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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 6:15 am | Fair 46º


Tam Hunt: Will the Future of Governance Be Led By the Crowd?

Mobs can do dumb things. But a mob can become a crowd — a well-behaved mob.

And crowds, we now know from good research over the last few decades, can be far smarter than even the experts. The wisdom of the crowd is replacing the fear of the mob.

How? Let’s look at the evidence.

Crowd-everything may seem to be a silly fad to many, but crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, crowdsolving, etc. are based on a solid base of research and experience that crowds are, in fact, very good at certain things.

This research is relevant because we’re increasingly realizing that the best forms of democratic governance are not about finding wise leaders to lead us through tough times; instead, it’s about recognizing that self-selected crowds can, in the aggregate, be our best leaders.

Yes, the best leader in today’s highly interconnected world seems to be the crowd, not any particular individual or group of individuals. The self-selected crowd can govern itself, and entire nations, far better than any elected or unelected leaders.

This discussion is particularly relevant in light of recent information about the incredibly top-heavy nature of political donations. A recent New York Times analysis found that just 158 families in the United States have made almost half of the political contributions so far in the 2016 presidential race.

This means that it’s not the 1 percent running the show, but the 0.0001 percent. In other words, we live in a veneer democracy and that veneer is incredibly thin.

How can crowds help transform our country into a real democracy? Doesn’t history show time and time again that mobs and crowds can’t be trusted, that they do stupid things, that they act on impulse, whim and sometimes even with cruelty?

Mobs can indeed act savagely and stupidly. But today’s Internet-enabled crowds can transform dumb mobs into smart crowds that are far smarter than any expert or group of experts.

What Is Good Judgment?

How can we examine good judgment when it comes to questions of good democracy? There is no objective measure of good judgment about political questions, right? Well, right. But ... what we can measure objectively is a crowd’s ability to predict future events.

For example, a recent long-term study funded by the U.S. government’s intelligence community found that teams of forecasters, comprised of regular people who volunteered for the nine-month project, were about 30 percent better at forecasting specific future events than the U.S. intelligence community, which is a $50 billion a year apparatus with access to all sorts of classified information.

This has, in fact, been an ongoing project in the United States, funded by the U.S. military’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) program for the last few years.

That’s pretty amazing when you think about it: small groups of nonexperts working on their laptops beat the collective ability of a $50 billion security apparatus in forecasting world events.

I took part in this program, the Good Judgment Project (GJP), over the last two years, the first year pretty vigorously and the second year more as an observer. I was even designated a “superforecaster” after my first year, which means I was in the top 2 percent of the forecaster volunteers. Yes, I was pretty serious about my nerdy forecasting during that first year.

The GJP is all about measuring how well teams of people can predict the future, and then comparing these predictions to the predictions of so-called experts.

GJP has found over its first three years that self-selected nonexperts placed on small teams and asked to work together are actually much better at predicting the future than the large majority of experts in world affairs.

Philip Tetlock, co-chairman of the GJP, has a new book out, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, that summarizes his experience with GJP and discusses what qualities make for good forecasting.

Who are the best forecasters? And why? And can such skills be learned? Read Tetlock’s book for the full list, but the basic characteristics are openness to new information, a willingness to change one’s mind, and comfort with numbers and data.

The important thing for present purposes, however, is that we now have a good track record of objectively measuring the crowd’s ability to make accurate predictions about the future, and what qualities lead to good forecasting ability.

This research is important because we can reasonably extrapolate, from this proven ability to forecast future events, how well self-selected crowds will be able to make smart policy and political decisions rather than simply forecasting future events.

In other words, we now have an objective measure of good political judgment, at least in terms of how particular policy choices are likely to shake out in the real world.

Of course, we can still debate the merits of any particular policy or set of policy choices because, even if we have some confidence in the outcome of a particular policy or policies, it still comes down to subjective goals as to which policy goals are desirable.

We can look to a current debate, gun violence and gun control, to illustrate this point. Will smart guns, for example, have an impact in reducing gun violence by making guns only capable of being fired by their registered owners (with palm print or fingerprint reading required for the gun to fire)?

Well, a smart crowd could give you a good answer. But that same smart crowd would probably debate the hell out of the question: should we be pursuing gun control measures to reduce gun violence?

Translating Crowd Wisdom into Good Policy

Crowd wisdom already has a long track record of being used for good governance.

The origins of democracy in classical Greece were based on a limited type of direct democracy. It was limited to male citizens only, excluding women, children, foreigners and slaves.

Nevertheless, many city-states in classical Greece were ruled at various times by the crowd. These city-states were tiny by today’s standards, and it has long been argued that we can’t govern ourselves directly anymore because of size limitations.

For example, there was practically no discussion of direct democracy in the early United States, and no provisions for direct democracy in the U.S. Constitution, because it seemed obvious at the time that we had to govern through representatives sent to the capital to represent the people’s wishes. Indeed, there was no way for people to express their collective will in those days except through representatives.

All that has now changed with the development of the Internet, personal computers and smartphones. There is no good reason now why people can’t en masse vote on all sorts of policy and legislative issues normally designated to elected representatives.

In other words, the cure for what ails democracy today is far more direct democracy. Electronic initiatives, in particular, can and should supplement and even replace traditional representative democracy.

The world has become again more like a small city-state than a sprawling country, at least in terms of information transfers and the ability of people to express their political choices as often as they choose to. Technology has brought us full circle where even large nations like the United States can be governed like a city-state, a Greek polis.

And the crowd is more than ready to supply its collective wisdom to turn our veneer democracy into a real democracy.

— Tam Hunt is a lawyer and writer based in Santa Barbara and Hilo, Hawaii. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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