Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Hive Mind is stupid and boring -- why do we love it so?

Jaron Lanier, writing for The Edge, writes about our infatuation with the Hive Mind.

As somebody who believes strongly in the advantages of such examples of collectivism as Wikipedia, Google's page ranking, the Open Source philosophy, and the benefits of free and open competition, Lanier's argument appeared provocative (if not downright ignorant) to me -- at first glance. But after getting past the first part of the article, and actually reading it through to the conclusion, I realised that he wasn't arguing against the wisdom of the crowd, but warning that crowds can easily turn into mobs, which are notoriously stupid. (The intelligence of a mob, it has been said, is that of its stupidist member divided by the number of members.)

There are many examples of collectivist behaviour where the crowd is more intelligent than the smartest individual. It is the basis of capitalism: the free market is often better able to allocate scarce resources than the wisest autocratic ruler, let alone some out-of-touch bureaucrats. It explains why the scientific consensus is so often right, when individual scientists so often have feet of clay and irrational foibles.

But likewise, crowds are not always wise, the free market is not always clever (witness Tuplip Mania, the South Sea Bubble, and the Dot Com Boom), and sometimes it takes an individual genius to shift the scientific consensus. The Hive Mind (or the Borg Collective if you prefer) is dumb precisely because it is made up of many individuals with but a single opinion. Crowds are wise when they contain opinions and free competition. Lanier's article, despite its title and provocative opening, is not so much warning that crowd decisions are stupid as reminding us of that sometimes they can be, and that we, as individuals, need the sense to tell when to listen to the crowd and when to seek out individual experts.

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