by Cass R. Sunstein, Oxford University Press, 273 p.
Even if the subject – the aggregation of the world’s information – didn’t hook me, the cover of Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge would have. A simple red background with the black silhouette of a thickly-branched tree, the cover image looks remarkably like the neural circuitry of the brain; the visual suggestion is one of networks, connections, expansion and growth.
A notable professor at the University of Chicago Law School, author Cass R. Sunstein, is no stranger to the ramifications of mob mentality. He actively opposed the impeachment of Bill Clinton and has written prolifically on the importance of dissent, the dangers of right wing politics in the judicial system, and how the Internet can engender insularity and “information cocoons.” In Infotopia, he celebrates the potential of the Web—how it offers us the possibility of aggregating information like never before while simultaneously facilitating the movement of information out of individual heads and out into the open where it can be accessed and utilized – before exploring the pitfalls of information overload. Sunstein cites herd-like behavior, an over-reliance on heuristics and a very human tendency to shut out information that is too complex or that challenges our most cherished beliefs as examples of what can happen in an information-saturated society.
On the other hand, he finds fault with the time-honored process of deliberation, arguing that it is possible to “blunder, and blunder badly” even when many minds are working on an issue for a considerable amount of time. The greatest potential of the Information Age, in Sunstein’s estimation, lies somewhere in the middle. There is great promise in many minds working together, as long as those minds don’t get lost in the mire of endless and circuitous deliberation.
Sunstein looks to the power of “prediction markets” as well as the popularity (and surprising accuracy) of wikis for examples of “many-minded” information aggregation at its best. Along the way he also explores the blogosphere and the importance of open source software to a fully democratic information-literate society. While Infotopia takes a hard look at the more pessimistic possibilities of knowledge produced by the masses, it ultimately places its bets on optimism, concluding that “…for society’s most important institutions, dispersed information, if elicited, is far more likely to lead to better understanding – and ultimately to more sensible decisions in both market and politics.” Erudite and far-reaching in its implications, Infotopia deserves a place in many an iSchool faculty and/or student’s towering book stack.