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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 here...

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 intelligence.

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 collective behavior.

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 thoughtful conversation.

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 work together.

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 destiny.

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 it?

I hope this essay offers some help in that profoundly important project.


* There is more to collective intelligence than what I describe here, and more varieties of collective intelligence than this article suggests. (See 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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