A similar phenomenon is the evaluation and rating systems that we see all over the place, as well as all forms of voting in which people respond to different choices or options that are presented to them. Some of these input and rating mechanisms are built into a site – such as on Amazon or Netflix – and some are onetime events like a survey where they ask you to contribute your answers to some question. And of course elections for representatives or ballot initiatives have a similar dynamic. These are all forms of collective distributed intelligence (which can manifest as collective distributed stupidity, as well, just as low individual forms of intelligence manifest as stupidity!).
There’s a really interesting concept called stigmergy, which is taken from the study of insects. In an ant colony, ants will leave traces of chemicals behind them, and those chemicals have meaning to other ants that come along afterwards. An ant stumbling on one of the traces may think “Here is a thing that says I’m on my way to a food source.” As more ants experience that and respond to it, in your house you suddenly discover a line of ants heading towards your honey jar. That’s because the ants who discovered the honey are walking back home – not to give a big announcement, but to leave a trail that basically says “this is a pathway to great food”. Ants wandering randomly around your counters and shelves stumble on the traces, stop and “decide” to then move along this chemical trail.
There is a funny way in which that’s what’s happening on Amazon. You go and you look at particular products and Amazon tells you: “Other people who looked at this product also looked at this other product – and other people who bought this product also bought this,” etc. Those automatically-recorded behaviors by Amazon users and presented by Amazon’s algorithms are very much like the chemical trails laid down by ants. They direct your attention and behavior in particular ways.
In the resource column for this pattern, you’ll see many other kinds of online tools that use people’s individual responses to add up to collective responses. Networks are based on collected distributed intelligence. There are people sharing information who all share a particular interest or focus, even if it’s funny cat videos. There’s all this parallel processing going on and feeding this stuff into a common place. Networks that are working on a public issue do this. We find not just cat video networks but all kinds of networks; social networks are full of them!
I wrote a book called “Participatory Sustainability” which covers the complexity of what it would take to build a truly sustainable society. The challenge of sustainability crosses over so many realms, issues, domains, and places, involving such tremendous detail of evidence and action and it’s all just unbelievably complex. In order to truly engage that complexity, you can’t just use a top-down approach. The evolving complexity demands that we engage as many different people, groups, levels of government, stakeholders, and so on, as we can. The challenge becomes how many of these can we engage – and how effectively – in this effort to build a sustainable society? The issue of sustainability basically REQUIRES that level of engagement. We have never had issues quite so vast and complex. So tying participation and sustainability together in various forms of collective distributed intelligence is vital if we are going to achieve anything much having to do with sustainability.
There are emerging participatory activities that never existed in the same way before. Things like citizen journalism and citizen science. There is a group called “Journalism That Matters” that tries to bring journalism down into the community. Your newsroom might be in your community’s library and people from the community could walk into the newsroom with stories or work there with professional journalists. This is quite in addition to the whole social media world, which can also be viewed as a form of citizen journalism. We see police abuse and other newsworthy events being recorded on cell phones. Everybody’s got cell phones and they have the capacity to take videos or pictures and all of that can be spread through social media. The whole journalism field has changed because of the electronics that so many people have available.
Then there’s citizen science – people who do birdwatching to participate in counting specific bird populations, people who are measuring the chemicals in their local streams. These are just ordinary citizens putting that information into a collective database to inform scientific research or public policy. There are people who are mapping potholes in their community’s streets and entering that into a database or map that tells the government where to fix up potholes. There is A LOT of participatory gathering and digesting of information going on.
A book called “The Wisdom of Crowds” popularized the idea of “prediction markets” where people make guesses about things. In a way, it is just like the stock market where people guess which stocks will go up or down, but prediction markets can be about anything.. Sometimes the guessing games are actually financially supported in the sense of: “You are making a bet that a certain event is going to turn out this way – like which field is going to produce the next big innovation, or where the next terrorist attack is going to be, or this is who’s going to run for president. You make a bet and there’s a financial reward (often from a collectively generated pool of money) if your bet is successful”. And sometimes this involves play money or some other status points. (Note that there are legal issues involved with prediction markets that use real money.)
Examples of prediction markets described in “Wisdom of Crowds” suggest that there is extraordinary accuracy when independent people aggregate their guesses about things – including things they could never find out about on their own. In one example a submarine sank and people guessed where that submarine had ended up. Their guesses generated a very accurate description of where the submarine actually was – which no one knew before that. You could think “what’s going on there?!” That’s another interesting example of collective distributed intelligence.
Last but not least in my discussion here, there are group processes that help generate collective intelligence from the diversity that’s in the room. Open Space conferencing is like: “Anybody interested in this topic and question, come on down this afternoon or to this three-day event. We are going to break up into self-organized little groups around specific pieces of that topic or that question we may individually be interested in addressing. Then we’ll come together and share whatever we came up with.” That rhythm of breaking up into small groups and then coming together has a “digestive” power that generates collective intelligence out of individual ways of thinking.
That dynamic is also explicit in the process called World Café, which arranges people in a café-like setting, in little groups at tables of 3 or 4 or 5 people. Everyone shares and talks about a question that matters to them all. After a time, a bell goes off and everybody moves to a different table, where they continue the discussion, thereby recombining ideas that showed up in their earlier table discussions. Usually they keep doing that through several rounds and then everyone gets together and shares what came up that they thought was useful. With this approach everybody can tap into the collective intelligence that evolved among the whole group.
Dynamic Facilitation is another a really powerful approach, especially for working with conflicted situations. It creatively engages people who have very different takes on what’s going on. It features a sophisticated form of “listening to people well”. The “Feeling Heard” pattern in this pattern language describes the dynamics of Dynamic Facilitation to a large degree. If you have people feeling really well heard, the ability of that group to share the insights of everyone involved and to evolve together is vastly improved, thus making this another really potent approach.
But all of these are manifesting this pattern differently. You want diversity, that’s part of the intelligence. You want diversity of intelligence and resources to apply to your shared situations, whatever they may be. What you don’t want in the group is people dropping out, backing away, some people dominating, some people retreating, or everybody conforming into a “surface conformity” in which all these differences are pushed down into suppressed or marginalized places that are hard to access.
All of these things I’m talking about are giving space for diversity to show up and get digested by everybody for greater benefit. So that’s the essence of this pattern.
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Here is the Version 1.0 transcript of the video on the pattern Distributed Intelligence.
One form of collective intelligence is the fact that people, individual people, can apply their intelligence to the same issue or situation, and give contributions to it. Different groups have their own special perspective or information that they can offer to the situation. Dozens or thousands of people can independently think about a shared question or project – what we call “parallel processing” – and then give input on what they are thinking, sometimes even revising what other people have contributed, like on Wikipedia. (An interesting electronic manifestation of parallel processing is that millions of people sometimes volunteer their computers’ computing power to an organized shared computation than any one computer would not be able to accomplish. A dark side of this is malware that can take over computers to work together without permission, often for undesirable ends.)
Distributed intelligence can also involve conversations where ideas go back and forth, and the ways people and groups are thinking are influenced by the ways other people and groups are thinking, and that adds an additional layer of collective intelligence to the distributed collective intelligence.
But the main point of this pattern is that, given any situation, there are lots of people who have lots of different kinds of smarts – and resources for smarts, like information and perspective – to bring into a collective inquiry about whatever the situation is.
So we need to be aware of that resource as part of what wise democracy is all about. It’s a valuable resource and you don’t want to waste it or misuse it or erode it. The pattern says “Wise democracy seeks to minimize alienation, domination and conformity“ because with alienation people are not going to work together. With domination, certain voices are going to rule over other voices, or silence other voices. And conformity, everybody’s going to think the same. So all of those reduce the potency of distributed intelligence.
You want the diversity. You want good ways to handle diversity, but you want diversity in the first place. As I’ve noted in several diversity-related patterns – but it’s worth mentioning here again – is the fact that people think of diversity nowadays largely in terms of the kinds of diversity we use to oppress each other: race, class, gender, culture, sexual orientation, these are kinds of diversity. If somebody is in the in-group or the out-group in terms of the larger culture, people in the in-group mess with people in out-group in various ways, silence them, beat them up, don’t listen to them, think of them as inferior….
So we want diversity, and we want to be able to use it well. We don’t really like the alienation, domination, conformity, and we don’t want to think of diversity only in terms of those forms of oppression and liberation. We want to think of all the different ways people are diverse, particularly things that have specifically to do with intelligence. How do they think, what is their perspective, what kind of information do they have? What kind of care do they bring to a conversation? These are forms of diversity which are independently variable from these other more obvious forms of diversity. We want to protect all those kinds of difference, and not have alienation, domination, and conformity mess with them.
So we want to encourage and creatively engage many diverse voices. In doing so we are enlivening the distributed intelligence that is available, and then we can tap it, and tapping into it will give us better solutions, a better way forward than we had before, when we were less aware, and better solutions than we would have if we let alienation, domination, or conformity squeeze everybody down into a distributed stupidity or an alienated intelligence.
(Note: This pattern covers the important intelligence dimension of the Crowdsourcing pattern and, as such, centers more on the process of collective intelligence, whereas crowdsourcing focuses on the gathering together of shared resources – any resources. Another similar pattern, Communal Intelligence, focuses on the evolving collective knowledge of a community about its own affairs, and the role of professional and citizen journalism in that.)