most people aren’t good at most things

So this Bluetooth Ring deal turns out to be yet another crowdfunded apparatus that over-promises and under-delivers

This is a particularly embarrassing case, but it’s only one in a whole litany of Kickstarter failures. It’s standard practice to rush to say that crowdfunding produces a lot of successes too. (This Gizmodo write up of Ring does so.) I dunno. At this point, I feel like unless you personally know someone involved with a project, you should proceed with great caution and spend your money elsewhere. But regardless of whether you personally decide to crowdfund something, I think we should start to think of crowdfunding as another failed example of turning activities that previously required expertise over to the broader public, and with awful consequences.

After all, crowdfunding is a type of crowdsourcing; what’s being crowdsourced is the gatekeeping functions that investors and organizations used to perform. The essential work isn’t just sorting through various projects and determining which are cool or desirable, but determining if they’re responsible and plausible — capable of being successfully pulled off by the people proposing them, within the time frames and budgets stipulated. It turns out that most people are not good at that. But then, why would they be? Why would the average person be good at fulfilling that function? Where does that faith come from? There are so many places where we’ve turned over functions once performed by experts to amateurs, and we’re consistently surprised that it doesn’t work out.

401(k)s aren’t crowdsourced, exactly, but they exist thanks to a choice to turn over control of retirement funds to individuals away from managers, in the pursuit of fees, of course. The results have been brutal. But why wouldn’t they be brutal? Why would you expect every random person on the street to have a head for investment in that sense? It’s worth pointing out that crowdsourcing was first introduced for simplistic tasks that a human can do better than a machine, often through rote repetition — bilingual speakers checking machine translation, for example, a task still far better performed by humans than machines. (Yes, folks.) But now, we seem to expect to hand tons of essential tasks off to computers and crowds, and in many cases, we don’t bother to check and see how well they’re actually doing, because the hype about both is so loud.

I’m someone with a fairly cynical view of human nature, and I often react to crowdsourcing by asking whether the people who call for it have ever been around an actual crowd. But you don’t have to be a cynic to criticize this tendency. It’s damn inefficient, after all. When people complain that a given academic’s field of specialization is too narrow or obscure, they’re failing to understand the hive mind theory of human knowledge; some individuals chase particular mental rabbits down particular holes, and then that knowledge can be shared with everyone, which is inherently more useful than training an army of generalists. For everyone to be an expert in investing for retirement would be a waste. People who don’t know how to do it aren’t guilty of anything other than devoting themselves to the work of their own lives. Same thing with Kickstarter: why should everyone be expected to vet ideas for investment?

Someday, we’ll look back at this period of wild enthusiasm for tearing down structures designed to protect against unintended consequences and see it for the hubris it was. We’re not all geniuses, in fact most of us are just scraping by, and that’s OK.