Think about the best and worst meetings you've attended. Think about Congress. Think about how the peace movement makes decisions. Think about how the Bush administration planned for the Iraq war.
All around us we see evidence that groups of people are often less intelligent -- and occasionally more intelligent -- than their members are as individuals.
Those who study this phenomenon often call it "collective intelligence" (or "collective stupidity").
Collective intelligence has little to do with how smart the INDIVIDUAL members of a group are. Groups of bright people can be collectively stupid (a phenomena Irwin Janis called "groupthink," which was rampant in Iraq war planning) -- whereas very ordinary or dull people can, under the right circumstances, generate real wisdom.
All of us know that conversations and meetings can be productive or crazy-making. But how many of us know that thousands of us ordinary humans can make independent guesses or predictions about something -- and collectively average a more accurate estimate than over 90% of us do individually.
All these realities reveal collective intelligence (or its shadow, collective stupidity) at work.
Collective intelligence is a holy grail of social change. If we could better understand how to support it, increase it and facilitate it, we would be more able to effectively co-create a better world. Doing that, of course, involves significant political, economic, social, cultural, organizational and spiritual challenges. But the rewards, when these challenges are successfully engaged, are tremendous.
I have been exploring this subject since the late 1980s, when hardly anyone was talking about it. Now "collective intelligence" is such a common a phrase that Google lists 46,700 pages using it -- as well as tens of thousands of other pages using comparable terms like "collective IQ," "collective wisdom," "community intelligence," "group intelligence," and so on.
And I am truly amazed at the number of different KINDS of collective intelligence people are talking about, and the number of different perspectives they have on the subject. Furthermore, their explorations of this topic are becoming more sophisticated every year.
I now find myself surrounded by the population of a busy city in a once-raw territory I helped pioneer, often meeting other pioneers I didn't even know were there at the beginning, so vast and undeveloped was the landscape back then.
Three of my own recent contributions to this work are on the Collective Intelligence Blog (weblog) <http://www.community-intelligence.com/blogs/public> where I discussed eight forms of collective intelligence people seem to be talking about:
* Reflective collective intelligence. This includes efforts by groups, organizations and communities to consciously use their diversity as a resource to address common concerns. Here we find all those great methods for dialogue and deliberation <http://www.wiki-thataway.org/index.php?page=ParticipatoryPractices>.
* Structural collective intelligence. This is generated by official standards, architectural and community designs, laws, institutions, and other social systems that help people's collective behaviors add up to something that makes sense instead of frustrating them or creating more problems. For example, statistics that reveal how healthy and happy a community is generate more collective intelligence than those (such as Gross Domestic Product) that measure only how much money gets spent.
* Evolutionary collective intelligence. This is the learned wisdom and workable patterns that we find embedded in cultures (e.g., myths and proverbs) and ecosystems (e.g., the field of biomimicry <http://www.biomimicry.org/intro.html>), as well as in society's great collective learning enterprises like scientific, academic and thinktank research activities that cultivate ever-expanding fields of evolving knowledge.
* Informational collective intelligence. This form of collective intelligence is generated by the fact that so much information is available to so many people through media, libraries, the Internet, networks of associates, and so on. Some information technology visionaries speak of this as "the global brain" <http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/SUPORGLI.html>.
* Noetic -- or consciousness-based -- collective intelligence. Prophets, mystics, shamans, clairvoyants and everyday meditators often connect with levels of reality or sources of wisdom beyond normal awareness, usually realms of deep kinship, wholeness or Oneness. As more people develop these special modes of consciousness -- individually and together -- tapping into (or attuning to) such transpersonal realms is becoming more common. <http://www.collectivewisdominitiative.org>
* Flow -- or mutual-attunement-based collective intelligence. Here we may find a top improvisational jazz group or basketball team acting as one coherent smoothly-functioning entity. Here we also find intelligent flocking behaviors and hive dynamics in nature. In each case, the group just hums productively along. And in flowing human groups, individual capacities and uniqueness are often enhanced by the process.
* Statistical collective intelligence. This odd phenomenon arises from the fact that, under the right conditions, dozens or thousands of people, ants, and even virtual "agents" (entities that exist only in computers) can arrive at brilliant solutions to their problems without even communicating with each other, simply by "covering the territory" or averaging out their behaviors or guesses. <http://www.randomhouse.com/features/wisdomofcrowds/excerpt.html>
* Relevational collective intelligence. Here we find answers that seem to appear in our midst almost from nowhere, simply because they are relevant -- often by one person MISunderstanding what another person says, or by "accidentally" stumbling on the exact vital information in a newspaper. Search engines attempt to engineer this, but it often happens mysteriously in life.
In the Co-Intelligence Institute, we do a lot of work with the first four types of collective intelligence, because we believe they are basic to creating a wise democracy. However, other people focus on other forms of collectived intelligence, with good reasons of their own.
And now that I've painted the big picture of this rapidly emerging field, I want to alert you to several remarkable people and documents I've seen recently. I can't recommend them highly enough. I've provided some summaries and commentary below so you don't HAVE to read them. But if you are at all interested in this topic, I think every one of them will excite you. Additional links are peppered throughout to further spice up your explorations.
Enjoy them all. They are true treasures!
Tom Atlee * The Co-Intelligence Institute * PO Box 493 * Eugene, OR 97440
Read THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY * http://www.taoofdemocracy.com
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1. WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? magazine's May-July 2004 issue on the theme "Come Together! The Power of Collective Intelligence" <http://wie.org/j25/?nav=1>. Here you will discover collective intelligence in Los Angeles Lakers basketball games, Blue Angels navy airshows, corporate boardrooms, rock concerts, beehives, bird flocks, international diiplomacy, women's circles and spiritual visions. The long, thoroughly amazing lead article by Craig Hamilton is one of the most comprehensive overviews of the field currently available. It describes many of the leading players, such as * The Fetzer Institute <http://www.fetzer.org>, who sponsored the folks who produced the Collective Wisdom Initiative website <http://www.collectivewisdominitiative.org> -- another remarkable overview; * Rupert Sheldrake and his theory of morphogenic fields <http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-morphogeneticfields.html> <http://www.sheldrake.org/faq/answers.html#MorphicFields>; * The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation <http://www.thataway.org>; * David Bohm and his work with Dialogue <http://www.cgl.org/OtherGrpResources.html#Dialogue>; * Juanita Brown and David Isaacs of The World Cafe <http://www.theworldcafe.com>; and dozens of others. It also features Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer et al <http://www.solonline.org>, whose work on presencing <http://www.presence.net/index.html> is covered further in another article in the issue.
The lead article goes on to explore hot issues like the role of the individual, of diversity, of synergy, of common ground and of "group fields" and spirit in generating collective intelligence. It notes the special capacity of collective intelligence to embrace more of the whole picture in any given situation. It also wonders aloud if all this emerging collective intelligence activity may, in fact, herald a major evolutionary breakthrough for humanity. We find transcendent spiritual realities comingling naturally with deep dialogue about the important issues of life, bringing people in touch with their "authentic selves" and releasing levels of creativity they've seldom experienced before. "In light of the remarkable potentialities emerging in our midst," concludes Hamilton, "it is hard to imagine a possibility more worthy of our collective aspiration."
Other articles cover the scientific evidence for collective consciousness; the remarkable audience-performer synergies at Grateful Dead, Beatles and Paul McCartney concerts; an interview with NBA coach Phil Jackson about spiritual group intelligence possible in basketball; and a conversation between Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen that includes reflections on how our Authentic Self is grounded in our collective evolutionary potential.
WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? has established a fascinating web page on collective intelligence at <http://www.wie.org/collective/>, which currently includes audio interview excerpts with a number of explorers in this field (including me). I urge you to buy this landmark issue from an alternative newstand or magazine rack before supplies run out, or to order it directly online at <http://wie.org/j25/?nav=1>. It is well worth the US$ 7.50 it costs. You might even like to subscribe to WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? because collective intelligence promises to keep resurfacing over and over in it. The topic isn't an academic one for the team that produces the magazine. This extraordinary group also happens to be doing leading-edge explorations of collective intelligence, themselves -- using their own daily life together as the laboratory.
2. James Surowiecki's THE WISDOM OF CROWDS: WHY THE MANY ARE SMARTER THAN THE FEW AND HOW COLLECTIVE WISDOM SHAPES BUSINESS, ECONOMIES, SOCIETIES AND NATIONS (Doubleday, 2004) <http://www.randomhouse.com/features/wisdomofcrowds/index.html>
This just-released book promotes the idea that "together all of us know more than any one of us does." Its collection of amazing collective intelligence stories is somewhat slanted towards the perspective of markets (Surowiecki is financial columnist for THE NEW YORKER) but reaches far beyond that. Surowiecki shows how diverse crowds of people can guess how many beans are in a bottle -- or how many pounds of meat are in a steer, or the correct answer to a quiz show question, or the exact temperature in a room, or even how future events will turn out -- with COLLECTIVELY uncanny accuracy -- usually well over 90 percent -- even when most of the individual answers are way off. He describes a computer experiment where virtual "agents" (artificially intelligent electronic entities generated by a computer program) learned their way through a maze after three or four attempts. But when their first-try paths (which were all wrong) were COMBINED (that is, overlaid over each other on the maze), the majority decision at each turn of the maze -- a path NONE of the individual agents took -- traced one of the shortest paths through the maze.
THE WISDOM OF CROWDS stresses the vital role of diversity in collective intelligence, noting political scientist Scott Page and organizational theorist James March's research on the subject. Surowiecki also highlights the importance of independence (no conformity dynamics), decentralization (no one in charge or dominating), and "a way of summarizing people's opinions into one collective verdict." He cites fascinating research, as well, on successful and unsuccessful small group deliberations.
The one significant shortcoming in this book, in my view, occurs in the chapter on Democracy. Surowiecki wonders whether "democracy is actually an excellent vehicle for making intelligent decisions and uncovering the truth." As much as he seems to want to believe that, he can't seem to decide that it is true. Like most people, he doesn't know about citizen deliberative councils and is seemingly blinded by the myth that democracy is mostly about elections and representation. After musing about whether or not citizens are basically self-interested, about the expense of James Fishkin's deliberative polling projects, about the difficulties of turning over decision-making to experts and how tricky it is to nail down "the common good," Surowiecki concludes that the wisdom of democracy is not in its policy decisions but in its processes. It is the wisdom of compromise and peaceful change. "The decisions that democracies make may not demonstrate the wisdom of the crowd," he says. "The decision to make them democratically does."
This is fine, as far as it goes. But, faced with the 21st Century's overwhelming problems, we need more than that. If we want democracy to survive, we need to tap the wisdom of our citizenry to solve those problems and find sensible policies. Luckily, it is possible to do that, and we can invite James Surowiecki to join us in that possibility. In the meantime, I know of no better resource for tracking the fascinating world of statistical collective intelligence than his remarkable new book.
3. Patricia A. Wilson's "Deep Democracy: The Inner Practice of Civic Engagement" <http://www.shambhalainstitute.org/Fieldnotes/Issue3/Deep_Democracy.pdf> In Wilson's powerful, inclusive model of collectively intelligent "deep democracy," people's feelings of alienation are transformed into an experience of interconnectedness through co-creative engagement in the civic arena. Individuality and community dance together for mutual benefit, moving from dialogue to collective learning, then to collective will and vision, and finally to collective co-creativity that actualizes the vision -- only to return to civic dialogue for reflection and renewal, beginning the dance anew at a higher level.
Such engagement produces a participatory consciousness and sense of oneness that has tremendous value in itself, quite in addition to the blessings of collective accomplishment in the life of the community. With practice, it weaves itself into the community's culture and becomes a wellspring of individual and collective meaning. Facilitative process leaders and social process technologies are keys to catalyzing this dynamic. Wilson's article includes one of the internet's rare lists of "social technologies for civic engagement" - organized into four categories: Deliberation, Dialogue, Collaborative Action and Community Conflict Resolution. Each is described in brief but insightful detail. In addition, Wilson describes the leading edge of deep democracy which includes innovations in facilitation, communication, decision-making and peer learning communities.
She closes her short but compelling article with the "depth dimension" of civic engagement, her favorite and central dimension. She describes it as depth "not downward but inward, moving deeper toward collective attunement to the inner source of knowing." In this deep realm she joins WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? in citing the work of Rupert Sheldrake and Otto Scharmer,* as well as William Isaacs work on profound change <http://www.pegasuscom.com/PDFs/spiral.pdf>, Allan Kaplan's on co-creativity* <http://www.cdra.org.za/articles/The%20Developing%20Of%20Capacity%20-%20by%20Allan%20Kaplan.htm> and mine on co-intelligence <http://www.co-intelligence.org>. She also acknowledges the depth dimension of traditional tribal talking circles and ritual circles which can "lead directly to the inner experience of knowing the whole through group attunement and entrainment." For our individual practice she suggests we start with "cultivating just one habit of deep democracy: to smile and listen to understand the 'other' before advocating a position."
* In a note to me, Wilson described Otto Scharmer's template for group sensing of the emergent future, which he calls the U model. "Starting at the top of the U with discussion (where we are blind to our mental models), the conversation gets deeper as it goes down the left hand side of the U with reflective listening and sensing (of external information as well as thoughts, assumptions, feelings) until at the bottom of the U we get to presencing [pre-sensing, becoming present to a just-now emerging future]. Silence and shifts in the felt sense play a role here. And then the emergent, evolutionary, action-oriented (Scharmer calls it prototyping) phases moving up the right hand side of the U. So instead of jumping from discussion to action, the U model is about deepening the place from which we know and allowing the knowing to emerge. Such knowing then manifests in actions."
In another note, Wilson quoted from Allan Kaplan's chapter on "Co-Creating" in his book DEVELOPMENT PRACTITIONERS AND SOCIAL PROCESS: ARTISTS OF THE INVISIBLE (pp. 177-178): "We are participants in the unfolding and becoming of those with whom we work; it is through them that we unfold and emerge. This is the essence of co-creation. With such a sense of co-responsibility we can indeed help to develop, enlarge, and make more human, the social fabric which surrounds and nurtures us like the membrane of a womb."
4: Thomas Hurley's "Archetypal Practices for Collective Wisdom: Timeless Ways of Evolving Personal and Collective Capacity" (available in pdf form from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org, but may soon be posted on the <http://www.collectivewisdominitiative.org> site). This remarkable piece is another of the class of advanced approaches to group work that features individual practice. It realizes that one individual who connects to deep realms (what Hurley calls "the archetypal realm of human experience") can then, through their authentic interactions with a group, transform the awareness and activity of that group in positive ways. They carry wisdom from the depths to feed the common good. And they are not necessarily exceptional people. They merely take seriously the personal practices that nurture this capacity. Therein lies the potential gift of such practices for democracy: We can all share in bringing this capacity to our common work of accessing and crafting the collective wisdom we need to meet the challenges we face.
Hurley offers sixteen practices presented in eight pairs. I balked at his model's overall complexity and at various similarities among the sixteen practices. I found myself wanting to summarize them, to pull them together into one practice, perhaps like this: "We see and engage openly with what is most authentically and vividly present in and around us -- intentions, feelings, truths, shadows, nuances, boundaries, the realities of others... -- sharing clearly what we experience and moving powerfully and lovingly with its rhythms."
But even if that captures 80 or 90 percent of what he's saying, it short-circuits an important dimension of his contribution. His brilliant way of dividing the needed capacity into different practices adds insight and power by introducing a certain creative tension: Each of his practices has a complementary practice that seems to contradict it in some way. The Taoist tension between them creates a psychological space wherein much deepening work can be done.
The further I progressed through Hurley's paper, the more the different dimensions of the work showed up inside each other and echoed back and forth, building a sense of rich and rewarding challenge. At the end I had to admit that his model has an energized integrity: As with a good story, the dancing parts are greater than any clever summary of the whole. As he says of one of his practices: "Being with all that arises means embracing these tensions, rather than trying to eliminate ambiguity or reduce complexity prematurely to make ourselves comfortable."
Many of Hurley's articulations are gems of concise wisdom. "A strong stand is flexible and open, not inflexible and closed -- a form enabling interaction with the world, not a position foreclosing it." "Inquiry need not cease while we act, even when time presses; we can embed inquiry into our action." "Staying in the fire means letting ourselves cook....When our bodies are filled with overpowering emotion or the group field is charged with tension, we stay conscious and work with what is arising instead of acting out. We contain and ground the electricity that runs through us like lightning, seeking a target." "If I cannot endure the darkness in myself, I will see it only in others. If we cannot acknowledge the shadow in a group, we will close ranks and only see it in the world beyond ... In avoiding bitter truths, we cripple ourselves..."
Hurley's centeredness in the inner life is obviously balanced by extensive experience in real-world groups and organizations, which are brought to life in riveting stories which illustrate each practice. He knows the importance of diversity, of good group process, of co-intelligent social institutions and commitment to global transformation. He also knows that "even when we commit ourselves in good faith and work diligently, the process is rarely stress-free." But he notes that committed work increases our capacity to more competently and creatively engage with both the shadow and the light, ultimately empowering us to "play the whole game magically."
At that point leadership becomes transformed "from a compulsion to control others and drive a system to a passion for creating contexts in which all can thrive, ever more fully experiencing their
individual and collective genius." In so doing, suggests Hurley, we become "more interesting partners for God."
5. Doug Engelbart's lifetime mission to augment our collective IQ. Few people have heard of Doug Engelbart <http://www.bootstrap.org>. Most of those who have, know him as the inventor of the computer mouse. But his inventions include far more than that. Over 30 years ago -- back when computers were programmed with punch cards and output was on printouts -- he and his team developed an integrated system for electronic collaboration that included much that we now take for granted -- not only the mouse, but cathode ray tube displays of text, a consistent graphical user interface (windows), display editing (black on white word processing), integrated text and graphics, outline editors for idea development, hyper-documents (links), e-mail, online help, user configurability and programmability, asynchronous collaboration among teams in different locations, and two-way video-conferencing. Remember: This was way before there were personal computers.
And it was all part of a larger vision. Long before the Internet or the World Wide Web, he was imagining people "sitting in front of displays, 'flying around' in an information space where they could formulate and organize their ideas with incredible speed and flexibility." He didn't market his inventions -- although others did. He had a bigger mission. "The reason I invent," he says, "is to advance the evolution of society and its institutions. My crusade is to find much better ways for people to work together to make this world a better place." He insists that the proper role of computers is to augment human intellect -- especially through increasing "collective IQ" -- to address our global predicament.
Toward this end he founded the Bootstrap Institute "to boost mankind's collective capability for coping with complex, urgent problems ... in the interest of mankind as a whole." Just as people back in 1968 struggled to comprehend his vision then, we would do well to try to comprehend his vision today. It includes "Dynamic Knowledge Repositories" (DKRs) -- incredibly sophisticated online knowledge environments, sort of like living encyclopedias where knowledge is gathered, tracked, created, recorded, used and discussed. Technically, DKRs would be based on a higher order of detailed hyper-linkability (new technology which Engelbart calls the Open Hyperdocument System, or OHS) and a new order of browser -- the Hyperscope, that would hyperlink across virtually all kinds of documents, from email to Powerpoint presentations to audio, video and computer-aided design (CAD) materials -- making today's system of browsers and hyperlinks seem positively Stone Age. A domain of knowledge could be articulated overall, with each aspect linked to specific other information that supported and/or questioned it -- and all of it being continually updated, while preserving its evolutionary history -- and all of it appropriately accessible to -- and designed to engage -- users at different levels expertise and interest.
Using this infrastructure, Engelbart envisions Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) in each area of concern or expertise creating Dynamic Knowledge Repositories (DKRs, those "living encyclopedias") where collective learning could take place and be recorded for the use of everyone in the world. Within existing learning communities and communities of practice, he suggests developing a role called "Knowledge Workshop Architect" to facilitate their evolution into true Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) who can then be useful stewards of DKRs as integrated leading-edge knowledge domains. NICs could be developed in universities, professional societies, businesses, philanthropic organizations, government agencies, nonprofits, and anywhere else where concentrated collaborative work is done and collective learning would be an asset. Engelbart suspects that universities are the best NIC startups -- where departments could build prototype DKRs for selected knowledge domains. He already has two pilot efforts.
He also advocates the high-priority creation of specialized NICs dedicated to learning how to enhance Collective IQ, itself. He suggests that if they apply that knowledge to THEIR OWN operations, they could thereby increase their own ability to enhance Collective IQ in an ever-ascending spiral of capacity -- a strategy Engelbart calls "bootstrapping" (thus the name of his institute). A special branch of NICs could track the evolution/resolution of issue-oriented dialogues in an Issue-Based Information System (IBIS), graphically portraying the structure of arguments and interrelated factors involved with a particular issue.*
Taken all together, this is truly a vision of a global brain, designed for addressing global situations. To actually be realized, this would probably require a massive social effort not unlike the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. But what a different difference for the world THIS Project would make! From my own perspective, grounded in a vision of a wise deliberation-based democracy, I find it interesting to contemplate how citizen deliberative councils <http://co-intelligence.org/CDCUsesAndPotency.html> could be informed by consulting such Dynamic Knowledge Repositories, and then participate in building them. The outcomes of citizen juries, for example, would be valuable components of such DKRs. In a wise democracy, the informational form of collective intelligence would blend seamlessly and powerfully with the reflective and evolutionary (collective learning) forms of collective intelligence.
* Two other efforts come to mind that share this vision of making full info on an issue available to the public. Robert Theobald's possibility/problem focuser <http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC09/Theobald.htm> (and pp.95-96 of THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY) and Robert Steele's Web-Based Virtual Intelligence Community (ref. his review of THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY on Amazon and pp.133-135 of his NEW CRAFT OF INTELLIGENCE). Theobald notes that graduate students could play a major role in such ongoing efforts. The mapping of issue/argument structures (especially Robert Horn's work) is explored at <http://www.wiki-thataway.org/index.php?page=KnowledgeMapping>.