Home > Anthropology, Humanities, Web Communication > Our thought, dissipated by the way?

Our thought, dissipated by the way?

I do not intend to prove that the Net is “bad” for our health nor forecast a “dark future” for the Human Race. Far from it, my intention is merely to provide you with some interesting arguments for and against collective intelligence, for which Jean-François Noubel (2004) claimed to be neither a new concept nor a discovery. 

I would ask the reader to bear in mind the following questions: Will we all someday understand this world in a global manner, all with the same binoculars? Should we really bet on this objective? What consequences will it entail?  Is Google making us stupid? Has the use of the Web made it impossible for us to read long pieces of writing? Is our complex inner capacity plummeting with the information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”? Is collective intelligence really feasible? And, above all, if we are all “Netizens” – equals – who is going to decide what Humanity learns or does not learn? In the following lines we will analyze, in light of experts’ points of view, how the world and our intelligence are working in this day and age.

Before we start discoursing on the future of our rational skills, I believe we should take into account the following definition, provided by Jean-François Noubel (2004), who states “collective intelligence is neither a new concept nor a discovery. It is what shapes social organizations – groups, tribes, companies, teams, governments, nations, societies, guilds, etc… – where individuals gather together to share and collaborate, and find an individual and collective advantage that is higher than if each participant had remained alone. Collective intelligence is what we term a positive-sum economy. (…) In human societies, different forms of collective intelligence coexist and mainly coordinate and express themselves in the symbolic space.” [1]

Seeking for articles that inspired me to write this post, I came across with some tautologous essays, which upheld – may I explain it within my own words – it is now the time for Humanity to pursue the Collective Intelligence – with capital letters -, as hunger, poverty, sustainability, peace, education and economy are no longer “stakes” we all shall worry about. These kind of papers stated that “group intelligence” is the order of the day, and they are indeed right. It is clear that “this is a key issue in the corporate” and everyday-live world. Human social skills reach their maximum effectiveness – they say – within small groups of 10 to 20 people, but no more, where the individual and collective benefit is higher than what would have been obtained if everyone remained alone. That is certainly what the original Collective Intelligence is.

It has been repeatedly proved not only that we are social beings – born to live in community – but also that we can make the most of ourselves by working in well-trained groups. Experts agree that small teams have interesting “dynamic properties, including transparency, (…) a high learning capacity, a convergence of interest between the individual and collective levels, (…) and, above all, an excellent capability to handle complexity and the unexpected”. In other words, it seems like our future lies on sharing our knowledge and multiple experience in order to “make a better world”. And, theoretically speaking, it looks quite appealing for anyone still with a pinch of faith on the Human Race.

Thus, scholars display full confidence about capability to collectively invent the future and reach it in complex contexts. That is to say, they do not hesitate that “Collective Intelligence” will draw the guidelines of a universal governance, provide an outline of the next democracies and help us forecast an economy in which competition will make way to values boosting comradeship.

This, in turn, presents some pitfalls – if we put into practice the propositional logic – concerning the number and the space. Do you know of any sport played by teams made up of more than 20 members each? The answer is “NO”. Human beings, as far as the History has displayed, are limited by their ability to interact with a limited amount of people in order to work efficiently, otherwise a “too-high level of complexity is quickly reached that generates more noise than effective results”. Furthermore, we also need to be physically together – as close as possible – “so that our natural interfaces (organic senses) can interact” and, therefore, “apprehend the global picture of what happens (holopticism) and adjust our behavior accordingly.” This leads us to wonder whether “Collective Intelligence” is possible or not.

In this day and age, we live submerged in the world of the new information technologies, where, as Nicholas Carr (2008) says, “research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and we’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote we were after. Even when we’re not working, we’re as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets’ reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link” [2]. As a matter of fact, there are plenty of “sites” and new tools such as “wikis”, “social networks”and “blogs”, which aspire , among other targets, to assemble all the Human experience gained all over the centuries. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded, namely:

    1. Information always “at hand”, or rather “at a single click”.
    2. Information easy, fast and securely shared.
    3. Everyone counts, as the access to the Internet is universal.
    4.  …

As for the drawbacks, today much more information than ever goes past our eyes and yet, we withhold less than ever. As Eric Qualman once said when interviewed “ya no buscamos las noticias, ellas nos encuentran”. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,”  Clive Thompson has written – “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” [3] But that boon comes at a price. The more we use the Web, the more we have to struggle to stay focused on long pieces of writing. The Internet’s long-term neurological and psychological affects to cognition still remain unknown. But a recently published study of online research habits , conducted by scholars from University College London, suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. The authors of the study report:

“It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

The human brain is almost infinitely malleable, that is true. But technologies are ruining – determinist experts say – this major quality by leaps and bounds. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is becoming “our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV”, in short, the compass guiding our path. The result is “to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration”, and above all, information technologies are replacing our creative genius, as people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media.

Oscar Wilde once said “ordinary people borrow their ideas from a sort of circulating library of thought… We must pass out of that conception of life; as soon as we have to pay for an emotion we shall know its quality and be better for such knowledge” [4]. Is it, then, fitting that we stake for Collective Intelligence?


[1] NOUBEL, Jean-François, “Collective Intelligence, The Invisible Revolution” (English version reviewed by Frank Baylin), Published: 15 November 2004, Last revision: 24 August 2007

[2] CARR, Nicholas, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, July/August 2008 ATLANTIC MAGAZINE

[3] THOMPSON, Clive, “Your Outboard Brain Knows All”, 2007, retrieved on “Wire Magazine” (09.25.07)

[4] WILDE, Oscar, “De Profundis” (1897), Madrid, Ediciones Siruela, 2000


– NAUGHTON, John, “Thanks, Gutenberg – but we’re too pressed for time to read”, The Observer, Sunday January 27 2008
– ROUSSEL, Frédérique, “La pensée eparpeillée par la Toile” retrieved on “Écrans, un site de Libération”, Wednesday April 29 2009: http://www.ecrans.fr/La-pensee-eparpillee-par-la-Toile,7052.html
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