Saturday, May 05, 2012
Book review: "Infotopia" by Cass Sunstein
By Cass R. Sunstein
Oxford University Press, USA (2006)
It's taken me a while to get through Sunstein's book though I am very interested in the topic. "Infotopia" addresses the question under which circumstances, and with which aggregation mechanisms, groups can make good decisions - and under which circumstances groups fail. With that, Sunstein's book offers the details that I found missing in Surowiecky's "Wisdom of Crowds."
Sunstein summarizes a lot of research that has been done on how groups deal with information, and how they aggregate it, and how good or bad they make decisions. He has classified modern aggregation tools into markets and prediction markets, wikis, open source, and blogs. This order seems to be a declining one for Sunstein's judgement of usefulness; he is clearly enthusiastic about prediction markets and critical about the blogosphere.
The book has grown out of his review article for the New York University Law Review, and that is, unfortunately, very noticeable. "Infotopia" contains a lot of information and many references, but it is not very engagingly written. It is essentially a long list of who did what study when and where. It is in several places repetitive, as if the author himself had forgotten what he had already covered. It is repetitive also in the choice of words, eg the word "blunder" seems to appears like every other page.
I learned a lot from this book, most notably what difficulties befall groups that want to come to good decisions.
The major problems are that group members might not disclose information that they have, and that information which is held by few or single group members has less influence on the decision than the information shared by many, irrespective of actual relevance. Sunstein discusses many studies that have shown that deliberation in groups, under very general circumstances, makes decisions worse and polarizes opinions. The reason is that people tend to focus on what they have in common and reinforce their views rather than to diversify. So, after talking it out, people often edge towards more extreme views, and are more certain about them too because they then know others share their opinion. An additional problem is that people might have a conflict of motivation, ie their personal motivation to not look stupid might not agree with the goal of coming to a good decision in the group.
Most of the examples that Sunstein draws upon are 6 years later already outdated, but the general lessons for good decision making are pretty much timeless. In the final chapter Sunstein makes suggestions for how to alleviate these problems in different situations: online communities, group meetings and so on. I'll try to learn from that book, and hope to realize some of the suggestions in the future.
In summary, this book is very useful, but it's not very inspiring and not very well written. I'd give three out of five stars.