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- Listening Length: 7 hours and 43 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: Audible Studios
- Audible.co.uk Release Date: 23 Nov. 2009
- Language: English
- ASIN: B002YEB4GE
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Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge Audio Download – Unabridged
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I have always thought that Cass Sunstein epitomizes the worst of this trend. He seems to rush a book into print every six months, and with each new work drifts further and further away from "law." But after hearing him on Russ Roberts' fantastic EconTalk podcast, I was genuinely dying to read this book. The topics chosen are all fascinating, and no one has really treated them all under one roof before.
The problem is that, once again, Sunstein has given short shrift to these topics. All of them, with the exception of group deliberation, has been covered better elsewhere. Where Sunstein is not stealing the limelight from people like Robin Hanson (prediction markets) he is rehashing the pop science books of people like James Surowieki (statistical group judgments).
The reason this book gets three stars instead of zero is that the material on bias in group deliberation is genuinely insightful and original. In brief: deliberative bodies make very poor decisions, due to a whole slew of biases and feedback loops. When Sunstein suggests that we reform deliberative bodies, generally, to incorporate anonymous voting and minority voices, he is offering something genuinely useful. (Interestingly, at one point in the podcast mentioned above, Sunstein all but admits that this was initiated as a book about deliberation and that the project was changed to incorporate the other topics in media res. This explains a lot.) Read it for the bits on deliberation, but be prepared to be bored and underwhelmed by large portions.
1) Education as the necessary continuous foundation for deliberation
2) Collective Intelligence as an emerging discipline (see the Innovators spread sheet at Earth Intelligence Network); and
3) No reference to Serious Games/Games for Change or budgets as a foundation for planning the future rather than predicting it.
In the general overview the author discusses information cocoons (self-segregation and myopia) and information influences/social pressures that can repress free thinking and sharing.
The four big problems that he finds in the history of deliberation are amplifying errors; hidden profiles & favoring common or "familiar" knowledge; cascades & polarization; and negative reinforements from being within a narrow group.
Today I am missing a meeting on Predictive Markets in DC (AEI-Brookings) and while I regret that, I have thoroughly enjoyed the author's deep look at Prediction Markets, with special reference to Google and Microsoft use of these internally. This book, at a minimum, provides the very best overview of prediction markets that I have come across. At the end of the book is an appendix listing 18 specific predictions markets with their URLs.
The author goes on to provide an overview of the Wiki world, and is generally very kind to Jimbo Wales and Wikipedia, and less focused on the many altneratives and enhancements of the open Wiki. It would have been helpful here to have some insights for the general reader on Doug Englebart's Open Hypertextdocument System (OHS) and Pierre Levy's Information Economy Meta Language (IEML), both of which may well leave the mob-like open wiki's in the dust.
Worthy of note: Soar Technology is quoted as saying that Wikis cut project development time in half.
The book draws to a close with further discussion of the challenges of self-segregation, the options for aggregating views and knowledge and for encouraging feedback, and the urgency of finding incentives to induce full disclosure and full participation from all who have something to contribute.
This book excels in its own narrowly-chosen domain, but it is isolated from the larger scheme of things including needed educational changes, the importance of belief systems as the objective of Intelligence and Information Operations (I2O), the role of Serious Games/Games for Change, and the considerable work that has been done by Collective Intelligence pioneers, who just held their first convergence conference call on 15 January 2007.
Final note: the author uses NASA and the Columbia disaster, and CIA and the Iraq disaster, as examples, but does not adequately discuss the pathologies of bureaucracy and the politicization of intelligence and space. As a former CIA employee who also reads a great deal, I can assert with confidence that CIA has no trouble aggregating all that it knew, including the reports of the 30 line crossers who went in and then came back to report there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction. CIA has two problems: 1) Dick Cheney refused to listen; and 2) George Tenet lacked the integrity to go public and go to Congress to challenge Dick Cheney's malicious and impeachable offenses against America (see my reviews of "VICE" and of "One Percent Doctrine" on Cheney, and my many reviews on the mistakes leading up to and within the Iraq war). See also my reviews of "Fog Facts" and "Lost History" and Gaddis' "The Landscape of History."
To end on an upbeat note, what I see in this book, and "Wikinomics" and "Collective Intelligence" and "Tao of Democracy" and my own "The New Craft of Intelligence: Personal, Public, & Political," is a desperate need for Amazon to take on the task of aggregating books and building out from books to create social communities where all these books can be "seen" and "read" and "understood" as a whole. We remain fragmented in the production and dissemination of information, and consequently, in our own mind-sets and world-views. Time to change that, perhaps with Wiki-books that lock-down the original and then give free license to apply OHS linkages at the paragraph level, and unlimited wike build-outs. That's what I am in Seattle to discuss this week.
Infotopia is directed at people who know little about this subject. I found hardly any new insights in it, and few ideas that I disagreed with. Some of its comments will seem too obvious to be worth mentioning to anyone who uses the web much. It's slightly better than Wisdom of Crowds, but if you've already read Wisdom of Crowds you'll get little out of Infotopia.
I quickly added the chapters on group deliberation failures to the syllabus for my class on psychology and economics. My only trepidation was that I am also assigning sections of Punitive Damages and Laws of Fear, so there's now an entire unit on Cass Sunstein's work. But he does an excellent job of exploring in readable prose the societal consequences of psychological influences on choice. As such, his books offer a very accessible mirror into aspects of bounded rationality or heuristics & biases that we study in economics. I figure the marginal contribution of this book, in terms of class discussion and actual post-exam take-aways, exceed the contribution of a few more technical empirical papers.... At least, I hope that turns out to be the case!
Addendum: as of May 2015, this book is still on my psychological economics syllabus. The last few chapters are quite dated now, but core of the book remains extremely relevant and effective.
so, for instance, he starts off the book talking about the surprising ways in which large groups of people can outperform individuals when answers are averaged out. often the average answer -- when guessing the weight of some object, when trying to correlate body weight with gender -- is not only better than the best individual answer, but also better than what a supposed expert can offer. to be sure, aggregating information like this only works under specific conditions, say, when it is reasonable to presume that people might have a general idea about something. it would be useless to rely on the statistical responses of people for information not privy to most people, say, the year of some lesser known historical event or the name of someone's pet (unless that someone is famous, maybe).
the reason that this works, Sunstein explains, is due to the Condorcet Jury Theorem, which states that the probability of arriving at a correct answer increases as the size of the group increases provided that there is greater than a 50% chance that people will arrive at a correct answer. the more people you have, the closer you approach to 100%. this is the reason why "ask the audience" usually works well in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? -- because there's a decent chance that some people know the answer, or at least can correctly rule out false answers. in these types of situations, it is beneficial to rely on the responses of a large group of people (as large as possible, in fact) to increase the chances of arriving at the correct answer.
the flip side of this math, however, is that if people have less than a 50% chance of knowing the correct answer -- again, when asking about information not widely disseminated -- the probability of arriving at the correct responses approaches 0% as the group increases. so clearly this isn't always (or even often) the best way of arriving at the truth.
the second method under review is deliberation. Sunsstein is open about giving deliberation a bad rap here not because it is entirely inefficient, but because it is so often assumed to be the ideal way of accessing dispersed information and thus the truth. deliberation lies at the heart of many practices in this country, from trials by jury to our deliberative democracy. the problem with deliberation, in short, is that it doesn't work very well. Sunstein offers a number of reasons for this, owing to some of the natural shortcomings of the human mind (some familiar terrain after reading Kluge) and to particular behavioral phenomena in group settings, such as the general "groupthink" idea, along with informational cascades (when people factor into their responses the likelihood that other people, who may hold a different opinion, would be wrong and so answer or vote not purely on the basis of information but on what everyone else appears to know as well) and the many pressures on individuals to preserve group harmony (or their own status) by not offering information they may have that goes against the conventional group wisdom. in experiments, people also tend to accord more authority to people in higher positions (including class, gender, and race -- even if those social statuses are irrelevant to the immediate context) and to ignore others, regardless of the value of the information.
in one particularly illuminating example, the author discusses an experiment in which individuals of a group are asked to vote for candidates in an imaginary election. the experiment is set up in such a way that Candidate A is clearly the most fit choice for the position. when group members are all given about 2/3 of the relevant information for the candidates, the deliberation usually results in the correct choice of Candidate A (a statistical improvement over the initial poll of individuals -- so here, deliberation helped). however, when the members are all given 2/3 of the information about the other candidates, and the information about Candidate A is dispersed among individual members (even if the total information is more than in the previous scenario), the groups fail to access the relevant information contained by some of its members. as a result, they end up choosing one of the demonstrably inferior candidates. moreover, the percentage of votes for Candidate A fell after deliberation. why? because the information favoring the wrong candidate is that which is held by all the members -- a phenomenon aptly called "the common knowledge effect."
the major concern here is that deliberation groups often fail to access the relevant information held by some of its members because of the tendency to favor (and focus on) information shared by all rather than on individual perspectives, even when there was no evident (or stronger than usual) "status" issues or instances of social pressure on conforming to group opinion (indeed, there was no group opinion until the hypothetical information was given out). in other experiments, the success of deliberation groups was also dependent on whether the group members were "primed" to think that arriving at the correct answer was important, as opposed to priming them for getting along. this is cold comfort when thinking of juries and governmental deliberation.
this is not to say, however, that deliberation never works -- obviously it worked in the first part of the experiment. indeed, deliberation groups can perform as well as their best member, and sometimes they can even outperform their best member when pieces of relevant information are dispersed and the information, together, helps the group arrive at the correct answer. but deliberation is best limited to instances when an answer is readily available (like problem solving) or "eureka" problems -- when the correct answer can be identified by all as soon as it is made apparent. on more ambiguous matter -- say on social or moral issues, or anything involving ideology of whatever sort -- deliberation groups are fairly terrible, often resulting in the amplification of previous biases (a well-documented event, familiar to anyone who's ever been in a chat room or on a message board -- or even among a group of like-minded friends, really).
Sunstein then moves on to markets -- prediction markets, more specifically. on the general level, the author discusses why online review sites (of movies, restaurants, products, etc.) have worked so well on the principle of a market and the establishing of a "price" of a particular commodity. but what is most interesting is his discussion of more recent developments of prediction markets in which people place value (and trade stock) on the likelihood of a certain outcome -- say, the winners of Oscars or the results of a political election. surprisingly, these "markets" have often (but not always) outperformed even the best experts in their predictions. the reasons why these markets work is that they provide an incentive for people with good information to put their money where their mouth is, resulting in predictions made by people who, in theory at least, have relevant information. if you are concerned, as the author is, with how we most efficiently go about accessing widely dispersed information in society, then markets are often an excellent way of bypassing some of the social pressures and dynamics of deliberation groups. these don't always have to be (indeed, they often aren't) open to the public and so can limit the predictions and trading to the relevant individuals. so far, these types of markets have proved excellent within individual companies (e.g., Google and HP) at predicting what products will be the most successful or when a new product or program will be ready for distribution. this new approach undermines conventional wisdom of a board of big wigs -- who couldn't possibly have access to all of the relevant information possessed by all the employees -- making the decision from the top down.
to keep the rest of this brief(er), Sunstein then moves on to the various Web 2.0 developments in social media and information aggregation -- including wikis, open source software, and blogs -- and discusses their relative merits, as well as causes for concern. as it turns out, unmediated forums for the sharing and refining of information have proved more effective than many feared. that is not to say there are not problems with, say, wikis -- indeed, Wikipedia is far better on some topics than others, and even then usually as a general guide, not the end-all authority -- or blogs -- here we can find some pretty terrible groupthink behavior, along with more than generous helpings of rubbish -- but overall, they are very effective in ensuring that dispersed information sees the figurative light of day. in fact, Sunstein discusses a few instances where information shared online by bloggers helped to correct statements made by political candidates (leading to apologies) or to debunk a phony document (leading Dan Rather to apologize and retire).
the book ends with a few discussions about the situations in which the various methods work best and a few suggestions about how groups and organizations can best make use of them.
overall, this is a very interesting book and fascinating information. unfortunately, for even such a short book (225 pages), it was more repetitive than necessary and could have benefited from more individual case studies. also, while I am tempted to say that this book is to groups what Gary Marcus' Kluge is for the individual mind, this book is not nearly as entertaining and engaging as Marcus', which is unfortunate because it certainly had the potential to be as captivating and perhaps even more relevant.