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“Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge”, Cass Sunstein

August 9th, 2010 · No Comments · ICT, Under-Rated

0195340671Synopsis:

University of Chicago Professor of Jurisprudence and polymath at large, Cass Sunstein reviews traditional models of aggregating and filtering information in the context of the impact of rapidly evolving technological change. If it was published on Twitter, I’d give it a re-tweet.

My Take:

The best summary of Cass Sunstien’s “Infotopia” comes from a review by Ethan Zuckerman:

“You can think of Info-topia as a caged deathmatch between Hayek and Habermas, streamed live on the Internet. Habermas taps out somewhere around page 200.”

If  this gets your intellectual juices are flowing, you can pick up this book for some first class discussion of the competing theoretical approaches to the aggregation and utilisation of dispersed information. If you’ve never heard of either Hayek of Habermas, you should probably pass up this fairly academic book for a more accessible take on the topic (Clay Shirky or James Surowiecki should do the trick).

Infotopia offers an engaging, if at times slightly academic, discussion of the various established models of information aggregation and filtering, their strengths and short-comings and the way these models are being influenced by the technological changes occurring under the umbrella description of Web 2.0.

Sunstein surveys the academic literature underpinning four models of information aggregation and usage:

  1. The statistical averaging of independent judgements of members of a group (ie the Condorcet jury theorem);
  2. Deliberation and reasoned exchange of individually held facts, ideas and opinions between members of a group (ie the Habermasian norm of the Public Sphere);
  3. Allowing members of a group to buy and sell on the basis of their judgements and examining pricing within a market to aggregate diverse individual judgements (the Hayekian model); and
  4. “.. enlist(ing) the Internet to obtain the information and perspectives of anyone who cares to participate.” (eg through online collaborative tools like blogs, wikis etc).

The most interesting sections of Infotopia come when Sunstein engages with this fourth model. I found this quite surprising as I thought Sunstein’s previous effort in this space (Republic.com) was overly pessimistic and relatively uninformed. But in “Infotopia”, Sunstein quite convincingly comes to the conclusion that online communities of interest are something qualitatively new for information aggregation and filtering; in Sunstein’s words “Neither Hayek nor Habermas”. Sunstein recognises that while online communities are able to utilise the ability of the Hayekian model to aggregate diverse information without reference to the formal authority of the source (and favourably cites Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’s declaration that “Possibly one can understand Wikipedia without understanding Hayek… But one can’t understand my ideas about Wikipedia without understanding Hayek.”), the lack of a price signal prevents it being a perfect analogue. Similarly, whilst online communities can perpetuate many of the short-comings of Habermasian deliberation models, particularly in the way that they can increase the ideological extremism of their members (“When like-minded people cluster, they often aggravate their biases, spreading falsehoods.” ), it can also avoid some of the worst instances of group think by allowing everyone to have a voice.

Both the strength and weakness of “Infotopia” is its academic grounding. Sunstein takes a much less evangelical approach to the potential of both groups, and technology, looking in detail at the circumstances that must be present before groups can outperform individuals at filtering information. In Sunstein’s words:

“A lot of the book is about how and why groups utterly fail to get the information that they need — about how and why private and public institutions (1) do not elicit the information their own members have, (2) amplify the errors of their most confused members, or (3) go to unjustified extremes.”

This cautious, caveated approach can make “Infotopia” a little dry at times, but it does give additional credence to Sunstein’s conclusions when he does definitively come to a conclusion (in particular with respect to his generally depressing conclusions regarding the shortcomings of deliberation and rational exchange in reaching good group decisions).

There’s an element of “an excellent review article stretched into a less impressive book” here, but on the whole it’s a worthwhile read.

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