May 25, 2004
“No one in this world, so far as I know, is ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.” – H. L. Mencken.
H. L. Mencken was wrong.
In this endlessly fascinating book, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea that has profound implications: Large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant – better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.
This seemingly counterintuitive notion is endless and major ramifications for how businesses operate, how knowledge is advanced, how economies are (or should be) organized, and how we live our daily lives. With seemingly boundless every addition and in delightfully clear prose, Surowiecki ranges across fields as diverse as popular culture, psychology, and biology, economic behaviorism, artificial intelligence, military history, and political theory to show just how this principle operates in the real world.
Despite the sophistication of his arguments, Surowiecki presents them in a wonderfully entertaining manner. The examples he uses are all down-to-earth, surprising, and fun to ponder. Why is the line in which you are standing always the longest? Why is it that you can buy a nut anywhere in the world and it will fit a bolt bought ten thousand miles away? Why is network television so awful? If you had to meet someone in Paris on a specific day but had no way of contacting her, when and where would you meet? Why are there traffic jams? What’s the best way to win money on a game show? Why when you walk into a convenience store at 2:00 A.M. to buy a quart of orange juice, is it they’re waiting for you? What two Hollywood mafia movies have to teach us about why corporations exist?
The Wisdom of Crowds is a brilliant but accessible biography of an idea, one with important lessons for how we live our lives, select our leaders, conduct our business, and think about our world.
James Surowiecki is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he writes the popular business column, “The Financial Page.” ‘s work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Artforum, Wired, and Slate. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.