Monday, April 28, 2008

On Self-Reliance and the Wisdom of Crowds

Tonight was the first session of a three-part course on the transcendental writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson that I signed up for at the New York Open Center. Each session is a facilitated discussion of a specific essay by Emerson, and tonight centered on the old saw "Self-Reliance."

Led by Barbara Solowey, who also lectures at the School of Practical Philosophy and teaches English at the Beacon School, tonight's session was basically a paragraph-by-paragraph guided reading of the essay, in which we sussed out key points and themes, and discussed how we might apply them to our lives.

One of the things that struck me was Emerson's concerns about society -- and group thinking. "Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater," he wrote. "The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs."

Later in the essay, Emerson criticized the use of group affiliations as shorthand for understanding (or presuming to understand) what somebody thought, stood for, or believed in. "If I know your sect I anticipate your argument," he says. "Most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of those communities of opinion."

What does that mean in these days of smart mobs and wise crowds?

Collective intelligence might be greater than the sum of its parts, but the real wisdom of crowds still relies on self-reliant actors participating in those crowds, I'd offer. And even though the less wise might just need to open their receptivity to cosmic consciousness -- or the noosphere -- how open are we to universal truths? "We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity," Emerson wrote.

Would he be a fan of smart mobs? I think not. Even in systems designed to work around actors who aren't self-reliant -- take our voting system, which is in part based on the concept that polls cast by educated voters will mitigate polls cast by uneducated voters (and I mean educated on issues and what's being voted on, not education in the most general sense) -- such group thinking can be flawed. William Poundstone's Gaming the Vote might be a good entry point to further exploration of this.

That said, these are also days in which prediction markets are all the rage.

Does the success of smart mobs, wise crowds, and prediction markets depend on self-reliant actors?

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