Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Worst of Capitalism Hides in the Shadows

Ominous headline, I know. But I find this Washington Post article creepy - or at least, what it could mean creepy.

The article is talking about how websites specializing in sports betting and stock portfolios are now moving from the "wisdom of the crowds" concept to the expert model - culling these experts from the crowd. Alan Sipress, the journalist, explains the wisdom concept:

According to its proponents, a large number of diverse, independent individuals will typically outdo experts because even experts lack perfect information and make mistakes. But with a crowd, the many small pieces of information and perspectives held by individuals come together to form a more complete picture while the mistakes can cancel each other out.

This sounds like the logic behind this book revolution that got this whole blog started. Take down the expert author, forget the gate-keeping editors. Just put the manuscript online and let's have at it. Let the readers update it as needed, adding notes or correcting facts.

But now the internet as a giant machine is kind of rolling over slightly, and I think showing its true, bare capitalist possibilities. You, too, could be plucked up from obscurity - in this article, we have James Acevedo, a schoolteacher from Ridgewood, NJ, who can forecast sports events. It has that reality show flavor to it. But there is this question in the article as to whether these folks are truly earning the label "expert."

Justin Wolfers, a business professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said collective wisdom -- reflected for instance in the stock prices set jointly by millions of knowledgeable investors in the open market, and in sports betting lines determined by large groups of avid gamblers -- is more likely to be accurate than Web sites claiming to feature experts. Someone must have a track record stretching back decades before it is statistically possible to conclude whether success results from talent or random chance, he said.

I can't help but interpret this again in terms of book publishing. You imagine people signing up on a site like Amazon, where they are really encouraged to voice their opinion about a book. (Hell, where AREN'T consumers encouraged to voice their opinion these days - it helps sales sales sales!) And they can rate the book - again, like Amazon, with their stars. But what if someone kept track of the books you're rating, and noticed you're giving high ratings to books that are in fact bestselling, and low ratings for books that end up not working, even if they have a lot of marketing money behind them? Some publisher pulls you out from the crowd and wants you to review books before publication. I'm imagining some movie mogul in a film from the thirties, slapping someone else on the back and shouting, "So, Joe, do we have a HIT on our hands!?!"

Of course, this is already happening. Top reviewers on amazon have been noted. Popular bloggers (alas, not this one) have galleys sent to them, so they can build buzz, just as booksellers do (though probably less now, due to fear of re-sale). And I'm sure some fairly obscure books published by small presses have benefitted from such tactics. Is that how the first book published by telephone company Working Assets came out so strong earlier this year?

I suppose I prefer this logic to the wisdom idea, when it comes to books. If people prove themselves adept readers, able to tease out strong points that will appeal to other readers - whether they're cheap, sellable points or deeper elements that prove resonant due to the zeitgeist of the moment - then more power to them. It's unfortunate when some excellent reader gets exploited so corporate publishers can make more millions, but I like the idea of a great reader drawing our attention to books easy to overlook. And I prefer the "expert" logic to the idea of putting a book out there and letting some mob tool it to their liking, so majority rules and nuances can get lost.

But of course, it's still America, and this article also shows that element of "getting something for nothing" - otherwise known as the New American Dream. Acevedo the betting king says that it's nice to know "that there's actually something to my gut feeling." Why is he an expert? Lucky guts, it seems, not education and not experience. Now I'm worried - who are we calling experts again?

Sipress makes the salient and potentially worrisome point:

While generations have looked to pundits for guidance, it has often taken a long time for their expertise to be recognized, and many have remained in obscurity. Now the Internet promises new ways to discover those who might otherwise get overlooked. And it can do so with breathtaking speed. Some business professors remain skeptical, warning that luck can often be mistaken for expertise. But as more Web sites try to find ways to tap the expertise of smart people, a great debate is shaping up between two competing models for harnessing the human mind.

Now he might have written this dramatic paragraph just to force us readers through to the jump page, it still did seem fair. Of course you should use your abilities - whether it's reading or betting or baking peach cobbler - to improve others lives. But are money-grubbing capitalists looking to "tap" your expertise, good reader? Let's hope they buy you a drink first.

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