Collective Action and Decision-making

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March 20

Mass collaboration and the aggregation of information enable potentially profound changes in business and politics. In this class, we will compare and contrast the transformations in economic life and collective decision-making processes brought on the information revolution. The discussions will also explore the role of open information systems on business and the scope for greater transparency and participation in government, politics and public life.



Assignment 3 due


Optional Readings

  • Divided They Blog - a paper showing trackbacks between political blogs, mentioned by Ethan Zuckerman in his review of Cass Sunstein's Infotopia
  • On a similar topic: Cross-Ideological Discussions among Conservative and Liberal Bloggers, by Eszter Hargittai, et al.
    • Abstract: With the increasing spread of information technologies and their potential to filter content, some have argued that people will abandon the reading of dissenting political opinions in favor of material that is closely aligned with their own ideological position. We test this theory empirically by analyzing both quantitatively and qualitatively Web links among the writings of top conservative and liberal bloggers. Given our use of novel methods, we discuss in detail our sampling and data collection methodologies. We find that widely read political bloggers are much more likely to link to others who share their political views. However, we find no increase in this pattern over time. We also analyze the content of the links and find that while many of the links are based on straw-man arguments, bloggers across the political spectrum also address each others writing substantively, both in agreement and disagreement.

Class Discussion

March 20: Collective Action and Decision-making

James Surowiecki's excerpt on the wisdom of crowds presents some really compelling ideas.

It would seem that crowds are more likely to arrive at collective decisions that are closer to the hole than individuals would be to do on the whole. For the most part, this makes me think of how crowds are manipulated through mass consumerism, media and so forth. The collective mind, so to speak, is plugged in and then guided towards certain suggestions. They are told continually to purchase something, or to do something. So we are part of a slow conditioning process as is witnessed through orchestrated mass consumerism. This seems to be a beneficial thing for the perpetuation of free market exchange, as many western societies have not had to resort to communism. Who wants to be a millionaire when money flows through the collective already? In this sense, we are collectively rich as a society. Whatever a citizen may need is available to them if they want it. Just as the long tail profits, the newness is there when you need it.

I don't know if I completely agree with Sunstein or Surowiecki's suggestions entirely, though. I think that in certain situations leaders develop and then it simply becomes a game of following the leader for the group. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing. I think that, collectively society is becoming a much richer place to engage in and is not just exposing someone to something they might not otherwise know about. And I witness this shift primarily across generations with knowledge differences. For example, something I may assume is common within pop culture knowledge is unheard of by my mother and her generation.

I do think that Habermas adds an interesting idea in that it is the quality of the idea which is more important than the individual. To a certain degree, this is mostly how I conduct myself when people ask me my opinion about a certain topic. I will contend for an idea. I’m not interested in what I believe in, more so than the idea. Primarily, as a student I am concerned with exploring ideas, and then there is the style placed on top of that – which is what I think many people have a hard time discerning. Sometimes I will play the devil’s advocate on a subject of debate, because I understand that an idea is not about me – I am just a transporter of that knowledge, which has nothing to do with me personally. For example, most of my work here at Harvard has been based around ideas, not my personal beliefs. I could care less what I actually believe about a subject. What I am concerned about is ideas. Personally, I have no personal beliefs about what it is I'm working on. I work on a project, using the idea as the base and then overlay a style. Aesthetics are really a lot of fun to play around with. That is not to say that I am not interested in generating my own original ideas. However, as a student my role is primarily to learn the material. Although, I do think that ideas do not always become common knowledge amongst the collective. This is because crowds can be influenced by the leader. In the case of mass media, MTV will dictate the idea, and then teenagers will simply follow it. Then individuals fit into simple categorical groupings.

Zuckerman's comments on seem to suggest that collective decision making, through mass consumerism, is a good thing in that it makes people feel more connected.

Here is an interesting quote relating to this: “Sunstein seizes on this possibility and offers a strong caution: if we can choose our own media, it’s possible we will use this power to insulate ourselves in an information cocoon, where we systematically avoid dissenting voices and have increasingly less common experience with our fellow citizens. Sunstein worries that a society of these isolated individuals will have difficulty participating in a democracy because citizens need a) some exposure to materials they would not have sought out and b) some common experience as a precursor for joint decisionmaking.”

What I also think is interesting here is this notion of increasingly broadened scope of exchange of information. Whether it is through blogs, or controlled means such as Wikipedia, what we are seeing is a collective that is becoming seemingly more connected and more able than before.

So this is interesting how both Zuckerman and Surowiecki seem to go back to this metaphor of a collective consensus on the number of jelly beans in a jar. It’s like asking how many neurons are in a person’s head that collectively allow that person to make a decision. Collective decision making is like this.

The only thing that I think might interfere would be over-socialization and government intervention with this form of trade that Hayek seems to touch on. And this is also interesting, because as people become more connected and able they are more likely to form more direct democracies. For example, there are protesters who use cell phones and websites to announce when and where a protest will take place. So I think that governments will want to make sure than even protesters remain within the architecture that is already in place. As everyone knows, too many protesters demanding a state of anarchy could potentially overthrow a state just as easily as when monarchies were overthrown throughout most of Europe and Russia.

Just Johnny 17:11, 15 February 2012 (UTC)

The question whether a group will take a better or a worse solution is an interesting one in the context of Internet, social media, etc. I am thinking also in terms of real world with presidential election or death penalty. Is the group decision the best? How the process is different from online decision making? As for Internet, I think we can do more than Amazone, Facebook, that we did not explore all the capacities of mass decision or decision making. I am wondering about a world republic...--Sab 22:43, 20 March 2012 (UTC)

In the Johnson’s experiment of the maze, I like the idea that the group had discovered the optimal solution, and it would be interesting to demonstrate that it applies to the real world and not only in laboratory settings and classrooms. I think it would be even more interesting to analyze the relation with the phenomenon of the social networks, in which the mass decision and participation primes over a handful of people making what they think is better for the society. I think this experiment has more sense than the Victorian notions that humanity, as a group, is just a dumb herd. I don’t think this is a correct statement, nevertheless experiments like Sustein’s in which was demonstrated that people find it difficult to defy the will of a group, and may polarize to avoid interpersonal conflict are facts that should be carefully thought. The question is if in fact this applies also for Internet communities, in which there’s no personal contact and people feel freer to express whatever they want without fearing opposition and being different. In any case, what I like more in the Ethan Zuckerman Blog review of Infotopia is that in some cases the predictions are proven wrong, like the Sunstein’s predictions that if we can choose our own media we will isolate ourselves in an information cocoon. Therefore, deliberation could be proven to be an effective way to accumulate information.Fabiancelisj 20:25, 20 March 2012 (UTC)

Even though group intelligence is more difficult to measure than individual intelligence, I do believe that a crowd can outsmart a genius. Imagine for example, if a very intelligent physicist is isolated and only surrounded by other physicists, he/she maybe outstanding in this field, but is limited to what he/she can do. However, when allowed to collaborate with cell and molecular biologists, chemists, mechanical and electrical engineers, medical doctors, veterinarians, etc… a physicist learns to conduct cell mechanics, biophysics, molecular and biochemical experiments, and has the potential to solve health problems, such as coming up with a drug to relax airway smooth muscle cells during an asthma attack. When a group of diverse individuals collaborate, they can solve problems that they otherwise cannot solve individually. The internet has allowed this collaboration to increase globally through technologies such as Skype and E-mail. In some instances, group intelligence depends on its structure and dynamics. For example, Megan Garber, from Nieman Lab, reported that MIT researchers found that “[g]roup intelligence is correlated…with emotional intelligence, The researchers concluded that a group is more intelligent and is more likely to solve difficult problems when there are more women in it. Simply placing very smart individuals together in a group does not make a group smarter. When I think of a very intelligent individual or genius, I think of my lab principal investigator, who has the ability to lead his lab members and make important decisions. However, he would have not made an informed decision without hearing the lab members deliberate. Qdang 15:52, 19 March 2012 (UTC)

Qdang raised an interesting idea of group intelligence. At the same time, group think can be counter-productive. The question to ask is how to move forward with collective speed and vigor, yet not work the group into isolated silos that are irrelevant to surrounds or reality. Harvard212 15:18, 8 May 2012 EST

I like the connection between the reality of crowd intelligence in "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" or marble-jar guessing and the concept of blog aggregates and online communities. It seems like this is a good argument against the dangers of cocooning at some levels. While a given blog/website community is likely there because they all subscribe to a certain set of interests or views, at least you know that if you're going to a big one you're probably getting the very best and most cohesive expression of those concepts. It may not make them right, but it adds value to them as a tool for educating yourself. Aggregates also will provide a balance to the problem that 1 or 2 of every group of 50 people will actually be more accurate than the group at guessing the number of marbles... but only in that one specific trial. If you follow one blogger religiously you are susceptible to their blind spots and moments where they were simply wrong. If you follow a collection of sites and blogs you will be exposed to the correct answers to most questions; whether you realize which is the correct answer is up to you haha. AlexLE 14:04, 19 March 2012 (UTC)

The level of expertise and information distributed through these channels of information is a consideration. In addition, cultural norms may also stand against the validity and movement towards adopting thoughts. For instance, a group of trained skeptics may be much more wary of early information that has not be substantiated. Whereas another group that relates to each other on a more communicative or trust-base dynamics may adopt 'truths' on the simple notion that one or two group members have accepted these 'facts' as 'truths'. I almost feel like to be ethically solid, blogs should have disclaimers and opinion makers should remind their audience, they are voicing their opinion -- just to maintain neutrality and fairness of information filtering. Might get cumbersome though. Harvard212 15:23, 8 May 2012 EST

The articles that we had to read for this week were very interesting to me. I really enjoyed how the first article focused on statistics regarding various experiments and “Who wants to be a millionaire”, a program which I personally loved watching. Even though I respect and find very interesting the point made regarding the percentages being higher and closer to the correct answer for groups and less accurate for individuals, I don’t agree. Math and Statistics aren’t my field and I must admit that I’m not very good at any of them but I feel off the top of my head that it is quite obvious that a group would obtain a higher and more accurate score than an individual because the general population or “average Joe” is likely to get fairly close to the right answer which can be higher or lower but of course adding all the higher scores to the lower ones, I find it to be mathematically obvious that we shall obtain an approximately correct average score. Therefore this being said I find the “Condorcet Jury Theorem”, mentioned in the third article to pretty much respect my personal opinion on the subject. In conclusion I very much enjoyed these articles and I find that in some way these theories emphasizing on group work and force are exactly what Democracy is about. Emanuele 18:12, 19 March 2012 (UTC)

Collective action affects us everyday (or at least those of us that read news, shop, or blog online). For instance, if you use Reddit, most likely you're reading posts on the front page that were up-voted--a form of collective action. Zuckerman's article also points out "Amazon's collaborative filtering recs and Google's page rank algorithm." This had a huge effect on business (as we read in the long tail article, for example).

Sunstein has a valid point with ideological cocoons, but does seem flawed. I agree with Zuckerman and the others who labeled his idea as "alarmist." While it's entirely possible (as "Divided they Blog" suggests) for people to seek out news and sites with similar ideologies and have their beliefs continually reinforced, that is not necessarily the way most people 'read the news.' Greater exposure to new ideas or newspapers/news from far away, like the readings said, is a benefit that far outweighs the risk of people forming an ideological cocoon. Aberg 18:24, 20 March 2012 (UTC)

I realize we'll probably dig deeper into the topics of collective action and decision-making in the "Internet and Democracy" classes but I'd love to have a longer reading list on this topic. If anyone has any additional recommendations, please share. Thanks! Aditkowsky 13:17, 20 March 2012 (UTC)

"There is a certain notion of rationality that starts from the assumption that each of us is, in essence, a monad designed to maximize profit and pleasure." For me this quote by Scott McLemee (NYT Review) summed up the concept of collective action and decision-making communities have on the internet. This brings up the concept of 'public good' again and reminds me of why Wiki remains so successful - we, as an internet society/community, are acting collectively to produce the most 'public good'. --Hds5 21:04, 20 March 2012 (UTC)

I wonder what the limitation is of this type of input from a group compared to a crowd. There will be a limitation if this is applied towards democracy when the overall good of the people may not affect the desired motives of the individual voter. Overall in the general studies referenced in the article it's not too surprising these results occurred but I was surprised at the accuracy of the averages. I will research limitations of these practices (or downfalls) and see what effects they may have on the digital world and it's users. I'm guessing the advantages outweigh the negatives, but imagine there must be some. Brendanlong 21:15, 20 March 2012 (UTC)

That is very compelling evidence for group intelligence, but I see it play out in my own work. I usually work in groups, and most decisions have to be taken by counsel and vote, because we’ve found it’s safer that way. We’ve also noticed that when the group is together to discuss something, it is important to listen, to pay attention to opposing opinions, and that sometimes there is one person who has “bucked the tide” of the majority opinion, but that person turns out to be right. We later realized that the majority had influenced itself so that each individual was not thinking for himself or herself. Applied to the internet, the mathematics of the mean having a good chance to be right, makes sense, and because not everyone knows each other on the internet, and no one is looking at you, people might feel more free to express what they really think because they can be anonymous, avoiding the peer pressure effect. The majority has a better chance to be right.Mike 21:46, 20 March 2012 (UTC)

Finding knowledge through the collective crowd is an interesting question to pose given that there will usually be polarizing figures in any collective argument who will sway the "middle" (a group which should constitute the heavy majority of the crowd and which does not automatically invoke polarizing arguments) and which leads to mixed results much of the time (since they do not constitute anything more than a sophistication of passionate arguments). I agree with Sunstein that public debates and this polarization often leads to a distortion of the "middle" consensus (which is quite evident in the political sphere). The direction of constructive collective knowledge must come through a middle-of-the-road movement in which the polarized voices are either dampened in respect to their numbers, or received with a certain level of skepticism that comes with some challenge from the opposing side of the argument during its reception. Collective knowledge must only come from those who can separate a charismatic or loud argument from the polarized voices which can dictate the debate through techniques common to winning all types of debates...--Jimmyh 00:20, 21 March 2012 (UTC)

The article, "The Wisdom of Crowds': Problem Solving Is a Team Sport", painted an excellent picture of the contrast between certain views that crowds may have "mob mentality" or may be sources of true wisdom. Crowdsourcing is clearly and excellent resource for gaining data, extracting innovative ideas and for engaging the public at large for collaborative projects. All of which may yield greater results than certain activities or projects performed in isolation. Others question, however, the limits of crowdsourcing regarding certain projects or sectors. Foreign policy and politics have become recent areas for debate as to whether crowd sourcing would be effective and reliable. In certain instances, some argue that crowd sourcing would add great value in that the population, and not a select few, would influence policy and action. In other instances, like those which require in depth knwoledge of highly sensitive data, others have argued that crowdsourcing may be unreliable because crowds may not have the level of understanding of complex issues. Time will tell as to how our generation best harnesses the power of crowdsourcing so that it may be best utilized to provide reliable, effective input for policy. Cfleming27 11:33, 28 March 2012 (UTC)