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.
The BBC is having trouble finding citizens to attend a conference devoted to the exciting new world of Citizens Media.
It’s a Beeb-sponsored day about the “democratization of the media”, but despite a 50 quid bribe to attend – that’s more than you get for appearing on Newsnight or Radio 4’s Today program, and the kind of practice we thought had been outlawed in the 1832 Reform Act – no one seems to be interested.
Which has led to some frantic last-minute emails from BBC Innovation.
We’re not quite sure what kind of citizen the BBC wants to attend. But the weird, trying-too-hard title – “Digital Assassins”, and this this delicious questionnaire given to early responders may give you some idea.
Questionnaire for Digital Assassins
Senior media executives, journalists and managers will be getting together on May 3rd at a conference devoted to the democratisation of media. One of the key sessions of each day will be called “Digital Assassins”
The session aims to investigate the impact of new technologies on how audiences consume, find share and create news.
I would be very grateful if you could fill in the following short questionnaire for further information
[ Respondents are invited to tick Yes/No or add comments ]
- I don’t buy a newspaper
- I use the internet for news more than any other sources
- My main news source is Google News.
- I have SkyPlus (or a similar device) and it has changed the way I watch TV
- I have uploaded video to the internet
- I have downloaded a legal or illegal TV programme, film or animation.
- I always carry a camera (either separately or via my phone)
- I keep a blog, upload photos and/or share video online.
Grammarians, look out. The subject lurches suddenly into the second person at this stage.
- You spend “too much” time playing World of Warcraft
- You have than one games console
In other words, the BBC wants as many people as it can find who play with gadgets, can’t follow a linear narrative, don’t have any friends, have a weird authority complex, and who would never listen or respect anything put out by the BBC in the first place.
The BBC frets that a third of Britons now “feel that the BBC does not make programmes for them”, according to its own polling, and that “60 per cent of the 16 to 24 age group watch less than three hours of TV a week”. But were these figures any different during, say, the Macmillan era when the target demographic spent happy Bank Holiday weekends knocking the crap out of each other in small seaside towns? Or when the only radio stations were “Home”, “Light”, and “Third”? We don’t know, because no one asked. It’s hard to think of a time when the BBC has been more pervasive.
So it’s really a tribute to the moral fibre of the nation that such pleas to make it more inclusive – by making it more crap – have gone ignored. We may even consider suspending our campaign to reinstate Michael Fish
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.
Google wants to mirror and index every byte of your hard drive, relegating your PC to a “cache”, notes on a company PowerPoint presentation reveal.
The file accompanied part of Google’s analyst day last week. Google has since withdrawn the file, telling the BBC that the information was not intended for publication.
The justification for this enormous data grab is that Google would be able to restore your data after a catastrophic system failure.
Encouraging signs from the Wikipedia project, where co-founder and überpedian Jimmy Wales has acknowledged there are real quality problems with the online work.
Criticism of the project from within the inner sanctum has been very rare so far, although fellow co-founder Larry Sanger, who is no longer associated with the project, pleaded with the management to improve its content by befriending, and not alienating, established sources of expertise. (i.e., people who know what they’re talking about.)
Meanwhile, criticism from outside the Wikipedia camp has been rebuffed with a ferocious blend of irrationality and vigor that’s almost unprecedented in our experience: if you thought Apple, Amiga, Mozilla or OS/2 fans were er, … passionate, you haven’t met a wiki-fiddler. For them, it’s a religious crusade.
In the inkies, Wikipedia has enjoyed a charmed life, with many of the feature articles about the five-year old project resembling advertisements. Emphasis is placed on the knowledgeable articles (by any yardstick, it’s excellent for Klingon, BSD Unix, and Ayn Rand), the breadth of its entries (Klingon again), and process issues such as speed.
“We don’t ever talk about absolute quality,” boasted one of the project’s prominent supporters, Clay Shirky, a faculty tutor at NYU. But it’s increasingly difficult to avoid the issue any longer.
“We’d run out of ironic things to say”
Creative Commons is an intriguing experiment to granulize the rights a creator has over his or her work, and to formalize what today is largely spontaneous and informal. What we rarely see when it is discussed, is a genuine attempt to answer the question “Why is it needed?”
For a very self-consciously idealistic “movement” this, absence of an explanation is surprising.
Behind the scheme is the recognition of a very real problem. The permission mechanisms by which rights holders grant or deny the reproduction of artistic works haven’t kept pace with technology. It’s now very easy to reproduce an image or a piece of music, but it remains just as easy, or difficult, to get the permission to use it. We now have an abundance of material available to us, they ask, so can’t we do more with it?
It’s a reasonable question, and Creative Commons is an attempt to answer it.
Let’s look closer at what it is.
There’s a theory that British Prime Ministers, and England football managers, alternate between being bishops and bookmakers. A risk-taking rascal is succeeded by a dull, safe pair of hands, until the public clamor for the rascal once again.
By replacing the high-profile Carly Fiorina with the low-impact Mark Hurd from NCR, Hewlett Packard would appear to be following that script. The appointment of Hurd seems to signal that the board thinks HP’s core business is sound, and requires an administrator rather than a visionary. What’s needed at HP, they seem to want to tell us, are a few nuts tightened and tweaked, here and there. It’s a steady-as-she-goes appointment.