Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Crowd Sourcing

If you saw a process description which those involved were described as "making mistakes, going down wrong paths, getting their hands dirty following up the most mundane of details, relentlessly pursuing a solution," you would surely ask if there were not a better, more efficient way of doing things. Of course, as it turns out, this is an almost perfect description of the actions of scientists, inventors, business people, and artists at work. And, in this particular case, it is the description of an experiment done by mathematician Tim Gowers, who started a blog he called the Polymath Project, beginning with "an important and difficult unsolved mathematical problem." After 37 days of the process described above, during which "27 people wrote 800 mathematical comments, containing more than 170,000 words" and involving people ranging from Fields Metalists (besides Gowers) to a high school math teacher, the problem was solved (Michael Nielsen, "Reinventing Discovery", p. 1-2). This is spontaneous order at work -- harnessed to discover solutions to problems -- known in such cases as "crowd sourcing."

Elsewhere I mentioned crowd sourcing in relation to auto design and I have started my own crowd sourcing project for my own poetry, where I am hoping people will come by and make recommended changes so I can improve my poetry. And of course this blog is intended to get people to discuss the ideas, to refine them and hopefully improve them. It is certainly clearer in math and the simpler fact-based sciences whether or not you have a solution than in the more complex social sciences, let alone in regards to normative or aesthetic claims, as one finds in the humanities, but difficulty is hardly a reason to not use crowd sourcing to solve problems. Quite the contrary -- it is precisely these kinds of problems crowd sourcing may be uniquely able to solve.

Of course, within the humanities, normative claims and aesthetic claims have been crowd sourced for centuries or more. It is why we have the morals we do during certain times and in certain places. And it is why we have a canon of great artistic works. Those are the results of offline crowd sourcing. With the internet -- another spontaneous order which allows even broader, potentially more complex social interactions -- online crowd sourcing will of course move even faster.

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