Why Collective Intelligence?
15 years back when I made my first dollar on the Internet from a small town in India, it was based on a simple insight that it’s the keywords that help people surface and discover relevant information. I always used to think how naive that is, but I didn’t do anything about it, I instead focussed on making money, accepting that this is how the internet works. This phenomenon can further be well understood in depth by studying the aggregation theory coined by Ben Thompson.
Think about it, what Google does, it harvests knowledge generated by millions of people creating and linking web pages and then uses that knowledge to answer search queries. In Wikipedia, thousands of people around the world have collectively created a large intellectual product of high quality with almost no centralized control and with mostly volunteer participants. Amazon is a bunch of products in a giant big online shop and Netflix like a catalog of movies. They are all ‘data warehouses’ (aka -aggregators) that learn from the personal information-seeking behavior of a user to suggest what you might want or buy based on your past behavior. Think of it as organized monopoly libraries of the web. Over the years, this has and still does work well in several individual contexts, however, it ignores an age-old model of knowledge transfer and human wisdom, where information is passed from person to person, and the retrieval task consists of finding the right reasoning, rather than the right data or document, to make a decision. People trust people, they don’t trust brands or institutions to make an informed choice.
Today, as smart consumers, digital natives, we ask a friend to send the link they used to buy, rather than depend on google search, we look at the reviews of a restaurant before dining at a new place, we usually chat with Airbnb host before making a booking at a stranger’s house. We use the internet to search for data and information, but that is not equivalent to the knowledge and wisdom of humans which is needed to make a choice or a decision. Basically, this information-seeking behavior does not account for the emergent existential reality (human intelligence) that exists due to social, cultural, political, economic, and/or community-driven factors that influence human decisions.
You’ve probably already seen or heard of the DIKW pyramid or hierarchy. Here’s an illustration of it
Data by itself has no meaning. It fills databases. Information arises when humans examine the data. Knowledge is the ability to take an action. Wisdom encompasses the best, most appropriate action. Knowledge and wisdom can only be created by an efficient network of humans.
Too much information is a problem. In our current reality, information is manipulated, and false information is produced and shared to get attention. Capitalists, Marketers, Advertisers, and Politicians have known this for years on how to manipulate information to get people to take action. People are overly-exposed to information from multiple sources in varying formats and repeated exposure to the same information leads to believing what is not true. This is dangerous, we are getting blinded by the internet. It is of increased importance for users to synthesize, assess, deselect, and make use of pertinent information. More importantly, situational relevance and contextual factors are all the more important in processing any information.
Over the last few years, many experiments have shown how thousands of people can collaborate online analyzing data or solving problems, and there’s been an explosion of new technologies to sense, analyze, and predict. Apps like Duolingo which mobilizes volunteers to improve its service providing language teaching, and there are collective intelligence examples in health, where patients band together to design new technologies or share data. One of the earliest examples of collective intelligence dates back to over 161 years ago when a team of people toiled together for four decades to create a book that would contain every single piece of vocabulary in the English language — the Oxford English Dictionary.
Collective Intelligence tools aren’t like Facebook or Twitter. They are not ranking or voting systems. They are designed to allow longer debates, to spark reflection, surface wisdom of crowd, to tackle complex problems, to raise awareness, to filter for relevance and context
The rise of social media has enabled entirely new kinds of relationships and communities in which trust must be negotiated with others whom users do not see, under circumstances that are not wholly familiar, in a world exploding with information of uncertain provenance used by actors employing strategies to capture users’ attention. In addition, the internet serves as a conduit for the public’s privacy to be compromised through surveillance and cyberattacks and additional techniques for them to fall victim to scams and bad actors.
Harnessing the power of collective intelligence is all the more important now. It requires careful design, curation, and orchestration in a community. It’s not enough just to mobilize the crowd to vote for something, it is about doing the right thing. Crowds are all too capable of being foolish, prejudiced, and malign. Nor it is enough just to hope that brilliant ideas will emerge naturally. Thought requires work — to observe, analyze, create, remember, and judge and to avoid the many pitfalls of delusion and deliberate misinformation. Labour markets are another example. We now have a chance to gather far more data than ever before on what jobs are available and what skills they need; we can make predictions about which jobs are likely to grow and which will shrink, and we can use that data to create tools to help teenagers, job-seekers or adults make choices about their future skills and careers. Everything becomes more like a superbrain in this way, where we are able to think and act more smartly, together.
As entrepreneurs, we need to explore collective intelligence and how it can address the unprecedented challenges of the 21st century. The global scale, interconnectedness, and the potential impact of those challenges make such exploration more than just a matter of convenience and competitiveness. It is a matter of collective survival and a potential evolutionary leap.