When is the crowd wise or can the people ever be trusted?

Julie Simon at NESTA: “Democratic theory has tended to take a pretty dim view of people and their ability to make decisions. Many political philosophers believe that people are at best uninformed and at worst, ignorant and incompetent.  This view is a common justification for our system of representative democracy – people can’t be trusted to make decisions so this responsibility should fall to those who have the expertise, knowledge or intelligence to do so.

Think back to what Edmund Burke said on the subject in his speech to the Electors of Bristol in 1774, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” He reminds us that “government and legislation are matters of reason and judgement, and not of inclination”. Others, like the journalist Charles Mackay, whose book on economic bubbles and crashes,Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, had an even more damning view of the crowd’s capacity to exercise either judgement or reason.

The thing is, if you believe that ‘the crowd’ isn’t wise then there isn’t much point in encouraging participation – these sorts of activities can only ever be tokenistic or a way of legitimising the decisions taken by others.

There are then those political philosophers who effectively argue that citizens’ incompetence doesn’t matter. They argue that the aggregation of views – through voting – eliminates ‘noise’ which enables you to arrive at optimal decisions. The larger the group, the better its decisions will be.  The corollary of this view is that political decision making should involve mass participation and regular referenda – something akin to the Swiss model.

Another standpoint is to say that there is wisdom within crowds – it’s just that it’s domain specific, unevenly distributed and quite hard to transfer. This idea was put forward by Friedrich Hayek in his seminal 1945 essay on The Use of Knowledge in Society in which he argues that:

“…the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form, but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate ‘given’ resources……it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge not given to anyone in its totality”.

Hayek argued that it was for this reason that central planning couldn’t work since no central planner could ever aggregate all the knowledge distributed across society to make good decisions.

More recently, Eric Von Hippel built on these foundations by introducing the concept of information stickiness; information is ‘sticky’ if it is costly to move from one place to another. One type of information that is frequently ‘sticky’ is information about users’ needs and preferences.[1] This helps to account for why manufacturers tend to develop innovations which are incremental – meeting already identified needs – and why so many organisations are engaging users in their innovation processes:  if knowledge about needs and tools for developing new solutions can be co-located in the same place (i.e. the user) then the cost of transferring sticky information is eliminated…..

There is growing evidence on how crowdsourcing can be used by governments to solve clearly defined technical, scientific or informational problems. Evidently there are significant needs and opportunities for governments to better engage citizens to solve these types of problems.

There’s also a growing body of evidence on how digital tools can be used to support and promote collective intelligence….

So, the critical task for public officials is to have greater clarity over the purpose of engagement –  in order to better understand which methods of engagement should be used and what kinds of  groups should be targeted.

At the same time, the central question for researchers is when and how to tap into collective intelligence: what tools and approaches can be used when we’re looking at arenas which are often sites of contestation? Should this input be limited to providing information and expertise to be used by public officials or representatives, or should these distributed experts exercise some decision making power too? And when we’re dealing with value based judgements when should we rely on large scale voting as a mechanism for making ‘smarter’ decisions and when are deliberative forms of engagement more appropriate? These are all issues we’re exploring as part of our ongoing programme of work on democratic innovations….(More)”