American newspapers sometimes provide long headlines, which reveal the guts of the story. The subtitle of this book, written by an American journalist, was a good example: 'Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies and nations.'
It's a helpful summary. Surowiecki argues that 'all of us are smarter than one of us', and that if you can gather and interrogate many voices, wisdom and insights will appear. In the pre-social media, pre-web 2.0 world this thesis was radical and ahead of its time.
Wise crowds display diversity of opinion, independence of members from one another, and decentralisation, Surowiecki said. You also need an effective way of aggregating opinions.
The book helped to spread the concept of 'crowdsourcing' - pulling in ideas from a wide range of people to try to be more creative and limit the chance of making a mistake. It also anticipated the democratisation of opinion, which characterises so much public debate today. Of course, the crowd can be wrong - fill in your preferred example here. But what Surowiecki also confirmed was the danger of the few smartest guys in the room hogging all the decision-making to themselves.
The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki is published by Anchor, 2004
Stefan Stern is visiting professor at Cass Business School. Follow him on Twitter: @StefanStern