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Collective Intelligence: Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace

Author: Pierre LÚvy (Translated by Robert Bononno)
Publisher: New York: Plenum Trade, 1997
Review Published: July 2000

 REVIEW 1: Richard Barbrook
 REVIEW 2: Graham J. Murphy
 REVIEW 3: Arthur L. Morin
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Pierre LÚvy

In Collective Intelligence: Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace, Pierre LÚvy imagines a technological future, one born from the increasing prevalence of human interaction with computer networks, that is "a utopian one, based on a form of direct, computer-mediated democracy -- a virtual agora -- that is more appropriate than current representative systems in helping us cross the turbulent waters of anthropological mutation" (57). In the fifteen chapters that follow, LÚvy offers a seductive charting of the cyberspatial horizon, blending an effervescent vision with narrative pieces culled from the Bible, Farabian theology, The Odyssey, and anthropology. Indeed, the strength of Collective Intelligence is LÚvy's absolute belief in the possibility of his future world given the proper ethical foundations, communal commitment, and artistic exploration. Unfortunately, LÚvy admits to offering a conceptual framework and not a political mandate; thus, behind the seductive pillow-talk of his narrative prowess, Collective Intelligence exists as a fanciful work of speculative fiction relying on subtle, yet disturbing, lines of demarcation.

The narrative structure of Collective Intelligence -- Engineering the Social Bond and The Knowledge Space -- sketches out two fundamental concepts: collective intelligence and the knowledge space. As facets of a posthuman project, these interlinked principles emerge from the circuits of networked systems that, through virtual worlds, "have altered the formulation of the problem of the social bond. In short, hominization, the process of the emergence of the human species, is not over. In fact it seems to be sharply accelerating" (xxiv). Although LÚvy never explicitly uses the term posthumanism, Collective Intelligence is plotting that course wherein "we will gradually create the technologies, sign systems, forms of social organization and regulation that enable us to think as a group, concentrate our intellectual and spiritual forces, and negotiate practical real-time solutions to the complex problems we must inevitably confront" (xxvii).

Put succinctly, collective intelligence is "a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills" (13). As LÚvy points out, intelligence is used in his framework in its doubled meaning, understood in its "etymological sense of joining together (inter legere), as uniting not only ideas but people, 'constructing society'" (10). Although inspired by Marshall McLuhan and Douglas Englebart, LÚvy identifies Jewish and Persian theosophists working within the Islamic community between the 10th and 12th centuries as the genesis of his vision. It is there, in the writings of Al-FßrabÝ (872-950), Ibn Sina (980-1037), Ab˙'l-Barakßt al-Baghdßdi (?-1164), and Maimonides (1135-1204), that LÚvy takes up the collective intelligence and masterfully updates it for a computerized contemporaneity, weaving angelic worlds, agent intellects, and Cherubs into circuited networks that usher in an altruistic posthumanism whose goal is "the mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatized communities" (13). In LÚvy's estimation, the collective intelligence is a shift from the Cartesian cogito to cogitamus wherein new identities and "new forms of democracy, better suited to the complexity of contemporary problems than conventional forms of representation" (18) are born and developed.

Engineering the Social Bond explores the ethical considerations of the collective intellect and the requisite social bonds for this networked emergence. Laying the groundwork, LÚvy begins with the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. "What was Sodom's crime?" he asks rhetorically. "The refusal of hospitality. Rather than welcome the strangers, the Sodomites wanted to rape them. Hospitality is the perfect representation of the maintenance of the social bond, one conceived in accordance with the formula of reciprocity . . . " (26). This reciprocity is indicative of the collective ethic's reliance on a deterritorialization which, in turn, will give birth to an industry of new identities and communities: "Accelerated deterritorialization will spawn an industry for reconstructing the social bond, the rehabilitation of the outcast, the recasting of identities for individuals and communities without structure" (33). Deterritorialization encourages participation in the collective intelligence, an equitable involvement encouraging the proletariat to decategorize and form alliances "by bringing to the foreground the activities they have been practicing in shadow, by assuming responsibility -- globally, centrally, explicitly -- for the production of collective intelligence, by investing in research on engineering the social bond in order to equip, to the fullest extent possible, those who fashion humanity with their bare hands" (36-7).

Central to this ethical endeavor are molecular technologies that allow members to influence the ongoing evolution of the collective intelligence. Unlike molar technologies operating at a top-down macroscopic level, molecular technologies avoid mass production and work at a finer level of detail, influencing the whole structure from the bottom-up. As an example, LÚvy identifies the molar space of media (e.g., television) as that which reproduces and distributes messages in a decontextualized form while molecular spaces (e.g., digital technologies) allow the user to create and modify messages and, in essence, control the microstructure. As a molecular system, collective intelligence inaugurates an era of demodynamics that "comes into being from the cycle of listening, expressing, evaluation, organization, lateral connection, and emerging vision" (88). Unlike molar politics, demodynamics is not a unified system of thought superimposed on the networks, nor does it "imply a sovereign people, one that is reified, fetishized, attached to a territory, identified by soil or blood, but a strong people, one perpetually engaged in the process of self-knowing and self-creation, a people in labor, a people yet to come" (88-9).

The problem with LÚvy's (demo)dynamic vision, however, is his insistent focusing on the long-term with minimal short-term considerations; put another way, Collective Intelligence is so intent on outlining a next-stage posthumanism that it ignores its own political maneuvers and exclusionary foundations. LÚvy immediately brackets his utopia when he writes in the Prologue that "the interconnection of computers and storage systems over standard telephone lines and the extension of digital transmission networks continue to expand a global cyberspace in which elements of information are in virtual contact with one another and with anyone who happens to be connected (xxix-xx; my emphasis). LÚvy betrays a socio-economic elitism founded on restricting his posthumanism to the "wired" of society; in other words, the realities of macro- and micro-economics ensure that the collective intelligence favors middle- to upper-income families of predominantly First and Second World nations, excluding large segments of global, national, and local populations from molecular participation.

To further complicate matters, LÚvy is optimistically naive regarding the overall presence of home computers and Internet access. Comparing old and new technologies, he writes that the "telephone and television are currently part of the standard equipment in households throughout the industrialized world" and, as a result, "it is not unreasonable to assume that in a few years' time the majority of households could also be equipped with terminals (cybergates) that are part of a communications system designed around a many-to-many spatial configuration" (63). LÚvy's conclusion about this technological ubiquity is questionable, however, as Derrick de Kerckhove, writing in Connected Intelligence: The Arrival of the Web Society, offers three important facts: first, the total number of computers in the world compared against the global population puts access rates to networks at 3%; second, the average wired family in the United States earned in excess of $75,000; and, finally, 75% of the world's main telephone lines serviced less than 15% of the world population [1] (178). These cold numbers demonstrate that for all LÚvy's enthusiasm for cybergates and a future intelligence, it still boils down to a relatively limited membership whose access to the wired systems is defined by the world wide web of social, cultural, political, and economic conditions.

LÚvy's zeal for the collective intelligence, however, does not run untempered; rather, he readily admits that his framework does not exist nor is its emergence a predestined inevitability. Although it may be a utopia, LÚvy feels this is an unimportant judgement given the fundamental difference between the possible and the feasible. Noting that a Newtonian philosopher would have claimed walking on the moon as a possibility, its feasibility only came about in the age of NASA. Similarly, LÚvy believes in the possibility of the collective intelligence although its feasibility may be lacking in our current age. Although there is a significant fissure separating these two realms, LÚvy does take tentative steps into the gulf in his analysis of digital media and hypertext. "Digital interactive media," Levy writes, "explicitly poses the question of the end of logocentrism, the destitution of the supremacy of discourse over other modes of communication" (119). The reliance upon emerging hypertext and digital art, however, once again reveals an elitism awkward to reconcile. On one hand, LÚvy insists that the knowledge space and collective intellect must be molecular, "a kind of corporation in which each shareholder supplies as capital his knowledge, experience, and his ability to learn and teach" (105). Yet, he also writes that guiding the development of cyberspace requires a new organizing vision and "in terms of creation and management of signs, the transmission of knowledge,the development of living and thinking spaces, the best propaedeutic is obviously supplied by literature, art, philosophy, and high culture in general" (127). Perhaps it is unavoidable that the weight of guiding this networked emergence should fall on the shoulders of high-brow culture and new media artists who, as Janet H. Murray demonstrates in Hamlet on the Holodeck, have begun exploring the possibilities of hypertext and digital narratives; yet, LÚvy does betray an haute couture cultural hierarchy positioning hypermedia artistes as somehow more valuable or instrumental in the wiring of this burgeoning community.

As a comparative analysis, The Knowledge Space is much more accessible and grounded, offering a point-by-point explanation of the knowledge space, or cosmopedia, and its relationship with anthropological layers of earth, territory, and commodity. As the text explains, an anthropological space is "a system of proximity (space) unique to the world of humanity (anthropological), and thus dependent on human technologies, signification, language, culture, conventions, representations, and emotions" (5). LÚvy takes great care in thoroughly unpacking the icons and characteristics of each space, covering the enclosed sphere of the earth (a world of signification where names, tatoos, totems, and masks signify identity to the cosmos), the organizational pyramid of the territorial (agriculture and domestication establish boundaries while identity is based on institutional rank), the network circuit of the commodity (marketplace prompts deterritorialization while job title defines identity), and, finally, a future knowledge space (identity as a knowledge tree organized around dynamic images produced out of the exploration and transformation of virtual worlds) that will be constantly regenerated in an ongoing project. LÚvy is quick to point out, however, that "these spaces can't be classified as eras, or ages, or epochs for the simple reason that they can't be substituted for one another but coexist"; yet, once deployed, the space is irreversible and results in a "kind of anthropological geology in which the spaces function as layers" (225). Much like his prior use of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Farabian tradition, LÚvy shores up his comprehensive account of these layers with effective use of The Odyssey, navigational instruments (e.g., nautical quadrants and astrolabes), encyclopedic knowledge, and epistemologies.

Particularly important to the autopoietic bond of knowledge space and collective intelligence is the hypercortex, a pattern emerging from technology's ability to "promote the construction of intelligent communities in which our social and cognitive potential can be mutually developed and enhanced" (9-10). As it expands, the hypercortex will shape itself according to other networked brains, making contact with others and participating in the construction of virtual worlds. The knowledge space and its concomitant hypercortex is problematic, however, as humanity becomes "nothing more than a brain. Even his body becomes a cognitive system. But the brain shapes itself collectively, makes contact with other brains, with systems of signs, language, and intellectual technologies, it participates in thinking communities that explore and create multiple worlds. Thus, the brain of Homo sapiens sapiens turns in upon itself, unveils its obverse and transforms itself into a polycosm" (156). LÚvy's evocation of the hypercortex as nothing more than a brain apparently deletes bodily markers from the posthuman equation; as a result, his vision treads dangerously close to a corporeal disavowal that has been postulated in some of the more animated postmodern and/or cybercultural musings. In defiance of disembodiment discourses popularized by, among others, Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky, Arthur Kroker, or Jean Baudrillard, academics such as N. Katherine Hayles (How We Became Posthuman, 1999), Anne Basalmo (Technologies of the Gendered Body, 1996), and Mark Dery (Escape Velocity, 1996) have critically resisted and interrogated the loss or downplaying of the corporeal form with its multiple bodily inscriptions. Reading LÚvy's account of cosmopedia, one can't help feel an alignment of Collective Intelligence with the former group over the latter, where a similar disavowal is taking place as bodily markers seemingly have no bearing on a hypercortexed intelligence. As with "The Ethics of the Social Body," the cosmopedia and hypercortex have troubling implications and a cyberspatial fencing at their conceptual core that necessitates a careful reconsideration of LÚvy's utopia and the cost of such a connected intelligence.

Quite up front, LÚvy writes that "I am not proposing a political program but a conceptual framework, a philosophical approach, which I hope will supply effective instruments from comprehending and resolving society's organizational difficulties" (230). While there is nothing wrong per se with a conceptual framework or extrapolation on computer technologies, Donna Haraway does remind us in Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleManę_Meets_OncoMouse that "'the computer' is a trope, a part-for-whole figure, for a world of actors and actants, and not a Thing Acting Alone. 'Computers' cause nothing, but the human and nonhuman hybrids troped by the figure of the information machine remake worlds" (126). Despite the energy crackling in LÚvy's account, Collective Intelligence is a troubling text as it attempts to bypass the ideologically-inscribed world of actors and actants in favor of a theoretical world divorced from the socio-economic factors that inevitably influence posthuman development. In the end, the demarcations and occlusions position Collective Intelligence as a speculative fiction outlining a future that might best remain a utopia, a no-place. Then again, as Newtonian philosophers surely pointed out when shooting for the moon, anything is possible.

1. De Kerckhove's text, influenced by Levy's, bases its statistical data on 1995 figures that coincide with the original French version of Collective Intelligence.

Basalmo, Anne. Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1996.

De Kerckhove, Derrick. Connected Intelligence: The Arrival of the Web Society. Toronto: Somerville House, 1997.

Dery, Mark. Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. New York: Grove, 1996.

Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleManę_Meets_OncoMouse. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Infomatics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Graham J. Murphy:
Graham J. Murphy, a Ph.D. Candidate in English Literature at the University of Alberta, is currently drafting his dissertation Cy(ber)borg Netizens: (Re)Configuring the Post/Human Body in the Cultural Intersections of ScyberFiction and Cyberspace. He has published material on Samuel Delany, Arthur C. Clarke, Tarzan comic books, Katherine Hayles' How We Became Posthuman, and, most recently, co-edited Paddy Whacking: The Irish in Popular Literature of the Early American Republic. He is also currently writing an article exploring hyperrealism and anthropological space in William Gibson's Bridge trilogy.  <gjmurphy@cyberus.ca>

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