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The Internet, a Tool for Art?



About Democracy and the Wisdom of Crowds


During my last 5 years of studies, there was not one day without me or my professors looking something up on the internet. Of course there is no printed encyclopedia which can provide all the information I need, including links to related topics. Reality changes fastly, there is not one remaining "truth". It is not possible to capture the knowledge of a global society with its various cultures and views on static paper. If there was a print edition of Wikipedia, a new version would have to be released every minute. The reasons why Wikipedia is by far the best encyclopedia I could use, are the rhizomatic structure and because it is based on many people distributing and renewing articles. In this way a collective self-regulating knowledge base is infinitely growing, which always provides up to date information. While in the beginning of Wikipedia it was uncommon and nonscientific to use it or even quote it, only 10 years later it has evolved into the probably most frequently used source for basic information request. A former argument against the use of Wikipedia was: "If anyone can post stuff there, it will contain a lot of wrong information." This presumption turned out to be wrong.

In his book "The Wisdom of the Crowds" the business journalist James Surowiecki describes, why a crowd is smarter than the smartest individual:

"We generally have less in- formation than we'd like. We have limited foresight into the future. Most of us lack the ability—and the desire—to make sophisticated cost-benefit calculations. Instead of insisting on finding the best possible decision, we will often accept one that seems good enough. And we often let emotion affect our judgment. Yet despite all these limitations, when our imperfect judgments are aggregated in the right way our collective intelligence is often excellent."

(James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of the Crowds, 2004)


Surowiecki divides the advantages of disorganized decisions into three main types:

- Cognition (Thinking and information Processing)
Market judgment, which he argues can be much faster, more reliable, and less subject to political forces than the deliberations of experts or expert committees.

- Coordination
Coordination of behavior includes optimizing the utilization of a popular bar and not colliding in moving traffic flows.

- Cooperation
How groups of people can form networks of trust without a central system controlling their behavior or directly enforcing their compliance. This section is especially pro free market.


Preconditions for a crowd that makes wise decisions are therefore

the diversity of people and their opinions (based on personal knowledge/interpretation),

the independence of choice (people must not be influenced or manipulated by something or by eachother),

decentralization (so that people are able to specialize or draw on local knowledge),

and an aggregation, so that private judgements in the end turn into collective decisions.

(Compare Wikipedia)



(James Surowiecki, interview, youtube, 2007)



The proof of a working collective intelligence is the further development of the internet itself:

"The central principle behind the success of the giants born in the Web 1.0 era who have survived to lead the Web 2.0 era appears to be this, that they have embraced the power of the web to harness collective intelligence."

postulates Tim O'Reilly in his article "What Is Web 2.0"

As examples the internet pioneer mentions successful Web 1.0 companies like Amazon (with its user reviews) and Ebay (a virtual fleemarket), which had a participatory structure from the beginning. In Web 2.0 everything is built on user contributed content. Today there are many functioning examples for group intelligence on the internet. Besides Wikipedia, social platforms like Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and masses of blogs contain and distribute information and widely expand the view which traditional journalism provides. For instance I always follow big political events on Twitter and Youtube, rather than on TV. At the G8 summit in Heiligendamm 2007 there, of course were crowds of people uploading messages, photos and videos directly from their mobile phones to the web, so that one could follow the happening minute-by-minute, from many different perspectives.


(video of illegal Army operation at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm 2007, youtube)



In such cases various people are able to receive their information from various sources. The internet is decentralized and at the same time it is an aggregation. The many inform the many, in a more or less anonymous way, which of course reduces mutual influence and manipulation by centrally controlled media. Referring to Surowiecki this forms the basis for a wise group decision. If we get used to this new freedom of communication, it will automatically change our way of thinking and our behaviour. And if we think in a natural democratic way, we might also start to expect real democracy regarding decisions made by the worlds leaders. Perhaps democracy could become more and more self-evident. Just like Wikipedia.




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