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“Collective Intelligence”, by Pierre Levy

by Michael Nielsen on May 23, 2010

More from Pierre Levy’s book Collective Intelligence: mankind’s emerging world in cyberspace, translated by Robert Bononno.

One reason the book is notable is that, so far as I know, it was the first to really develop the term “collective intelligence”. Levy was writing in the mid-1990s, and others had, of course, both used the term before, and also developed related notions. But Levy seems to be the first to have really riffed on the term collective intelligence. Here’s Levy’s definition, and some additional commentary:

What is collective intelligence? It is a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills… My initial premise is based on the notion of a universally distributed intelligence. No one knows everything, everyone knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity… New communications systems should provide members of a community with the means to coordinate their interactions within the same virtual universe of knowledge. This is not simply a matter of modeling the conventional physical environment, but of of enabling members of delocalized communities to interact within a mobile landscape of signification… Before we can mobilize skills, we have to identify them. And to do so, we have to recognize them in all their diversity… The ideal of collective intelligence implies the technical, economic, legal, and human enhancement of a universally distributed intelligence that will unleash a positive dynamic of recognition and skills mobilization.

Here’s Levy on the future of the economy:

What remains after we have mechanized agriculture, industry and messaging technologies? The economy will center, as it does already, on that which can never be fully automated, on that which is irreducible: the production of the social bond, the relational… Those who manufacture things will become scarcer and scarcer, and their labour will become mechanized, augmented, automated to a greater and greater extent…. The final frontier will be the human itself, that which can’t be automated: the creation of sensible worlds, invention, relation, the continuous recreation of the community… What kind of engineering will best meet the needs of a growing economy of human qualities?

It’s a provocative thought, although I don’t find it convincing. It’s true that the social bond is increasing in importance, as some other things become less scarce, but other scarcities remain as well.

I liked the following comment of Levy on democracy – it’s incidental to his main point, but nicely distilled an idea for me:

[Democracy] is favored not because it establishes the domination of a majority over a minority, but because it limits the power of government and provides remedies against the arbitrary use of power.

A final quote:

The greater the number of collective intellects with which an individual is involved, the more opportunities he has to diversify his knowledge and desire.

The downside of this may be a kind of glorified dilettantism. But the upside – as so often, the more interesting aspect of events – is the possibility of becoming deeply familiar with many more communities of practice.

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