Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Wisdom of Crowds

Contrarian to the core, I always take pause when I see something become a trend.

I appreciate self-organizing, adaptive systems. There is power in unleashing the creative talents of people. We see it market economies, freedom of the press, or even wikipedia. That's why I pay close attention to the collective wisdom of tradition, I disdain top-down organizations, and I prefer freedom to constraint. I am willing to accept messiness for the sake of empowerment.

Over the past few weeks, I have noticed several offering similar praise. Recently, a newsletter of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership began with the following...
I was struck recently by an article that begins with a statement about ants by Stanford biologist Deborah Gordon. "Ants aren't smart," she wrote in a National Geographic article; "ant colonies are." Today more and more people are recognizing the "wisdom of crowds" in which collective thought and action by groups are superior to the individual ability of even their most gifted members.
If the church is noticing something, that usually means that it's really old, old news. That's when I had to rethink my position.

I'm not being critical of the newsletter article. It encourages leadership training and teamwork. Congregations definitely would benefit from such talk.

However, I am a little squeamish about the "wisdom of crowds." I refuse to back away from my praise of adaptive systems. However, crowds make a lot of dumb decisions on the way to better ones. There is no wisdom in a lynch mob. There is nothing inherently superior to a crowd mentality. Wisdom comes from the interaction of ideas, and over a long period of time, the right decision usually emerges. In the meantime, let us not forget the suffering and hurt which can occur over the short term.

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