11 January 2008

the wisdom of crowds revisited: of 9/11 and collective intelligence

Remember a couple of months back, when I told you about the book I had just finished, The Wisdom of Crowds.

Just today, we saw a pretty grisly traffic accident. About 20 feet away, group of onlookers tried to catch a glimpse something interesting. It was the perfect example of the wisdom of crowds.

Why do they stand 20 feet away? Who decided that 20 feet was the safe distance? The answer is “collective intelligence”. They just know. Like a school of fish avoiding a predator...they just know.

Remember September 11, 2001? Who could forget, right?

One of the things that really sticks in my mind about the day is the way that people congregated on street corners near the WTC. At first, onlookers were only a few blocks away. Then, as the second plane hit, they progressed further from the site, collectively sensing danger in the air. Finally, as the towers fell, the citizens of New York began fleeing in masse. The scene of office workers crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot is burned into my mind.

They moved as a collective. No government, no meetings, no leaders. The wisdom of crowds kept many people safe that day.

And while heroes are the ones who rush in while others rush out (think of the firefighters' bravery on that terrible day), the crowds often find safety in their collective wisdom.

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