Posts Tagged ‘ collective intelligence ’

Collective Intelligence, Web 2.0, and Understanding Knowledge

One of the key elements of Web 2.0, as established by Tim O’Reilly in his 2005 paper “What is Web 2.0?”, is the notion of ‘collective intelligence’.  The term itself does not suggest any particular type of technology; rather, it evokes an epistemological stance toward the concept of ‘intelligence’— if ‘intelligence’ is the cognitive capacity to think and learn, ‘collective intelligence’ implies the capacity to think and learn together, as a group. ‘Collective intelligence’ is the capacity to think, learn and share knowledge. Web 2.0 is more of a paradigm than simply a new breed of information technologies; it is a shift in how we perceive the ways in which knowledge is shared, by expanding the means of knowledge production to non-specialists.  A prime example of this principle is Wikipedia; once upon a time, encyclopedias (such as Britannica) were produced by a small group of subject specialists, high priests of their respective domains.  Wikipedia’s model transformed this approach, stripping the high priests of their power and opening up the opportunity to produce, edit and debate content to all.  The results are revealing—while occasionally entries on Wikipedia lack the accuracy of a traditional encyclopedia, they almost always reflect the current debates that surround a given topic, revealing the fluid nature of such knowledge.  This is not something one could easily apprehend from a traditional encyclopedia.  Why? Because the knowledge is mediated by a variety of perspectives, rather than one alone. That’s the power of collective intelligence[1].

In his remarks at the launch of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence (2006), Thomas Malone defines ‘collective intelligence’ as “groups of individuals doing things collectively that seem intelligent.” As Malone makes clear, this is not a new idea—in the same way that knowledge management (KM) builds on concepts that have existed for decades, even centuries, ‘collective intelligence’ can be considered in a particular way as a new name for old ideas.  What makes it (and what makes KM) ‘new’ again is its potential application through new information technologies (i.e. the Web):

It is now possible to harness the intelligence of huge numbers of people connected in very different ways and on a much larger scale than has ever been possible before. (Malone, 2006).

The question becomes: “How can people and computers be connected so that collectively they act more intelligently than any individual, group or computer has ever done before?” (ibid.) This same question is reflected before Web 2.0, rather prophetically, in Marwick’s consideration of KM technology (2001).  Channeling Nonaka’s model of organizational knowledge creation, Marwick emphasizes the value and importance of tacit knowledge, while identifying the shortcomings of then-current technologies. The great hope for Marwick is ‘groupware’, a broad term that perhaps has less currency today referring to portals, intranets and collaborative software packages to facilitate group communication and project work.  In 2001, Marwick refers to such tools as ‘applications’ or ‘products’, standalone packages that organizations purchase and own; it is significant that the Web 2.0 paradigm eliminates the accuracy of such phrasing to describe collective intelligence—or social media—tools.  Rather, the web itself has become the ‘product’, the platform, and the tools are services.  This distinction is essential: the difference between a handful of software packages for computer-supported cooperative work and a universally accessible platform for social media is that one better reflects the interconnected nature of activities involved in the knowledge creation process. While Nonaka’s model of knowledge creation is split into four categories (socialization, internalization, externalization, and combination) that describe the type of transfer of knowledge that occurs between individual and group, tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge, it is unified conceptually as a spiral that circles through these categories in an eternal series of overlapping cycles.  Pre-Web 2.0, this poses a problem for KM, because it means that a variety of technologies—many of which will not communicate well, or at all, with each other—needs to be employed at each stage. There is no continuity, no sense of connection between one tool and the next, when the process of knowledge creation is by its very nature continuous and interconnected. Web 2.0 gives us the paradigm with which to understand that continuity. It also gives us the potential for collective intelligence that Malone is so excited about.

Collective intelligence in the Web 2.0 context is by no means flawless.  In fact, this approach to understanding knowledge has led to a whole new set of problems.  While we might be less concerned today than Marwick in 2001 about the sharing of tacit knowledge through technologies, thanks to an ever-expanding assortment of social networks available on the web which situate individuals, communities and organizations in relation to one and other, the explosion of information in such an unimaginably vast array poses increasingly difficult challenges.  In 2006, Grudin writes that there was some concern at the time when photos tagged as ‘london’ in Flickr jumped from 70,000 to 200,000 over three months.  Would this be a “tragedy of the commons”, a tool that shows such promise, combining folksonomic tagging with user-generated photographic collections, grown out-of-control? But then Flickr introduced clusters, subsets and pools to re-organized tagged content in a more refined way; crisis averted, and new innovation achieved.  While we have come a long way from Marwick’s groupware, we are still struggling to grasp how concepts like ‘collective intelligence’ and ‘Web 2.0’, and their associated technologies, can help KM.  New challenges and innovations are encountered every day.  And as Grudin suggests, “These are still early days.”


[1] That’s not to say that the collective intelligence or crowdsourcing principle that underlies web social media is definitively superior; quite the opposite, Web 2.0 introduces a new host of challenges, such as determining reliability, issues of intellectual property, and organization of information that were not nearly as problematic from a traditional approach to knowledge creation.


Bibliography

Grudin, J. (2006). Enterprise Knowledge Management and Emerging Technologies. Proceedings of the 39th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. 1-10.

Malone, T. W. (2006, October 13). What is collective intelligence and what will we do about it? MIT Center For Collective Intelligence. Retrieved from http://cci.mit.edu/about/MaloneLaunchRemarks.html

Marwick, A. D. (2001). Knowledge management technology. IBM Systems Journal, 40(4). 814-830.

O’Reilly, T. (2005, November 30). What is Web 2.0? Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software. O’Reilly Media. Retrieved from http://oreilly.com/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html