Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Non-Fiction: The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller

The first and most obvious question, when faced with The Smart Swarm (Avery), is what is a National Geographic editor going to have to share with me about business that I’m going to care about? Because, from the first, it is clear that the book is intended for those interested in reading business texts. The subtitle conforms this thought even while it more or less answers the question: “How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make Us Better at Communicating, Decision Making, and Getting Things Done.”

Broken down completely, The Smart Swarm first shows us how close study of the lives of colonizing insects has taught experts much about human nature and interactions. Next, author Peter Miller, shows us how their smart swarming techniques can enhance our businesses and our lives. From the introduction:
As everyday life grows more complicated, we increasingly find ourselves facing the same problems of uncertainty, complexity, and change, drowning in too much information, bombarded with too much instant feedback, facing too many interconnected decisions. Whether we realize it or not, we too are caught up in worlds of collective phenomena that make it more difficult than ever to guide our companies, communities, and families with confidence.
Miller is a seasoned journalist and he writes compellingly. Much of the information he shares with us in The Smart Swarm is genuinely fascinating. While I enjoyed the book greatly, I found myself chewing it over for days after I was done and I’m still not sure I’ve fully parsed what I found there. There are times that I feel contemporary humans act too much like sheep. If, as Miller suggests, we also in some ways act like ants or bees, is there any hope for true intellectual independance? And, sure: 500,000 heads are better than one, but do we really have to have our noses rubbed in it?

At the end of the day, I can’t help feeling that Smart Swarm needs closer scrutiny. Though it documents a lot of truly interesting work, I’m not sure there’s enough substance here to give the topic staying power.

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