Infotopia

I read a good book last weekend that I think a lot of librarians might find interesting:
Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge, by Cass Sunstein. The book concerns the way information is used in society to improve decision making, among other things.

There’s nothing in it necessarily specific to libraries, but I found some of the issues about the use of information in society thought-provoking. I’m not going to provide a review, since there seem to be plenty around. I just want to mention a few representative issues.

Consider the “Condorcet Jury Theorem,” which says that if a group of “people are answering a question with two possible answers, one false and one true,” and that there is a better than 50% chance “that each voter will answer correctly,” then “the probability of a correct answer by a majority of the group increases toward 100 % as the size of the group increases”(25). The converse holds as well. If people have a better than 50% chance of being wrong, then the possibly of a right answer declines with every new voter. Think about that the next time you step into a voting booth.

Deliberating groups often fail, though it’s been the view of many since Aristotle that when more people come together and share ideas there’s a greater likelihood of making a wiser decision. Apparently Aristotle isn’t always right, but the fault isn’t deliberation itself, which can aggregate knowledge and lead to better decisions, especially if including people in the decision process and getting their consensus is itself important for the decision. Some problems: deliberating groups work best when most people in the group already have the correct or best answer; groups tend to reinforce the prejudices of the majority within them and lead to group polarization (e.g., with conservatives getting more conservative and liberals getting more liberal); people bow to social pressure and don’t share knowledge they think might be unpopular; they amplify errors; “hidden profiles” (knowledge which should become common but doesn’t, thus hindering the deliberating capacity of the group; “informational cascades, or what happens when you agree with her because you respect her and I agree with you both because I don’t know any different, and he agrees with all of us because how could so many smart people be wrong.

Chapter 4 has a fascinating discussion of “money, prices, and prediction markets.” I wasn’t aware of the extensive use of prediction markets. Guess I should read more economics. Anyway, groups set up markets with various rewards for the right prediction, and this provides incentives for people to use their dispersed information to profit. In deliberating groups, people may stay quiet, because “by speaking out, they provide benefits to others, while possibly facing high private costs. Prediction markets realign incentives in a way that is precisely designed to overcome these problems” (104). There’s a list of urls for prediction markets at the back of the book, but he discusses the Iowa Electronics Markets among others.

Sunstein likes wikis and the Wikipedia. Wikipedia is successful because so many people come together to share knowledge and a core of people work hard to correct errors. Despite the lack of prices, some have considered the Wikipedia to be partly explainable in terms of F.A. Hayek’s criticism of socialist economic planning, that such planning is theoretically flawed because no person or group of people could possibly have all the information necessary to make most economic decisions in a society (or perhaps even in a large organization). Prices provide us with the dispersed information available through billions of transactions. I tend to think the Internet and Wikipedia works this way, and was recently reminded that way back in 2001 I was noting the way “ask an expert” services on the web took advantage of useful dispersed knowledge. Sunstein disagrees, at least in respect to the Wikipedia. “Because Wikipedia uses a “last in time” rule, because no literal price is created, and because economic incentives are not directly involved, Hayek’s central arguments about that “marvel,” the price system,” do not apply, at least directly” (159).

While he thinks wikis can be great ways to share and aggregate information, Sunstein isn’t as sanguine on blogs. He specifically criticizes Richard Posner’s “blog triumphalism” for claiming blogging is “a fresh and striking exemplification of…Hayek’s thesis that knowledge is widely distributed among people and that the challenge to society is to create mechanisms for pooling that knowledge.” I tend to agree with Posner, but Sunstein points out that blogs have all of the polarization and other errors of other deliberating groups, with political blogs perhaps being the worst. Bloggers tend to create their own “information cocoons,” only reading or linking to like minds, and information cocoons often result in bad decision making, whether the cocoon is a political blogger or a CEO. At their best, though, blogs get many ideas out quickly. Hmm, maybe this blog wasn’t such a good idea.

If you’re interested in how information can be better used in society, or perhaps just in your organization, you might want to read Infotopia, and think about polarization, information cocoons, hidden profiles, etc., and how in our own libraries and communities we can make the best decisions by aggregating dispersed knowledge, and perhaps how as librarians we can facilitate the use of information in society.

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