Collective Intelligence/Wisdom Of Crowds

I realized the other day that since I’ve started blogging I haven’t really stopped to reflect about the way I’ve been blogging this whole time. So I did just that and thought I’d lay out a few thoughts I have with regards to one particular ‘thing’ I tend to do (or flair I tend to write with) when I blog.

If you know me in real life I’m rather a meek and quiet individual (not sure if that’s an accurate description but that is how I think of myself). I’m very obviously introverted and am very careful about what I say. I like non-pressured constructive discussions about ideas that broaden my intellectual horizons, and I dislike debates where the point is not to expand the breadth of knowledge being discussed at that instant, but to get ‘points’ over on the other person and tell them why their particular point or argument is wrong with the cockiest attitude. This is why I detested debaters while in high school – it’s a perfect breeding ground for self-imposed intellectual elitism and auto-erotic smugness that can only be achieved by the mixture of their adolescence and the fact that someone in their life must have convinced them that they were surprisingly more intelligent than their peers; these individuals go on into their personal lives to quickly drain an otherwise interesting and fulfilling conversation by turning it into a points game to see how many arguments of the opponent’s they can mercilessly tear down. An utter waste of time talking to them.

I suppose I must have had a bad experience with debating early on in life to have such an extreme dislike and view of the sport at a schooling level. Even now I have a lot of debating heroes: the late Christopher Hitchens, Penn Jillette from Penn & Teller, Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins etc. (the list goes on) but even then the fact that I admire these individuals so much now still doesn’t in the least make me inclined to regret not following through with my high school debating career.

I remember dabbling with the intellectual sport from time to time during my schooling and tertiary years because I recognized the tremendous intellectual benefits that it yielded, but the general character of the individuals that participated in debating quickly dissuaded a younger me from ever venturing into their lair again. Although I have to qualify that the debating society at the University of Exeter had perfectly lovely members during my time there in 2013-14, but I think then I had already committed myself to many other clubs already so decided to forego that particular weekly activity.

Anyway, to get back on track, in opposition to my real life tendency to be very careful about what I say, I’ve noticed that what I write in my blogs are stated almost as fact with shocking weight behind them. In other words I’m very confident when I state my points – there’s a lot more punctuality to them when I write them in my blog. It might be the fact that it’s my own blog and that I know that on some level the people reading it are mostly very supportive friends in my immediate network, but I think it goes deeper than that.

For one – writing a blog is not like a spontaneous debate. Thoughts can be formed, written, re-written, researched, checked again and then finally submitted for publishing. Even then, you can go back and edit what you’ve written when all’s done and dusted. You’re never at risk of writing something that can’t be taken back as you would if you were saying it in a speech. In fact (correct me if I’m wrong) part of debating is looking for these temporary lapses in a speaker’s judgment while making a point, and then bearing arms to attack their argument using that minor error as a way in.

But more importantly than that, the act of writing itself is a more conducive medium for discussion. The internet has allowed for the creation of a marketplace for ideas. By this I mean that ideas can be thrown out into the internet, and usually people would comment on them. Assuming that these comments are constructive and non-aggressive (ie. they aren’t trolling) then eventually the idea will be continually refined by other related thoughts and ideas by people on the internet, and (theoretically) in the end there will be a point where everyone will agree about the state of the central idea as it sits at that moment – an equilibrium will have been reached. Thus, the collective intelligence of the internet collaborates to refine and give rise to this new improved idea, which iteratively built upon a single raw idea previously thrown out into the internet. This type of approach to thinking applied in specific contexts to solve problems is commonly known as the Wisdom of Crowds, and is a very interesting collective psychological phenomenon.

I guess in this way ideas on the internet are much like the prices of a product when it first gets introduced into a market within an economy. Through an iterative process, various market forces acting on the price of the product will continually alter its value until eventually it settles at a price in which everyone is satisfied – and a market equilibrium price has been reached.

The beauty of discussion is that someone can throw out an idea and someone else can constructively gives reasons as to why it may not be the best version of the idea yet. And as long as they aren’t trying to win a discussion-based point’s game and are genuinely trying to stretch the idea to its potential limit simply for the pleasure of the intellectual exercise, eventually they will collectively refine it towards its most sound and robust form. It’s no wonder that many ‘get rich quick’ or ‘success’ books always start off suggesting that the reader gather a small group of other like-minded individuals who are on a similar path seeking success/riches to regularly meet up for coffee and discuss recently discovered ideas about moving in the given direction (either towards riches or success, or both). Ultimately they are harnessing the intelligence of their collective entity to refine raw ideas & thoughts about achieving the given goal into its most pure form so that they can take it and apply it to their lives with more chance of – for lack of a better word – success.

I guess that’s why I state my raw ideas with such confidence. It’s not that I believe my words to be untouchable gospel, far from it; it’s merely that I am confident that these ideas are definite starting points and through various means & techniques can be refined to reveal more potent truths about life and the human condition at a later point. Hence it’s best that I state these ideas now with as much clarity that I can muster, so that later on when I come to revisit them it’s that much easier to pull them apart and reassemble them into a more intellectually potent idea to either be further processed or utilized in some capacity.

Edit: I always have a video of some sort to add to my blog post and forgot to add one last night. Penn Jillette from Penn & Teller talking about tolerance within a religious context – there’s a specific part in the video where he touches on what I’m trying to get at with this article around 3:05

2 thoughts on “Collective Intelligence/Wisdom Of Crowds

  1. Some good thoughts, but in the spirit of intellectual equilibrium – and giving you some material to wrestle with in future posts – here are a few of my own:

    There’s no reason what you’re seeking and what you detest have to be mutually exclusive.

    All forms of debate – verbal, written, physical – are looking for equilibrium. They take a thing – an idea, policy, belief – and hack at its rough form until a refined version, one all parties are kinda ok with, is ready. That thing is a better thing because it has survived critique.

    Where I think you’ve missed the boat, slightly, is that there is a superior form of debate/discussion – which you believe is writing. I totally, wholeheartedly agree that it can be the most comprehensive. I also think it’s beautiful in its ability to include a hell of a lot more people, getting a boat-load more ideas out there.

    But it’s not perfect. For one, it’s fucking slow, simply because it’s comprehensive. Second, so much is lost. There are ten thousand people who have written from the exact same angle as you, and me, and statistically it was all a waste of time. Finally, and most importantly, there’s nothing to say that what’s actually said is any better, just that there’s more of it and people have longer to think about it. There’s more good stuff but there’s a hell of a lot more bad stuff: simple scaling.

    I don’t think verbal debate is perfect, but i think it’s critically important, and carries the baton where the written form drops it (and vice-versa). It’s very efficient, rapid, and has few enough participants that things aren’t lost, and audiences (potential stakeholders) have an easier time following. Done correctly, it’s the fastest and most aggressive way to arrive at an equilibrium that is potentially actionable. That’s a very valuable thing. Done incorrectly, everything you hate about it comes to the party…

    I’m glad you acknowledge your view of debating as one tainted by bad experience, because it’s not all like that. As someone who did high-school debating, i know exactly what you’re talking about. But as someone who also went on to do University debating at an international level, i can tell you with complete honesty that you saw the worst of it. You’re like someone whose first relationship was an abusive one.

    High-school debating (unless you’re at a more senior level) is a fucking mess. Nobody knows what they’re doing, nobody really knows what to say, nobody knows what to focus on and everybody is scared. Critically, nobody really has any idea of strategy – building a strong case to make one big constructive point. They don’t know what to hone in on and what to disregard. Listening to someone speak, knowing you’re next, and knowing you need to look like you have spotted all these holes in their argument puts a lot of pressure on 14-year old who probably hasn’t thought critically about anything except what they’re having for lunch. What happens is they hone in on soundbites and rant a random response. They are condescending and arrogant because it takes up more speaking time being snide than actually delivering analysis, and because that’s how they’ve seen it delivered in the past. As someone who has judged high-school debating, I can tell you that this behaviour is largely ignored, because they usually make zero ground with this bullshit. And as someone who has coached high-school debating, I’m sorry this is your impression of it. It was always my number one intention to develop debators not bitches. As for those debators being dickheads even in regular discussion – not much that can be done there. Everyone’s a dickhead in one way or another in high-school. They grow out of it.

    The very best debators are gracious and always deal with their opponents points in the most favourable way possible. Senior debators recognise when junior ones are trying to make a certain argument, and wrestle with the argument in the best form rather than the not-so-articulate form that the junior delivered. This builds confidence in the junior and also makes for a better discussion. Bitchiness earns no points and wins no tournaments. It also makes no progress. The very best debators are highly strategic, and only engage your points if they are fundamental to your team’s case. They don’t hone in on random lapses of judgement or points delivered incorrectly. So, “looking for these temporary lapses in a speaker’s judgment while making a point, and then bearing arms to attack their argument using that minor error as a way in” is absolutely not the aim. Debating is trying to achieve exactly what you are trying to achieve by a different means. Arguably, it is one that only certain personality types are comfortable with and only a certain few are naturally good at, but it’s intention is no less noble. I think you would have had a much better experience in the Exeter debating society – I know my debating experience improved exponentially at Uni. The bitches – the ones there just to bully people and be sarcastic – are weeded out very quickly.

    I think debating is fantastic and has helped thousands of introverts find their feet.

    But I digress. There is no best form of discussion – only what you are most comfortable with. I hope this adds to your thinking in the area.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A lot of my perception of debating has certainly been heavily colored by my previous negative experiences with it, and I’ve always known this on some level.

      It seems that the nature of writing as opposed to participating in a verbal debate as you outline resonates more with me as a person in the sense that writing is more comprehensive, planned, and executed in a procedural fashion. While I am careful to try and refine my ideas and sculpt them into their clearest forms, I am fully aware that what I am writing on these blogs have the potential to be a far-removed attempt at truth as seen through my biased eyes.

      That being said – I appreciate verbal debate for its intellectual prowess. Not only that, it fosters a rapidly working mind that is always functioning to construct the best argument in the least amount of time. As someone that strives for intellectual efficiency, that aspect of verbal debate really appeals to me.

      Lately I’ve come into having very fruitful discussions with peers. They aren’t exactly full-on verbal debates, but these discussions possess all the hallmarks of a well intentioned intellectual debate but without the time pressure & scoring aspect that the sport possesses (naturally as it is a sport). I find this to be a more comfortable middle ground of discussion personally – in my opinion it takes the best of both worlds (writing & debating). In the end all it really is is a good conversation between respectful peers, and it may be the closest thing we have that adequately reconciles the perceived pitfalls of both writing and competitive debating.

      I think fundamentally I was scared off by the attitude of debaters. Looking back now it was a rather ridiculous reason to forego the sport, but to a younger me it was quite intimidating and frankly threatening. The difference for me back then was that I wouldn’t voluntarily have had a conversation with a high school level debater for fear that they may just be in it to try and expose my youthful lack of intelligence for as big an audience that they can attract. While at that age watching YouTube debates between the greats like Hitchens and Penn, even though I recognized that they were somewhat aggressive in their approach there was a genuine spirit to their debates and I knew that, should I ever have had a discussion with them, they fundamentally wanted to do the same thing as I – to just have a discussion and to hack away at an idea until it became as robust as possible.

      Certainly has added to my thoughts about this. And has definitely clarified a lot about the sport that were previously hazardous generalizations that I had projected onto it. Cheers


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