Saturday, June 21, 2008

Milton, Emergence and the Wisdom of Crowds

In his most famous prose work, the Areopagitica, John Milton argues that we need to allow lots of different ideas because truth cannot be found in any one place.  The metaphor is brutal but not more brutal than our experience: truth is an organic whole that has been cut into thousands of pieces and scattered across the earth.  Our task is to seek out those pieces of the truth, knowing no one of us will ever find them all.

This is not unlike the argument that James Surowiecki constructs in the Wisdom of Crowds.  He argues that groups make better decisions than individual experts, under certain conditions. Those conditions include the kind of diversity and access for which Milton is arguing in the Areopagitica.  All of us can be smarter than any of us - when we find the right way to put the pieces together.

In Emergence, Steven Johnson introduces other explorations of what is generated when simple components - components that represent a piece of the truth, for instance - come together in systems with unpredictable properties.

Cast a wide net today. Things useless in themselves might turn out to be the piece that catalyzes the emergence of something you need. They might seem useless because they are so different from your own thinking that they could produce the tension necessary to a truth you would not find on your own.  In a world where truth is in pieces, the way forward is to collect different pieces of the truth.

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