A review of Infotopia
I’ve been discussing problems with public information and ways to improve it with Michael Nielsen, and on this topic, he recommended Infotopia: how many minds produce knowledge by Cass Sunstein. Having just finished reading it, I recommend it too.
With a solid grounding in experiments and studies of group behavior (and enlightened common sense), Sunstein explores how groups and societies succeed and fail in what is arguably their most vital task: drawing out and assembling pieces of knowledge that are scattered among many minds. When this process of knowledge integration succeeds, groups can understand, decide, and act with knowledge and wisdom that exceeds that of any of their members.
When knowledge integration fails or goes astray, however, groups can perform worse than even their average members, and sometimes worse than any member.
The results of Suntein’s exploration are sobering, but the opportunities for improvement are staggering. If the knowledge and recommendations that Sunstein offers us were widely known and applied, blunders in group decision making would become substantially less common. These blunders range in size from small to large, and by “large blunders” I mean disastrously wrong decisions at the trillion-dollar, fate-of-nations level.
Infotopia is broad, describing, comparing, and analyzing a range of processes that draw on the power of many minds:
- Group deliberation
- Conventional markets
- Prediction markets
- Open source development
- Wikis and Wikipedia
Sunstein helps us understand how these process operate and why they work and don’t work under various circumstances. Perhaps the most disturbing result is that deliberative discussion by groups often doesn’t work — that it fails to elicit information from its members, and that, under typical conditions, deliberation is more likely to amplify errors than to correct them.
In addition to diagnosis, Sunstein offers recommendations for improvement, some that a reader can apply next afternoon at work, and others that would involve changing how organizations operate.
Knowledge matters. Decisions matter. If your work or interests involve either, I think you’d enjoy reading Infotopia, and forever after, be glad that you did.
(I recently reviewed another book by Cass Sunstein, Nudge, and with similar enthusiasm.)
For other posts on knowledge about knowledge, see:
- A Map of Science
- How to Learn About Everything
- How to Understand Everything (and Why)
- The Antiparallel Structures of Science and Engineering
- Science and Engineering: A Layer-Cake of Inquiry and Design
- A Telescope Aimed at the Future
- Exploratory Engineering:
Applying the predictive power of science
to future technologies