A group of Collective Intelligence-enabled consultants await their fate
The center is headed by luminaries from the Wharton School at U Penn., and MIT’s Sloan Management School and brings in guessperts from the cognitive science faculty. The timing could be better – MIT has been under fire for cooking its research results. But the first words of the new center’s mission statement indicate that the venture is more faith-based than reality-based:
“The recent successes of systems like Google and Wikipedia suggest that the time is now ripe for many more such systems”
Er, … “Success”? If this is the same Google that’s fighting a battle with click fraud and junk websites (and diversifying its business appropriately), and the same Wikipedia that’s become a staple of late night TV comedians’ jokes, then we’re in trouble.
And if you can’t trust the diagnosis from these management consultants, how can you trust their prognosis, either?
Well, you simply need faith – and lots of it.
Even the best-read prophet of “collective intelligence”, journalist James Surowiecki, cautions against a hype he helped create. A fan of prediction markets, Surowiecki discovered only a rare alignment of circumstances could ever provide something useful, and he hedged around the tricky subject of gaming and capture – perennial problems for Google and Wikipedia respectively.
Linux gets namechecked by the CCI as an example of collective intelligence. But Linux isn’t a “crowd” at all – it’s a tiny meritocracy of highly-skilled programmers employed by large corporations, or in some cases, universities.
Nor is what emerges from the other examples usually cited “intelligence”, but a kind of collectively-agreed risk hedging. When the vaunted “wisdom of crowds” is applied to creative endeavors – such as product development, the creative core of many businesses – the result looks like the brown lump of Plasticene in a kindergarten activity box. The work of many will typically be blander than the work of one, or a small and focused team. You may have heard of the iPod.
Much of this thinking (if we’re to be generous) isn’t new – and where it’s new, it isn’t very good.
So-called “bottom-up” empowerment rhetoric espoused by gurus such as Deming and Peters is misguided, history professor James Hoopes points out in False Prophets, a book about management consultants. And the answers you get are only as good as the questions you ask, points out Jaron Lanier.
Yesterday’s AI evangelists are today’s Hive Minders.
“The value [of the internet] is in the other people. If we start to believe that the internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots,” wrote Jaron Lanier earlier this year, discussing the mania.
Still, there’s a lucrative market to be gleaned from a business class that spends its spare cash at airports on management classes such as Who Moved My Cheese?. “Sell Air, Not Haircuts to Succeed,” advises the CIC chief Barry Libert in his latest blog post, and he appears to be as good as his word.
With that payday in mind, the MIT’s Badger School already has a book project in mind – insultingly titled We Are Smarter Than Me – and you may be the next victim of the revolution.
Which of the following functions performed by “collective-intelligence”-toting management consultants would you cut first?
I’m all for the really long expensive lunches, as long as I’m invited and I don’t have to pay for them. I’m especially in favor if ‘Hive Minders’ think that the way to woo the “holdout mind” is increasing the length and expense of said “really long expensive lunches”® over time … and time again … and again!”
The useless blog and wiki software is a great idea … it keeps the hive minders busy planning and discussing where to take me for the next “really long expensive lunch”®.
The presence of the Wharton and Sloan management schools is telling. Business schools love to assume the authority of science while avoiding the rigours of quantitative reasoning. Data are boring to the executives that are paying to be entertained and flattered while they polish their resumes. And data might falsify the theories.
A couple of heretics at Harvard Business School do a job on the whole sorry racket in their book, reviewed here.
To answer the Institute of Fact-Swervers own poll, it will, of course, be marketing and pr that get ‘replaced by community’. It’s a commonplace that web shopping shifted the burden of data-entry onto the consumer (Amazon has a POS terminal on my desk). So, offload the costs of marketing and pr; get consumers to advertise to themselves and each other.
Kafka was, as ever, there before us:-
‘The animal wrests the whip from its master and whips itself in order to become master, not knowing that this is only a fantasy produced by a new knot in the master’s whiplash.’ – The Third Notebook, November 21, 1917.
All this stuff reminds me of the “Quality Circles” movement (I was a Quality Control Engineer and Manager during its heyday). W. Edwards Deming was NOT a fan of that, although his approach to Statistical Quality Control did attempt to give the operator more control over his/her work. Deming’s premise, though, was that technical staff would use the collected data to improve processes, making it easier for a worker to produce good parts. Joseph Juran, the guru of Quality Assurance, advocated a top-down approach (a little too cutely called “Breakthrough”) that assigned small dedicated teams of skilled people to identify and solve problems.
Meanwhile, Don Dewars, a formerly Lockheed expert, was selling tons of consulting hours installing Quality Circles, which generated time-wasting meetings, team-building exercises, and gobs of cool posters, but very little in the way of long-term tangible results.
“Collective-intelligence” (or collective decision making) is bullshit. A half decent dictatorship will beat the hell out of a democracy for efficiency any day, so why the hell would you turn a business dictatorship (or oligarchy if you will, which in practise is what you have now) into some kind of pseudo democracy when the aim is to make money in the most efficient way possible? Democracy might be the best of a poor bunch (thanks to WSC) at trying to let everyone have a say in where we are collectively heading as a society, but that is not what we are trying to do in business.
If you look at the most successful companies (and that’s the best measure of what has worked so far), you may find they listen to their employees, customers and shareholders etc, but the directions and decisions are always made by those in charge, not the great unwashed masses. Democracy (or “collective intelligence”) it ain’t.
Especially the goddam team-building exercises.
And the All-Hands meetings.
And the achingly-awful Kickoff Events.
And the Team Award lunches at chain pubs with plastic menus.
And the Rate Your Colleagues in a League Table assessment exercises.
All of the above; but especially the badgers! Haven’t they heard of Bovine TB 😉
Does that leave them anything else to do? Ah yes meetings.
When I was a consultant the collective noun was a ‘wallet’ of consultants.
I think the correct response to a proposal from one of these ‘guru’s’ would be something along the lines of ‘Gee, we really need to talk to all of your competitors as well, you know, to get the collective wisdom on whether we should hire you’.
Thanks for another sane article.
MIT’s _real_ engineering departments are world-class. And when I say _real_ I mean people who know calculus, not “computer scientists”. The AI Lab and Media Lab exploit MIT’s reputation to peddle junk science and suck up grant money.
A camel is a horse designed by committee.
Too many cooks spoil the soup.
Individuals are smart, people are stupid – K, Men in Black.
All religion, politics, pop music, fads and the wars, waste and suffering resulting from these (cultures) are the product of a collective mind.
The Soviet Union, China’s cultural revolution, Cambodia’s killing fields and Nazism are all the result of a collective mind.
Observation will show you that nothing worthwhile has ever (and many extremely bad things have) come from “collective-intelligence”. This has been the basic truth of human existence for all time.
Now onto the results. Over a hundred voted, but only one vote came in to cut “long and expensive lunches”. Fair enough. Teambuilding and “useless blog and wiki software” tied with nine votes each. But the overwhelming majority voted to see this cosmic class of non-productive labour banished at once.
So take that, MIT. Our “collective intelligence” is a lot better than yours. And it carries a big stick.
AOL Labs prompted a weekend of hyperventilation in the ‘blogosphere’ by publishing the search queries from 650,000 users. This mini-scandal may yet prove valuable, however, as it reveals an intriguing psychological study of the boundaries of what is considered acceptable privacy.
In his turgid book on Google – one so obsequious and unchallenging that Google bought thousands of copies to give away to its staff – former dot.bust publisher John Battelle enthused about something he called the “database of intentions”. The information collected by search engines, he trumpeted, would be a marketer’s dream, and tell us more about ourselves than we ever realized we could know. AOL’s publication is the first general release of such a database to the public.
But hold on a minute. Is it, really?
Continue reading “AOL's search logs: the ultimate “Database Of Intentions””
It’s open season on Wikipedia these days. The project’s culture of hatred for experts and expertise has become the subject of widespread ridicule. Nick Carr christened it “the cult of the amateur”.
But what has professional academia done for us lately? Here’s a study from the University of Amsterdam to ponder.
New Scientist reports that researchers for Professor Maarten de Rijke at the Informatics Institute have been recording words used by bloggers, in an attempt to find interesting or unusual patterns. What revelations did the team’s MoodViews software unearth?
The team discovered that the LiveJournal label “drunk” becomes increasingly popular each weekend. And around Valentine’s Day, “there is spike in the numbers of bloggers who use the labels ‘loved’ or ‘flirty’, but also an increase in the number who report feeling ‘lonely’.”
It gets better.
The team also noticed that on the weekend of the publication of the most recent Harry Potter book, bloggers used “words like ‘Harry’, ‘Potter’, ‘shop’ and ‘book’,” PhD student Gilad Mishne reveals.
This work really should put the Nobel Prize Committee on Red Alert. Alongside the existing scientific prizes for Chemistry, Physics and Physiology and Medicine, the Laureate Committee should design a new category for the “Bleeding Obvious”, or the “Dying Ridiculous”.
More seriously, let’s look at what this episode teaches us.
Two things are immediately obvious: Mishne’s study was considered worthy of academic funding, and it was considered worthy of an article in a popular science magazine.
The study doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know before: unless you’re surprised by the revelation that people get more drunk at weekends, or people talk about Harry Potter books more when a new Harry Potter book goes on sale. The study is really considered funding-worthy and newsworthy because of what’s unsaid – the implication that the aggregation of internet chatter will reveal some new epistemological truth.
Continue reading “People more drunk at weekends, researchers discover”
In early 2003, the phrase “Second Superpower” became a popular way to refer to the street protests against the imminent invasion of Iraq. The metaphor had been used by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and on the cover of The Nation magazine. A small number of techno utopian webloggers hijacked the phrase.
The narrower sense sprung from a paper by a technocratic management consultant Jim Moore, who referred to direct democracy mediated through technology. It belongs to the school of literature in which the Internet is the manifestation of a “hive mind”. Only a few links from weblogs were sufficient to send the paper to the top of Google’s search results for the phrase “second superpower”.
In the New York Times, UC Stanford Linguistics professor Geoffrey Nunberg, wrote:
“Sometimes, though, the deliberations of the collective mind seem to come up short. Take Mr. Moore’s use of “second superpower” to refer to the Internet community. Not long ago, an article on the British technology site The Register accused Mr. Moore of “googlewashing” that expression – in effect, hijacking the expression and giving it a new meaning. The outcomes of Google’s popularity contests can be useful to know, but it’s a mistake to believe they reflect the consensus of the ‘Internet community’, whatever that might be, or to think of the Web as a single vast colloquy – the picture that’s implicit in all the talk of the Internet as a ‘digital commons’ or ‘collective mind’.
While in Le Monde, Pierre Lazuly observed:
When you search the net you are not examining all available knowledge, but only what contributors – universities, institutions, the media, individuals – have chosen to make freely available, at least temporarily. The quality of it is essential to the relevance of the results.” Lazuly drew attention’s to Google’s description of its algorithms as “uniquely democratic”:
“It’s a strange democracy where the voting rights of those in a position of influence are so much greater than those of new arrivals. ”
Lazuly concluded –
“Those who got there first in net use are now so well-established that they enjoy a level of representation out of proportion to their real importance. The quantity of links they maintain (especially through the mainly US phenomenon of webloggers) mathematically give them control of what Google thinks.”
Webloggers had enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Google. The dense interlinking between weblogs gave them a higher ranking in Google’s search results. This had not been written about before, and they didn’t like it one bit.
Search engine expert Gary Stock described it:
“[Google] didn’t foresee a tightly-bound body of wirers, They presumed that technicians at USC would link to the best papers from MIT, to the best local sites from a land trust or a river study – rather than a clique, a small group of people writing about each other constantly. They obviously bump the rankings system in a way for which it wasn’t prepared.”
“Each of us gets vote,” jokes Stock. “And someone votes every day and I vote once every four years.”
The act of being observed changes everything. As Slate‘s Paul Boutin concluded:
“Bloggers determined to prove they can be just as clueless and backbiting as the professional journalists they deride scored a major milestone this week …”
Read the original article below the fold.
Continue reading “Anti-war slogan coined, repurposed and Googlewashed … in 42 days”
About a year ago, a man I’d never met before showed me pictures of a dramatic episode in his life. These showed him driving his wife to the hospital, where she was about to give birth. There were dozens and dozens of these pictures, and in each one his wife was looking progressively more grumpy.
As you’d be, too, if your waters had broken, and your husband had only one hand on the steering wheel.
He was as proud of this act of obsessive recording as I, a total stranger, was embarrassed.
The man then enthused at length about “emerging technology”. Shortly afterwards, I was not surprised to hear that he’d decided to start a new life in California.
The fellow was Christian Lindholm, and the irony of this review is that while he was at Nokia, Christian helped make a hostile technology usable for ordinary people. Mobile phones are indisputably the one technology success story over the last decade, and Lindholm’s team developed the Navi-key user interface, which I believe has never been surpassed in terms of grace and simplicity.
Now’s he’s at Yahoo!, Christian is helping make technology hostile again – something he’d already begun to do with at Nokia, with his work on the Series 60 user interface for Symbian smartphones.
I’ve been testing Yahoo!’s Go! software for mobile phones for six weeks now, and it’s the most presumptuous and irritating piece of software I’ve ever used. I value some of Yahoo!’s services, and I’m more forgiving of my phone’s idiosyncrasies than most people. But Yahoo! Go is a poster child for what happens when scientists or technologists lose sight of the needs of ordinary people. Judged purely on some narrow technical parameters, it’s amazing. Judged by how well it fits into a corporate Yahoo! marketing strategy, it fills all the tick boxes. Someone’s even created a Yahoo! theme and bundled it in the package.
The problem is much deeper than that, and as a result, everything that made Navi-key a success has been forgotten, or thrown away, in Y!Go.
I don’t mean to pick on Christian personally, he’s a super fellow. The Y!Go project was underway before he joined Yahoo! as its VP of Global Mobile Products in September. It’s much more about what misinforms corporate technology decisions.
There’s something about people who, once they get smitten by the idea of a “Hive Mind”, often lose their own (usually it’s temporary, but sometimes it’s not). When the basic philosophical assumptions are misguided, then the plumbing is wrong, and that takes a lot of fixing.
read more at The Register
Bloggers blog for therapy – Official
Half of American webloggers cite self-help as their primary motivation for maintaining their online diaries, a survey has discovered.
48.7 per cent of the sample say that blogging “serves as therapy”, and it’s the most popular reason for publishing an online journal. The second most popular reason, to stay in touch with family and friends, was cited by 40.8 per cent of respondents.
Only 3.3 per cent say they blog to achieve fame or notoriety. And only 7.5 per cent of respondents blogged to “expose political information” – suggesting the pyjamahadeen of ‘citizen media’ are far outnumbered by the neurotic.
As one would expect, Group-think is well in evidence in the survey. Over a third of bloggers cite peer pressure of one form or another. One in five say they blog to go with the herd, and more than one in eight say they blog because “it’s the latest trend”.
And we thought happy slapping was the latest trend. We can’t keep up!
It’s hardly surprising that this most solipsistic and egotistical of communications tools attracts people looking for help. But the survey was conducted in the United States, where therapy doesn’t have the social stigma that it does in Europe, and comes as naturally to an American as shooting a road sign. In other cultures, would the results have been different? And would say, Europeans or Asians be as honest as US citizens, who are consistently, and admirably frank on such issues?
The survey was conducted by DMS for AOL this month. More here.
Over the past two years, the influential web site Groklaw has become a focal point for open source advocates discussing The SCO Group’s litigation against Linux companies. The community of knowledgeable experts has helped with clarifying contract technicalities, dug through news archives, and filed on-the-spot reports from the Utah the courtroom, much to SCO’s discomfort.
But over the past month the site’s maintainer Pamela Jones has run a series of articles which could offer SCO some elusive ammunition to discredit the site. [We now understand this series, after some input from your reporter, has been amended.]
Continue reading “SCO, Groklaw and the Monterey mystery that never was”