Wednesday, October 05, 2005

trust as a basic building block

I *finally* finished James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. I say finally as I have a bad habit of starting multiple books at once and then it takes me that much longer to actually finish them. Anyway, I finished it, and it has me wanting more. Maybe it's the pop-science writing style, or maybe it's that I've read so much about it. I just didn't feel that any of the vignettes went into enough detail. I loved the section on democracy -- common good vs selfish-intent, but there wasn't enough red meat there for me. I thought that he would go towards explaining deliberative democracy in more detail, or highlighting AmericaSpeaks, but alas I was left wanting more. The author did detail alternative theories on democracy and crowd behavior, but still I wanted more.

I could go on, but this is not meant to be a book reviews. Rather, I'm struck by Surowiecki's thesis -- that groups, when individual members act independent of one another, are smarter as a whole than any one individual or a group acting with one mind. This sounds similar to the notion of Kathy Sierra's idea of keeping the sharp edges when working in groups -- that is, consensus isn't always good. I'm still struck by the anti-thetical nature of this. What happened to the notion of compromise and picking and choosing your battles? Aren't we supposed to try, for lack of a better phrase, "and all get along?" Maybe it's not so much on the notion of consensus vs independent actors, but in paraphrasing Surowiecki, "Democracy is does not showcase the wisdom of crowds. Instead, that things are done democratically, is the wisdom of crowds realized."

I wonder at what point people come to this realization? At what point do people realize that they made their case as best they could, they acted as an independent actor, and so did others, and only then, does the group decide something which essentially looks like consensus? I would think it's only after they begin to trust one another. Once people begin to trust that their individual fates are tied with that of the others at the table, only then does it seems that one can reconcile the notion of consensus with acting as an independent actor. In some ways this is like the that classic game theory where a person will reciprocate actions with the other player. If they trust that the other person will do the same, they'll act in kind. The second that a person acts in their own interest, the other player will reciprocate that self-interest/lack of trust.

So what does all of this have to do with tech, and the notion of civic engagement? To me the message is clear. Any use of tech to further civic or whatever means will need to take into account the notion of trust, and community. It doesn't need to create trust or community by itself, but it must either compliment or enhance it. Trust is one of those weird things that takes time to build. Communities also take time to build as well. Familiarity is part of it. Consistency also plays a role. One long-time community leader asserts that part of being invited to the table is just a matter of showing up and participating in the community. How else would they know to invite you to the table if they don't know that you're there and interested?

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