Sunday, January 17, 2010

Infotopia - In common knowledge we trust ...

In 2006 Oxford University Press published small but influential book by Cass R. Sunstain - "Infotopia". Sunstain is a legal scholar, specialized in constitutional, administrative and environmental laws and in behavioral economics.

The subtitle to Infotopia raises the question: "How many minds produce knowledge?".
Sunstain analyses the undergoing transformation of human knowledge accelerated by the Internet. He focuses on specific methods of obtaining the information dispersed in modern society. When the information is properly aggregated and analyzed it can be transformed into knowledge. He describes the role of deliberating groups, surveys, prediction markets, and specific new Internet-era inventions: wikis, blogs and open source software (it seems he omitts Social Networks).

The true value of the book lies not in exaltation upon these new methods, but in true and deep analysis of their internal problems and risks. For example, when he analyses famous Condorcet's Jury Theorem, he shows when the theorem may fail or not to be applicable.
Then, he specifically analyses the effects of social pressures in groups, amplification of cognitive errors, cascade effects, hidden profiles, group polarization and many others.

There is an intriguing chapter about prediction markets - the "tools" that work much better in almost all predictions than any survey or pool. Prediction markets realize in practice Friedrich Hayek conclusion about the price as one of the best aggregative mechanism.
As before, he also warns that they sometimes fail as well...

Despite all these warnings - the book is very optimistic in its final conclusion.

Let me know for somehow more personal conclusion. I read Infotopia just after "The Glass Bead Game". And I'm delighted - delighted about the state of the culture and society and the comunal knowledge, with all these shadows. And I'm happy the world is not and never will be as it was envisioned by Hesse in "The Glass Bead Game", where few cultivate the top knowledge, where elites are not only governing the masses but where the knowledge is under strict control of a few...

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