12/31/2013 11:48 am ET Updated Feb 26, 2014

Revisiting Whitacre's "Cloudburst" Through the Wisdom of the Crowd

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

After the success of four editions of Whitacre's worldwide virtual choir and all the media coverage of the event, one might ask: what's new with one more reading about the virtual choir this time? Maybe the answer is the onstage participation via Skype of 32 performers from different countries as part of an ongoing live performance with all the synchronization headaches it involves.

Indeed, any Voice over the Internet Protocol (VoIP) is typically considered a priority traffic to guarantee real-time communication. Although, technological advances have significantly improved the effectiveness of queuing mechanisms to ensure such priority. But there are still delays and latencies inherent to the physical world where two-way communication systems dwell.

What really drew my attention, as a cognitive psychologist, is the latency issue in this performance that the composer highlighted during his TED talk by saying, "we've pushed the technology as far as it can go, but there's still less than a second of latency. But in musical terms, that's a lifetime. We deal in milliseconds. So what I've done is, I've adapted 'Cloudburst' so that it embraces the latency and the performers sing into the latency instead of trying to be exactly together." In this respect, Whitacre embarked on a quite risky artistic adventure. Ultimately, the success was achieved and the question is how this was made possible?

Based on his unique orchestra conducting experience over the four increasingly complex opuses of the virtual choir, Whitacre harnessed somehow the essence of something beyond the technical musical details, something that I prefer to call 'the artistic wisdom of the crowd.' -- Yousri Marzouki

Based on his unique orchestra conducting experience over the four increasingly complex opuses of the virtual choir, Whitacre harnessed somehow the essence of something beyond the technical musical details, something that I prefer to call "the artistic wisdom of the crowd," an expression borrowed from James Surowiecki's famous book title. Eventually, the artist was more likely to put his trust on this wisdom in order to handle a very narrow margin for asynchronicity glitches. Thus, I've tried to glean insights from the psychology of the crowds in an attempt to understand such innovative approach.

There are plenty of examples to illustrate the crowd wisdom. Let's go back to a recent experiment conducted in 2011 by mathematician Marcus Du Sautoy as part of his television programme on BBC Four. He took a jar full of beans, and asked different participants to guess how many beans were in the jar. The individual answers significantly deviated from the reality but after averaging all the recorded guesses he ended up with a value very close to the real number of beans. Apart from the statistical underpinning of this example, the experiment tells us about the irrelevance, the derisiveness, and the randomness of individual behaviors that once put together give rise to astonishing collective behaviors. In the same vein, even by calculating such average on the latencies of all the 32 singers, there is still room for unpredictable lags that the composer, besides his skill, overcame by putting a big trust on the artistic wisdom of this crowd.

Now think about the many co-actors interacting at the same time and giving each other feedback. When we couple that with the catalyst effect of social media technology, then such peer interactions can be significantly magnified and the resulting collective behavior is definitely more spectacular than the one reported in the beans-in-the-jar scenario. The "sinking into the latency" was based on Whitacre's creative hunch, but it nicely captured the idea of Symbiotic Intelligence, a concept forged by Norman L. Johnson, aimed to analyze the way new knowledge can be created without premeditation when people use information on the network. Symbiotic intelligence reflects the combination of smart networks and human interactions. Consequently, an unanticipated emergent behavior gives rise to new capabilities to collectively solve problems. It has been shown in many studies that humans are akin to melting into the rules of social networks regardless of their prior dissenting individual views. The artistic crowd has seemingly enough flexibility to handle such drift and to get back on track toward a harmonic behavior as evidenced by Whitacre's "Cloudburst" performance.

Sid Mohasseb, the Chief Executive Officer for WiseWindow, described such collective intelligence in his TEDx talk as the result of the collision of two worlds: the virtual world and the physical world. He said that, "collective intelligence will drive actions. To date, by large, actions were taken, reactions were measured. That dynamics will change; reactions and desires will be measured first before actions are taken." The technological advances that brought together these two worlds crossed the virtual barrier and enabled collaborative (artistic) projects across the globe. Additionally, they boost our capacity to reach a greater level of performance by allowing us to come together for common goals. In this regard, "Cloudburst" is simply a compelling picture of McLuhan's "global village", a shrinking big world made possible by technological extensions of human consciousness.

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