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Collective Intelligence in the Solar Age


by Hazel Henderson


Information is an abundant resource, difficult to contain, hoard and sell. It is best shared and free-flowing. It does not behave like a material commodity. It must be handled with the win-win rules of cooperation. This will require - from local to global levels - flattening hierarchies and empowering citizens in our global village.

But mere information too often leads to overload of ever-less-meaningful billions of bits of fragmented raw data - rather than meaningful new patterns of knowledge. My view of the dawning Solar Age involves a repatterning of the exploding Information Age. It involves us removing our old spectacles of all the separate disciplines - economics, sociology, physics, engineering, psychology and the rest - and composting all these fragments into a holistic view of the entire human family, now inextricably linked by our globe-girdling technologies into one emerging planetary culture.

We can view nations and companies as "ripe seedpods," reaching the maturation of their potential and scattering their knowledge into the global commons. Global trade will increasingly involve exchange of the best expressions of different cultures combined with the uniqueness of their local ecosystems. These quintessential learning expressions of each culture - whether as computer software, literature, innovations in governance, or new blueprints for problem solving - will tend to be ever more unique. As we turn our attention to identifying such "cultural DNA," we'll value the great spiritual traditions, art and poetry which all societies have borrowed from each other.

All of the natural systems of Planet Earth exhibit both competition and cooperation equally and in balance. Both strategies are vital for survival and success. The competition between species, groups, organizations, individuals, ideas, etc., keeps unhealthy overgrowth at bay. Cooperation between these same players is equally important - creating the "glue" which keeps them orchestrated and creating the rules of interaction.

Social systems also require balance between co-operation and competition. Competition seems to work best where resource systems can be used individually without inflicting harm on others. Cooperation, on the other hand, is necessary to maintain "the commons" - whole systems of resources that can only be used indivisibly by all, such as the air we breathe. When using "the commons," individuals ultimately make out better if they consider the needs of others, and worse if they act selfishly. Today's globalization process is creating new commons out of things we used to expropriate for sovereign use - water, air, the electromagnetic spectrum, biodiversity, space - even the market.

To remain healthy, competition and cooperation must learn and correct their courses from feed-back. Just as the human body remains healthy by using constant feedback (information on air temperature, stressful situations, etc., from the senses), so a society is successful inasmuch as it structures itself to take advantage of feedback from its own citizens (democracy), from the environment, from other countries and from changing conditions - especially from its economy (through more varied and useful indicators of collective health and value than GNP). Thus it is no longer a matter of Left or Right, competition or cooperation, but the extent to which a society can structure itself to utilize feedback and, where appropriate, to change the game and write new rules.

The Earth is a perfectly programmed learning environment to give her children all the positive and negative feedback loops needed to nudge us to-ward our fullest development. She's also the preeminent innovator and experimenter, who excels in sheer artistry as well.

When we use the Earth, the living goddess Gaia, as our frame of reference, our epistemology, our study guide and curriculum, and when we learn to interpret her feedback signals responding to our actions, we can maintain that holistic, open awareness necessary for true learning. When we, the human family, at last see ourselves a responsible, conscious part of the living body of the Earth, co-creating the future in symbiosis, co-evolving with all life forms, we will restructure our knowledge, our universities and schools and our relationships.

As we grow beyond industrial, manipulative modes toward deeper interconnecting and co-creative designing with and learning from Nature, we'll integrate our holistic, intuitive, right-brain cognition with our more analytical, left-brain functioning. We'll distinguish the "micro-rationality" of our science - with its search for certainty, fundamental laws and exactitude - from "macro-rationality," the pursuit of more holistic enquiries and the mapping of larger contexts.

The evolutionary process of human development in these directions is the frontier of all needed change. As physicist David Peat envisioned in The Philosophers Stone, we are moving toward an era of "gentle action," where mil-lions of more aware people in more democratic societies can act more intelligently together.


compiled by Tom Atlee from Paradigms in Progress (Knowledge Systems, 1991) for Thinkpeace Issue 39, June 10, 1993