Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Humanities and Collective Intelligence: Why We Avoid It

The potential power of collective intelligence to solve problems in the humanities is at the forefront of many reflections these days, including Henry Jenkins in his thoughtful blog, Collective Intelligence vs The Wisdom of Crowds. Boiled down, the collective intelligence theory means that nobody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what any given member knows is accessible to any other member upon request. French media scholar Pierre Levy claims collective intelligence is the perfect context for individuals to come together and solve complex problems with their combined abilities.

The potential of collective intelligence has been demonstrated by the website I Love Bees. It was both an experiment and a massive promotional campaign for 2004’s Halo 2. Jane McGonigal’s “Why I Love Bees: A Case Study In Collective Intelligence Gaming” provides a great overview of the nature of the website and how participants worked together to solve problems that individuals couldn’t tackle on their own. I Love Bees captivated the attention of over 600,000 players.

Why were these individuals willing to work together to solve these puzzles? I have to look no further than my boyfriend and his friends to get an idea about the profile of some Halo players. The majority of them are Computer Programmer Analyst grads. They spend much of their free time playing computer games (as I write this blog on a Saturday afternoon, I have five guys with laptops playing DotA – Defence of the Ancients - in my living room).
Halo’s audience encompasses more than just players who fit the profile described above, but it has enough of these kinds of people to make an experiment like I Love Bees a runaway success. Gamers are already primed and connected to the online world. They are precisely the types of individuals who are willing to spend the time and go to the effort of solving the puzzles because they value their online community and feel connected.

Suggestions about using collective intelligence to solve problems in the humanities will not achieve a fraction of that success. Humanities courses at the university level are not concerned with the power of the group or technological innovation. When comparing computer programming (to teach you how to interact with machines) and humanities (to teach us about humans and human nature), computer programming does the best job of teaching you how to work with other people.

The use of collective intelligence to solve questions in the humanities has a long, hard road to plod before people will take it seriously and actively engage with the concept. Until the nature of how humanities are taught is re-examined, students will continue to cloister themselves in libraries and refuse to engage each other’s ideas.

It needs to be changed! Activities like writing papers are obviously a key component of a humanities education, but the degree should go beyond those basics. Massive potential for group projects that is largely untapped. If we changed the nature of a humanities education, then we could see the development of collective intelligence in our field. Until then, historians will continue to read books and generate ideas largely in isolation of each other, and Halo players will show us up with their willingness to collaborate and harness the power of collective intelligence.

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