This is a summary and analysis of Pierre Lévy‘s book “Collective Intelligence: mankind’s emerging world in cyberspace”, which provides all direct and indirect quotes in this essay.
“Human intelligence? Its space is dispersion. Its time, the eclipse. Its knowledge, the fragment. Collective intelligence realizes its reintegration. It constructs transpersonal but continuous thought. An anonymous cogitation but one that is perpetually alive, uniformly irrigated, metamorphic. Through the intermediary of virtual worlds, we can not only exchange information but think together, share our memories and our plans to produce a cooperative brain.” (p. 108)
The thesis put forward in Collective Intelligence is essentially that mankind must acknowledge the potential of cyberspace to enable beneficial new forms of complex collective thought, collective expression, and social organization. Technology transmutes the possible into the feasible (p. 246). In this sense, Pierre Lévy’s ideas are reminiscent of Vannevar Bush‘s early dreams of a collective memory, of Marshall McLuhan‘s notion of a forthcoming “global village”, of Douglas Engelbart‘s vision of the computer as a tool to augment human thought, or of J. C. R. Licklider‘s plans for symbiotic human—computer networks.
The greatest originality of Lévy’s thought, however, may lie in his utopian calling for a revolution in society’s understanding of itself – a revolution which would have as purpose the expansion of subjectivity (cf. Lévy, 2000). Multi-modal and dynamic (p. 120), the virtual worlds that make up the deterritorialized semiotic plane offer no static perfection but rather “the principle of self-organization, the continuous self-invention of human communities and their worlds” (p. 239). These virtual worlds, as instruments of self-knowledge and self-definition (p. 98), may give rise to autopoietic imagining collectives (p. 139) and computer-aided imagination (p. 214). The collective need not be homogeneous, individuality can be preserved and even encouraged within it.
The Farabian tradition – of Al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā – was the first to consistently describe a shared intellect beyond that of individuals, as an essentially theological concept (p. 92-95). From this concept, Lévy derives the seemingly paradoxical project of an atheistic, humanistic angelology (p. 99). In this atheological system, the theological discourse is systematically reversed: rather than being the faint emanations of angels (as in the Farabian tradition), humans project themselves as angelic bodies in virtual spaces. Thus, the utopia depicted relies on a teleology of the divine conceived as immanent and virtual (p. 106).
To flesh out his vision, Lévy suggests a broad social theory which articulates five components:
- On a technological level: digital media, nanotechnology, bioengineering…
- On an economic level: beyond the “economy of knowledge”, an “economy of human qualities”.
- On a political level: promotion of singularity through computer-assisted, real-time direct democracy. (Power is viewed as negative, strength as positive.)
- On an ethical level: the just are the intellectually hospitable who make situated, dynamic, provisional “best possible” choices.
- On an aesthetic level: art of implication and collective events.
To support these claims, Lévy relies mainly on two theoretical models: a “cartography” – in the sense of a kind of Carte du Tendre (p. 149) – of anthropological spaces, and an analysis of crucial technological evolutions.
The model of anthropological spaces (summarized in Figure 1 below) comprises four interdependent and coexisting layers: autonomous (p. 243), metamorphic (p. 170), living (p. 227) worlds of signification (p. 149) structured by affective forces (p. 143). Such spaces of signification implicate their own axiology and system of values or measurement (p. 144; cf. Serres, 1972). Each new space subsumes and subordinates the previous ones without eradicating or assimilating them (p. 236). Even in our cyberized society, the “great chaosmic earth” (p. 132) of totems and rites is still with us; indeed, the fabric of our humanity is irrevocably woven with the threads of dreams and myths. Nonetheless, this mutual inter-penetration of anthropological spaces must be understood as a chaotic, complex process (p. 150).
(If you are so inclined, you may read a more detailed overview of each space’s attributes in this document.)
The relationship between the spaces may be harmonious or discordant (the latter mainly when lower spaces aggressively attempt to control upper spaces). Affective forces permeate all spaces as lower spaces desire or are attracted by the faster spaces above them; conversely, uppermost spaces “nourish them in turn, without perceiving them” (p. 235).
Associated with cyberspace is the emergent “knowledge space”, where “thought triggers thought in a continual process.” (p. 193) As with all anthropological spaces, this space is contingent, not necessary. Its dynamic shapes are those of new meanings and renewed subjectivities.
As for Lévy’s narrower model of technological evolutions (summarized in Figure 2 below), in this context, it relates mainly the transition from “transcendence” to “immanence”. Here again, the cyberspace corresponds to a plane of existence defined by intricacy and velocity.
Collective Intelligence was a visionary work in at least as many ways as it was a profoundly controversial and frequently misunderstood one. Written before the rise of contemporary social networks, it called for new technologies to “engineer the social bond” and highlighted a crisis of identities. Written before the creation of Wikipedia, it envisioned that cyberspace would enable the creation of a “cosmopedia” (of which Wikipedia is undeniably a seed).
Lévy’s vision of the utopian cyberspace as an improvised choreography of “angels” (p. 91—115) may challenge the irreligious sensibilities of some contemporary readers, but let us not forget that what he put forward is a fundamentally atheistic and humanistic project. If we substitute “avatars”, being the currently fashionable word to refer to virtual identities, for “angels”, his theses may appear more plausible… serendipitously, “avatar” etymologically originates from the Sanskrit ava-tāra, meaning “descent of a deity”.
“For when I sleep, my angel continues to act in the virtual world.” (p. 107)
My most enlightening experiences on-line occurred in a context consistent with Lévy’s account of the “intelligent collective”. I have gained invaluable knowledge as I explored living virtual communities. I have intimately experienced the new freedoms and subjectivities that emerge when many brains become connected through computers. I have reinvented my virtual identity time and time again.
The diversity and multiplicity of my virtual identity echoes the multidimensionality of the semiotic space I evolve in: no longer a library or bookstore but a dynamic and interactive representational space (p. 216) overflowing with meaning.
Within the “megalopolis of signs” (p. 183), all is signification. There is no total or absolute knowledge. The breadth of potential knowledge is now irremediably overwhelming, if not simply unfathomable. Without doubt, our relationship to alterity (“otherness”) will be transformed as we navigate the new space. Will this entail that we withdraw upon ourselves, contemplate the spectacle and vociferate in ever-growing echo chambers … or will we be able to accept and integrate the polymorphic torrent of signification? The ethereal essence of the virtual hints towards the possibility that the collective intellect may be geared towards freedom. Divine freedom. (p.113—115)
The entire project has been criticized as a naive form of technocracy. Can “engineering the social bond” produce social dynamics conducive to autonomy, rather than exclusion, domination and power? Can we design freedom? I would reply that all freedom is designed: freedom of thought through languages, freedom of movement through machines. But within cyberspace, where languages and machines become one, what becomes of the movement of thought? Thought in the great semiotic plane is at once a lived experience and a living part of a collective utterance. We have only barely begun to explore the intricacies of the realms that have come into being.
Lévy now calls for a revolution in the humanities and social sciences to make full use of digital technologies. His project of a collective brain, or “hypercortex” (p. 105), is based on IEML (cf. Lévy, 2011). The study of thought must go beyond the tools provided by the theory of information, towards the study of signification and freedom within human communities. To describe the “configurations of meaning” (p. 201) in cyberspace, we must develop “something beyond writing, beyond language, so that the processing of information can be universally distributed and coordinated” (p. xxviii).
“And yes! We are in favor of progress. We harbor ideas about dangerous utopias of reciprocity, exchange, attentiveness, respect, recognition, mutual apprenticeship, negotiation among autonomous subjects, and the enhancement of human qualities.” (p. 86)
Pierre Lévy’s collective intelligence is also my utopia, my Shangri-la. As a child of the Web concerned about mankind’s future, I dedicate my life to its actualization.
Lévy, Pierre. Collective Intelligence. Perseus Books, 1997.
Lévy, Pierre. Cyberculture. Minnesota UP, 2001.
Lévy, Pierre. World Philosophie. Odile Jacob, Paris, 2000.
Lévy, Pierre. Cyberdémocratie. Odile Jacob, Paris, 2002.
Lévy, Pierre. The Semantic Sphere 1. Computation, Cognition and Information Economy. Wiley, 2011.
Serres, Michel. “J’habite une multiplicité d’espaces”, in L’Interférence. Éditions de Minuit, 1972.