In The Wisdom of Crowds James Surowiecki convincingly argues that a large group of people can collectively make smarter decisions than a few, or even a few experts, can. However, this is not always the case and one needn’t look any further than riots and mob rule for examples of group decision-making gone awry. This is because, Surowiecki argues, groups rely on four distinct principles in order to make smart decisions: decentralization, aggregation, diversity, and independence. To elaborate, the individuals of a group must be allowed to make their own decisions independently of each other, without being unduly influenced or coerced by others, the weight of their decisions must be decentralized amongst all the individuals, there must be a way to aggregate all of the individuals’ decisions into one, collective decision, and, possibly most importantly of all, the individuals that make up a group must display a wide diversity of opinion, ideas and personal expertise and knowledge – they mustn’t all be like-minded. Only when a group possesses all four of these traits can it make truly intelligent decisions – but with often incredible results.
However, the power of crowds to make collective decisions that would shame even the experts in their accuracy and refinement is an unstable one. If even one of the four traits of “smart” crowds, decentralization, aggregation, independence or diversity, becomes threatened then the collective genius of the entire group in question can easily become lost.
Unfortunately, the state of America’s media industry threatens not one but at least two of these traits: namely, diversity and decentralization. The illustration below demonstrates how:
With so much of the flow of information controlled by so few, to the point that Americans rely on media executives at a rate of 850,000 to one for their news its easy to see how both diversity and decentralization have been compromised – to the point that a few experts in the field are responsible for deciding 90% of what ideas, facts and stories you are exposed to. Ultimately this means that with the consolidation of the media industry into a few corporate giants the range of information that the average American is exposed to is standardized and thus, while it may remain at the same level, or even a higher level overall for any given individual, the aggregate of ideas the group as a whole is exposed to is sharply reduced, thus making us dumber as a society.
Economist Thomas Sowell refers to information as the most scarce resource of all, and never has it been more scarce than now.