The Absence of Crowds

We don’t do crowds anymore. We are missing an opportunity for collective creation and collective wisdom in the face of adversity.

Live in even a moderately busy city and you become used to the opportunity to lose yourself in a crowd. In the throng of people, we can slip into the flow and become anonymous members of the hustle and bustle. Crowds are an opportunity to participate in a collective experience without necessarily participating in interactions. Many people never consider how lonely you can be in a crowd.

Crowds are lost to us as we isolate in this unique time, but our need for a collective experience and the value of collective action remains. We may not miss their madness and their folly, but we are less for the absence of crowds. Crowds are forces of creation and change. There are things we can do to mitigate this loss, but we need to see that the crowds we recover is as valuable as the one we lost.

We have not just lost the crowd, but we may have lost the wisdom of the crowd too. James Surowiecki described the characteristics of wise crowds in his book The Wisdom of Crowds and it is clear we have challenges:

  • Diversity of opinion: People don’t necessarily have their own private information or their own views. We can draw on our own knowledge but we are not necessarily out engaging with our surrounding world to bring in a diversity of information or encouraged to share our diverse and unique views.
  • Independence: Partisanship shapes all conversation and decision making into factions that are not independent in their views and actions. The power of thought leaders shapes tiers of influence and imitation. Loyalty and popularity overwhelm independence.
  • Decentralisation: We are decentralised physically, but not necessarily culturally. Power tends to run in hierarchies and we engage in anticipatory obedience even in crises. Repeating the same authorised messages shapes the influence of a few sources of opionins.
  • Aggregation: We may have different views, but we don’t have easy mechanisms to aggregate those views. Markets handle the shocks of crises poorly as our animal spirits are easily spooked into herd behaviour. Polls depend on the questions asked. The media in its scrabble to survive, relies on shock and emotions, tending to emphasize extreme and unique views over an aggregate of the crowd.
  • Trust: The crises of this year and the failings of leadership seem to be reinforcing the societal crisis of trust.

Collective challenges demand collective action. We can’t expect to solve the challenges of our times in digital cubicles. We can only restore the value of our crowds if we each consider how to take action to improve the discussion. As tempting as it is to focus on loyalty, alignment and power in a crisis, the collective debates of a self-managing crowd are more likely to offer value. They also offer the opportunity to improve the dialogue and address Surowiecki’s criteria for wisdom in the process.

Wise crowds are unruly. They are messy. Their views aren’t individually celebrated. They succeed as an aggregate. Nobody gets to claim victory. Nobody gets left out because they are inconvenient or invalid.

Like any process of inclusion, we cannot expect those excluded or ignored to do all the work of fixing our tainted dialogue. Change agents can come from either the excluded or the privileged. The change is not about fixing the excluded voices. The change we seek is about fixing the system to be able to realise the collective potential of all. We all have a stake in that outcome.

Until then we have just our memories of the hubbub of the crowd to console us as we work to bring them back.

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