Collective Intelligence and its Discontents: the rebirth of the autodidact tradition

Collective Intelligence is a relatively new and loose term, which has been used to mean various things. A first attempt at defining it could go something like this:

Collective Intelligence is an emergent property in groups of individuals acting both intelligently and collectively, which produces something inherently different from what would have been produced if each individual’s intelligence acted in isolation.

There are many problems with how one defines intelligence in the first place, but let’s agree to take intelligence to mean what we usually mean by it – very intuitively – and consider this intuition to apply to living things as well as machines (a human, an ant, and a computer are all good examples of intelligent actors).

There are far better definitions out there, I’m sure. For instance, a dedicated center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology defines the term, implicitly, in terms of the question it poses as a mission statement:

How can people and computers be connected so that —collectively —they act more intelligently than any individuals, groups, or computers have ever done before?

Some would also argue the main types of Collective Intelligence are closely connected with the concept of Global Brain and, in general, I would tend to agree with them.

Yet I would like to go even further, and extend the scope of the term. The reason is that any Collective Intelligence has to emerge – it does not exist by itself or without context. It is a result of interactions, which gradually build up in complexity and reach a ‘critical’ point at which a Collective Intelligence may surface. At that point, we get something new, which entails all the sub-parts as a necessary condition.

In this sense then, I don’t see why the term should apply only to human-machine interactions, the blogosphere, the Internet, or the peer-review process in science and other technical fields. I don’t see why it should be thought of as something recent, which relates to the unprecedented production and dissemination of information.

I would argue that certain aspects of the Collective Intelligence are at least as old as Aristotle, and his Poetics: in many ways his theory of drama should be seen as an emergent property of the dramatists and their performers and their audiences and those early critics. It entails the very existence of various dramatic pieces, numerous kinds of drama and themes and heroes. It entails a whole array of tragedies and comedies, which were performed to an interested public.

This paradigm is, in fact, fixed in the history of literature and structuralism – at its best – unearthed many of its facets: according to the structuralist perspective, a text points to other texts and contexts (cultural, historical, sexual, economic, political, scientific, etc.) In other words, a piece of poetry or fiction is indeed the original hypertext, albeit without the physical embodiment that hypertexts currently assume in interconnected machines.

Now the very existence of this ‘web’ of references (i.e., a network of links from a text to other texts and contexts) implies the existence of a structure, which is what structuralists made their business to analyse.  And as long as there is a structure, there is an emergent function. One of these emergent functions is precisely the picking and sorting, classifying and reviewing, applauding and booing of literary works. This is the remit of literary criticism and it’s not hard to see it as the Collective Intelligence in action.

And in the same way that various power struggles routinely took place in the ‘traditional’ space of literary movements and criticism up until the twentieth century, the new battles now taking place in the virtual space will follow the same principles. Whether it is scientific or literary publishing that is being revolutionized by new technologies, there will be those who dismiss the majority of the changes currently under way.

The industry is in a process of upheaval […] Now you might think the democratisation of the written word is a good thing – but it’s not. It’s a calamity: it gives everybody the illusion that they can write just because they can bring out a book. Every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks they can be the next Tom Clancy, Dick Francis or progenitor of Harry Potter.

I read this in an Evening Standard piece last year and, even though it contained commonplace arguments, it somehow struck a chord. It reminded me of much older views along the same lines; views and ideas with a very pronounced class-based dimension. The author of that short piece wrote that he was at a dinner party and that a self-published memoir was ‘pressed into his hands’. And so, he asked,

How are there enough readers out there to justify this wanton destruction of the forests? We may all have a memoir inside us – but should we inflict it on the world?

It doesn’t occur to him, and many others who ask the same sort of question, that the answer might be yes.

However, in the past, figures of a certain ‘standing’ were much more unforgiving to Tom, Dick and Harry. In her book, The Muses of Resistance: Labouring-class women’s poetry in Britain, 1739-1796 (1990), Donna Landry has analysed cases like those of the ‘milkwoman’ Ann Yearsley and her upper class patron Hannah More, or the servant Elizabeth Hands, who wrote, in 1789,

A servant write verses! says Madam Du Bloom;
Pray what is the subject—a Mop, or a Broom?
He, he, he, —says Miss Flounce; I suppose we shall see
An ode on a Dishclout—what else can it be?

The impressive autodidact tradition of the British industrial North and in the communities of the highly literate Scottish Weavers, resulted in those communities consuming both classical ‘highbrow’ and their contemporary ‘lowbrow’ literature throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and it generated an immense body of work in poetry, fiction, memoir, local history, as well as science and engineering. But their engagement with literature and, especially, their own literary output was not acceptable to the middle and upper classes, or the established critics and academia. Which is why it is now largely unknown and completely absent from the Modern English canon. There is substantial evidence to suggest that the Modernists were reacting to this output, consciously and deliberately – cf., for instance, John Carey‘s book The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992).

Jonathan Rose, in his tremendous book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001), puts it this way:

Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset, George Gissing, H. G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, Virgina Woolf, Sigmund Freud, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, and Graham Greene all strove to preserve a sense of class superiority by reviling the mean suburban man. They convinced themselves that the typical clerk was subhuman, machinelike, dead inside, a consumer of rubbishy newspapers and canned food.

The intellectuals, Carey argues, had to create this caricature to maintain social distinctions in an increasingly democratic and educated society. By the early twentieth century the Board schools had introduced great literature to the masses, who were buying the shilling classics of Everyman’s Library by the million. […]

The old autodidacts had built on a foundation of English classics partly because they were so accessible. Robert Collyer grew up in a blacksmith’s home with only a few books – Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Goldsmith’s histories of England and Rome – but their basic language made them easy to absorb and excellent training for a future clergyman. “I think it was then I must have found the germ… of my lifelong instinct for the use of simple Saxon words and sentences…” That kind of self-education was possible in the nineteenth century; but in the twentieth, autodidacts discovered that […] a new canon of deliberately difficult literature had been called into existence. The inaccessibility of modernism in effect rendered the common reader illiterate once again, and preserved a body of culture as the exclusive property of a coterie.

When T. S. Eliot writes

“On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
Nothing.”

he is expressing a predominant view of his class and community at the time. It may not have been his own view, one could argue, but this is beside the point. Coachman’s daughter Anne Tibble writes, in response:

I didn’t care whether The Waste Land was an oriental, unsentimental poem taking hope as psycho-neurosis. I only knew that it was almost utterly without feeling for others, therefore invalid. Eliot showed people as ugly, stupid, shabby, vulgarian, squalid, somehow indecent. But people such as some of those in The Waste Land I had been looking at all my life: the ‘broken fingernails of dirty hands’ was meant to repel, to startle readers into seeing working people as rats – slimy, mean, ugly… Weren’t those my father’s and my mother’s hands? Hands therefore of so many like them.

A key difference between those times and ours is the sheer force of the Collective Intelligence in its current mode, or implementation. It is now conceivable that the established practices will have to bend, readjust and – in many ways – compete to survive against this new mode. The question now is how to assist the process, and root out its inevitable loopholes and attempts to monopolize it.

Categories: Crossover, Fiction, Global Brain, Modernists, Poetry, Structuralism, T S Eliot

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