Tom Atlee: Comparing “Wisdom of the Crowds” to Real Collective Wisdom

Collective Intelligence
Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

Comparing “Wisdom of the Crowds” to Real Collective Wisdom

The popular book “The Wisdom of Crowds” says a lot about the remarkable accuracy of thousands of people making guesses about something that has a real but unknown answer now or in the future. This phenomenon is fascinating but it doesn’t provide us with actual WISDOM to guide our collective future. What would real collective wisdom look like, and how might we find or co-create it?

A friend just sent me this essay from the BBC: “‘Wisdom of the crowd’: The myths and realities” by Philip Ball.

I feel a need to respond to it – publicly and urgently.

I think it is unfortunate that James Surowiecki’s 2005 book “The Wisdom of Crowds” – which is a perfectly good book as far as it goes – has colonized the most popular term for collective wisdom so that it is hard to talk about the subject in any other terms than his, and be heard.

But think about it for a minute. “The Wisdom of Crowds” is about how accurate (or not) dozens or thousands of people are when they are guessing the number of beans in a bottle or predicting who is going to win the World Cup. The number of times their average collective guestimates are accurate is remarkable – which is the subject of Surowiecki’s book. But is that what WISDOM is really about?

If some individual could predict the outcome of this year’s US elections, would we call them wise? Is that what we proclaim Christ or Buddha as wise for doing?

I would love it if we would reserve the terms “wisdom” and “wise” for guidance that makes life better – especially useful guidance that makes life better for most or all of us – including all the creatures of this living, fragile Earth – over the long term. That’s what we need wisdom for, now more than ever.

The traditions of the world’s great religions are one source of that wisdom, if we are mindful and heartful about which aspects of them we choose to follow, such as the near-universal Golden Rule of treating others the ways we would like to be treated. That’s wise. Various forms of systems thinking – from shamanism to ecology and complexity sciences – offer such wisdom because they deal with the wholeness and interconnectedness of the world. Nature’s ways of solving problems – as revealed by the sciences of biomimicry and evolution – also offers such guidance because nature’s solutions (and ways of generating solutions) have arisen and proven themselves through millions of years of testing.

And then there’s the processes through which we make our collective decisions. Here Surowiecki and his followers and critics have a lot to say. Surowieckians stress the need for the diversity and independence of the participants, noting that the more they talk with each other or are exposed to each other’s ideas, the less accurate their predictions and estimates become.

While this may be true enough for their “prediction markets”, it is tragic advice for those of us seeking to generate true collective wisdom to address our collective problems and crises. For this latter purpose it is ESSENTIAL that we talk together. But the quality of our talking can make or break our wisdom-generating capacity. Conversations that creatively use our different perspectives and ways of thinking will generate more wisdom than debates in which different “sides” try to win or where certain voices colonize the conversation while others remain silent and unheard. Furthermore, people who feel well heard tend to become more open to hearing others and more able to join in seeking deeper and higher forms of insight and co-creativity together – all sources of greater wisdom.

Once we have the capacity to convene and carry out such generative conversations, then the diversity of the participants becomes a very special treasure. We want diversity that covers as many relevant perspectives as possible – all the different types of stakeholders or a good random selection of our community or everyone involved in a conflict – and different personality types and different roles in how an issue will play out. Not all differences are the same – and some are much more important for group wisdom than others. But what we don’t want is all people of like mind reinforcing their pre-existing agreements or two polarized sides reinforcing their pre-existing disagreements.

We want people in such conversations to have available to them whatever information is relevant to their shared inquiry and challenge. Hopefully that pool of knowledge and perspectives will include some of the kinds of material noted in the “sources of wisdom” paragraph above. And it should be understandable, balanced, and readily engaged with.

Finally, we want people to be able to show up as whole human beings. Reason and passion are a dynamic duo that – although they each have their own center of gravity – are totally dependent on each other in practice. We cannot make a rational final choice without a desire for particular kind of outcome, a desire that arises from our emotion, our passion, our felt sense of need or aspiration. On the other hand, our collective desires and aspirations need facts and logic to tie them to the real world and understand the likely outcomes of this or that initiative we might take. Of course, we also need creative imagination – co-creative imagination – to weave our possibilities and pieces of the puzzle into proposals we all want to put energy into. So the extent of our consensus – how well has our final proposal addressed the longings and concerns of all involved? – is another source of wisdom, indicating that we have taken into account that much of what’s really involved with the issue we were addressing. A high level of consensus also means that our proposal will tap into the implementing energy of many of the people involved, thereby minimizing how much top-down, outside-in effort, direction, and resources will be needed to achieve the results we seek – which is another piece of what makes some guidance or action wise.

Of course we ACTUALLY don’t know what proposals will prove wise until long after the fact. How well is what we proposed actually working out in reality? Is it producing what we hoped for? Is it producing unexpected side effects that we don’t want? These questions don’t just address our success or failure. Most importantly, they point us back to our process. Have we set things up to review how well we’re doing, so we can catch problems early on or, if necessary, start over again? Is our process iterative or ongoing such that we exercise a ceaseless collective intelligence that feeds our collective learning and adaptation? A big part of wisdom is the humility to learn from experience and not just barge ahead regardless.

There is so much “we” know about how to do this well – and so much more that we need to learn to do it better, to upgrade what we know so that it is powerful enough to deal with climate change, peak oil, economic transformation, a growing and aging population, unexpected impacts from powerful new technologies, and so much more. THIS is what the wisdom of groups and communities and whole social systems – all the forms of collective wisdom – needs to be about. Prediction markets are a part of that, but a truly tiny part. Most of the wisdom we need will come from our capacity to do the above conversation-based collective learning and co-creativity in the context of a rich, wisdom-serving informational environment that not only tolerates diversity but hungers for it and knows how to use it well.

All our futures depend on it.


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