Saturday, May 05, 2012

Book review: "Infotopia" by Cass Sunstein

Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge
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.

6 comments:

Plato Hagel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Plato Hagel said...

Hi Bee,

Your infotopia rang the bell on infographics.

A common way in which to express the inexpressible? People write synopses all the time.

Best,

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,
As you say there seems to be something to be learned from this book even though it not to be the easiest of reads. In general though this appears to echo the thoughts of David Bohm relating to dialogue, discussion and decision making.

"A key difference between a dialogue and an ordinary discussion is that, within the latter people usually hold relatively fixed positions and argue in favor of their views as they try to convince others to change. At best this may produce agreement or compromise, but it does not give rise to anything creative."

-David Bohm & David Peat, "Science Order, and Creativity"_,

“It is proposed that a form of free dialogue may well be one of the most effective ways of investigating the crisis which faces society, and indeed the whole of human nature and consciousness today. Moreover, it may turn out that such a form of free exchange of ideas and information is of fundamental relevance for transforming culture and freeing it of destructive misinformation, so that creativity can be liberated.......What is essential here is the presence of the spirit of dialogue, which is in short, the ability to hold many points of view in suspension, along with a primary interest in the creation of common meaning..”

-David Bohm & F. David Peat, “Science Order, and Creativity”

Best,

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Interestingly enough, Sunstein explains that discussions do better with distributing and using information if the participants are working towards an answer they believe is either right or wrong, rather than an opinion. So it seems that unlike what Bohm is suggesting, it is also the aim not only the method that matters. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I guess it depends on what one means by aim, perhaps I should read Sustein’s book at some point to try to figure out what he thinks that is. That is I find it difficult to understand how to begin with a hypothesis before enough of the relevant data is examined would form to be a good beginning.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

It's been known for a long time that the way we think about a question depends on how the question is posed to us. The best known example is that it matters if the question is posed positively or negatively.

What Sunstein points out is that it also matters if a question is formulated so that it asks if a statement is either right or wrong. I'll give you an example (which I've made up, not from Sunstein's book). Take the question should gay couples be allowed to marry. If you put it this way, it looks like a matter of opinion. You could alternative ask a more precise question, eg it is compatible with our constitution [add details] that gay couples not be allowed to marry. Or something like this. The way the question is framed, it looks more objective and apparently stimulates people to survey and take into account available information better. Maybe that's not a good example. But you can think more generally of questions like: Will A lead to result B within N years. Rather than, is A a good idea or so. Best,

B.