Is Collective Intelligence Like Individual Intelligence?
By Tom Atlee
What is intelligence? Most importantly, it is our capacity to respond
successfully -- or at least well enough -- to changing circumstances.
But how, exactly, do we do that? If we look closely, we find that
intelligence is not one thing, but rather a cluster of diverse interrelated
capabilities like memory, creativity, learning, and problem-solving.
In this essay I will highlight some of these intelligence-related
capacities or functions that are clearly at work in INDIVIDUAL intelligence,
and then explore what SOCIAL phenomena perform those functions for
societies and communities. This should make it easier to grasp what
is involved in "collective intelligence." *
The eight capacities I will identify cover just the broadest, most
familiar aspects of intelligence. Other researchers have analyzed
intelligence in other (often more detailed) ways. My aim here is
not to be comprehensive, but simply to help us expand our thinking
from individual intelligence to collective intelligence.
For each of the intelligence capacities I discuss, I first note
how it shows up in our individual lives. Then I explore how that
capacity is or could be exercised in the collective intelligence
of communities and societies. I believe that the more successfully
we collectively perform each of these functions, and the more successfully
we weave them all together, the more collective intelligence we
will enjoy in our societies and communities.
Eight Capacities that Make Up Intelligence
The capacities I explore here are perception, communication, memory,
reflection, problem-solving, creativity, implementation, and feedback.
They are listed in a loose order (we perceive first, then think
about what we saw, then implement what we decide, etc.). Keep in
mind, however, that these capacities are not really separate or
linear. Most of them are deeply involved in each other's functioning.
For example, our memories influence what we perceive. But I think
you will find it interesting to explore them separately with me
PERCEPTION - Seeing, hearing, feeling, etc. --
these are different ways we absorb information from our environment,
or gather it from within ourselves. This information is the foundation
for everything we do with our intelligence. HOW DO WE DO THIS COLLECTIVELY?
News reporters, photographers, satellites and researchers gather
information, which shows up as stories, data, statistics, pictures,
and so on -- adding up to collective perception available to the
whole society (more or less). Clearly, the quality of this information
-- its accuracy, completeness, relevance, diversity, clarity, etc.
-- has a profound effect on how well our collective intelligence
can function. Institutions that collect or create good information
or monitor its quality, can greatly enhance collective intelligence.
Likewise, social dynamics that degrade information -- such as concentrated
ownership of media or research facilities, or an undue focus on
monetary measures of social health (e.g., Gross Domestic Product,
the stock market averages) -- tend to degrade or skew collective
COMMUNICATION - For intelligence to operate, information
needs to move from one place to another. Inside our brains and bodies,
millions of bits of information streak through nerves and cell walls
every minute. HOW DO WE DO THIS COLLECTIVELY? Communications media
-- from telephones to televisions, from print media to powerpoint
presentations, from classrooms to billboards, from package delivery
systems to networks of conversation (in computers, cafes, homes...)
-- all these carry information from one part of society to another.
Collective intelligence is served by keeping communication lines
free of distortion, openly flowing, accessible, diverse and dependable.
MEMORY - Everything we each experience can be
preserved for later use. Memory involves both storing information
and being able to access it later when we need it. HOW DO WE DO
THIS COLLECTIVELY? With files, libraries, databases, the memories
of elders and experts, the World Wide Web and dozens of other methods
for storing collective information and making it accessible. Society's
collective memory survives generations, and is passed on through
education, in which one generation is taught to access the collective
memory of the culture's earlier generations. Just as individual
memory can become distorted or inaccessible, so can collective memory.
Efforts to counter memory distortion -- such as historical research
and media critiques -- serve collective intelligence.
REFLECTION / LEARNING - We think about things,
sorting out and processing information. In doing so, we construct
or modify our mental models and stories about how the world works.
When we have models and stories that feel coherent and useful to
us, we feel like we "understand" something. HOW DO WE
DO THIS COLLECTIVELY? Academic and scientific research and philosophy,
spiritual and ethical inquiry, as well as much art, literature,
and performance generate and spread new collective knowledge and
new collective insights about how life works. Often this is done
by individuals for the larger society, but usually it is part of
larger systems of reflection involving institutions of higher learning,
think-tanks, various schools of thought, etc. Under the right circumstances,
however, the widely distributed reflections of hundreds of thousands
of people -- or of a specially chosen, highly visible group -- can
add up to the collective reflection of, by and for a whole society.
PROBLEM-SOLVING / DELIBERATION / JUDGMENT / DECISION-MAKING
- Life or teachers present us with problems to solve, options to
weigh, decisions to make. In real-life problems, we need to weigh
possible solutions against costs, potential consequences, and our
values. Intelligence helps us work all this out. HOW DO WE DO THIS
COLLECTIVELY? Most of our society's official, visible problem-solving,
option-creating and decision-making are done (allegedly) on our
behalf by think-tanks, pundits, elected officials, etc. But many
decisions that influence the direction of our society are made --
less visibly -- by unanswerable powerholders and corporate executives,
scientists and engineers. Democracy involves more public engagement
in collective problem-solving and decision-making. Any institutions
that help us do this well -- especially by using our diversity well
-- become part of our society's collective intelligence capacity.
CREATIVITY / IMAGINATION - We can step "out
of the box" -- beyond old ways of seeing, thinking and responding.
We can imagine new possibilities and stories about life. This capacity
is especially important when circumstances change and we need to
adapt. HOW DO WE DO THIS COLLECTIVELY? Since individual creations
are often adopted by the society, collective creativity is often
rooted in individual creativity. So social and cultural factors
that encourage individual creativity -- like freedom, social rewards
and creative education -- can play a major role. A society can also
stimulate collective creativity by using its natural dissent, conflict,
and diversity well to shake up old ways and conformist dynamics.
Certain group processes are especially effective at using diversity
well, and the fruits of their group co-creativity can then be passed
on to the society as a whole.
IMPLEMENTATION / APPLICATION / ACTION - What we
know, believe and decide shape how we act. Furthermore, there are
smart and stupid ways to use what we know. Still, as individuals,
we tend to act as one agent. Such coherence is harder to achieve
when many people are involved. HOW DO WE DO THIS COLLECTIVELY? The
old way is command-and-control systems: Everyone is ordered to march
to the collective drummer, or else -- or simply paid for cooperating.
This approach provides collective coherence -- but it usually interferes
with other factors in collective intelligence like creativity and
diversity. New approaches to generating collective coherence often
involve the co-creation of -- or free alignment with -- shared visions,
values, purposes, goals, stories, etc. Powerful group processes
that creatively address everyone's concerns -- often called "consensus
processes" -- tend to naturally align all parties with the
effort to implement the resulting decisions. These processes can
be institutionalized to impact the whole social system. Furthermore,
widely dispersed actions by diverse players can -- under certain
conditions, both coordinated and uncoordinated -- add up to coherent
FEEDBACK / REVIEW - This involves applying our
intelligence to the RESULTS of our actions -- observing what happened,
reflecting on it, creating new options (if necessary) to try again.
We call this "learning from our experience." HOW DO WE
DO THIS COLLECTIVELY? Review commissions, elections, watchdogs,
whistleblowers, ombudsmen, and so on, as well as many academic and
advocacy research efforts take a second look at what is going on
in society. Review functions institutionalized to reflect on the
results of every collective decision can particularly enhance collective
intelligence, if they are done with high quality information and
Three Further Notes
There are three further aspects to this I would like to note.
PARALLEL PROCESSING: "Parallel processing"
refers to an arrangement in which many individual agents are simultaneously
performing some intelligent function and are linked together in
ways that aggregate their efforts into a coherent product. This
is a major resource for collective intelligence that can be applied
to many of the intelligence functions noted above. An example of
this would be the Wikipedia,
which is a high-quality encyclopedia continually co-created by hundreds
of thousands of independent volunteers. You can join them if you
wish, as I have.
CONSCIOUSNESS: The second aspect of intelligence
I want to note is the existence of conscious and unconscious functions
of intelligence. Much of our perception, for example, happens unconsciously.
Research shows that our perception is powerfully (and usually unconsciously)
shaped by language and our personal and cultural assumptions. Likewise,
much reflection occurs unconsciously, sometimes in dreams, other
times through intuitions. Many therapies and creative methodologies
involve bringing these unconscious dynamics up into our consciousness.
I believe there are parallels in COLLECTIVE intelligence. I tend
to think of the workings of mainstream media and education as the
culture's conscious collective intelligence -- where the whole society
sees itself thinking -- whereas the workings of networks, individual
efforts, interest group activities, fringe groups, etc., are the
unconscious collective intelligence of the society.
Enhancing a society's collective intelligence may involve improving
the quantity and quality of work that is not collectively conscious
-- that is, wholly visible in the mainstream (e.g., facilitating
widespread local conversations on diverse public issues) -- AND/OR
bringing non-mainstream activities and their fruits more into the
mainstream -- that is, making the unconscious conscious (e.g., broadcasting
successful high quality small-group public deliberations between
polarized citizens as featured mainstream news stories).
COLLECTIVE IDENTITY: The final factor I want to
note is the question of WHO is the collective? When we're talking
about a community or society, we are including all its members,
or at least the full range of roles, interests, viewpoints, etc.,
that make it up. But a society uses shortcuts -- symbols -- to represent
all that. It creates institutions and cultural icons -- from flags
to presidents to buildings -- to symbolize itself as a collective
entity. When the President of the U.S. makes a speech (especially
in another country), the news reporters may say "The U.S. has
taken a new stance on global warming" -- as if the president
WERE the country. Shifts in these symbols or how they are constituted
can make a big difference, if those shifts are designed to enhance
collective intelligence. For example, we could set things up so
that a new randomly selected group of citizens were chosen each
year to reflect for a week on the state of the country and report
back to the rest of us using mainstream media. Such a periodic temporary
group could be "chartered" or legitimized by us as embodying
our collective voice -- the voice of "We the People."
They would be a symbol of us, of our diversity, of our ability to
Deliberative democracy experts sometimes speak of "creating
a public" -- meaning a citizenry that is majorly involved in
dealing with public issues, influencing public decisions, and "doing
public work" (e.g., helping in their community or engaging
in policy deliberations). Democratic innovator Jim Rough speaks
of using certain forms of sustained citizen engagement "to
create a We the People" -- a diverse but coherent community
that self-identifies as a powerful co-creative agent of its own
This sort of effort is especially important if we wish to make
our collective intelligence more conscious, intentional and wise
-- a development I believe is vital to our survival through the
21st Century. But collective intelligence will go on as long as
society exists, even without these innovations. Collective intelligence,
like individual intelligence, just IS. It may be great or small,
balanced or skewed. Sometimes aspects of a society's collective
intelligence -- like its scientific and military brilliance -- will
be outstanding, while its ability to collectively reflect on the
results of its actions may be sadly limited. You and I can get a
sense of how intelligent a community or country is simply by observing
its overall health, its relationships with other communities or
societies or nature, its long-term prospects, etc. In this case,
we don't need to quibble about WHO that intelligence belongs to;
it is the aggregate of all the individuals and groups who generated
that result. Our real question is: What do we want to do to improve
I hope this essay offers some help in that profoundly important
* There is more to collective intelligence than what I describe
here, and more varieties of collective intelligence than this article
suggests. (See http://co-intelligence.org/Collective_Intelligence.html)
I believe, however, that the factors described here cover most of
what we need to attend to if we wish to make a more collectively
intelligent democracy, community or society.
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