James Surowiecki’s groundbreaking book is so full of poignant statements and analyses that trying to find one quote to sum up the book’s theme is difficult. However, two quotes stick out for me in trying to convey Surowiecki’s main theme. On the topic of how best to run an organization, Surowiecki states, “Suggesting that the organization with the smartest people may not be the best organization is heretical, particularly in a business world caught up in a ceaseless ‘war for talent’ and governed by the assumption that a few superstars can make the difference between an excellent and a mediocre company” (p.31). This is quite a prediction (the book was published in 2005) of the Walter Madoff scandal and the CDS phenomenon that recently turned the financial world upside down.
On the topic of how groups organize themselves in American society, he explains, “…in liberal societies authority had only limited reach over the way citizens dealt with each other. In authority’s stead, certain conventions—voluntarily enforced…by ordinary people—play an essential role in helping large groups of people to coordinate their behavior with each other with out coercion” (p.97). Here, he is speaking of cultural ‘norms,’ such as ‘first come, first serve’ seating on subway cars in Manhattan. In the context of the Internet, which is not regulated by any central authority, these conventions that coordinate behaviors are very much in play. Users have created their own ‘norms’ and expectations for the web in the same way people on the subway understand how seating works through a set of unspoken cultural rules.
In the context of students and learning, this book provides teachers with an understanding of how their students, who most likely participate in the online world, are part of a bigger picture in creating an organized culture and in making good decisions for the future. When students participate in social networks, file sharing, or any other kind of social construct on the web, they are part of an important decision making process. Since the Internet is controlled by its users, not a centralized authority, users have a huge stake in its success and its progress. This has implications for how we teach students good digital citizenship and safety. As Surowiecki states, “It may be in the end, that a good society is defined by how people treat strangers than by how they treat those they know” (p. 112). With an ever-increasing online community, this society is now a global society. Educators are now in charge of the huge task of making students good global citizens. Teachers should be models for how to use the Internet and communicate with others online. The better informed the youth are, the better future prospects are for society in general. Most communication and collaboration in the next decade will occur online.
This book manages to link every aspect of modern society through the underlining theme of how groups of individuals function in many different situations. While the theme remains the same: “The idea of the wisdom of crowds is not that a group will always give you the right answer but that on average it will consistently come up with a better answer than any individual could provide.” (p. 235), it plays out differently in different arenas. Surowiecki addresses the theme as it plays out on the Internet, in traffic jams, in mobster movies, Linux, the stock market and the business world in general. It is a relevant analysis for any audience. Whether you are an educator, an economist, a stockbroker, a commuter, an engineer, a frequent blogger or contributor to YouTube, you will find something relevant in this book.