Information Superhighway

Originally uploaded by nickwheeleroz

I’ve been reading a lot of different sorts of books lately, ranging from business books to fiction and several in between. I’ve been skipping between them, in part because they each get me thinking about the other from a different angle.

One of the more interesting books I’ve been attacking in chunks, because it requires all of my attention is Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge by Cass R. Sunstein. Mr. Sunstein is a law professor at Harvard, and interestingly, taught at the University of Chicago School of Law, when President Barak Obama was also teaching there (if you believe Wikipedia.) Sunstein is one of those interdisciplinary guys, working with law and economics, and along with people like Larry Lessig, may be involved in some of the more itneresting transformations as law tries to catch up with technology.

Infotopia is not a light read, but it discusses things like when large group collaborations work in problem solving, and when they just lead to groupthink, or just plain bad results. He talks about Blogs, Wikis, Open Source Software, copyright and more. He has another chapter devoted to Money, Prices and Prediction Markets that throws light on how our economic markets work, and how different information is factored into individual choices, to (hopefully) in the aggregate, provide relative stability of prices. (I never promised you this would read like a People Magazine article, did I?)

At the heart of it, Sunstein discusses when the “wisdom of the crowds” and having many minds working on a problem enhances the overall marketplace of ideas, and questions when it may just dumb them down. I think this has HUGE downstream consequences as we look at how in internet works, creating a marketplace of ideas, but also allowing everyone to “vote” on them, in a way that may create mass mediocrity rather than letting the best ideas rise to the top. After all, if we are looking for mass opinion equaling boring dreck, all you have to do is look at the state of network TV which is driven by the Neilsen ratings. Number of Eyeballs does not always mean Most Intelligent and Compelling.

The internet can certainly create virtual communities and neighborhoods, just like in the real world, where the only voices and opinions you hear may be those you agree with. In these small echo chambers, you can certainly work together and enhance your overall knowledge on almost any subject, but it’s also just as likely that ideas may tend towards the extreme, with no real opposing ideas to lend them balance.

It then becomes up to every person to actively seek out information from many different sources to provide balance, but if you are comfortable in a place where everyone thinks like you, you might not be so inclined to go pick a fight with someone who disagrees. Your ideas, shared with your community, may become more and more entrenched, and less likely to change in the face of conflicting information. In fact, I think this is part of the problem faced by former President Bush- all the information he was fed (because he wasn’t allowed to have email) was fed through filters of people who told him what they thought he wanted to hear, not what he might have needed to hear- and really, who wants to disappoint the Boss?

I get why it happened, but I think we all understand that everyone needs to now the facts, presented in as unvarnished a way as possible, in order to come up with the best solutions. Tainted facts and evidence, any lawyer will tell you, will lead to tainted results. The law hasn’t figured out a way to make sure all the facts are out there without “spin” yet, but lots of good people try to make this happen every day, to the extent possible.

Infotopia has made me think about all the downstream consequences to our information economy. When do you want to create an insular community of experts, for example, to debate and advance knowledge? When do/should you create social communities to push forward group agendas? How do we resolve the conflict between competing interests? It can’t always be by pure numbers. While the web can provide access to large numbers to poll for opinions, what about those who aren’t yet online? Are their voices automatically silenced? Does access to broadband become a true social justice issue in the next decade?

There’s lots to think about here, and if you are in the mood for a book that will really make you think- pick up Infotopia.