Monday, November 24, 2008

Crowds & Noses

Google added the ability to vote on the goodness of search results. I'm left wondering how well this will actually work and what effect it will have on the quality and visibility of the information we receive.

For quite a while, James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds has been in vogue. Along with it, some have even believed that if we can simply build a virtual market around some desired real truth, such as an election, the truth will eventually spring forth from glorious wisdom of virtual crowds engaged in virtual market action.

In light of the recent financial crises, however, nobody's looking terribly smart--not the crowds, not the experts, not the players in the market, not the millions burned by the housing bubble, not the legions of professional economists failing to predict the catastrophe.

I'm skeptical of the wisdom of crowds. It doesn't take much investigation or analysis of our society to realize "best" and "most popular" are often not merely different but sometimes even diametrically opposed to one another. (As easy as it would be to pick on particular individuals no-talents, I shall resist.)

If anything could have averted the current financial crises, it might have been time-honored wisdom and principles in our culture regarding spending, borrowing and thrift. We seem to have collectively forgotten them, thus forcing ourselves to collectively rediscover them. (This is why Plato and Aristotle and Shakespeare are still relevant, still important, and more than mere pale, dead guys who wrote ancient stuff about ancient worlds.)

Will Google's new voting improve search results? It's hard not to see how the change won't make the most popular results even more popular and intensify the Zipfian effects, but I'm sure they've thought of that. They're smart folks, but I don't see how how there are any quality metrics being assigned to the voters themselves. When "best" and "most popular" are in opposition, will things get even worse? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Finally, a favorite anecdote from Richard Feynman:

"This question of trying to figure out whether a book is good or bad by looking at it carefully or by taking the reports of a lot of people who looked at it carelessly is like this famous old problem: Nobody was permitted to see the Emperor of China, and the question was, What is the length of the Emperor of China's nose? To find out, you go all over the country asking people what they think the length of the Emperor of China's nose is, and you average it. And that would be very 'accurate' because you averaged so many people. But it's no way to find anything out; when you have a very wide range of people who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don't improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging." - Richard Feynman, Surely, Your Joking, Mr. Feynman


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