Collaborative Intelligence

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Tower of Babel MC Escher
Tower of Babel. 1928.
by M.C. Escher


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Tower of Babel

Why use the Tower of Babel as a portal to resources on collaborative intelligence?
The story of building the Tower is about “making meaning” through communicating via a shared language. After the Great Flood, people who spoke a shared language resolved to build a great Tower to reach the heavens, a secular utopia. When their language became confounded so that they could no longer understand one another, the project was abandoned. One explanation of the failure of the project was that “bricks and mortar” were used to build the Tower, rather than stones. “Bricks” symbolize standardization and manufacturing where everyone is rendered equal through a standard consensus view — as alike as bricks. “Mortar” also binds everyone together into a standard consensus view. The three consonants “m”, “t” and “r” are used in the Hebrew word for mortar, which is also the root for materialism.

The Tower of Babel is used to present opposite, conflicting views, highlighting a misunderstood principle of collaborative intelligencecollaborative autonomy.

Tower of Babel - inverted

The image above is a color inversion of the actual painting on the home page, emphasizing that the Tower has been used to represent conflicting views and witlessness. It is at once a symbol of opposites — the potential of collaborative intelligence and the risks of dis-intelligence. Marshall McLuhan noted that "throughout Finnegans Wake, Joyce specifies the Tower of Babel as the tower of Sleep, that is, the tower of the witless assumption, or what Bacon calls the reign of the Idols." Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) p.183

A Tower, built of stones, where every stone is unique, supports individuality, as in the principle of collaborative autonomy, which underpins collaborative intelligence. The Tower of Babel would then symbolize how collaborative autonomy (of individuals) makes possible collaborative intelligence, given a situation architecture that provides a self-organizing context. Built of bricks and mortar, it represented conformity, sleep, witlessness, binding everyone together into a forced consensus in which each individual was locked into the role s/he must play.

Situation architecture addresses the key factor of contextualization. Meaning is interpreted in context and may differ, not only with different interpreters, but in different contexts. Evolutionary theorists, such as Ernst Mayr, emphasize the importance of the individual; without evolutionary differences evolution could not occur.


Biologists have observed that even ant colonies don't lock all workers into standard roles. In human society, far more complex than ant colonies, a collection of effective “I’s” (individuals) is a prerequisite for collaborative intelligence.

Collaborative intelligence
shifts from the anonymity of collective intelligence to acknowledged identity, as when individuals participate in social networks. Harnessing the collaborative intelligence of diverse participants requires better systems for semantic analysis, with capacity to cluster and link related concepts, visualise work-in-progress, tag user profiles, and credit individual contributions. A knowledge processing system that enables users to share information and opinions can process qualitative input. Diverse, generally non-anonymous, credited, time-stamped input into an interactive system is tagged, preserving a database of the unique knowledge, expertise, and priorities of participants, while offering diverse methods of clustering, searching, and accessing their input.

This website surveys theoretical work relevant to developing a theory of collaborative intelligence and coherent body of knowledge on this subject, research spanning cognitive science, and computing; Earth systems science and evolutionary theory; and design science and game theory. To define the principles of collaborative intelligence requires identifying intersections with theory in cognate fields.

A method to guide processes that require collaborative intelligence is described, together with tools, such as evolvable templates, problem-maps, and online process tracking to support that method. Collaborative intelligence characterises the attributes of a distributed group mind at peak performance in solving creative problems, the dynamics that occur when people from different disciplines and institutions with diverse skills, agendas and priorities produce outcomes that a majority of participants and stakeholders in the process view as more effective than what independent individuals, or single discipline groups, could have produced alone.


Curiously, Rabbi Lapin appeared with Glenn Beck on Fox News, using the Tower of Babel to explain our current economic crisis. Having denounced materialism as represented by the mortar used to build the Tower, he then proceeded to contradict his anti-materialist stance by arguing that individualism is represented by the automobile. The Tower of Babel can also be used to support the opposite of the message of Fox News, Glenn Beck and Rabbi Lapin. Although Glenn Beck used the Tower of Babel to argue against the development of public transportation (we should all be individuals driving our own automobiles), the Tower can also be used to argue that we need better frameworks to share knowledge, communicate across disciplines, and support effective interpretation of complex problems for decision-making. Tapping individual expertise and unique interpretative perspectives is the foundation for collaborative intelligence. And Fox News is finally transitioning Glenn Beck out.

Collaborative autonomy is the principle underpinning collaborative intelligence through which individual contributors maintain their roles and priorities as they apply their unique skills and leadership autonomy in a problem-solving process. Individuals are not homogenized, as in consensus-driven processes, nor equalized through quantitative data processing, as in collective intelligence. Consensus is not required. Problem resolution is achieved through systematic convergence toward coherent results.


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