Context Book Report; Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge by Cass Sunstein

infotopia  Models of how Groups Process Information:

The title of this book is a play on the word “utopia,” suggesting that the author has an optimistic view of the Internet and evolving technologies (2006, p.225). Throughout this book he describes different paradigms of how groups process information, evaluating the pros and cons of each. He describes both traditional and modern ways that groups aggregate information, adding: “These methods are facilitated, or even made possible, by the Internet: prediction markets, wikis, open source software, and blogs” (Sunstein, C.R., 2006, p. x111).

The following are some of these models. One is statistical and involves questioning large numbers of people about an issue and averaging their answers (p. 21). Presidential pollsters and people taking surveys use this method (p. 23). It involves “consulting many minds and and selecting the average response” (p. 24) and the  likelihood of a correct answer increases as the size of the group increases (p. 25). Sunstein concludes that “if most people are more likely than not to be right, then the average judgement of a large collection of people will be uncannily accurate” (p. 42). However this method also has a disadvantage (p. 28). If each person in a group is more likely to be wrong than right the chances that the majority will get the correct answer drops dramatically (p. 28).

Another model of how groups process information involves deliberation. For example, members of a government agency will discuss an issue and make a collective decision. Two examples in which government agencies made significant mistakes were in the deliberations in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) about  the risks of the Columbia space shuttle flight and the discussions in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (p. 67). These examples show how groups make mistakes in processing information because individuals with dissenting opinions defer to the majority ( p. 67). This process is better known as “group think”(p. 67).

Groups can also become polarized when the people deliberating  have similar views. For example, Sunstein  describes an “experiment in democracy” which took place in Colorado in 2005 (p. 45). In it, 60 Americans were divided into ten groups of five to seven people (p. 45). The groups were made up of either “liberal” or “conservative” members (p. 45). The groups discussed controversial issues like same sex marriage and affirmative action (p. 45). At the end of this experiment, members had more extreme views than in the beginning (p. 45).

Some models of  information processing  on the Internet include wikis, blogs, and open source software. A wiki is a Web site that enables users to edit what prior users have done (p. 148). Many volunteers and editors can add, delete, and edit wikis (p. 150). When doing a Google search, the first source that usually appears is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia. As far as it reliability, Sunstein says that specialists are often surprised at its accuracy (p. 151) and in terms of volume it”dwarfs the Encyclopedia Britannica” (p. 151). Wikis work, he concludes, because people like to “see their words in print” and want to be constructive (p. 157). Blogs are another forum where users can exchange information by deliberating (p.184). Sometimes blogs can affect media coverage and current events (p. 182-184). However, he says that blogs have more potential problems than wikis (p. 188). People tend to create and read blogs that reinforce their own beliefs (p.188). In the blogosphere, “People sometimes go to extremes simply because they are consulting others who think as they do” (p. 188). Consequently, information aggregation in blogs can resemble the Colorado experiment in democracy which produced group polarization (p. 18).

Another way that people exchange information over the Internet is through open source software (p. 164). Unlike proprietary software, open source software allows unlicensed users to change and improve it (p.166). “The code is available for all users to see” (p. 166). Different conditions are attached to its use and it has copyright protection (p. 166). People who create it can also sell it to subsequent users (p. 166). However, it is different from software owned by companies like Microsoft which keep their codes private ( p. 164).

Definitions are a Key to the Author’s Ideas: 

Sunstein uses unique terms to describe how groups aggregate information. Some of these words describe the processes which interfere with the accuracy with which groups process information. Social pressures in groups can led to the amplification of errors, which Sunstein calls “cascades” (p. 14).  An “information cocoon” is an echo chamber in which people with similar ideas share their views and ignore dissenting opinions. (p. 188) A “hidden profile” is undisclosed information which individuals fail to communicate and a  group does not take account of (p.81).  An example of a hidden profile is the information that  people in the CIA kept secret about  weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The Author’s Background:

While his primary field is law (p. 154), Sunstein has integrated information from many fields in Infotopia. These include law, social psychology, political science, and economics. A search for the author “Sunstein” in OCLC WorldCat shows he has written over a hundred books covering many fields.  Presently, he works as a law professor at Harvard University and before that he was a law professor at the University of Chicago. However, he was also the  director of regulatory affairs in the Obama administration, a job that he had for almost three years. When he was nominated, he faced skepticism from both liberal and conservatives and when he resigned, liberals and conservatives still disagreed with his policies.

What librarians Can Learn from Infotopia:

Librarians can learn much from this book about how librarians and patrons exchange materials and ideas. It describes  some of the principles behind intellectual freedom. Point II of The Library Bill of Rights says that “Librarians should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” The author’s paradigm of how individuals within organizations fail to express opinions which dissent from the majority applies to issues which librarians face when selecting controversial resources. Similar issues arise with internet filtering. Librarians who work in organizations composed of either conservative or liberal members may hesitate to choose materials or electronic resources which express views contrary to those held by the majority. Consequently, librarians should be aware of how the views of the majority in their organization  can influence their decisions about selecting print and electronic resources. Similarly, library managers should try to create a participatory  climate in their libraries, where both staff and users feel free to express their opinions about materials, services and programs.

One role of librarians is to evaluate the accuracy and currency of materials. According to Sunstein, Wikipedia has an extraordinary number of current and accurate articles (p 151). From his point of view librarians answering reference questions should be able to rely on Wikipedia. “Quality control occurs through a kind of peer review, in which edits appears Sunstein also compares the potential for communication on blogs and wikis, a concept relevant to participatory service in libraries. On wikis, in contrast to blogs, no person considers herself the author of an entry (p. 153). Unlike wikis, he says that blogs are more likely to contain errors, hidden profiles, cascades and group polarization (p. 186). Though blogs have spaces for comments, if liberals read liberal blogs and conservatives read conservative blogs, both groups can become more polarized (p. 188). Because there is no individual author, wikis are more participatory than blogs and tend to reflect more of what Sunstein calls “the dispersed knowledge held by many minds”(p. 148).

Compared to the blog for the San Francisco Public Library, a wiki at the American Library Association’s web site, ALA Government Documents Roundtable (GODORT) Wiki, informs people how to participate in creating the wiki. Librarians who want to make libraries where they work more participatory should consider creating more wikis where both staff and patrons can post.

Sunstein wrote this book seven years ago and then he said that new technologies are making it easier for people to have access to dispersed information and creativity (p. 217-218). These technological changes make it possible for librarians to know more about their communities,  better able to answer reference questions and select materials. The more familiar librarians are with designing blogs, wikis and open source software, the more they will be able to improve the environments in their libraries.

References

Sunstein, C.R. (2006).  Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge.  New York, New York. Oxford University Press.

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Context Book Report; Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge by Cass Sunstein

2 thoughts on “Context Book Report; Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge by Cass Sunstein

    1. elaine22blog says:

      Hi Joseph: Thanks for sending me this paper. I found a video in which someone confronted him about it at NYU Law School when he was the administrator of the Office of Regulatory affairs in the Obama administration:

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