Collective Intelligence: Are Your Ideas Getting Out Enough?

June 30, 2010


A bit behind on this post, but an article on the notion of collective intelligence caught my attention from a late May issue of the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal.  Matt Ridley in “Humans:  Why They Triumphed” (WSJ, 5/22-23/10:  Ridley has put together an insightful piece that explores the importance of interactions between people and their ideas as being among the most critical factors to technological advancement over time. 

To quote Ridley:

“But the sophistication of the modern world lies not in individual intelligence or imagination. It is a collective enterprise. Nobody—literally nobody—knows how to make the pencil on my desk (as the economist Leonard Read once pointed out), let alone the computer on which I am writing. The knowledge of how to design, mine, fell, extract, synthesize, combine, manufacture and market these things is fragmented among thousands, sometimes millions of heads. Once human progress started, it was no longer limited by the size of human brains. Intelligence became collective and cumulative.

“In the modern world, innovation is a collective enterprise that relies on exchange. As Brian Arthur argues in his book “The Nature of Technology,” nearly all technologies are combinations of other technologies and new ideas come from swapping things and thoughts. (My favorite example is the camera pill—invented after a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer.) We tend to forget that trade and urbanization are the grand stimuli to invention, far more important than governments, money or individual genius. It is no coincidence that trade-obsessed cities—Tyre, Athens, Alexandria, Baghdad, Pisa, Amsterdam, London, Hong Kong, New York, Tokyo, San Francisco—are the places where invention and discovery happened. Think of them as well-endowed collective brains.”

This idea neatly ties back to some observations shared by Joe Bankoff at an IEI Forum meeting about one of the keys to innovation being a group of diverse people working collectively on a shared problem.  (See Tech Razor, 4/25/10.)

Image Credit: Masterfile