Individually smarter, collectively dumber?

8 12 2009

In my first corporate job back in Brazil, I was part of a large cohort of interns who end up all being hired together. We were young and well-connected, and always on top of everything that was happening in the company, from official stuff to the proverbial grapevine telegraph. Rumour conversations used to start like this: “I’ve heard from 3 different sources that…” My pal Alexandre Guimaraes used to joke that none of us had 3 different sources as we all shared the same connections.

Likewise, I often hear from my Twitter fellows that their RSS feed reader is now abandoned, as most of the interesting online things they find now comes from their tweeps. A quick experiment seems to confirm that trend. Here are the results of a Twitter search for “twitter feed reader“:

Search results for "twitter feed reader"

Search results for "twitter feed reader"

In my recent re-read of The Wisdom of Crowds, the following excerpt called my attention (highlight is mine):

(…) the more influence a group’s members exert on each other, and the more personal contact they have with each other, the less likely it is that the group’s decisions will be wise ones. The more influence we exert on each other, the more likely it is that we will believe the same things and make the same mistakes. That means it’s possible that we could become individually smarter but collectively dumber.

The first time I read that was many years before Twitter even existed, so it didn’t mean much to me. Now I can relate: I do feel that Twitter is making me individually smarter, as I can quickly consume a whole lot of info from news sources, geeks, NBA players, celebrities, friends and others. I find the Twitscoop cloud in TweetDeck a particularly good way to find what’s going on around the globe right now.

Twitscoop cloud

I used to see that cloud as a visualization of our collective intelligence. But perhaps that cloud is actually something much more humbling: the visualization of our own echo chamber, our herd’s brain. By being so intensely connected, we may be losing one of the most basic conditions identified by Surowiecki’s for a crowd to be wise: independence (the other 2 are diversity and decentralization).

Should we all stop using Twitter and Facebook now? Of course not. But maybe we should invest a bit more of our time going after the unusual, the unpopular, the offline, the old and the out-of-fashion. The core is boring, and the fringe is where real innovation and change tend to appear first.





Sao Paulo and the street smarts of its crowd

6 01 2008

I’ve just come back from spending almost a month in São Paulo, Brazil. Every time I go there I take some time just to walk on the streets to check out new trends and enjoy the chaotic dynamic of the city. A few years ago, James Surowiecki argued in his book “The Wisdom of Crowds” that a wise crowd needs to have diverse, decentralized and independent individuals. I find that São Paulo really excels in those three areas (but this, of course, is likely a biased view):

Diversity

This time around I decided to visit the local Immigration museum (Memorial do Imigrante), and was glad that I did it. Here are some pics:



Many people in North America don’t know that São Paulo was a very popular destination for immigrants in the early 20th century and is now home for about 100 ethnicities. The largest groups (including descendants) are Italians, Portuguese, Lebanese, Japanese and Jews, but you’ll find plenty of “paulistanos” with German, Armenian, Korean, Chinese, French, Spanish, Greek and Ucranian roots. And maybe even some canucks:

Decentralization

Sao Paulo is a really big city, the second largest in the world according to the CityMayors website (behind Seoul), and the 5th largest if you count the surrounding urban areas (behind Tokyo, Mexico City, Mumbai and New York). More than 18 million people live in its metropolitan area. Here are some pics I took from the top of the Banespa building:

São Paulo is a city made of cities. My wife was born and raised in São Paulo and she has never been to most of the places in the old downtown area until her twenties. Places like these ones:


The Banespa building and the Cathedral (Sé)

Teatro Municipal (kind of City Opera House)

Independent thinking

Here is a picture from São Paulo in the early 1900s (taken at the immigrant museum):

And this is a recent picture of the same street (from the Midia Independente website):

The provincial city from 100 years ago was gradually transformed in a city of millions of voices, tens of political parties and hundreds of urban tribes. I found amusing to see this book vending machine in the main subway station:

A close look reveals how eclectic the crowd is:

Where else would you find Linux and Excel sharing the shelf with Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Sherlock Holmes and tips on how to train your dog?

There’s a lot to learn from living in places like São Paulo. I wish I could have a rotating work assignment where I could live a couple of years each in large urban centres like Tokyo, Mumbai, Seoul, Mexico City, Beijing, Istanbul, Moscow and, why not?, New York. Those are all like living organisms, showing that, at a very close range, the world is anything but flat.








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