Over-Rated | Crowd-Wisdom Gets Foolish


David Cameron – currently oppostion leader in the UK, but likely to be Prime Minister this time next year – announced a worrying policy today: the recipients of UK Overseas Development aid could be partly decided in an ‘X-Factor’ style public vote. Apparently this will initially begin with a small percentage of the overall budget, but that’s not to say that this won’t increase.

Certainly, if you believe Kevin Maney writing in Atlantic this month, this sort of mass-participation voting/rating system will be big news in the next iteration of the Internet:

“Rating is about to spread like a pandemic. Everything—everyone—will get rated by Web users. You. Me. The dentist. All the hairstylists in town. The sermons in every place of worship. Youth soccer coaches. Lunch meats. Wine. The fact is, on tomorrow’s Internet, everyone will know if you’re a dog.”

And Maney is a fan:

“In theory, though, the more technology can help with decisions, the better life will be. Guided by ratings and personalized suggestions, I’ll more likely end up doing things I enjoy and using professionals who do their jobs well.”

I think this theory is bullshit, and I think Cameron is playing for political points by announcing this scheme. Granted, technology can help inform decisions, but if technology makes important decision-making facile, the results can be disasterous. If people can vote so easily for this aid project over another, then the system is open to lobbying and abuse by vocal minorities. One only need look at how Prospect Magazine’s online vote to discover the world’s top public intellectual was hijacked by Turkish voters – who duly got their man, Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, into top spot – to see how even the classiest of votes can turn up surprising results.

The key issue is whether people make carefully informed choices. Buying a book from Amazon is one thing – we can browse the best sellers and make a considered choice – but deciding which projects are worthy of aid? Do I really think I’m qualified to make the best choice? I actually believe I am not – and want someone with experience and training to make that choice for me.

As a teacher I’m amused by sites like RateMyTeacher.com (you can add your own rating of me here if you like!) but it would be madness to take them as serious measures of performance. It is a shallow world that Maney is looking forward to, where wisdom is crowd-based, and serious thought and experience is rejected as ‘old school.’ I’m rather less excited.

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