Perception, Africa, and the crowd

At the Berkeley Human Rights Center’s The Soul of the New Machine conference, James Surowiecki gave a keynote talk at the end of the first day. His day job is being an author at The New Yorker, but he has also written a book which is lengthily titled, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. It’s the subject matter of this book which is the reason he was at the conference giving a talk.
The talk was great. He quickly delved in to the pros and cons of crowdsourcing. He talked about how it’s often the case that when working within the crowd/group setting, within 15 minutes, the overall intelligence of the group drops to lower than the dumbest member, as opposed to rising higher than the smartest member. The later obviously being the more desirable result. He went on to describe why this is often the case and it was enough to make me want to take a peek at his book and read more.
The one point that stuck out though was something that Surowiecki probably wasn’t even aware of. I almost feel bad for citing him on it, but it’s something that people (especially Americans) need to keep in mind when drawing comparisons of good and bad. He talked about the disappearance and following search for the USS Scorpion submarine in 1967. It was an interesting talking point as it showed how, when working with a crowd, John Craven was able to quite accurately figure out where this sub was on the ocean floor. It was a very compelling point and showed how well a crowd could be used for good things. It’s just unfortunate that right before he said that crowds can sometimes be bad as was seen in Rwanda with their genocide. The particular “crowd” showed how the power of the crowd can go bad.
I am not saying in any way that what happened in Rwanda was not a terrible, revolting devolution of humanity, but at the same time crowds have gotten out of control in say… pre-WWII Germany for instance. Or how about less extreme examples such as Paris, France or Berkeley, California. In other words, white people crowds, in Europe and the US can be bad as well. The way that Surowiecki’s comment comes off is that with the Craven example, white people do great things in a crowd, while black people in Africa do horrible, savage things in a crowd.
Like I said, I don’t think that Surowiecki is even aware that he made this comparison and in listening to him, I doubt he would do this on purpose. It’s just that this is an “acceptable racism” for those outside Africa, specifically in the US and Europe to see Africa as a land of savages. While I find political correctedness ridiculous on many levels (ex. people who say things like ‘this is sooo gay’ in passing are rarely actually anti-gay) this is one of those points that needs to paid attention to. Subjugating an entire continent to the perception that they’re a bunch of bloodthirsty savages instead of regular human beings, like every other person in the world perpetuates that line of thinking, even if it’s only at the back of peoples’ minds. It’s what keeps the broken bandage aid flowing in to Africa as opposed to more proper development aid, market connections, exports and imports, and being part of the rest of the global economy for as bad or good as that may be.
Perception, Africa, and the crowd

2 Replies to “Perception, Africa, and the crowd”

  1. This seems pretty nit-picky to me. You say “almost feel bad” bringing up the point, but it’s still the main point of your this post. So the guy picked two examples, one of good crowd behavior and one of bad. Genocide by mob. What comes so your mind when you think of genocide by mob action — Berkeley, really? Nazi Germany — was that about crowd action? Anyway, perhaps he could have used other examples, but Rwanda is certainly one people are aware of. It seems way oversensitive to me to call this racism. Is Africa so delicate as to need special care when referring to it? For any reference to corruption or police brutality in Nigeria do we need to counter pose a similar one about the US or UK?

  2. You’re emphasizing my point in that when thinking of atrocities, we often have Africa pop in to our minds as an example. That’s the problem. Our perception from the US and Europe is massively skewed by media. Compare just about any day on the BBC’s Americas home page and the BBC’s Africa home page. It’s far, far more negative by proportion on BBC Africa.
    My argument is that if we have the association of Africa with horrific, savage things popping in to our minds to illustrate horrific, savage things, then it gets to be self fulfilling after awhile and becomes part of the mass perception in the US and Europe as “acceptable racism”. There’s a tremendous difference between that and outright “racism” which actually makes the former a great deal more dangerous as it’s accepted to be what is normal and expected while the other is an active state.
    We have to stop and think for a second and realize that bad things happen all over the world and it’s unjust to paint Africa as the “Heart of Darkness”. That’s not being hypersensitive. That’s just not being ignorant.

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