three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
12-Sept-Oct-2004
user_rating: 
0

Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations

A-WisdomCrowdsAmerica has long prided itself as a nation of self-reliant, rugged individualists—what Ralph Waldo Emerson called "the simple genuine self against the whole world." But maybe, argues Surowiecki, the collective is preferable to the individual when it comes to making decisions. The book’s long subtitle spells out his thesis: that large groups often act more rationally, more intelligently, than the smartest people individually when it comes to handling cognition, coordination, and cooperation problems. Surowiecki bolsters this claim with historical and cultural examples, from avoiding collisions on crowded sidewalks to pricing stocks, predicting an election, and averting disaster at NASA. His conclusion: don’t dismiss the power of the masses.
Doubleday. 296 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0385503865

Hartford Courant 4 of 5 Stars
"The application of group wisdom stretches far beyond football games, though, which is why this book is essential reading, and for all types of readers." John Freeman

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Surowiecki’s most important contribution lies in identifying the conditions that distinguish the open-source contributions that created Linux software from the sort of closed-loop decision-making that led to the Columbia disaster." Bruce V. Bigelow

Detroit Free Press 3.5 of 5 Stars
"…[Surowiecki] has written an illuminating book with an unwieldy subtitle but a simple point. … I found The Wisdom of Crowds heavy slogging now and then, but that might be because I’m not a business columnist." Marta Salij

San Antonio Express-News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Wisdom of Crowds also sometimes succumbs to a sort of New Economy, Fast Company magazine-like aura of optimism that technology can better the world. But those faults are relatively minor when stacked against the important implications of the book." Bill Day

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"[Surowiecki] has a knack for translating the most algebraic of research papers into bright expository prose—though the swarm of anecdotes at times makes it difficult to follow the progress of his argument. … Whether Surowiecki’s book will prevent another Enron is very much to be doubted, but his worldview is at least less cynical than Victorian notions that humanity, as a group, is a dumb herd." Scott McLemee

Newsday 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The Wisdom of Crowds is clearly and persuasively written, but like many profound reinterpretations of the world around us, it leaves readers veering from ‘obviously’ to ‘no way!’ Perhaps I’m alone in my taste for statistics, but I wanted a lot more details to soothe my skepticism." Polly Shulman

Critical Summary

Surowiecki first developed his ideas for Wisdom of Crowds in his "Financial Page" column of The New Yorker. Many critics found his premise to be an interesting twist on the long held notion that Americans generally question the masses and eschew groupthink. "A socialist might draw some optimistic conclusions from all of this," wrote The New York Times. "But Surowiecki’s framework is decidedly capitalist." Some reviewers felt that the academic language and business speak decreased the impact of the argument. Still, it’s a thought-provoking, timely book: the TV studio audience of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire guesses correctly 91 percent of the time, compared to "experts" who guess only 65 percent correctly. Keep up the good work, comrades.

Supplemental Reading

AS-ExtraordinaryPopularDelusionsExtraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds | Charles MacKay (1841): The classic counter-argument to the book above; MacKay chronicles Tulipomania in 1624 (when tulip bulbs were worth more than gold) and other phenomena where the masses got out of control. Not for the general reader.

AS-TippingPointThe Tipping Point How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference | Malcom Gladwell (2000): How information moves from individuals to crowds.