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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May 15, 2008

Reflections on the evolution of choice and collective intelligence

I had an interesting conversation about choice today with my friend and colleague Adin Rogovin. We noticed that increased choice may increase or decrease happiness. Choice -- seen by most people as supporting happiness -- can be overwhelming, or false, or of poor quality. Lack of choice -- normally thought of as a source of unhappiness -- can make life simple, supporting happiness if one's life situation is otherwise satisfying. (And, of course, there is the variable of one's choice of attitude about life. Openhearted acceptance of "what is" supports happiness, while fighting it can generate suffering. But this is another totally separate variable.)

If we deconstruct choice into its components -- creating options, recognizing them, identifying a "right" option, and then selecting it -- we open up a whole other area of evolutionary inquiry.

In 'natural selection', nature has a variety of ways of generating novel options -- random mutation, sexual DNA recombination, RNA alterations of DNA, environmental cues triggering different genetic manifestations, etc. Then as the organism interacts with its environment, the environment challenges these options differently and those that work better than others get "selected" for survival into the next generation. Evolutionary scientists talk about the "fit" between the organism and its environment. "Choice", per se, is not an obvious factor in how this search for "fitness" plays out.

When we move to the human realm, we are in a different ballgame. Human consciousness and human intelligence can create and gather data about a situation and various options and reflect on them, using mental models and scenarios. We can then pick something that has a good chance of working out (or satisfying certain criteria) before it even gets tested by any objective environment. When it finally does enter the environment, it has (theoretically) a much better chance of working than the mostly random variation that occurs in nature. (This is, of course, why we evolved intelligence in the first place: it increases our ability to make good choices in real life.)

But human cultures and systems add further levels to the complexity of this. While they embody and institutionalize certain functional choices -- that's what culture and education and social institutions are theoretically all about -- they are also subject to (a) calcification into forms that resist needed changes and (b) manipulation by powerholders and others to interfere with the full power of human consciousness and intelligence.

In the US, when we vote in "democratic elections", for example, we have an effective choice between candidates A and B. But where did A and B come from? From parties that are largely run by various forms of manipulation and behind-the-scenes power struggles. Parties are not part of the Constitution, but emerged out of the adversarial system the Constitution set up. (This is also true of corporations, concentrated mass media, automobiles, and many other powerful evolved social creations.) Similarly, in the regular practice of politics and governance, and most other forms of social decision-making, we are presented options to be for or against. There is minimal effective public engagement in creating the options in the first place, nor in deliberating or reflecting on those options, but only in the final selection. At every step of the way -- from lobbying and campaign finance to centralized media and professional PR -- the "choice" process is manipulated. So the whole logic of "the power of human intelligence" is interrupted and distorted at this most vital collective level.

In the market, too, we find fascinating choice phenomena. Our entrepreneurial culture is grounded in the idea that people can make money by providing other people with new choices, more choices. better choices. We end up with a market so filled with options we barely know what to do with them all. If they were all MEANINGFUL and NEEDED options, all this might be arguably GOOD. (Did you ever wonder how objects came to be called "goods" in economic language?) But so many of those options are (a) meaningless (like different brands of the same mustard; I used to work in a mustard factory that packaged the same mustard for over a dozen different companies); (b) unnecessary (where the desire for them is almost totally manufactured by advertising); or even (c) destructive (such as cigarettes and other toxic products). Are we actually better off with so many choices? Surveys show America's happiness peaked in the early 1970s (some say in the 50s), and has been going down since then. And our environmental health and social cohesion are in serious trouble. So what does the pursuit of happiness look like now?

From an evolutionary perspective, though, having a lot of choices -- no matter how meaningless, unnecessary, or destructive many of them are, or how miserable they make people -- speeds up the evolution of the whole society. Even as unhappiness increases, society and its technologies and knowledge are changing with incredible speed, thanks largely to our focus on "innovation".

We are nature's creativity on speed.

But we lack nature's sophisticated ways of seeking a good "fit" between innovations and reality. And that's where our level of human choice may -- in the absence of advanced collective intelligence -- prove to be an evolutionary dead-end. We just might innovate ourselves into destroying the human and natural systems upon which our future survival depends.

Arguably our most potent evolutionary intervention would be instituting collective versions of the kind of clear option-creation, perception, deliberation and reflection that characterizes a smart individual in handling their own lives. I'm not sure that unreflective self-organizing social dynamics will suffice, if they are unfolding within the kind of collective intelligence-distorting and -degrading systems we currently have...


posted by Tom Atlee on Thursday May 15 2008

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