Information at the Speed of Knowledge

Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. By Cass R. Sunstein. Oxford University Press, USA, 2008. 304 pages. $15.95.

If you’re interested in how organizations and societies process knowledge or how what one individual knows diffuses through a larger social matrix, read Cass Sunstein’s Infotopia. It’s not perfect, but it does a fine job of analyzing a range of possibilities for aggregating individual knowledge—and it’s fun.

That Sunstein’s perspective is largely positive is indicated through the title; “infotopia” resonates with “utopia,” and there’s more of a trace of the hope that through collective understanding, we might shape a perfect society. There’s also a nice play on words here. “Utopia” can mean either “eu-topos,” the good place, or “ou-topos,” a place that does not exist, and so allows for ambiguity and hypotheticals. Well, Sunstein describes an ideal society whose place is in information and which is accessed via information and constructed upon information. To learn and discourse is to become a citizen of Infotopia.

Sunstein’s core problem is this: how do we aggregate dispersed knowledge? Or how do we as a group come to know what distinct individuals know? Sunstein follows two interweaving strands of analysis. One examines how groups actually do aggregate information known by individuals; the other strand examines how groups should do so. He pursues both analytical paths through discussing several areas of communal knowledge processing.

He starts with a, yes, utopian vision of what might happen if information aggregation worked everywhere as promised, then moves into discussions of numerous failures. From there, Sunstein spends a chapter each on major approaches to aggregation: statistical combinations, deliberation, markets and via the Internet. Examples are given in each case—often first hand and/or amusing examples—and general principles are derived from them. A historical and theoretical frame is given in each case though the natures of these frames vary widely. For example, when discussing deliberation, which has a long history in both practice and philosophy, Sunstein necessarily skips from high point to high point in this complex account, touching on Aristotle, Rawls, Habermas, etc. By contrast, when discussing electronic methods of aggregation, there’s comparatively little theory and considerable discussion of practice.

In all cases, however, the discussions of contemporary understanding of these methods of information aggregation were both intriguing and exciting. In particular, Sunstein’s discussion of the myriad ways prediction markets can be applied—and the fact that they outperform experts in many areas—was worthy of serious consideration. That a single mechanism is used for predicting events as diverse as presidential elections and internal product launches is intriguing. I found myself wanting to harness prediction markets for new areas in the arts or even in social and personal arenas. Likewise, the possibilities inherent in what Sunstein called “collaborative filtering”—finding parallels between books purchased or movies watched, as Amazon and Netflix do—have clearly just begun to be tapped. Such associational thinking could be used to multiply potential for product innovation or even to craft narratives within an art form.

Sunstein is clearly both committed to the potential inherent in collective understanding and excited by the revolution he sees unfolding in cyberspace or in prediction markets. However, he’s not blindly carried away by these processes. The chapter on deliberation is titled “The Surprising Failure of Deliberating Groups,” and the following chapter is called simply “Four Big Problems.” The gaffes, gaps and biases described there are deeply daunting and almost universally human. Other related failings are detailed in the discussion of the blogosphere, with the result being a book that works hard to be balanced.

While I trust Sunstein’s intent, I do not always trust his success rate. One of the potential failings he describes in deliberation is what he calls a “reputational cascade” in which people agree on a specific answer or point because they are part of a group and want to retain their social standing in it and essentially smother their objections or contradictory knowledge. Sunstein also describes the sort of cascade that follows a successful political movement and how blind people are to how they’re being carried along by the crowd. To a certain degree, I think that’s happening here. Sunstein sees so much rich potential in these emerging practices that even when he’s trying to see the objections, he fails to do so fully. What effect does Wikipedia have on creativity or does Google have on memory? What happens to older forms of collective knowledge transfer such as tradition? I would have loved to see more on areas like these as well as sharper distinctions about just what knowledge is.

However, those objections and desires don’t take anything away from Infotopia, which should start you speculating on what might be and reflecting on how the groups you belong to make decisions.

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