Mindless crowds and mindful editing

Nicholas Carr's explains why he believes "crowd wisdom" has been slow to translate to digital media, particularly at aggregators like Tech Memorandum, which use algorithms to distill the editorial choices of readers to capture the news. In Carr's view there's still a role for the human editor:

There are other things that the crowd is quite good at. The crowdtends, for instance, to be much better than any of its members at predicting an uncertain future result that is influenced by many variables. That's why stock market indexes beat individual money managers over the long run.... there are limits to the ability of any single individual to understand the complexities in how a large number of variables change and influence one another over time. [Furthermore] every individual's thinking is subject to idiosyncracies and biases - some conscious, some not. The crowd aggregates all individuals' knowledge about variables while balancing out their personal biases and idiosyncracies. It's not the "wisdom" of crowds that makes crowds useful, in other words; it's their fundamental mindlessness. What crowds are good for is producing average results that are not subject to the biases and other quirks of human minds.

That's also why search engines work pretty well with algorithms (until, at least, they begin to be gamed by individuals using their minds): They produce the result that best suits what the average searcher is looking for. You don't want generally used search engines to reflect individual biases. Indeed, one of their main jobs is to filter out those biases - and revert to the average.

But that's also why algorithms don't work very well as editors. With an editor, you don't want mindlessness; you want mindfulness.


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