Sunday, April 11, 2010

#17: Crowdsourcing

"No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else," quips Bill Joy, a Sun Microsystems co-founder. This declaration was articulated as a paean to the wisdom of crowds, the subject of Jeff Howe's 2008 book, Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. Why limit yourself to a small, expensive subset of the available talent, the argument goes, when a global network of freelancers will gladly do the job better for little or free?

Howe's enthusiasm is very nearly unequivocal. He predicts that today's tech-savvy youth will "help accelerate the obsolescence of such standard corporate fixtures as the management hierarchy and nine-to-five workday," concepts he deems to be "artifacts of an earlier age when information was scarce and all decisions...trickled down from on high." And Howe's praise of the community as exemplified in crowdsourcing is so complete that it borders on subservience: "Yes, communities need a decider," he concedes in his concluding chapter, but while " can try to guide the community...ultimately you'll wind up following them."

The author's unabashedly optimistic chronicle of the ascendancy of crowdsourcing (a label he created) brings to mind a phrase once made famous by former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan: "irrational exuberance." Jeff Howe's full-fledged advocacy for the crowd's potential is equally as overreaching as Jaron Lanier's dire warnings on the same topic. In You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier writes ominously, "We [have]...entered a persistent somnolence, and I have come to believe that we will only escape it when we kill the hive."

Both authors fail to account for some basic rules of human nature. Lanier laments that "when [digital developers] design an internet service that is edited by a vast anonymous crowd, they are suggesting that a random crowd of humans is an organism with a legitimate point of view." To which Howe would undoubtedly respond, Damn right. In fact, he explicitly states that "a central principle animating crowdsourcing is that the groups contain more knowledge than individuals."

Howe and Lanier are each right in their own ways. Crowdsourcing does indeed represent an entirely new model of work, one that transcends business and could upend a sizable chunk of existing corporate practices. Many of Lanier's fears, while understandable, are not feasible now or in virtually any other conceivable time horizon. And yet he is right that crowdsourcing will never replace the value of specialization. While Howe correctly lauds the democratization of decision-making -- for example, aspiring filmmakers are no longer beholden to studio executives' every whim -- his populist celebration of online egalitarianism is not bounded by realistically described limitations. "The crowd possesses a wide array of talents," Howe writes, "and some have the kind of scientific talent and expertise that used to exist only in rarefied academic environments."

The key word here is "some." Howe notes Sturgeon's Law ("90 percent of everything is crap") and briefly admits that this may present an inaccurate portrayal of reality: "a number of the people I talked to for this book thought that was a lowball estimate." Even for the ten or fewer percent that actually do provide reasonably intelligent contributions to the marketplace of ideas, much will be repetitive or non-cumulative. A thousand people with a hobbyist's interest in chemistry may all eagerly contribute to a forum on noble gases, but it hardly follows that they will achieve any real breakthrough that eludes far more studied experts in the field.

Ultimately, it is not so much the anecdotes that undercut Howe's thesis, nor is it his own repetition (which, in one particularly egregious case, consisted of several sentences copied wholesale from an earlier section of the book). Instead, it is his idealism that brings to mind countless earlier predictions of technology's ability to transform human nature, prophesies that have more often than not been proved demonstrably untrue. It remains to be seen what will become of crowdsourcing; will it go the way of the flying cars that American prognosticators naively envisioned over half a century ago? This seems unlikely, and yet so does the author's vision of a crowdsourcing revolution in business. The truth will likely lie somewhere in the middle, lodged comfortably between Jeff Howe's crowd-fueled utopia and Jaron Lanier's "hive mind" hell.

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