Infotopia: A Vague Review

(Wasn’t really happy with the first version of this post, so writing it again from scratch. If you didn’t catch my initial attempt, don’t stress, you’re not missing much.)

A while ago - sometime in 2006 - I picked up a copy of a book called Infotopia, by Cass Sunstein. I know I wasn’t really familiar with him at the time - nor am I now - but I think I read positive reviews about iton either Lawrence Lessig’s blog, or the O’Reilly Radar (or possibly both). Once I got it, fearing it was a little dry, it sat on my bookshelf collecting dust. Doesn’t help that I’m not nearly a prolific reader as I once was.

Holidays, however, usually give me the chance to power through some books, and even while I was busy travelling through the south island of New Zealand, being filled with awe at every turn, I managed to devour a few tomes, and Infotopia was one of them.

Now, it’s not the most intersting of topics - how to aggregate a group’s knowledge to achieve the best possible results, and avoid (as much as possible) the common pitfalls along the way - but it’s pretty damn important. I found it particularly relevant with regards to my efforts leading the committee for Nullus Anxietas, and I know some of my friends will find it useful as well (Steve in particular). It’s also worth bearing in mind within the context of the Ruby and general open-source communiies.

The main value in the book, for me, was the clear descriptions of the different issues groups can face. There’s a lot of them, but here’s a few I want to share.

Group Polarisation

“When like-minded people cluster, they often aggravate their biases, spreading falsehoods.”

Perhaps you’re familiar with the idea of cocoons or echo chambers - surrounding yourself with similar perspectives, which then limits the growth of your own views. It can be seen all the time in politics, and online as wel (the hype around Web 2.0 is one example that seems to get mentioned now and then).

An extension of this is group polarisation, where the consensus in a bunch of people can be driven to a more extreme viewpoint. Sunstein regularly quotes a study on this, but even without that, it makes sense

  • if everyone’s pushing in one direction, can’t really expect a group to become more moderate.

Social Pressures

Generally, if people feel their views are not important - in the context of the group (perhaps beause they’re a minority, or they’re in the presence of a known expert), or in a larger scale - they’re much less likely to share what information they have. To combat this, Sunstein recommends emphasising the equality of all group members, to minimise social status as much as possible. I’d like to think I’m not too bad at this (due largely to the influence of a former employer, MBO (now Ergo Consulting)) but I’ll leave judgement up to others.

People may also hold back fom sharing as they don’t want to upset the group dynamic by disagreeing with what may be the majority view. An answer Sunstein has for this is to encourage the view that a team player is one who focuses on the best outcome possible for the team, not on team harmony.

Worth Reading?

While the book is useful and informative, it is a little dry - but that’s to be expected really, considering the topics covered. I also feel it’s perhaps a bit long - I think it could lose a third of the size and still be ust as effective - and the focus is more on the problems than the solutions (although Sunstein makes it reasonably clear that’s not the goal of the book).

That said, if you manage groups of people in some shape or form, it’s definitely worth getting your hands on a copy.

Michael Koukoullis left a comment on 9 Feb, 2008:

Frequently when watching politicians ion TV I find myself muttering .. “WTF, do they actually believe in this crap”. Glad you discovered a published definition for the mental disorder most of them seem to have.

Getting out there, listening to other opinions, engaging with people from different industries and backgrounds is a sure fire way to broaden your perspective on all things in your life.

The friendly co-working ‘Jelly’ day we run in Sydney is somewhat aligned to this idea. Although most attendees are from the web industry.

Steve left a comment on 23 Feb, 2008:

Hey Pat,

Thanks for the recommendation, you ol’ lovecat you ;) It looks a winner, i’ll be sure to add to the next amazon cart.