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Entertainment, Featured - Written by on Wednesday, April 1, 2009 12:03 - 7 Comments

Wikinomics lessons from Zombie attacks

Thanks to a recommendation by my colleague Naumi Haque, I recently finished reading, “World War Z: An Oral history of the Zombie War.” Great book.

What I liked most about the book was the clever variety of well thought out characters and scenarios. How would people, companies, and institutions fare if plunged into a full scale zombie war – an unusual question, but one that the book tackles with great relish.  Interestingly, one of the scenarios described in the book gave me a new insight into wikinomics (see other wikinomics zombie mentions here, here, and here).  [if you plan to read the book, stop here, minor spoiler ahead] 

There’s one event described early in the zombie wars which pits America’s military might and technology against an invading army of mindless zombies. The book does a great job of describing a modern battlefield technology which allows combatants in the field to communicate and exchange information with one another (including live video transmitted by others). The description got me thinking… wow, great stuff, wikinomics, distributed collaboration, and collective intelligence in action. Cool.  Sure enough, I was duped. It turned out (in this fictional case at least) that this advanced battlefield technology contributed to the mighty army’s defeat. Instead of spreading intelligence and coordinating responses across the troops, it helped spread panic. Frightening visuals of defeat and voiced fears were instantly shared with everyone… and the result was a frightened mob, not orderly action from soldiers. In the end, the higher ups had to turn off the video feeds and try to reassure people that all was well (and by that time it was not).   

The lesson for me is that succeeding with wikinomics takes much more than just simply connecting people. A crowd can be “smart”, or it can be a mindless mob too. While James Surowiecki wrote about “The Wisdom of Crowds,” in 2004, I highly recommend Charles Mackay’s counterpoint written in 1841 called “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” Crowds, even when highly connected via digital technology, do not automatically become smarter. In fact, as Mackay observed, sometimes they become mad and delusional too.  The difference is less about the process of magically connecting people, but more about the architecture for connecting them. HOW people are connected, seems to make the difference between  wisdom and madness… call it appropriate collaborative architecture. At the moment, finding the right collaborative architecture appears as much art as it is science, but we have lots of examples (and smart community builders) to point the way. Perhaps readers of this blog can share their own insights into these principles.


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Apr 1, 2009 12:21

I really enjoyed this post and your mention of how finding the right collaborative architecture is an art/science. If I chose to spend my days consuming media that is counter-productive, my mindset will become equally counter-productive. This is especially true today where we have access to as much false reporting as fact-based, as well as opinions from people who’s opinions about certain things shouldn’t matter. The art/science involved in this is first, consuming stuff that is relevant to your interests and tastes, while making sure you are getting enough info to hear all important sides of a story. Secondly, it is taking the source into consideration. Lastly, and the most important aspect of consuming media, is putting it all into context and looking at the big picture. And that last point is the hard part where normal people can turn into zombies.

Apr 1, 2009 18:36

Hi Alan,

I also had a chance to read the book and found it to be quite enlightening.

I enjoyed using such an outrageous scenario as a metaphor for complete economic disaster and would also recommend the book to my friends.



Apr 1, 2009 20:01

Productive networks need a “system” to achieve a goal. If you put thousands of individuals in a room, even a chat room, you get noise. If one does manage to stir things up, it’s probably going to turn into a mob. Think the world-wide-French Revolution. Luckily, internet networks have their peers physically isolated so they’re not physically too agitated. The “system” needs cybernetic (government) rules in order for the network to achieve something. Wikipedia has a bunch of rules. Same with Facebook and any other large network. Therefore, you are right, the great “art” of the future will be to tailor cybernetic systems that most efficiently produce the desired output. Having soldiers scream to everyone in real-time is definitely not a good idea.

Alan Majer
Apr 2, 2009 16:15

Rory, good point about not only finding things relevant to your tastes/interests but also seeing other points of view too. Perhaps you’re right, our networks may have too many zombies in them.

Michelle, it is a great metaphor, glad to hear someone else enjoyed it too. How did you come accross the book?

Twowan, interesting point about “noise” being the starting point and needing rules to achieve order. Are there cases where the rules can arise through their own accord? Maybe it depends on starting conditions.

Apr 2, 2009 22:05


Just to add to your point regarding my comment… Starting conditions are rules. Say, you were to play a board-game with no starting rules, no dice or paper money but just with four people around an empty blank board. You would hear a lot of talk at first but basically you’d have people deciding on:
a) what’s the goal, the purpose of the game?
b) how do we play the game? The game rules.
c) how do we agree on the game rules?
d) Are we having fun? Is this worth playing?
In a small group, you could find a consensus after some time. You would have a playable game through “pseudo-democracy”. The most creative mind “leading” the group in accepting a game system developed through collective brainstorming. There is always an “intellectual” leader for the reason that, indeed, we are not zombies or cylons. Intelligence makes might.
If you were to replicate the experiment with a different group of four, you would obtain a completely different game with a completely different set of rules in more or less time.

You can extend this experiment to a larger network. Now, you bring 100 players in the room. Just getting people to talk in order would be in itself a huge challenge. You’d probably have to wait until some guy started punching in the face anyone refusing to listen to him. It seems that the larger the group, the more of a violent nature it develops usually around one leader. (As the French say: “La loi du plus fort est toujours la meilleure” or, in this case, Might makes Right.)

Our challenge is to have the most creative mind, intelligence, lead this very large group as, unfortunately, the rules of the board game will not spontaneously appear.

Therefore, before the large group assembles, we need rules to organize it. In order to come up with the rules of the board game, we need to come up with rules to organize the network. These two sets of rules have nothing to do with one another. This is the great “eye above the pyramid” challenge of cybernetic providence.
a) Who writes the rules that organize the large network?
b) How are these rules enforced?
This is the democratic challenge. If you ask the large network itself to come up with its own rules, you are back to square one. i.e Might makes Right. It’s a vicious circle where intelligence rarely prevails.

To organize the large network, somebody, or a very small group of “intelligent” people, has to step out, write the rules and find a way to have them accepted. (Take a dollar bill out of your wallet and look at what’s on the other side of George Washington…)

In our era of the Internet, large scale networks represent a revolution because:
a) the players are physically isolated, yet, in the same room.
b) they can “choose” to enter the room, join the network, . i.e. to play the board game.
c) they can review and accept the cybernetic rules that govern the network before they join.

These conditions allow for 100 or 1000 or 10000 or more players to come up, efficiently, with a common playable board game. (Through collective intelligence, another topic, it may even be the best board game ever invented!)

But the fact remains that the fundamental power behind the network’s system remains with the “eye above the pyramid”. Whoever that might be…

David Alexander’s Blog » Blog Archive » WikiZombie
Apr 6, 2009 11:07

[...] Wikinomics blog has an interesting posting that ties in crowd sourcing and the World War Z: The lesson for me is that succeeding with [...]

05/07 - 3 Zombie Stories | BuyZombie.com
May 7, 2009 16:51

[...] Wikinomics lessons from Zombie attacks. This article covers how World War Z shows ways that set institutions would potentially react to a full scale Zombie Outbreak. It uses the demonstration on how the military’s technology helped be it’s own downfall and is a pretty fun read for those who like to analyze what you read past just the general fun filled horror story of the apocalypse. A bit short but a good breakdown of why things turned out they did. [...]

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