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Social Media And The Loss Of Uncorrelated Wisdom

It’s now a well-established fact that a group of people with diverse opinions can often make uncannily accurate decisions—smarter in many cases than any single individual could possibly manage.  

Open markets are the epitome of this, because they weigh individual opinions with real money, and as a result they sometimes produce decisions that seem truly prescient. Orange-crop futures markets, for instance, do a better job predicting Florida weather than meteorologists. And just a few minutes after the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, the stock market correctly zeroed in on Morton-Thiokol, maker of the frozen O-rings, even though it was several weeks before a team of engineers investigating the disaster figured it out. (If you find this phenomenon as fascinating as I do, then in addition to James Surowiecki’s benchmark book The Wisdom of Crowds, you might want to peruse Scott Page’s excellent academic treatment of it in The Difference.) 

The key to accurate group decisions in these situations is that individual group members’ opinions must be independent of each other. If people make up their own minds, great. But if they decide what they think partly by checking out what others are thinking, then irrational cascades of opinion are likely—and in financial markets such irrational cascades are known as bubbles or crashes. It is in order to avoid erratic ups and downs, and to minimize the chances of a catastrophic loss, that a smart investor is constantly seeking out "uncorrelated" investments—that is, investments that are truly independent and unaffected by each other.   

Which leads me to suspect that one problem arising from our ever more interactive society is that it is getting harder and harder to find truly independent, uncorrelated opinions. Global commerce and competition, electronically interconnected financial systems, and social media all combine to ensure that the opinions—including financial ones—that any of us have are now much more highly visible to everyone. As a result, the global "economic feedback loop" is apparently accelerating.  

Consider the current financial malaise affecting the eurozone. It is extremely hard to find investments that are unaffected by this crisis—that is, investments that represent truly uncorrelated risks. Think about it. 

A recent Wall Street Journal article on the issue suggested that one fruitful avenue for finding uncorrelated investment opportunities was to scour the globe in search of assets whose value would be affected by unpredictable events—the outcome of a bankruptcy filing, for instance, or even the outbreak of war in the Middle East.  

A similar search for "uncorrelated wisdom" is likely to be one of the hallmarks of the future of social media. Right now, in the very early days of our technologically connected future, the sheer novelty of interactivity is still enthralling. But fast-forward 10 or 20 years, and the increasing relatedness of everything and everybody might just be stamping out diversity, independent thought, and "uncorrelated wisdom," in the same way that our civilization today is already eradicating languages. Some estimates are that languages are disappearing from the earth at the rate of one every week or two, and each time this happens it represents not just a cultural loss, but a loss of diversity.  

And, uncorrelated wisdom has an important analogy in evolutionary theory. The more diverse the gene pool is, the more resilient the biosphere is likely to be. When an asteroid strike nearly wipes out life on earth, a few rodent-like hairy creatures called mammals are able to fill in the gaps left by the virtual extinction of dinosaurs. And when a terrible epidemic or plague threatens to annihilate 98% of a species, the reason it doesn’t take all 100% is because some members of the species have slightly different genetic codes that just happen to be resistant.  

So one downside of the e-social revolution is that if all this ubiquitous interactivity leads people to shape their own opinions more and more based on the opinions of others, then we will be thinning out the "intellectual gene pool" of ideas and diverse thinking, and unintentionally putting ourselves and our culture at immense risk of catastrophic loss, either through miscalculation or simply a stampede of sentiment.  

You want to avoid this fate? Then you should do your own part by thinking very carefully about how to use social technologies to gain access to different opinions, challenging points of view, and unanticipated ideas. The upside of social technology is that it actually makes such diverse thinking more accessible than ever. And preserving the availability of truly independent ideas is as vital to our civilization as a diverse gene pool is to the survival of our species.    

[Image: Flickr user dandechiaro]