Democracy and knowledge

Great, meaty article in this fortnight’s issue of The London Review of Books by David Runciman:

The wisdom of crowds: why the many are smarter than the few. We-think: the power of mass creativity. Infotopia: how many minds produce knowledge. Wikinomics: how mass collaboration changes everything. These are the titles of just a few of the books published in recent years on one of the hot topics of the moment: knowledge aggregation, or how lots of different people knowing many small things can result in a very big deal for everyone. The obvious impetus behind this publishing trend is the internet, which has generated astonishing new ways of finding out all the different things that people know and bringing that knowledge together. If you look for these books in bookshops (itself rather a quaint idea given that you’re supposed to be buying them online), you’ll discover them in the business or management sections, where their lessons about openness, flexibility, innovation and the importance of listening to what your customers are telling you have their most immediate applications. But the authors are usually more ambitious than this and want to apply their notions beyond the confines of management studies – and in social policy. If businesses can use the wisdom of crowds to predict what people really want, to innovate new ways of providing it, and to test whether it actually works, why can’t politicians?

Are video games art?

John Lanchester is quickly becoming my favourite contributor to the London Review of Books. So much of his writing is both accessible and informative. This issue he looks at computer games:

From the economic point of view, this was the year video games overtook music and video, combined, in the UK. The industries’ respective share of the take is forecast to be £4.64 billion and £4.46 billion. (For purposes of comparison, UK book publishers’ total turnover in 2007 was £4.1 billion.) As a rule, economic shifts of this kind take a while to register on the cultural seismometer; and indeed, from the broader cultural point of view, video games barely exist. The newspapers cover the movies extensively, and while it isn’t necessary to feel that they do all that great a job of it, there’s no denying that they have a try. Video games by contrast are consigned to the nerdy margins of the papers, and are pretty much invisible in broadcast media. Video-game fans return the favour: they constitute the demographic group least likely to pay attention to newspapers and are increasingly uninterested in the ‘MSM’, or mainstream media.