The stupidity of the crowds

Last year I had an experience that left me questioning whether technology can enhance our decision-making abilities – or whether it might actually handicap it.

I was on a group wine tour Albury-Wodonga-way with some friends. Our group consisted of CSS and SEO experts, as well as bankers, cyclists and runners, and a geek vibe pervade us all – I was the only member of the group, for instance, who lacked a smart phone, and no one else was afraid to use theirs. Our over-reliance on such tech, however, would quickly prove problematic.

Driving from Melbourne to the wine region, for instance, I sought assurances that we were on the right road. Yet none of my three passengers – all of whom were leaning over their GPS-enabled devices – managed to provide a definitive answer.

Eventually I pulled over, glanced at a hard-copy map, and after scanning the next few intersections, turned onto a minor road that eventually joined up with the correct freeway.

Simple, yet by this point I was well and truly ready to chop someone’s fingers off. In perhaps another demonstration of the dangers of an overreliance on technology, I had already come very close to doing so by absent-mindedly closing the electric windows – when one of my passengers had their hands hooked over the glass. His reflexes were fortunately sharp enough however, and he kept all his digits, to text another day.

Morning of Day 2 and we drifted on foot along the main street of the wine festival’s busy hub. After grabbing some awesome pies from a renowned bakery, we split up and drifted past the various market stores. Soon exhausting our interest in doilies and duck mobiles, however, we were eager to beginning our wine tasting. First, though, we needed to defragment our Diaspora – and so my companions turned to their smart-phones.

It turned out however that the area lacked good reception – which did not actually matter, though, since between us we lacked everyone else’s numbers. Nor did we even have a precise sense of how we were going to proceed from vineyard to vineyard. None – myself included I’ll admit – possessed the will and confidence to drag those nearby out from the crowds to a bus – and subsequently the closest bottle of Shiraz. We were as if stranded Borg drones cut off from the collective, and all we could do was stare at our mobile devices, waiting for Google to show us the way.

Eventually, we reverted to shouting out to any familiar faces that we caught sight of, and progressing towards the ad hoc bus bay. Like quicksilver blobs of the melted T-1000, we slowly coalesced back to our original form, and struck out in a common direction to commence our intoxication. A quick text message to our waylaid friends, keyed out on my phone’s primitive keypad, ensured we were whole again by the next vineyard.

We ended the day of revelry with plenty of bottles on order, bellies full of cheese, and laughs under our belts. Yet the lesson remained: that rather than helping facilitate easier communication and quicker decision making, our technology – or at least our overreliance on it – had actually dis-empowered us. Our smart phones were only as intelligent as we were, and we had witnessed not the wisdom that crowds were capable of, but their stupidity.

Image by KairosOfTyre