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Collective Intelligence? Nah. Connective Intelligence

The NMC/EDUCAUSE 2008 Horizon Report (.pdf) is a great resource. Educators and administrators will do well to consider its contents in their planning. I have a small concern. Something about the notion of collective intelligence doesn’t sit well with me. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I can (and have) used the term myself to explain the combined efforts of “the many” in achieving an outcome, solving a problem, or determining the value of a resources (such as voting/rating systems in Amazon and Digg). As a term, it resonates with people – the value of being part of a larger community and sharing and creating information together is valuable, if not necessary today.
I’m not comfortable with collective intelligence – I prefer the notion of connective intelligence.

Derrick de Kerckhove explored this concept in 1997, well before we had the distributed collaboration tools we’re using today. James Surowiecki explored a similar concept in Wisdom of the Crowds. Surowiecki’s book is often misunderstood. He makes the point that people do not think together in coming to certain conclusions, but rather than people think on their own and the value of the collaborative comes in the connection and combination of ideas. Each person retains their own identity and ideas, but they are shaped and influenced by the work of others. The concept here is related somewhat to Stephen Downes’ discussion of groups vs. networks. At stake in these discussions (Surowiecki, Downes, de Kerchove) is how we are to perceive the individual in a world where the collaborative/collective is increasingly valued. Collective intelligence places the collective first. Connective intelligence places the individual node first.

At this point, the distinction between collective and connective intelligence may not be very pronounced for most people. As we continue to engage in collaborative work, I think the distinction will become vital. For reasons of motivation, self-confidence, and satisfaction, it is critical that we can retain ourselves and our ideas in our collaboration with others. Connective intelligences permits this. Collective intelligence results in an over-writing of individual identity. In fairness to the Horizon Report, their focus is more on self-correcting attributes of collective activities, while my criticism is leveled at what happens to the individual in the process.


  1. 5tein wrote:

    I can put my finger on it: it makes people sound like lemmings. It (perhaps inadvertently or only superficially) diminishes the very real importance of the individual, and, dare I say it, individual genius.

    Monday, February 18, 2008 at 6:49 pm | Permalink
  2. mrsdurff wrote:

    I only catch a glimpse of the contrast between the terms, but at least it is something. Does this mean connective intelligence and collective intelligence are actually two distinct things (a terribly inexact word)?

    Monday, February 18, 2008 at 7:05 pm | Permalink
  3. Chris L wrote:

    Why so binary, Stein? Why does having collective intelligence in any way rule out or diminish individual genius?

    I think the collective/connective differentiation is partially a red-herring. At the very least it’s presenting a very slanted view of what collective intelligence is in terms of my understanding/reading.

    I can understand why Connected Intelligence would appeal to the Connectivism people :)

    Tuesday, February 19, 2008 at 12:48 am | Permalink
  4. When you are really embeded, in a submerged way into an informal community of practice, this is an evidence: there is an individual intelligence shared with all! There’s the evidence that “Collective intelligence places the collective first. Connective intelligence places the individual node first.”
    I agree with Siemens! We must try all of us to observe a web 2.0 community work, like Ning. This is something!
    Siemens theory is well adapted to what’s happening nowadays with the Internet.
    The mos beautiful on this is that I’m not alone anymore: my ideas can link with other ones ideas and together we build a connective intelligence.

    My way of living fits in this conception.

    Tuesday, February 19, 2008 at 7:24 am | Permalink
  5. Alan Levine wrote:

    Thanks for the introduction of “connective intelligence” and in retrospect, it may have been a nice angle to put in the report. But the report is not all that is the Horizon Project. There is a lot more meat, and place for discussion on the wiki and the CommentPress version of the report

    I frankly do not see this need be an either/or proposition, and fail to see why we cannot have benefits or a spectrum of both ends.

    And while the words “collective” and “connective” are differentiated here, in my activities where I act as an individual, use web tools to organize, augment, my own interests (e.g. tagging web sites, sharing photos, writing in wikis) I fail to see how I am giving up my individual voice nor how the systems are putting their voice first. The ones I am familiar with provide both.

    I am not seeing how any of the examples in the report

    are necessarily removing the individual. Maybe you or someone else has some other examples where this occurs?

    The collective/connective intelligence rises as a layer above my activity, and in no way takes away my indepedence, unless some entity is using the collective to its own means. I have not seen that happen. I have yet to be “borg-ed” (or at least am blissfully ignorant).

    But having the conversation and discussion here is exactly what we like to see evolve out of the project, so thanks for stirring up the pot ;-)

    Tuesday, February 19, 2008 at 10:47 am | Permalink
  6. Chris L wrote:

    Regardless of the term, I guess I’m still seeking clarification about what seems to me like logical impossibility in terms of individuality and group membership and also want examples– even hypothetical– of what it means in action to preserve individual voices *who are part of the group* (because, of course, people can influence groups and provide input, etc. without being members) without any restraint, compromise, etc… short of 100% consensus of course.

    It’s the same question I’m asking Stephen… because from my vantage point, saying that one supports groups without this possibility is just talk without some concrete idea of how that feat can be accomplished.

    For example, Stephen writes: “The value of groups is not disputed here, on the contrary: the value of groups would benefit from members being enabled and empowered as much as possible. Without such empowerment, groups restrain, at best, and manipulate, at worst.”

    The first statement makes sense… but the second– it implies then that in this model there is some way to have group activity without ending up with situations involving restraint, manipulation, etc. Something that not only does the “as much as possible” phrase seem to contradict, but that appears logically untenable.

    I would love to learn otherwise…

    Tuesday, February 19, 2008 at 1:01 pm | Permalink
  7. In my opinion there is a difference between collective and connective intelligence. Collective intelligence is a kind of serendipity, ‘accidentital learning’ where the sum is more than the whole of the parts (is this correct English?). Connective intelligence has a purpose. It is a proces of co-creation.

    Tuesday, February 19, 2008 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  8. Nicola wrote:

    Collective intelligence, is there an opt out button please?

    We are not the Borg (yes I have watched Star Trek), collective intelligence for me is nothing more than processing and adaptation of data in an electronic artificial form – think XML which makes the processing of data possible.Then think of artificial intelligent ‘bots’ ( bots in second life or ALICE etc) which adapt based on – human input – ok most of it very basic knowledge/fact absorption at the moment (what the bot is doing) but is reliant on unique processing and digestion of ideas at a human brain level.

    How is this artificial intelligence going to passed from one ‘bot’ to another – no doubt through some kind of XML or botXML (I’m sure that doesn’t exist but I don’t know what the equivalent is) but that’s all it is – collective processing.

    Human beings connect as George has suggested they retain unique ideas, concepts – even though humans agree in principle on things, they all have their own unique motivations and experiences which shape their focus on those ideas.

    Thursday, February 21, 2008 at 1:58 am | Permalink
  9. 5tein wrote:

    Nicola’s right: the opt out button is called for when we are faced with the _common perception_ of “collective intelligence” (this is what George apparently couldn’t quite put his finger on: the “lemmings”/”Borg” association).

    Chris, Alan, etc have pointed out that perhaps my posted reaction is too “binary”, and I’m open to the possibility that it can be _at least_ a spectrum, as Alan suggests (but would have to be convinced that it can be both simultaneously), yet even that allows for binary distinctions on either end.

    So I maintain that prejudices prefer the term “Connective Intelligence” as it highlights two interesting concepts: (1) the importance or prominence of learning through interactivity in peer-peer, master-novice, or mentor-apprentice situations (connective relationships, however loosely maintained), and (2) the preservation and perpetuation of the individual in spite of (or perhaps because of) what (Harold) Bloom calls the anxiety of influence. I know, that last one is a stretch, but I cash in my English Lit chips whenever I can.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  10. Steff wrote:

    Difference between the individual and collective approach? Add social terms. How do groups work, what is a group, what are relationships, what is reallity, what is learning? Most of all what is Intelligenz – is it knowlege, skills, authority?

    Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 4:36 am | Permalink
  11. matias guess wrote:

    i am to be believed to have collective intelegence.. could anyone describe what this is to mean for the “individual” such as myself.

    Monday, November 17, 2008 at 4:06 am | Permalink