The Austin Chronicle

Summer Reading

Beyond Texas

By Roger Gathman, May 28, 2004, Books

The Wisdom of Crowds

by James Surowiecki

Doubleday, 320 pp., $24.95

Crowds get bad press. Whenever the stock market plunges, business journalists pull out their dusty copies of Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and bone up on tulipmania. For Freud, civilization itself is a long repentance for the patricidal crimes committed by the primal horde. For Canetti, who wrote Crowds and Power with the shouts of Hitler's Nuremberg rally figuratively ringing in his ears, the crowd is literally demonic.

So it is nice to hear from the defense. Surowiecki is The New Yorker's economics columnist. He begins his book with a heartening tale outlining the comeuppance of Francis Galton, the father of eugenics and an inveterate elitist. Galton went to an English country fair, once, and observed a contest: A crowd was challenged to guess the weight of a pig. Collecting the tickets on which the guesses were scribbled, he found that, after averaging the crowd's guesses, they were off by one pound out of 1,198. Impressive! But the skeptical reader immediately imagines a counter-example – say you substitute an ostrich for that pig?

In effect, Surowiecki's book is about what groups do better than the smartest individuals among them – a surprisingly long list, from Google to democracy to answers to questions on the old Who Wants to Be a Millionaire – to what they do wrong – tulipmania, traffic jams, and groupthink.

Surowiecki's thesis is that crowds are at their best when their problems are preset – inventing new frames is hard for a group – and their members are diverse. When faced with new frameworks, however – ostriches instead of pigs – crowds need to listen to dissidents, minorities, and skeptics.

Like Malcolm Gladwell, another New Yorker collector of social experiments, Surowiecki has perfected a certain smooth, PowerPoint-ish, pop-science style, blending anecdote and explanation to make the reader feel smart without having to do the work of smartness.

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