Let Us Please Frame Collective Intelligence As Big As It Is
Yesterday the New York Times published a great article about collective intelligence, "You’re Leaving a Digital Trail. What About Privacy?"
It covers a lot of ground on this vital subject. But it misses a very important point.
This article joins others in framing the subject of "collective intelligence" in terms of (a) computerized, online, and other high-tech systems for (b) collective information gathering, forecasting, etc., (c) to empower marketing, investment strategies, consumerism, productivity, activist impact, government control, or people's general ability to track each other, individually or collectively.
But I suggest that collective intelligence is so much more than a way for one part of a whole system -- government agencies, advertisers, investors, activists -- to predict, control, track, or manipulate other parts of the system -- competitors, enemies, consumers, citizens, etc.
Although there are tremendous motivations for seeing collective intelligence as a resource for power and profit, I suggest that our society urgently needs a more inclusive framing of collective intelligence as the capacity for learning and problem-solving by whole organizations, communities, societies, etc. This includes not only information gathering and forecasting but collective sense-making, deliberation, decision-making, scenario exploration, vision-creation, and much more. In each case, collective intelligence uses diversity and dissonance to make the intelligence of the whole community or society greater than the sum of its parts.
I further suggest that the primary VALUE of collective intelligence is not to help one collective manipulate or get an edge on another, but to enable democratic and self-organizing systems to respond creatively to the changing conditions in and around them. The highest purpose of collective intelligence is to access the wisdom of the whole on behalf of the whole -- at least as much through high quality dialogue and deliberation as through tracking individual data points and inputs.
This ability of an entire living system to respond creatively and appropriately is comparable to the function of our individual intelligence. This intelligence has evolved to help us rise above our more ancient instincts into more flexible, creative, responsive survival strategies. Collectives do this -- and need to do this -- as much as individuals do.
A couple of years ago George Por and I initiated an effort to establish the study and practice of collective intelligence as an inclusive academic and professional FIELD. Our "Call to convene the field of collective intelligence" describes our inclusive vision of collective intelligence in all its diverse fullness and its unique mission in the world. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this subject. As part of our effort, we attempted a "collective intelligence convergence" conference.
Although the conference, itself, didn't happen, our effort inspired the compilation of an extensive book on the subject -- "Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace" edited by Mark Tovey and sponsored by Robert Steele. It includes over 50 contributors -- including myself and Thomas Malone of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, whose work is described in the article below -- and covered a very broad range of approaches to collective intelligence. No other book comes close to its range of vision on this subject. You can buy a printed copy or download a free electronic copy online here .
Given the ability of this field to improve collective capacity, it seems certain that it will continue to develop, one way or another, along with other emerging capacities and technologies. But HOW humanity uses these new powers is another question entirely. That's something all of us will play a role in deciding. And that is why I believe it is so important how we frame what collective intelligence is all about.
posted by Tom Atlee on Tuesday December 2 2008
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