At the Dawn of Human Collective Intelligence

It is an interesting idiosyncrasy of our times that we have become increasingly accustomed to the ongoing success of the human mind in probing reality and understanding the world we live in. Indeed, the relevance of this ever growing body of knowledge, describing the universe and ourselves in greater and greater detail, cannot be overstated. But today, even the most breathtaking technological breakthroughs, fostered by this knowledge, can hardly capture the collective attention span for long. It is as if we have come to expect our technological abilities to steadily accelerate and reach breakneck speeds.

On the other hand, we have also become very accustomed, and alarmingly indifferent and unconcerned, about the state of human affairs. As a species, our recent terraforming activities have fundamentally transformed the biosphere we rely on, resulting in considerable impact for us individually. In a nutshell, we have devised linear systems that extract resources at one end, which, after being consumed, are disposed of at the other end. However, on a finite planet, extraction soon becomes exploitation and disposal results in pollution.

Today, this can be witnesses at unprecedented global scales. Just consider the following: substantial levels of pesticides and BPA in vast populations and even remote populations (like Inuit women whose breast milk is toxic due to pollutants accumulating in the ocean’s food chain), increase of chronic diseases, antimicrobial resistance, the Great Pacific and the North Atlantic garbage patches, e-waste, exploding levels of greenhouse gases, peak oil and phosphorus, land degradation, deforestation, water pollution, food waste, overfishing, dramatic loss of biodiversity,. . . The list is constantly growing as we await the arrival of the next billion human inhabitants on this planet.

Compounding this acute problem is the fact that today’s generations are living at the expense of future generations, ecologically and economically. For instance, we have reached Earth Overshoot Day in 2015 on the 13th of August. Each year, this day measures when human consumption of Earth’s natural resources, or humanity’s ecological footprint, approximately reaches the world’s biocapacity to generated those natural resources in a year. Since the introduction of this measure in 1970, when the 23rd of December marked Earth Overshoot Day, this tipping point has been occurring earlier and earlier. Moreover, just check the Global Debt Clock, recording public debt worldwide, to see an incomprehensibly and frighteningly high figure, casting an ominous shadow over future prosperity. Yes, the outlook is very dire indeed.

The Two Modes of Intelligence

In essence, we have an abundance of individual intelligence, fueling knowledge generation and technological proficiency, but an acute lack of collective intelligence, which would allow our species to co-evolve and co-exists in a sustainable manner with the biosphere that keeps it alive. This is the true enigma of our modern times: why does individual intelligence not foster collective intelligence? Take, for instance, a single termite. The biological capacity for cognition is very limited. However, as a collective swarm, the termites engineer nests they equip with air-conditioning capabilities, ensuring a constant inside temperature allowing the termites to cultivate a fungus which digest food for them they could otherwise not utilize. Now take any human. Amazing feats of higher cognitive functioning are manifested: self-awareness, sentience, language capability, creativity, abstract reasoning, formation and defense of beliefs, and much, much more. Remarkably but regrettably, multiplying this amazing potential and capacity times a few billion results in our current sate of affairs.

It is interesting to note that all biological systems do not feature centralized decision making. There are no architect or engineering termites overseeing construction, no CPU in our brains responsible for consciousness. This decentralized and bottom up approach appears to result in the emergence of collective intelligence, in other words, in self-organization, adaptivity, and resilience. Indeed, this incredible robustness of biological complex systems is most probably the reason why we still can continue with “business as usual” despite the continued devastating blows we have delivered to the biosphere. In stark contrast to these natural systems, all human systems, from political to economic, are all characterized by centralized governance. This top down approach to collective organization appears to systematically lack adaptivity, resilience, and, most importantly, sustainability.

The Zeitgeist and Beyond

We truly live in tumultuous times. Next to the increasing external pressures just outlined, we are also exposed directly to our own destructiveness. In a global environment where ignorance, myopia, denial, cynicism, indifference, callousness, alienation, disenchantment, and superficiality reign it is not surprising to witness the rise of fundamentalism and violence in all corners of the world. Neither is it really surprising that many people then try and escape this angst short-term by distracting consumerism and numbing materialism overall. Which then leads to the next predicament:

This is a strange, rather perverse story. Just to put it in very simple terms: it’s a story about us, people, being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about.

(Tim Jackson’s 2010 TED talk.)

The reality of the society we’re in, is there are thousands and thousands of people out there, leading lives of quiet scream- ing desperation, where they work long hard hours, at jobs they hate, to enable them to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like.

(Nigel Marsh’s 2011 TED talk.)

Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situa- tion is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

(David Graeber, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”, 2013.)

Our collective psyche is suffering under the current zeitgeist. In just a few decades the complexity and uncertainty of the lives we lead has dramatically increased and we now struggle even harder to find meaning. So, was this it? Are we simply yet another civilization at the precipice of its demise? Are we just a very brief, albeit spectacular, perturbation in the billion year history of life on Earth, which will undoubtedly adapt and continue for billions of years until our sun runs out of fuel?

At the Dawn

Perhaps things are not as they seem. Maybe the chaotic paths to destruction or survival really are only separated by the metaphorical flapping of the wings of a butterfly. In the case at hand, a mere flicker in the minds of people — for instance, a radical and contagious thought or idea — could alter the course of history.

Indeed, perhaps acquiring collective intelligence is not as hard as we might imagine. What is missing is possibly a subtle change in the way we perceive and think of ourselves and the world we inhabit; a change that would initiate a true shift in our behavior which could lead to adaptive, resilient, and sustainable human systems and interactions. Maybe the difficulty lies in the simple fact that we all first need to focus on ourselves for the common ground to emerge which would allow global change to flourish on.

One of the earliest and strongest constraints everyone of us as child is confronted with is the imprinting of local and static sociocultural and religious narratives, mostly emphasizing external authority. To resist this initial molding requires a very critical and open-minded worldview, not something every human child comes equipped with. What would happen if we would replace these obviously dysfunctional foundational stories that we have been telling our children? What if we, as a species, agreed to convey ideas to the next generation which do not simply depend on the geographic location of birth but represent something more functional, universal, and unifying? Ideas that also stress self-responsibility and self-reliance?

Modern neuroscience heavily emphasizes the plasticity of the human brain. This neuroplasticity reflects how the brain’s circuits constantly get rewired due to changes not only in the environment, but crucially also in response to inner changes within the mind. Cultivating different thought patterns results in different neural networks. As a consequence, we should never underestimate how untainted young brains, exposed to novel empowering ideas, could result in a generation of “new” humans, significantly different from the last one. Possibly some of the following ideas could meet this challenge — ideas capable of transforming the inner space of the mind and thus having the power to emanate into the outer world.

Cultivating a Responsible, Dynamic, and Inclusive Mindset

First, acknowledge that you are not the center of the universe. The local “reality bubble” you live in is arbitrary and infused with ideas relevant to the past. Your way of life is not representative or defining for the human species. Foreign ideas, beliefs, and ways of life are as justified as your own ones. The way you perceive reality depends on the exact levels of dozens of neurotransmitters and the biologically evolved hardwiring in your brain. In efect, what appears as real and true is always contingent and relative. Reality could be vastly richer, bigger, and more complex than anyone ever dared to dream. And never forget to appreciate the amazing string of measurable coincidences that had to conspire for you to read this sentence: from the creation of space, time, and energy, to the formation of the first heavy elements in the burning cores of stars which then got scattered into the cosmos when they exploded as supernovae and started to assemble into organic matter, which could store information and spontaneously began to replicate, sparking the evolution of life, which gradually reached ever higher and higher levels of complexity until a lump of organic matter, organized as a network of dozens of billions of nodes and roughly 100 trillion links, became self-aware.

Secondly, place yourself into the center of your universe. You alone are in charge of your life and solely responsible for your actions. You have the freedom in your mind to choose how you respond to internal urges and external influences. You can strive to cultivate a state of happiness and gratitude in your mind, regardless of the circumstances outside of your mind. Embrace change and accept that impermanence is an immutable fact of life. Let go of the illusion of control.

Finally, cultivate a dynamic and inclusive mindset. Assume that all people act to the best of their possibilities and capacities. Face the fact that you can be very wrong in the beliefs you deeply cherish and avoid the illusion of knowledge. Be open to the possibility that other people could be right. Allow your beliefs and ideas to be malleable, adaptive, and self-correcting. Try and strike a healthy balance between critical thinking and openmindedness.

Can we dare to imagine a future, when we teach our children to be empathetic but critical thinkers? When we teach them to be independent and not to seek acknowledgment form others but only themselves? When we teach them not to fear and discriminate against what is perceived as different and foreign; not to fear change and frantically cling on to the status quo, but to face the never ending challenges of life with confidence and trust? Imagine the collective intelligence that could emerge from a “swarm” of such individuals, emphasizing social inclusion next to cultivating a deep feeling of connectedness to the matrix of life and a profound appreciation of being an integral part of the enigma of existence. Simply by leaving out one generation’s worth of flawed and harmful imprinting, and by filling the arising void with radically functional and dynamic ideas and concepts, has the power to change everything.

The First Rays of Light

What if we already are in the middle of the transition and have not yet realized that it is happening? Despite the fact that we are still fueling dysfunctional collective ideas, perhaps we are already witnessing the beginning of a profound paradigm shift towards collective intelligence.

Take the recent emergence of decentralized financial and economic interactions that are slowly disrupting the status quo. For instance, the nascent rise of the blockchain ledger in a trustless peer-to-peer network enabling unthinkable new ways of human economic cooperation. Or the impact of free-access and free-content collaborative efforts providing us with unrestricted availability of nearly unlimited knowledge and constantly evolving, cutting-edge software. Or peer-to-peer lending, crowdfunding, and crowd-sourcing with the capacity to leverage the network effect created by a collective of like-minded people. And not to forget the success of shareconomies, offering a radically different blueprint to the way business has been conducted in the past. All these new technologies are based on bottom up, dynamic, decentralized, networked, unconstrained, and self-organizing human interactions. It is impossible to gauge the future impact of these systems today. Similarly, imagine trying to asses the potential of a new technology, called the Internet, in the early 1990s. No one had the audacity to predict what today has emerged form this initial network, then comprised of a few million computers, now affecting every aspect of modern human life.

We are truly living in a brave new world of unprecedented potential, where future utopias or dystopias are only separated by a thought, an idea, a behavior able to replicate and trigger self-organizing and adaptive collective action. So, where will you be at the dawning of human collective intelligence?

This was a contribution first published on the 30th of November 2015 in “HOW TO SAVE HUMANITY — Essays and answers from the desks of futurists, economists, biologists, humanitarians, entrepreneurs, activists and other people who spend a lot of time caring about, improving, and supporting the future of humanity.”