Smart Mobs and Diverse Problem Solvers

smartmobsHoward Rheingold is the author of Smart Mobs -the Next Social Revolution, James Surowiecki is the author of The Wisdom of Crowds, and Scott Page is the author of The Difference -How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies.  Scott Page ties them together in his prologue. Each of them looks in his own way at how diversity can help us make better decisions.  They all build on that fact of cultural evolution that it is great for each of us to make better judgments, but that for us to progress we need to make better decisions together.  I will probably look at Scott Page’s book separately at some point, but here, in his case,  I will look at a paper  that he wrote with a colleague, Lu Hong, “Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers.”

Howard Rheingold is a very interesting thinker and character ( As his website notes, he has been exploring mind amplifiers since 1964. Rheingold writes about Douglas Engelbart who worked at the Stanford Research Institute and helped build the computer as we know it today, but who notes that creating computers to amplify intellectual activities was the easy part and that the hard part is learn how groups can raise the IQ of organizations. Engelbart was one of the first to realize that learning new ways to cooperate involved different knowledge than designing chips.

Rheingold discusses how Robert Wright in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, creates a framework for the theory of cooperation amplification. Wright concludes that participation in non-zero sum games is not consciously cooperative,  Wright thinks that more people playing more complex non-zero sum games create emergent effects like vibrant cities, bodies of knowledge, marketplaces, etc.  He believes that cultural evolution has pushed us through several thresholds in the last several thousand years and that it is pushing us through another. Rheingold uses the term “smart mobs” as how we may break through a new threshold with our mobile communication and computation technologies. He realizes that this is not a sudden win-win for all. “We will still band together to bring down the big game and then fight over how to divide it.”  However, he sees more and more opportunities to participate in non-zero sum games. New information technologies often decentralize power and that can be disruptive.  Rheingold looks forward to a new “literacy of cooperation”.

James Surowiecki concentrates on three kinds of problems, those of cognition, coordination, and cooperation.  For the crowd to be wise, we need diversity, independence, and a particular kind of decentralization.  We need rules to maintain order and coherence.  Surowiecki is interested in government.  He notes that people do not really vote their self interests, but instead their ideologies.  Representative democracies allow the same kind of cognitive division of labor as operates in the rest of society.  Politicians can work on what they need to make informed decisions and the citizens can monitor them to see how the decisions worked out. Surowiecki quotes Thomas Jefferson in promoting the public as equal to the experts.  “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor,” he wrote.  “The former will decide it as well and often better than the latter because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”

Surowiecki  says that coordination and cooperation problems are a lot mushier than cognition problems.  Representative democracy is not a good way to solve cognition problems, but it is a way to solve cooperation and coordination problems and those are the problems that deal with how we live together.

Hong and Page have some prescriptions.  “When selecting a problem solving team from a diverse population of intelligent agents, a team of randomly selected agents outperforms a team comprised of the best performing agents.  This result relies on the intuition that, as the initial pool of problem solvers becomes large, the best performing agents necessarily become similar in the space of problem solvers. Their relatively greater ability is more than offset by their lack of problem solving diversity.”

That is, of course, the easy part.  Identity diverse groups often have more conflict, more problems with communication, and less mutual respect and trust among members.  Diversity in perspective and heuristic space should be encouraged. We should do more than just exploit existing diversity.  We should want to encourage even greater functional diversity.  Communication is better between people with similar perspectives and different heuristics than those with similar heuristics and different perspectives.

Hong, L. & Page, S.(2004) Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers. PNAS, November 16, 2004, vol. 101, no. 46, pp 16385-16389.

Rheingold, H. (2003) Smart Mobs:  the Next Social Revolution. Basic Books.

Surowiecki, J.(2004) Wisdom of Crowds. New York:  Doubleday.