The enduring wisdom of the crowd

The enduring wisdom of the crowd

The masses are the real drivers of innovation.

Norman Lewis
Writer

If there is one question of the Brexit and Trump era that is a key to the future, it is the question of where authority lies: with the elite and their claimed expertise, or with the masses? While this question has primarily been debated in terms of the future of democracy, I will argue that it is also central to the future of innovation and technological progress.

Ever since the 5th century BC, when Socrates defended the authority of the political or moral expert over the common citizens of Athens, the location of authority has been a constant area of contestation in Western society.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the idea gathered pace that experts ought to be in charge of public policy and should determine policy preferences on behalf of society. As elitist antipathy towards participatory democratic politics gathered pace, the masses were increasingly portrayed as wilfully ignorant, too ignorant, sometimes, even to recognise their own ignorance.

Since the Brexit vote and and the election of Donald Trump as US president, this antipathy towards the demos has intensified, with establishment politicians, government officials, leading academics and captains of industry all arguing that, in an era dominated by powerful new information and biotechnologies, the threat of global warming, artificial intelligence and robotisation, only experts can truly make sense of it.

But this argument is coming from arguably the most short-term, risk-averse elite in history. What really drives them, above all else, is a desire for stability, predictable outcomes and the maintenance of the status quo.

The last thing this elite wants, despite paying lip service to the need for ‘disruption’, is disruption – true innovators with the courage to challenge orthodoxies, to question custom and convention, to experiment and take risks in pursuit of new truths or insights. The experts to whom today’s elite appeals are not those who have advanced society’s knowledge — they are managerial technocrats who agree only that they know what is best for the rest of us.

In fact, the elite never spells out what is meant by an expert, let alone who has expert authority. Socrates struggled with this same difficulty during his life. While he upheld the authority of the political or moral expert, he was at a loss to explain how that individual could be found. He conceded that expertise was an ideal to strive for, not something fixed. It was a quest, a state of mind, an everlasting journey, not a set destination.

Elite technocratic managerialism has a different view: expertise is simply the possession of the truth, a consensual nirvana where there are no more questions, only agreement and known answers to be acted upon. This is why it is never spelt out what an expert is. If it was, it would be laughed out of the court of public opinion, where it is understood that innovation and progress require disagreement, contestation, experimentation and failure. This is why elites ever since Socrates have always found it easier to devalue the authority of the masses than to give precise meaning to the authority of their experts. Their goal is to insulate expertise from the pressure of the masses.

Expertise or technocracy?

The elite’s demand for the masses to defer to experts, and the insulation of expertise from social accountability, does not just devalue the masses — it also fundamentally undermines the future of expertise itself.

Modern society is based upon expertise within a complex social division of labour. We could not exist without it. We need trained pilots to fly planes; doctors to administer our health; lawyers to uphold the rule of law; metallurgists who know what goes into building a girder for a skyscraper; and so on. We know a qualified person when we see one (even though this may sometimes fall short, with disastrous consequences). But individuals meeting what society sets as the formal criteria for the labelling of experts should not be confused with what it takes for expertise to exist or advance.

Society needs experts to disagree. There never was, nor can there ever be, expertise quarantined from contestation. Expertise has progressed because people have been willing to advance the state of their craft or discipline by challenging accepted orthodoxies. In fact, real experts understand that a fundamental part of their role is to take responsibility for upholding and advancing their craft. The elite’s technocratic managerialism, and its demand for blind deference, actually means giving up that responsibility.

The abandonment of responsibility for the future of expertise by the elite today is historically unprecedented. Moreover, it fails to resolve the thorny issue of where authority lies in the relationship between experts and the rest of society. The answer lies in the constantly evolving interaction between human needs and the expertise needed to satisfy them.

Expertise, like innovations that advance human society, does not emerge out of thin air, or from the minds of brilliant people. Inventions and breakthrough innovations in history have always been driven by human needs and lived experience. And as societies have developed, so more and more developed divisions of labour have arisen to meet these needs.

Technological progress has always been the result of the collective endeavours of mankind — first to survive, but then to gain mastery over the natural world. It is this that brings into being specialisation, skills, knowledge and expertise. Satisfying human needs is the fountainhead of expertise.

Human needs brings the need for expertise into existence. Human needs focus experts and keep them honest. The extent to which real problems are solved is what legitimises expertise. And this determines the mass adoption of technology, not how compelling the technology in itself may be. It is a constantly evolving, two-sided dynamic, always having to be re-established, with each side playing different roles at different moments in history.

The people have always provided the platform for progress

Individual creativity and expertise have always arisen in the context of the collective battle to solve the problems of everyday survival. Human needs, like forms of problem-solving expertise, change over time. They have brought technologies into existence, which have, in turn, altered these needs as we have progressed. The technologies mankind has accumulated show that invention, innovation and the evolution of expertise are an inescapable part of the human condition. While we may have different capabilities and talents, the one absolute truth we can all agree on is that the capacity to solve problems is innate in every living human being, not just a chosen few. It is hardwired into our DNA.

But material circumstances, subjectivity and differing talents mean that this capacity is unevenly spread across societies and history. Looked at from the perspective of society as a whole, it is true to say that mankind, in one way or another, has been ‘crowdsourcing’ problem-solving since we got down from the trees, stood upright, and began to confront the limits nature imposed on us.

Hidden within every technological breakthrough in history is the ingenious way mankind has overcome the limits nature imposed on us as a species. We have a lot to thank nature for. Our ability to stand on two legs freed the hand with its opposable thumb, which eventually enabled us to step forward as Earth’s conscious agents and tool-makers. We were aware that we existed in nature, but that we are also apart from it. Our problem-solving began by having to survive in a hostile environment with the hand nature dealt us.

Daily life for our forefathers was harsh. The natural world was a brutal environment where life was competitive, callous, ferocious, merciless and short. Like all animals, we faced daily hazards and threats: freezing, drowning, disease, dying of hunger, thirst, and death from predators. This was not David Attenborough’s natural world, a spectacle we can enjoy from the comfort of our heated living rooms on plasma TVs. This was the savage natural world we, like all natural objects, came to exist in; not a Garden of Eden, but a gladiatorial arena ‘steeped in blood’.

Nature might have given us a hand, but it certainly did not stack it in our favour. Bipedality gave us the cognitive hand, which, along with our large brains, produced human consciousness. But it also made us weaker and slower than our natural predators. Freeing our arms liberated our hands, but we could not use these to fly. We did not have fur or thick skins to protect us from the cold or the blazing sun. We could not see in the dark. We could not breathe under water. Our eyes gave us colour and stereoscopic vision, but they deteriorated with age and were limited in how far and near they could see.

Our hearing and our sense of smell were significantly weaker than our predators and other animals. Our brains had limited memory which deteriorated as we grew older, and our accumulated wisdom died along with us. Our bodies aged and were vulnerable to disease, illness and premature death. In short, our biological inheritance left us up the proverbial creek with a hand, but without a paddle.

However, as limited as this was, we had one great advantage: unlike all other animals who have highly specialised proficiencies, we were not trapped by the biochemical limits nature imposed upon us. We have the ability to transform not only our biological inheritance to counter the limits imposed on us by nature, but nature itself.

Human consciousness, our ability to think abstractly, to develop language and speech, to cooperate and collaborate – in short, our sociality – enabled us to develop the collective imagination and creativity to overcome nature’s limits.

The example of flight illustrates this beautifully. One of the prices we paid for bipedality was that while our arms and hands were freed, they were not wings. Nature ‘forgot’ to give us wings. We could not escape predators by leaping into the air and flying out of harm’s way. Nor could we travel long distances over natural barriers like mountains or rivers. We do not have the size, strength or indeed the appendages to make this possible.

But mankind has developed the ability to fly, faster and over longer distances than anything nature created. This took the courage and determination of thousands of individuals (some known, but many unknown), dreaming, experimenting and taking risks, sometimes even dying doing so. It pushed us beyond the limits of our knowledge to develop the expertise that would allow mankind to escape gravity and reach for the stars.

Critically, these individual pursuits did not take place in isolation. The readiness with which the mass of society accepted this quest, indeed their enthusiastic embrace of this aspiration to fly, meant that the individuals who were willing and able to push the boundaries were operating in a culture that was conducive to change. Mass adoption created the platform for individuals to hone their skills, develop expertise through experimentation, and to develop the knowledge and technical capabilities to make human flight a reality.

We are able to fly today as individuals because as a society we developed, over centuries, often in the face of a great deal of human scepticism, the knowledge of the materials to manufacture aeroplanes, the expertise to design jet engines and fuels to power them, and the grasp of the laws of aerodynamics. Our ability to fly, once limited by nature, is now a freedom, a new human need as commonplace and safe as walking, and far more impressive than anything conjured up by nature. In overcoming nature’s limitations, mankind has truly shown itself to be collectively ingenious — a species that can fly despite lacking the biological make-up for flight. The expertise developed to achieve this served change far greater than just flight. It helped to push the boundaries of knowledge and expertise in many other areas of human endeavour.

Contrary to the elite narrative, these accomplishments could never have been achieved in isolation from the mass of society, no matter how smart the individuals involved. The elite narrative presents a one-sided story of how innovation works. It mystifies innovation as being solely driven by the experts, while underestimating the critical importance of the many. In reality, experts are not born; they are created by society, through solving the problems confronting society.

The brilliant innovations we have developed over time are cultural accomplishments, the result of the constant interaction between individuals and society, between creativity, expertise and scepticism, between individual application and collective needs demanding to be met.

What is smart about smartphones?

An excellent example of this interaction between expertise and society can be seen by examining the device that has become an iconic and indispensable part of our daily lives in the 21st century – the smartphone, more specifically the iPhone, which was the pioneer of smartphones.

The iPhone is a truly remarkable achievement. The fact that we all now carry in our pockets a device with more computing power than all of NASA had when it placed two astronauts on the Moon in 1969 is a testament to human ingenuity. But mention the iPhone and we immediately conjure up a picture of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, the flawed but visionary genius who made it all possible. While Jobs certainly deserves credit for creating Apple and for bringing the iPhone into existence, his role needs to be understood in a more nuanced way, and certainly not in a way that justifies the elitist idea of expertise.

In fact, the role of Jobs and Apple in the development of the smartphone would be the last minute of an hour-long documentary. Why? Firstly, because, at least 258 known people from at least 92 countries over hundreds of years were involved in the inventions and discoveries that together constitute the elements that make up a smartphone. Think of electricity, battery technology, electromagnetism and the electric telegraph, the internet, computing hardware and software, the telephone, radio, cameras and video cameras, LCD displays and touch-screen technologies.

All these had to exist before the smartphone could be invented. Generations of mathematicians, chemists and inventors, alongside all kinds of engineers and scientists from all over the world, made small and big contributions to create all the expertise that eventually made a smartphone possible.

It is a fantastic example of how expertise evolves through problem-solving in areas unrelated to what might eventually be the unexpected outcome of all that endeavour. It demonstrates how humanity has crowdsourced innovation over time and brought into being skills and expertise that open up possibilities in all areas of human problem-solving.

Thus, Steve Jobs is just one small link in a problem-solving chain. But the second reason why Jobs would play such a small part in our documentary is the issue of mass adoption and what actually drove the creation of the iPhone.

The truth is that it was not the force of Jobs’ personality, or any expertise he possessed, that provided the impetus for the smartphone. That role falls to ordinary people, particularly young people. Before the iPhone, mobile telephones (themselves a wonder) were badly designed, partially useful objects for making and receiving phone calls. They were ugly and expensive. When young people discovered how to use paging devices to message each other for free – the result of their need for private communications, growing up, as they were, under the constant gaze of their risk-averse parents – the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place.

The telecommunications companies realised that data could inform new potentially lucrative business models and it was this that drove them to transform mobile phones from dumb terminals into smart data-capable devices. The original engineers who designed the mobile phone never envisaged that a back-channel capability would become the source of commercial success. Human need, not this technical capability, is what saved the telecommunications industry from going under after all the ludicrous amounts of money they had to spend on securing 3G licences.

Ordinary teenagers, trying to solve the particular social problems young people faced growing up under risk-averse, overprotective parents, provided the impetus behind the smartphone. In fact, it is this same cultural force that accounts for the other great technological change in the 21st century: the rise of social media.

Jobs was certainly important in all this. After all, it was he who spotted this hidden need and acted first. But Jobs was the realiser, the agent or executor of mass need, not its creator. Without these needs, it is impossible to say whether smartphones would have come into existence. The potential technology was certainly there. But what sparked the innovation of the smartphone was human need, not engineering or scientific genius.

Great men and women only become great because they have both the imagination to spot and solve real problems thrown up by society, and the courage, knowledge and expertise to understand how to bring their ideas to fruition. Insulation from the masses would rob them of their destinies.

History is littered with examples of innovations that bombed because they failed to meet human needs. Have you ever heard of the inventor who created the frying pan with an in-built radio? Or the cigarette umbrella that kept your smokes dry in the rain? Marlboro ice-cream? The portable record player? The one-wheeled motorbike? The radio newspaper that could transfer a newspaper to a device in the home to be cut up or folded, after printing it out on a nine-foot roll of paper? The internet fridge? These (and many others) are real ‘innovations’ that were built by experts. But you won’t have heard of them, because they never responded to any tangible human need. Would anyone in their right mind defer to experts like these?

The wonderful thing about human needs, and precisely what our technocratic elite hate about them, is that they cannot be divorced from real human beings. This is why whatever expertise we develop is always contingent on how well it serves society. And it shows, above all else, that without the openness of the masses to discover new needs, whether consciously or not, and adopt new solutions, technological progress would be painfully slow, stuttering and full of moronic diversions. In other words, without the people, innovation would be an empty vessel of engineering and scientific potential, sometimes ingenious, but too often, badly misconceived.

The example of Henry Ford and the Model-T Ford is apposite here, particularly because it usually plays such an important role in the elitist narrative of today which seeks to diminish the role of the masses.

To the question of whether Ford had asked ordinary people what they wanted, so the elitist story goes, he is said to have replied that they would have demanded faster horse-drawn buggies. At this point the audience at your average business seminar, informed by 200 years of historical hindsight, always laughs at the alleged stupidity of ordinary folk.

But hindsight in innovation is an arrogance only afforded those who haven’t an ounce of original thought in their heads. The real lessons of the Ford story are lost by this self-serving indulgence. Could it have been different? What else would people have said at the time had they been asked about their future transport needs? How could anyone simply imagine something like the car before it existed? Henry Ford certainly had a vision. And that should not be underestimated. But the key point is that in demanding ‘faster horse-drawn buggies’, people were articulating a new need for speed, a need to cut down journey times, a need perhaps for greater independence and autonomy.

Ford’s Model-T became a success because he manufactured it cheaply enough to make it affordable to a broad section of the American public. But its success was not down to affordability; rather, it was down to the extent to which it met a hitherto hidden human need. Within 20 years of discovering the motor car, ordinary American people had made it a daily necessity for nearly everybody. This shows that the mass of people are far from weak in imagination or reluctant to move on from older modes of existence. Rather, it was their wholehearted and rapid adoption of the car that transformed a vision into an indispensable item of daily life, which in turn created new needs, and infinite new economic and social possibilities.

Those ordinary folk who supposedly were incapable of envisaging anything other than faster horse-drawn buggies were, in fact, the drivers of progress. Henry Ford certainly had the vision and the courage to push into the unknown. But without the masses’ openness to novelty and change, he would have been a footnote in the history of innovation failures. The rest, as they say, is history.

The enduring need for the masses

What I have attempted to demonstrate is that the expert and expertise can never exist in isolation from society. Technological progress is always based in material reality, grounded by historically contingent human needs. Outcomes are never predictable or guaranteed, because success or failure does not depend on any intrinsic qualities of the technologies in question. Rather, a new technology’s success depends on whether it meets human needs, known and unknown. Above all else, the expertise needed to achieve these outcomes only gains its authority by how well it solves real problems and provides lasting outcomes of value.

The elite narrative hides the rich synergy between changing human needs and the emergence of creative individuals, visionaries and experts. To extract and isolate the expert from this rich soil is to deprive him of his reason for existing. That is, without the masses, without their needs, expertise would be unfocused, untethered and thus hugely unproductive.

Contrary to elite prejudice, the masses are the true bearers of the future. That is because, unlike the technocrat managers the elite favours, they do take responsibility for the future, either consciously or unconsciously. The crowd are not ignorant of their own problem-solving endeavours – the things they do on a daily basis. They live their lives, with their passions, prejudices and aspirations. Individual experts, inventors or innovators focus on trying to influence that day-to-day existence and, through their acumen, attempt to shape the future of that existence. But, as we have seen, whether an invention plays a progressive role depends on the willingness of people to accept it.

Technologies do not compel adherence or outcomes on their own. The collective – influenced and cajoled by individual creativity and passion — is thus the true bearer of progress. And it has to be so because the collective is the only objective guardian of change. It has no personal stake, no reputation to uphold and no ego to corrupt its longer-term view. The masses are neutral in the battle over technologies or solutions. They are driven only by a desire to achieve outcomes that matter.

When expertise is divorced from the discipline the masses enforce, we get precisely what we see today: the authoritarian arrogance of an elite that thinks it knows what is best for the rest of us. But this represents the death of expertise, not its protection. It is a true lose-lose scenario for everyone. Because unattached from the cauldron of human needs, expertise can only stagnate. In reality, it is not the masses who are truly hostile to novelty and change, stuck in rigid orthodoxies, but the elite itself. Its members’ arrogance is a façade of confidence, masking insecurity and a deep misanthropy.

The greatest historical irony, and one that proves how unserious today’s elites are about the future of expertise, is that the elitist experts are pushing artificial intelligence at the very moment when we have the unprecedented ability to connect billions of intelligent humans through the internet. Facebook, despite reflecting our narcissistic inward-looking times, shows the potential of today’s networked technologies. We now have the ability to mobilise a human problem-solving capacity in real time and on a scale that would make our previous bifurcated efforts pale into insignificance.

Yet it seems our ruling elite would far rather replace unpredictable and unreliable human beings with an artificial intelligence that could be programmed not to think freely, not to imagine the unimaginable, not to question everything. The elite enthusiasm for artificial intelligence is underpinned, then, by a deep misanthropy.

Which is to our detriment. Just think about it for a second: there have been approximately 108 billion human beings since the dawn of the human race. That is a lot of problem-solving brain power! But inequality, gender and racial discrimination, not to mention material circumstances, have prevented the vast majority from participating in this effort. The skills, levels of expertise and new knowledge that could have been accrued have been lost. Yet, given that, ponder what we have achieved already. The mind boggles at what we might achieve if we could actually utilise the minds and imaginations of the billions of people alive today.

That is why we need to be courageous, refuse to abide by custom and orthodoxy, take risks and be open to new possibilities. The first step would be to consign the misanthropic expert narrative to the dustbin of history.

Norman Lewis works on innovation networks and is a co-author of Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation.

Picture by: Getty.