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Sunday, 3 November 2013

Social Collective Intelligence

At the beginning of October (2013) I attended a one day conference on the topic of Social Collective Intelligence, which according to the publicity material is:  a term used to denote a class of socio-technical system that combine, in a coordinated way, the strengths of humans and groups in terms of competences, knowledge and problem solving capabilities with the communication, computing and storage capabilities of advanced information and communication technologies. Quite a mouthful of words!

By the above definition I was most intrigued, for back in the 1980s and 1990s I was involved with socio-technical systems and also in something which can be called human-computer symbiosis, which has never been developed because it is completely at odds with the paradigm of science, engineering and technology (which sees humans as machines). Yet here was a topic possibly implying that some form of human-computer symbiosis might be coming out of the stable of the Future and Emerging Technologies part of the European Commission’s Information and Communications Technologies research programme – surely this meant that someone at long last was going to throw away all those long established beliefs and values and address human and computer symbiosis? Deep down I knew that this would not be the case, and I was not to be disappointed.

Overall the event demonstrated very well this thing I call the Prometheus Syndrome – all those researchers bound to the rock of the past by those invisible and unbreakable chains, which come in the form of beliefs, values, behaviour, taken for granted assumptions, self-images, and delusions, etc. which are the elements of paradigms.

As I expected, what I encountered at this meeting was a deeply disturbing techno-centric vision of the world, where humans are seen as being components of a bigger machine. One speaker serves well to illustrate this point: a person who perceives humans as being comparable to ants, and who was proposing to use computers, sensors, etc. to create a super-organism where people living in urban areas would be like ants, behaving in a way determined by this super-organism. This was indeed Orwellian in its nightmare vision of Big Brother control. What is wrong with these technologists? If we lived in a sane world we would be asking such people to seek the help of a psychotherapist, not giving them research funding. This is definitely a type of research that citizens should be questioning and perhaps asking their elected representatives to ensure is not funded with public money (see my blog on the matter of Digital Science and Responsible Research).

The issue though that I want to highlight here is that of the professional or expert paradigm that the approach adopted by the presenters at this conference demonstrated. What one could see in the speakers, were people with solutions looking for problems, not people asking what are the problems, and how can we solve them? If we were to ask the latter question then perhaps the answer would be to use social collective intelligence, by which I mean, us, working together, to change society, so that the problems no longer exists. This by the way is an important point, for the problems that this particular techno-solution is focussed upon, are mostly social problems (or societal challenges in European Commission jargon).

The main point that I wanted to raise is this: when experts have solutions looking for problems, or even when they try to develop solutions to problems, most often they are not experts in the problem itself. This then means that they have to talk to people who do understand the problem, and often in the world of information and communication technologies, these people are called users.

Well this is good you think. This is exactly what they should do, speak to users! In theory yes, but the experts are often looking for confirmation of their already existing perspectives on the problem. They certainly do not want to hear that their solution is not wanted, or that there are complications that render the solution unsuitable or in need of major conceptual changes. This one can say is the problem of the modern world: the expert paradigm, where experts often think that they know best. And of course they do as one can see from the mess that they have created … contemporary civilisation.

Actually it is time for a different approach where users take action and take ownership, and employ experts in a more subservient role, where experts do what the users tell them has to be done, which is far from what exists today. Of course this is not binary, a case of either/or, and there is room for creative inputs from experts, but this is a matter of power – who is in charge. At the present time it is invariably experts who hold the power, but there is a growing movement to change this, and, what one can say about the people presenting at this conference is that there was no evidence to be seen that they were aware of this.

So, Future and Emerging Technologies? I think not, just people caught in paradigm that is no longer relevant. Back to Prometheus once again! And if you wonder why Europe is in decline, look no further than those who were speaking at this conference about social collective intelligence. And what was obliviously missing from this conference were signs of intelligence in whatever form that may come; individual, collective, social. Yet it does not have to be like this.


  1. Interesting post, Paul! I've been studying concepts related to social collective intelligence for my Masters degree in Library & Information Science. Some of the experiences you detail here are truly chilling - in particular, the phenomenon of 'people with solutions looking for problems', which seems to be the prevailing attitude among the majority of people I know in certain tech circles here. I think this is indicative of the closing gap between the actual technical 'practitioners' and so-called 'experts' - i.e. those big on theory and small on experience - which certainly does not bode well for the future.

    I agree with you when you say it's time for a different approach - one in which users take proactive ownership over their issues, rather than relying on the so-called 'experts' as fonts of knowledge from On High. The 'experts', in my opinion, are single-handedly driving UX concepts back into the void from whence they came.

    1. There are many aspects to the "experts know best" approach that belong in an age that has already passed into history - the trouble is that many experts to not realise this, which is why I also write about Prometheus - people who are bound by invisible chains to the past. The chains are values, beliefs, taken for granted assumptions - all elements of paradigms.