Tuesday, 4 September 2007

MS-352 Virtual Life week 5

5. Hive Minds, Collective Intelligence, and Wise Crowds with Long Tails

Media studies began with mass media. It was a product of and response to the broadcast era, emerging in the 1920s as the study of the effects of radio and cinema broadcasting, newspapers, and, in retrospect, the Post-Gutenberg era of mass-produced print culture. The ‘mass’ of mass media was seen as a problem. Crowds, masses and mobs were usually thought of as large, unintelligent forces, capable of unpredictable behaviour and easily roused into irrational action and aggression. In an era of mass media and deliberate propaganda this danger was multiplied as the size of the mass increased to national levels and as modern persuasive techniques overcame the defences of ordinary citizens. In many ways this view of the mass audience came to fruition in the era of television in the idea of a nation of passive ‘couch potatoes’. By then media studies had begun to question this concept of the passive mass audience, emphasising instead its activity and strategies of resistance but it did so by moving away from the concept of the ‘mass’ and ‘the masses’, retreating into a study of smaller units and individuals. As such ‘the mass’ retained its negative connotations.

And then came new media. New media were contradictory. On the one hand they offered new means of individual empowerment, allowing the expression of individual feeling, ideas, arguments, opinions and identity, giving rise, through wikis, blogs, interactive feedback and comments, podcasts, forums, video-hosting sites, chat rooms and social networking sites, to a remarkable wave of me-casting or my-casting. On the other hand they simultaneously aggregated their audiences and users into a potentially global mass, unparalleled in human history. And then we began to rethink this mass. Instead of being dumb; instead of being worse than rational individual behaviour and expert individual opinion, it became clever. It became collectively smart and often better than and more significant than the individual. We began to read about collective intelligences, wise crowds, long tails of consumption and collective problem-solving…

What we saw was the application of a whole panoply of linked ideas to the web and to the connected, networked masses of the new media era. Ideas from cybernetics and systems theory; from A.I. theory (Minsky’s Society of Mind), the philosophy of mind and consciousness and neuroscience; from the physical sciences (from chaos theory and its discussions of emergence and complexity) and the study of physical and biological systems and phenomena (such as water-flows, flocking birds and ant behaviour); from the developing science of networks; from sociological social-network theory, and from the business world (in free-market ideas of the emergence of order from the actions of independent, self-interested, self-organising individuals and self-governance of phenomena by the ‘invisible hand’) all came together as part of an emerging contemporary paradigm about the production of complex, intelligent wholes from simple, connected parts. This paradigm has had a huge influence in new media and cyberculture in helping us understand the power and potentiality of the global masses it creates. This lecture will offer an overview of the history of the mass and the new ideas of mass behaviour and collective intelligence the net is giving rise to.


This is a big topic and a diverse reading list. So what to actually look at? Levy’s book provides the theoretical overview of our age of connected, collective intelligence. I’d recommend Surowiecki’s book for the best contemporary explanation of today’s ‘wise crowds’ – read in the context of the net and Levy’s arguments, its relevance becomes obvious. Johnson’s book is perhaps the easiest to read on the idea of emergence and complexity arising from simple processes. Anderson, Tapscott and Benkler are all strong on how connected, collective behaviour in the new media world transforms the market and production (either supporting or undermining traditional capitalism). The rest you could dip into as your interest takes you, but it’s difficult to recommend anything more specific on a topic that ranges over science, business, new media, artificial intelligence, sociology and psychology… Doing justice to all this is, quite honestly, a difficult task so only choose this as an essay if you like reading and thinking…

Cyberculture and new media books:

Levy, P. (1997) Collective Intelligence, Cambridge, Mass: Perseus Books.

Anderson, C. (2006) The Long Tail, London: Random House Business Books.

Tapscott, D. (2007) Wikinomics. How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, London:
Atlantic Books.

Benkler, Y. (2006) The Wealth of Networks, London; Yale University Press.

Minsky, M. (1988) Society of Mind, New York: Simon and Schuster.

O’Reilly, T. (2005) ‘What is Web 2.0?’, available at:

Kelly, K. (1994) Out of Control, London: Fourth Estate Ltd.
(2005) ‘We Are the Web’, available at:

Weinberger, D. (2007) Everything is Miscellaneous, New York: Times Books.

Marville, P. (2005) Ambient Findability, New York: O’Reilly.

Wright, A. (2007) Glut. The Deep History of Information Science, New York: Joseph Henry Press.

Allen, C. (2004) ‘Tracing the Evolution of Social Software’, in Life With Alacrity blog, at:

Donath, J. (2004) ‘Sociable media’, at:

Popular science books on emergence, collective behaviour and consciousness:

Johnson, S. (2001) Emergence. The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, London: Penguin.

Gleick, J. (1997) Chaos. Making a New Science, London: Vintage Books.

Hofstadter, D. (2000) Godel, Escher, Bach. An Eternal Gold Braid, London: Penguin Books.

Dennett, D. C. (1993) Consciousness Explained, London: Penguin Books.

Popular science/psychology/business books:

Surowiecki, J. (2004) The Wisdom of Crowds, London: Abacus

Gladwell, M. (2000) The Tipping Point, London: Abacus

Levitt, S. and Dubner, S. J. (2006) Freakonomics, London: Penguin Books.

The Science of Networks:

Watts, D. J. (2004) Six Degrees. The New Science of Networks, London: Vintage Books.

Barabesi, A. L. (2003) Linked. How Everything is Connected to Everything Else, London: Plume Books.

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