Evolving Collective Intelligence by Tom Atlee

Exploring how to generate the collective wisdom we need

Exploring how to generate the collective wisdom we need

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April 01, 2005

Terri Schiavo and Collective Intelligence

The media and political focus on Terri Schiavo (and whether to disconnect her from her life support systems) has been a great example of the phenomena commented on by neurobiologist Robert Ornstein and Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich in their 1989 book New World New Mind: "Our human mental system is failing to comprehend the modern world."

That is, our nervous systems and cognitive systems -- which have not changed significantly in the ten thousand years of civilization's colonization of nature -- are set up to respond to lightning cracking and branches breaking, to advancing bears and intruders, to the gnawing pangs of hunger and cold. But we are poorly equipped to respond to slow-moving, impersonal often invisibly unfolding disasters of vast scale -- like most of the major threats we face today: climate change, national debt accumulation, loss of fresh water, disease mutations, dangerous technological developments, etc.

Case in point: At the same time as the Schiavo case was reaching its climax, 1,300 leading scientists from 95 countries released their devastating Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which got scant coverage in comparison.

We live in environments and among problems that are overwhelmingly human-made and thus alien to our nervous systems. Especially in the relative affluence of developed nations, we are not surrounded by the threats and opportunities that we evolved to respond to. And so we respond to compelling but comparatively trivial stories but fail to respond to the hard-to-perceive but intensely real threats which do surround us.

Our collective eyes and ears -- our media -- respond to our ancient, narrow focus of attention by sellingt us the dramatic, the personal, the immediate. Like Terri Shiavo. Like tsunamis. Like celebrity trials and scandals. Nothing systemic or emergent.

And thus we slide further towards a systemic collapse whose signs, while plentiful all around us, are nearly invisible to our senses, thought and feeling. The implications for democracy are profound.

Ehrlich and Ornstein recommend education in systems thinking. This is good and I would go further. It seems to me that we need collectively intelligent systems -- from statistics and computer modeling to responsible media and citizen deliberative councils -- to compensate for the limitations of our individual cognitive capacities. And we need to recognize those limitations explicitly, or we will continue to let our arrogant, ignorant individualism impede the solutions which will save our grandchildren's world.


posted by Tom Atlee on Friday April 1 2005
updated on Saturday September 24 2005

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