MIT has started a new Center for Collective Intelligence. I learned about this over on the Kurzweil AI.net site. The new directions being taken and cognitive research have broad implications for society, philosophy, religion, and psychology. My chief concern at Black Sun Journal has been the proper separation of the subjective and objective. To casual observers, this dividing line often breaks between science and religion, between empiricism and the “supernatural.” But there are far larger issues at stake.
Like the subjective/objective divide, the individualist/collectivist divide sometimes presents us with a false dichotomy. What we really want is the best of both worlds. We can’t eliminate subjectivity–it’s what makes us who we are. But we want it to stay in the arena of our personality, imagination, storytelling and entertainment.
Objectivity should be given its rightful role in matters of inquiry, and the setting of public policy. Ideally, we want the individual to be sovereign over his or her own affairs, minimizing the meddlesome activity of the collective, while still protecting the basic framework of agreements, norms, and standards which maximize our freedom.
More and more we are beginning to understand how important it is to tap into collective intelligence. Projects like Wikipedia, and “open-source” software only scratch the surface of what is possible. Books like The Wisdom of Crowds have alerted many to the possibilities, and now the “We are smarter than me” project, which is managed by the Wharton business school, takes things a step further.
I’m optimistic. Looking at Wikipedia, notwithstanding “wiki wars,” casual users have built up an impressive database, which continues to improve by the day. This is a great model, and the administrators have done a great job in striking a balance between openness and authority.
It’s an exciting time. What’s key to the success of these endeavors is the feedback mechanism. Humans are finally waking up to the fact that while popularity is no guarantee of rightness, neither is authority. We recognize the pathology of despots and tyrants, but curiously, many of us still pay attention to them when they come in intellectual guise. Open-source and “group-think” applied to difficult human problems can help break this logjam.
We must simply be sure that these projects are structured in such a manner that we don’t trade our traditional reliance on authority for a new tyranny of the majority. We also must be ruthless when a person’s opinion contradicts objective facts. Clinging tenaciously to an uneducated opinion is the darkest side of individualism. Such opinions are not simply silly, harmless fictions. We have seen how, when pressed into the service of religion and the supernatural, these opinions become the fuel for world conflict. But it’s not just religion. What Sam Harris calls “masochistic unreason” runs rampant through a nation where a full 33% of the people believe the 9/11 attacks to have been the work of their own government. In a democracy such as ours, the combination of conspiracy theories, religious demagoguery, and lack of voter education on issues, (or voter apathy), combine to make any concept of government “of, by, and for the people” an illusion.
So many thorny problems, philosophical and otherwise, can be solved by ‘crowds.’ It’s awfully hard to argue against the validity of observations with human sense organs (as some philosophers do) when their reach is extended by instrumentation and multiple observers. The same can be said for the problem of causality, and the implicit reliance of science on induction as outlined by Hume. At a certain point, when multiple observers and events are involved, we must conclude that our observations are true beyond a reasonable doubt. The more observers who agree, the less reasonable the doubt becomes.
I’m hopeful that these steps are the beginning of the establishment of a worldwide framework of incontrovertible empirical knowledge. We should be able to build on intellectual traditions of the past, augmenting them with new structures, which cover everything from business processes to philosophy and human psychology, while illuminating all subjective cognitive biases.
As these databases and dynamic networks grow, intelligent machines should also be able to add to the repository. Already, machines make decisions about investing, product distribution, credit approvals, and scores of other tasks which have now become too complex for humans. Machines themselves, if programmed properly, will be inherently free from existential concerns. They are thus immune to the reliance on the ancient human myths. We may be faced with a choice in the future: Give up our myths and embrace reality, or stay in our subjective Disneyland, and let the objective machines run the world.
Note: Wikipedia’s still here, and as strong as ever. (Do you contribute regularly? If not, go over there right now and make a donation). All sorts of other crowdsourced projects have made the world a better place. But other than that, Holy Jayzuz Fuck, this post did not age well. Stupid people in large groups found each other on the internet–and the rest is our sad history of the 20-teens and 2020s. –Sean Prophet, August 2022