Evolving Collective Intelligence by Tom Atlee

Exploring how to generate the collective wisdom we need

Exploring how to generate the collective wisdom we need

Evolving Collective Intelligence

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May 11, 2005

An Abundance of Collective Intelligence and Disaster - Why?

As I look at our current situation from an evolutionary perspective, the thing that strikes me most about homo sapiens is that we keep creating bigger, deeper, broader effects without attending to the long-term consequences of what we are doing. Intelligence is supposed to help us deal with that. But there seem to be a lot of holes in our intelligence bucket.

More often than not, as a society we simply don't know what the consequences of our actions are or will be. Other times we sort of know them but don't want to look them straight in the eye. When some of us seek to change this surreal not-see version of "progress," it is amazingly hard to know where to begin.

Two days ago I read a poignant article --
Rachel's Environment and Health News #815 - Beyond Erin Brockovich -- by a woman who works for the Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality. She and about a half-dozen other staff spent a year and a half testing water, sediment and fish tissue from the obviously contaminated Columbia Slough for about 160 different chemicals. They found about 80 of them -- the worst of which have been banned and are no longer used or released into the environment. They just persist from the bad old days, now entering the slough through rainwater runoff. What, she asks, do we DO about that? It's kinda late to handle the problem.

And the problem doesn't stop there. The EPA's Priority Pollutants List, created in the 1970s and never added to, is the basis for most toxics testing. Stakeholders heatedly debate how much of the 120 chemicals on this list should be considered "too much." In the meantime,
there are approximately 70,000 chemicals (all very useful!) in use in our economy, with thousands more being added each year, virtually none of which are being tested for various long-term toxicity, none of which are being regulated, and many of which are finding their way into our environment. So what, she asks, do we actually KNOW about the pollution in the Columbia Slough? Well, actually, not much. And there's not much we can do (except, perhaps, the precautionary principle). We just continue to "progress."

Armed with near-infinite power and moving at breakneck speed, one would expect a blindfolded entity -- including a civilization -- to be terribly destructive, whether it intended to be or not. Both to itself and everyone else. I wouldn't bet too much on our long-term luck in Darwin's casino.

This has led me to some interesting insights about collective intelligence.

For years I've been promoting collective intelligence as if there weren't enough of it, as if all we needed was to get more of it. Now I see that we have PLENTY of collective intelligence. In fact, collective intelligence has been around at least as long as individual intelligence, and probably longer (just ask the ants and termites). And there are good arguments suggesting that both individual and collective forms of intelligence were going to evolve sooner or later, even without us, simply because they are so incredibly useful.

the problem with civilization's collective intelligence is not that there isn't enough of it. The problem is what we have is so fragmented in its approach to life and so badly distributed in our society.

We need to address both these problems soon. So let's look at them a little closer.

On the one hand, we find that
the most potent forms of collective intelligence are in the hands of scientists and engineers whose collaborative work creates our rapidly expanding human power -- and in the massive operations of the marketplace and the military, where potential demand and wealth call forth innovations and technologies and spread them around. Meanwhile, the population as a whole barely has a clue about what's going on behind the screen of progress. The political establishment -- shaped so powerfully by the will of economic powerholders and by the ignorance of the public, and further awed by the magic of high technology and the mythos of progress -- as well as an occasional dose of fear -- clears the path for new and better forms of human power (at least for "our side") at every opportunity.

There's more. Because in modern culture,
ignoring the wholeness of life increases one's power. We can see this in major sectors of society, such as:

  • In science we find the controlled experiment, which seeks to eliminate all other factors but one, whose linear causal power, once understood, can be applied out in the infinitely interconnected world -- generating (surprise!) "side effects." But note how powerful that linear knowledge is -- what amazing things we can do with it!
  • In economics, we find an obsession with measuring everything in terms of money and profits. Whatever doesn't fit in those terms -- especially the social and environmental costs of economic activity -- is considered an "externality" and conveniently excluded from the accounting. But notice how much more companies and consumers can do if we stay focused on profits, price and quality.
  • In politics, we find battles between "sides". Everything is reduced to pro and con, Republican and Democrat, the majority and the minority -- as if the infinite perspectives, factors and options involved with every issue can be productively compressed into a dichotomy, as if nothing is to be gained by facing the real complexity of life or by co-creating something totally new, by thinking outside stifling polarized boxes. But it is much easier for a politician to get a majority -- and for advocates to mobilize support -- if there are only two options under consideration -- and they can paint one of them as very bad.
  • In academia we find endlessly fragmented fields and specialties. After all, what can you accomplish if you don't focus? And if you focus well, you will be able to "make your mark in your field."

Notice that the power in each case comes from exclusion, from narrowing, from not thinking about most of what's actually there.
The more of reality we each exclude as we channel our lasers into shared brilliance, the more power we generate and the greater the impacts we can have on the world -- for ourselves, our side, our company, our economy...

And as we do, the ground shakes more with every step we take. As the side effects and externalities mount, the solutions made in one time and place become problems in another. What was small grows. What we didn't realize was there, one day shows up in our doorway, our sink, our bodies, our children …

In each field creative people are responding to this situation.
We see the emergence of nonlinear systems sciences, the push for full-cost accounting in economics, the rise of holistic politics, the appearance of interdisciplinary studies, and many other movements towards wholeness and taking the real complexity of life into consideration. But these holistic initiatives threaten to slow the headlong rush of civilization into its tantalizing, mythically glorious future.

Nevertheless, as crises and support for wholeness grow, there is a growing demand for wisdom and humility -- for
recognizing the limits of our knowing, and the ways our needs are embedded in the needs of the world around us. If we bother to look, we almost always know less than we think we know. Part of this is intrinsic to life and the quirky, relative nature of knowledge. Part of it is due to the complexity of the natural systems we occupy, the growing complexity of our social systems, and the reach of science and technology into realms we simply are not equipped by nature to see and respond to -- from subatomic particles to planetary climate, from designer genes to self-replicating nanobots. And part of it is due to groupthink, in which our group dynamics (and culture) can cause us to suppress differences. We may seek profit or power, or wish to preserve our status, or simply want to avoid anything that would make our lives more difficult or less pleasurable. So we go along, even when we have a feeling we're in a play that just doesn't make sense.

Humility comes from facing into the big picture, and being real about it. With it comes

So it isn't more collective intelligence we need. It is more collective wisdom. And we need to use that wisdom to strengthen collective intelligence in the social realms where it is weakest -- such as in our democracy, where it can be applied to monitoring the other forms of collective intelligence -- such as science and the economy -- to enable them to better serve "the general welfare," including the welfare of natural systems upon which we depend and the future generations whose ancestors we are. I pray we soon grow into the collective wisdom they deserve.


posted by Tom Atlee on Wednesday May 11 2005
updated on Saturday September 24 2005

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Readers' Comments

Dear Tom Atlee,

Thanks so much for these incisive comments on the problems derived from the realization that we human beings may not yet know how to live sensibly in this wondrous place where we have evolved with all other living beings.

Despite our religious beliefs, scientific knowledge, economic success, political acumen, systems of law and cultural triumphs, we find ourselves perhaps approaching a dangerous period of time in the course of human events. In these early years of the 21st century, the collective actions of humankind on the surface of Earth could inadvertently upset its delicate balance and, thereby, threaten the very existence of many of its creatures.

It is my hope that pointing out the potential danger of current global human growth trends

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A. on May 11, 2005 02:42 PM


Does the path ahead, and the benefic work for scientists in the Western and Eastern civilizations and in Muslim countries, begin to become visible?

Posted by: Sepp Hasslberger on May 11, 2005 05:42 PM


Does the path ahead, and the benefic work for scientists in the Western and Eastern civilizations and in Muslim countries, begin to become visible?

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A. on May 16, 2005 03:05 PM


Perhaps, a four step path to the future:

1. AWAREness of emerging scientific data regarding human population dynamics, global economic production trends, per human consumption patterns, genetic feedback in biological evolution and behavioral plasticity in cultural evolution.

2. Adequate understanding of the scientific data.

3. Unconditional acceptance of these data, as given to us in science by God.

4. Responsible action, in keeping with human and earthly limitations.

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A. on May 28, 2005 12:38 PM


Does the path ahead, and the benefic work for scientists in the Western and Eastern civilizations and in Muslim countries, begin to become visible?

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A. on June 15, 2005 02:10 PM


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