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The Global Brain
"It is not guilty pride but the ceaselessly reawakened instinct of the game which calls forth new worlds." (Heraclitus Reloaded)
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    Freedom is a strange creature...
    Project: Polytopia
    It started as a comment to Starwalker’s post but in the course of writing it gained the volume of a post. So here it is…

    Though there are so many good examples (more than we commonly imagine) of intelligence which is collective, there are many counterexamples as well. When more than just a few individuals congregate (say above 10) the combined intelligence tends, more often than not, to decrease relative to the sum of individual intelligences. It seems that somewhere between 2 to 5 persons coordinating their mental and emotional states is a kind of an optimum and a limit for a full scale continuous integration. Beyond that limit, unless people are a-priori organized, the combined intelligence swiftly drops into redundant flock intelligence.

    The kind of emergent collective intelligence we see in institutions, governments, corporations and armies is a result of strict hierarchy and/or imposed mechanical order made to channel and restrict the full spectrum of human intelligence and creativity at the individual level. Such order that allows the coordinated behavior of organizations and groups is either consensual or enforced by physical, psychological or economical means. Usually, the acceptance of order is a combination of consensus and submission. Indeed the web seem to represent some new options that lean towards the consensual but most of the really interesting kinds of collective intelligence emerging on the web are actually based on very (very!) simple rules of local agent behavior and communication. It is no coincidence that the most popular metaphor to these emergent patterns is flocking (coordinated movement of sardines...?). The principle common to this type of collective intelligence is that the higher levels of organization, whether designed or emergent, are based on limiting the spectrum of behaviors allowed to the lower participating levels. Beyond collectives organized according to this principle, we meet the limit mentioned above.

    But why should we accept this limit? The way I envision collective intelligence it must allow, at least by potential, the full spectrum of the mental and emotional intelligent capacities of the participants; the participating agents allowed a free space of creative expression and interaction. In the light of this, I believe we haven't yet tapped into the profound potential of what one would call a many agent full blown collective intelligence as it is possible to sentient agents (human and other). At best, we have a glimpse of what it could be like when we occasionally make it work with very few participants. The kind of collective intelligence we have achieved to this day is nothing special. In fact it is ubiquitous among many social and flocking species from bacteria and other single celled agents (the cells in our body and other multi-cellular organisms), fungi, corals, plants, insects, fish, birds, primates etc. In all these cases the emergent collective patterns are grounded on very simple local procedures/behaviors. Yet even simple rules can bring forth emergent complexity which accounts for the levels of symbiosis and coordinated intelligence achieved by very primitive organisms. It seems this kind of collective intelligence is as ancient almost as life itself

    Slime mold

    A collection of slime molds - collective intelligent organizations of single celled organisms which embed elaborate chemical signaling systems, consensus voting, and collective response to changing environmental conditions. Some of these certainly outperform us in signaling, consensus forming and collective response to a changing environment, especially the latter. I have chosen them because of their apparent beauty and the diffused distinction between individuals and collective.

    Clearly, similar kinds of such collective behavior are common in human society. But their simplicity (irrespective to their impressive products) allow very little of our complex individual intelligence to be harnessed to a collective coordinated intelligence. Most of this complexity is filtered out by the organization (whether imposed or spontaneous) of individuals into the collective. There is it seems a fundamental limit of complexity in the relations that can be handled between the individual level and the collective level above it. This limit is yet to be understood and overcome. My guess is that it has to do mostly with how we treat the ‘other’, the distinction of self and other, and how we generally hold the concept of ‘other’ (also self as other) in the first place.

    For such reasons I do not buy what is being hyped nowadays as collective intelligence hyper-connectivity etc. Not because it does not present wonderful results but because it draws a distorted and over simplistic picture of what human collective intelligence can possibly be. The emergence of collectives that are based on flocking paradigms (reduction of complexity of lower levels) as their functional ground diverts us from the real challenges of becoming participating individuals at the deepest level of our emotional and mental lives.

    In many discussions the individual and the collective are represented as conceptual oppositions. This is indeed the case if we opt for the human, web augmented, flock paradigm. The individual must cease or at least considerably withdraw to allow space for the emerging collective. This is of course what the few ones controlling the general human scene, politically and economically, would have us believe. On the same token I do not buy the various versions of 'Borg liberalism', envisioned by many as our social future. They argue that we will become/are becoming a collective but by some miraculous technological means we also get to keep our individuality intact. This is an elaborate delusion because again in the way we commonly hold the concepts of individuality and collective today, they are necessarily clashing oppositions. Indeed, the web as a medium does very well in absorbing and hiding some of the more superficial (but nonetheless disturbing) effects of this seemingly irreconcilable clash, mostly due to bandwidth limits. This is why the web raises so many hopes. But technological feats cannot possibly achieve what a profound conceptual revolution needs to achieve. Without such revolution most of our hopes are unwarranted at best.

    To put it boldly, we are social animals and we are individuals not out of a choice that we made but because of evolutionary necessity! There is no freedom in us being individuals or being a collective. That we identify freedom with individuality is a biological and cultural happenstance at best. We evolved to be the way we are and we are shaped (and being shaped) by blind forces of which we have only a beginning of understanding if the term understanding applies to them at all. The conceptual mappings of our existential situation in life, be it individuality or collectivism are nothing more than idealizations (or exaggerations) of how evolution made us successful. Likewise, the opposition we intuitively grasp between individuality and collective is a consequence of biological necessity just the same. It was never our intention or choice to be this or that. We do not own our individuality and we are not owned by the collectives we necessarily participate in. We just find ourselves in this existential situation and being blessed or cursed with our linguistic prowess we impose superficial descriptions and values on it.

    Like all evolutionary successes there is nothing special in ours. But we wish to believe it is special perhaps we could somehow make it special... This is why we have to seriously consider our future. Achilles already knew that survival is not the point; significance is! It is in this light that we should reflect the future.

    Our future cannot be rescued from the grasp of its blind evolutionary past by a mere act of imagination. There is no point in speaking about individual intelligence or collective intelligence or just intelligence in its deeper sense without first contemplating the possibility of freedom. Here I mean freedom in only one sense: overcoming the pattern of necessity and survival that govern our thoughts, our ideas, our visions and our very creativity and imagination. Today we have the web which is a wonderful tool but its roots are more ancient than one usually imagines because like most of the artifacts of human ingenuity it still mostly reflects patterns arising from old necessities. At no point did we choose the web or how it should be. In a manner of speaking it emerges and we become (or being reborn) into it, surprised by side effects we never designed and emergent behaviors we never intended or fathomed. It shapes us more than we shape it. This is why before thinking about intelligence, individual, collective or other, we have to consider freedom, if such freedom is possible at all.

    For a future free from the grasp of necessity we have to reinvent ourselves out of ‘what everyone knows’. We have to dream ourselves out of ourselves and leave behind the monumental necessity driven conceptual systems that brought us to this point. In particular, we need to go beyond individuality and collectivity and the opposition between them. We might soon have the technological means to cash on that, but technology is far from being enough. The riddle sits deep at the foundation of being human: the option to become rather than the option to be. This is the difference we should attend to.

    Freedom is a strange creature; paradoxical by its very essence because it spells doom on whatever brings one to contemplate it in the first place. Admittedly, rereading the above, this is probably a huge leap for the too few words I have invested here. But isn’t it the web that exacts the amount of words to be invested in delivering an idea? Isn’t it one’s hyperconnected attention span that sets the limit of what can be communicated from an individual to a collective and vice versa? It just makes the point how the forces at play never allow too many strange creatures roaming free around…

    …Yet, if one does care about envisioning a future, not just the necessary future, not just the future everyone knows, one must leap far and high: high enough to escape what one is, far enough into otherness.

    Thu, Jul 22, 2010  Permanent link
    Categories: collective intelligence, freedom, Individuality
    Sent to project: Polytopia
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