American Idol, social and political change does not happen in a few hours, or even a few months. So I’m not sure we can expect the “democracy” of the Net and of modern media to lead to an efflorescence of real-world activism. But that doesn’t mean that participatory democracy in the wired world is unimportant. We just have to be realistic about what it can accomplish.

Q: Speaking of the environment, it looks as though the Bush Administration may be finally waking up, in its fashion, to the reality of lowering emissions and addressing global warming. How can, or should, your theory be applied to the administration, the country, and/or the world’s next step?

A: There are a variety of ways you could use the wisdom of crowds to come up with better answers to the problem of global warming. Internally, within the US government, I think the administration should try to tap the knowledge of workers throughout the bureaucracy — in the Department of the Interior, the EPA, the Department of Energy, NASA, etc. — to get a sense of what they collectively think are the strategies that have the best chance of succeeding at lowering emissions. Externally, I think it would be interesting to use prediction markets or other wisdom-of-crowds tools to get people to weigh in on the potential efficacy of new technological fixes — thinks like seeding the oceans with iron, carbon sequestration, and so on. More generally, I think the U.S. needs to recognize what we generally have a hard time recognizing: we do not have a monopoly on knowledge, and global problems genuinely demand a reliance on the global community to solve them.

Q: You and Malcolm Gladwell both cover business trends for The New Yorker, but, of course, you’re not the only two correspondents who cover the business world for the magazine. Since you have a weekly column, do you have first dibs on breaking stories? What do you find is the most useful fount of column ideas — traditional news wires, RSS feeds, other business journalists, overheard tidbits on the street, word of mouth from business-savvy friends and colleagues, or another source?

A: I wouldn’t say I have dibs on breaking stories: if someone else is already writing a longer piece on a company or a business figure, that will generally take precedence over my column, even if something new and interesting happens to that company. But that happens rarely, and it never happens that I don’t do a column because someone else might later on want to write a longer piece on the subject. As far as where column ideas come from, it’s a pretty amorphous mix. The topics often come out of my reading of the newspaper and the Net, but academia is also a source of a lot of great ideas and insights. There’s a lot of really good, interesting, substantive work that gets done by academics in business and economics that most people just never get a chance to come across. So some of what I do is bring that work to readers. And academic blogs are actually really valuable in finding that work.

Q: Some potential Surowiecki-Gladwell synergy: You remind your readers that although you laud collective judgment, you recognize the obvious value of experts. Wouldn’t it be better if a given expert was someone like Lois Weisberg, one of Gladwell’s “connectors,” who’s related to so many laypeople she’s almost a crowd in herself? It’s conventional wisdom that it’s no asset to any organization, whether it’s a media company or a nonprofit or a global corporation, if its leaders or idea people are too isolated from the world for which they’re making decisions. Would hiring more appropriately skilled Lois Weisbergs as crowdsourcers make sense for any company or organization that can’t always poll the masses?

A: It would depend on whether “connectors” are actually assimilating knowledge and information from the people they’re connected to, or whether their real talent was simply in making connections between people. I think more important than the number of connections is the diversity and breadth of the connections: in other words, you want people who are willing to listen to and take seriously opinions and perspectives that are dramatically different from their own. That’s a very difficult thing to do.

Q: When we first met, you were a smart book critic writing about an impressive breadth of titles for a number of publications. What prompted your metamorphosis into a smart business-world columnist for The New Yorker, and what have you found most rewarding about that life and role, or milieu, thus far? What have you found most surprising? Most worrisome?

A: I was already a business writer — working for Slate — at the same time that I was a book critic. I think the fact that I ended up at the New Yorker was the result of two things: 1) the opportunity that the Net created (and still creates) for younger writers to work and to get noticed by people in what you might call the establishment press, and 2) the fact that, more than ever, non-businesspeople are curious about business and economics. The most rewarding thing has been the fact that you can write about business/economics, and about ideas, in what I hope is an intellectually rigorous way and have people read it and enjoy it (again, I hope). The most surprising thing is that the bursting of the stock-market bubble seems to have had only a small impact on people’s interest in this stuff. And the most worrisome thing is that although people are being asked to take more and more responsibility for their own financial lives, a lot of Americans don’t get enough information or training to make it easy for them to make good financial decisions.

Q: Has your research and resulting theory changed the way you make decisions, whether in investment, friendly sports wagers, or which bar you go to on a Friday night? Do you find yourself using the resources of crowds more often, and if so, how?

A: When I can, yes. The best example is something like the NCAA Tournament, where I rely pretty heavily on the collective judgment of bettors (which is tracked by ESPN and Sportsline before the tournament starts). As far as investing goes, my basic assumption is that the crowd is very hard to beat, so in most cases you should just put your money into index funds.

Q: New York City, where you live, is a remarkable crowd unto itself. How do you see the collective intelligence of crowds manifesting itself in ordinary ways in the city around you?

A: In some sense, I think the fact that New York works as well as it does — and I think that these days it works very well — is a kind of testament to the wisdom of crowds. Certainly the way crowds move on the sidewalk — the efficiency and speed with which pedestrians move — is evidence of it. More generally, I think we do a good job of adapting to problems, of finding workarounds, often times without any guidance from above, so that things which seem like they might be paralyzing turn out not to be.

Q: You’re likely asked to give talks to many kinds of groups. Do you hear back from CEOs and other leaders you’ve encountered and discover they’ve taken your words to heart? Are crowds as good at listening as they are at unconsciously dispensing wisdom, and do you find that what they give back to you increases your knowledge in a real and significant way? If so, what are some examples? If not, what might be the problem — perhaps a lack of the necessary diversity you underscore?

A: In general, I find that the groups I speak to are great at listening, and much of the time people have interesting questions, stories from their own experience, and so on, that help me understand more about the way collective intelligence works. One paradoxical thing about most organizations today is that people spend a lot of time on teams, in meetings, etc., but they don’t necessarily have any faith that it’s the right thing to do or, more important, any real idea of how to take advantage of all that collective work. So my ideas — even if people are, understandably, skeptical about them — often have some connection to their day-to-day experience. What’s interesting to me, though, is that even if you really buy into the idea of the wisdom of crowds, actually putting that idea into practice in an organization is not easy. There are a lot of hurdles — both institutional and psychological — that make it hard for organizations to change, particularly when it comes to moving away from a traditional command-and-control model. So even when the idea makes sense to people, you probably need something more to turn into a practical reality.

Q: There are a lot of theories out there cramming the bookstores, from moving cheeses to long tails to black swans. When you read other business books, do you find that many of them in fact support “The Wisdom of Crowds,” if not in so many words, or do you find that there are profoundly misguided gurus out there?

A: Not surprisingly, I think that there’s still too much fetishization of the individual expert and of the heroic leader in business writing today. A lot of us are just enthralled by the idea of trusting individual visionaries, so there’s always going to be a market for that kind of book. But I do think there are a lot of books out there that recognize, in one way or another, the importance and the increasing value of processes that are bottom-up, decentralized and diverse, and there are obvious connections between some of the ideas in a book like “The Long Tail” and the idea of the wisdom of crowds, or between my discussion of the limitations of individual experts and Nassim Taleb’s searing attack on experts in “The Black Swan” (though I’m more confident in the predictive ability of crowds than Taleb, who has no confidence in it at all, is).

Q: Accessing the instincts and ideas of the group is smart market research, of course, but consumers may become weary of being constantly polled and monitored by corporations, whether knowingly or not. Is there a way for companies that do this to make that accessing process more palatable or, even better, genuinely empowering for its subjects? Is the same true for political parties?

A: I wouldn’t go too far with the hope that market research will ever be “empowering” in any meaningful sense. But I do think consumers get some value from the fact that their opinions can actually make a material difference in the way that companies behave, the kind of products they make, etc. (That’s why, I assume, consumers do things like vote for their favorite T-shirts at And the hope, also, is that if companies pay more attention to what consumers collectively have to say, they’ll end up delivering products and services that are closer to what we really need. Of course, these are only small benefits for the individual, so I think the only way for companies to do this well is to let people self-select — those who want to participate will, those who don’t won’t. This goes against a basic principle of market research, which is that you want the group you’re surveying to match, as closely as possible, the audience you’re targeting. But the truth is that if you can get a big enough and diverse enough group of people to participate, even if they don’t match your target audience, they can still give you excellent answers. There’s a British research company called Brainjuicer that’s been experimenting with this kind of wisdom-of-crowds methodology for market research, and so far they’ve gotten very good results.

Q: You must get a lot of questions about the wisdom of crowds’ taste in popular culture, Paris Hilton, etc. Who’s to blame for the lowest common denominator as represented in supermarket tabloids and celebrity magazines, and blockbuster movies, since surely crowds form the market that demands the entertainment? It’s been argued that every decade since, say, the beginning of cinema has produced just as much crap as Hollywood does now, but it’s the classics we remember. Do you think that’s the case? Is it possible that there’s a time lag between when entertainment (and art generally) is produced and when the collective mind is capable of processing its value?

A: Well, I deliberately didn’t write about culture in “The Wisdom of Crowds,” for a simple reason: collective wisdom is a good way of coming up with an answer when there is a right or wrong answer (in a kind of Platonic sense) to the question. Which horse is most likely to win this race? What percentage of the vote will George W. Bush get? What will the box-office grosses of “Shrek the Third” be? What are the chances of an outbreak of avian flue in Indonesia in 2008? These are all questions that there is, in some sense, a true answer to (even if we won’t know that answer until much later or perhaps not ever). I’m not sure, though, that the same can be said about a question like: Which movie is better? There may be no Platonic truth of aesthetics, in which case the wisdom of crowds shouldn’t be expected to come up with a good answer. Having said that, I do secretly believe (without any real justification) that over time, quality tends to out (accepting the limitations that people’s cultural biases, their training, and their lack of exposure to new material produce). I guess I assume it has to mean something that the crowd would say that the Beatles are the greatest band in the history of pop music.

Q: The 2008 election: How wise will we be?

A: I have no idea. I think the fact that more people seem interested in the election is a good thing. I think the ever-more-important role of the Net and of bloggers is excellent. But presidential campaigns are often not exercises in trying to tap the collective intelligence of voters, so much as they are attempts to play off their biases and their visceral impulses. So we’ll see if 2008 is different.

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 9, 2007 10:31 AM