Thursday, January 03, 2008

When a Group Decision is the Answer by Louis Evan Palmer

Asking the right question is often more important than providing the right answer. When the right answer doesn't help us or improve the situation or provide insight or inspiration then we can, with some confidence, deduce that we've asked the wrong question - plain wrong, or wrongly focused or with an improper context or inaccurate supporting information.

In addition, who should address a given question or how it is to be answered should also be subject to some analysis. The PROs and CONs of group decisions typically conclude with an assertation that its utility depends on the circumstances (the acolytes of the "lone genius" or "teamism" not withstanding).

Breakthrough ideas or products are often the result of a single person or the efforts of individuals in concert or sequence. The oft-observed fact that a revolutionary idea will frequently pop up in two or more places at around the same time demonstrates the influence of the social and intellectual environment but the typically solitary nature of the analysis and insight is clear. It is likely that the intense concentration & long time frames required preclude more than a single person staying involved. Albert Einstein stated that he had deeply pondered light, quantum mechanics & relativity for ten years before his epochal theses of 1905.

A point to be made is that what we are looking at is actually several different phenomena - in one case, it's a research & development paradigm; in another case, it's a canvass of a larger population for ideas or insights or feedback; in other instances, it's a sequence of individuals each building on the previous one in a series of smaller or apparently unrelated insights or pure theorizing.

Democracy can be viewed as a group decision about the evaluation & action plans of a given person or political party or movement and what support, if any, we will give them.

In a vote, the issues are defined by the candidates based on their ideology (& morality) and bolstered by polling and surveys. Usually, there are some issues upon which the candidate is firm and others upon which they may be swayed or are uncommitted. All things being equal, the more in tune with the electorate a candidate is, the more likely they are to win given that the candidates can get their message out and that their supporters are able & willing to vote and additionally, that their supporters can make it to the correct polling station, can vote in an acceptably easy, secure and quick manner, and can have their votes fairly counted.

To subvert the voting process, a given malefactor would interfere with their opponents and some or all of these various facets: with fund-raising, with political rallies, with distribution of campaign material, with supporters, with media placement & effectiveness, with election lists, with validity of votes, with location of polling stations, with how votes are counted and recorded, with audit trails, etc. There are many links in the chain which unfortunately offers many opportunities to subvert the process.

But if we could make use of new technologies and the mindsets that are emboldened by them, we might be able to generate a continuous polling-cum-voting process by which "the people" and various designated & self-selected experts including experts in the process of analysis & evaluation could decide on courses of action. This new technique, if successfully implemented, could be used elsewhere where appropriate. Most likely areas of application would be the main group-think arenas now - general elections, juries, the "markets". Like Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds" but better. Not design by committee but using knowledge wisely. The main thrust by one or two insightful persons, the rapid incremental improvements by the well-connected "crowd".

While the danger of Maslow's phrase "When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" comes to mind, we would proceed with this venture knowing that it is only suitable for certain classes and types of problems. The telling forays into the virtual commons of problems & solutions will resonate with enough perceving individuals to provide the "proof" that the answer is valid.

It will work. What is be guarded against are those (read intelligence services and their ilk) who would subvert any tool like this that is too empowering and revealing. If we thwart them then we all can prosper.

When a Group Decision is the Answer, Louis Evan Palmer, The Way It Can Be,
Copyright 2008 Louis Evan Palmer lives in Ontario Canada. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications.


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