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Handbook of Collective Intelligence

by Thomas W. Malone & Michael S. Bernstein, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2015
219 pp., 9 fig. b/w. Hardcover $32.00; £23.95; eBook $21.00
ISBN: 9780262029810; ISBN: 9780262331456

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

I apologize for the truism, for this book is a publication that should be on all shelves or, better, opened and reread, at all desks, and also filed among the favorites on every tablet or pc. For non–specialists like me, it is the ideal handbook: well–presented and nicely edited material, excellent editorial introductions for each chapter, accessible writing (even the chapter on economics and the various market theories proved perfectly readable, in spite of my initial fears), rich bibliographies, useful suggestions for further readings, and above all an almost comprehensive overview of a the many subfields of this crucial field. To other, more specialized readers, this book, which becomes then much more than just a handbook, sketches an important research agenda. The key term in this regard is multidisciplinarity, by which Malone and Bernstein mean two things. First cross–fertilization: each discipline learns from insights gained in other disciplines, or tries to do so, if possible in a two–way philosophy: humans can learn a lot from ants when collective behavior is concerned, but it works also the other way round, for our knowledge of ant colonies can be increased by the study of human crowds. Second the development of generalizable mechanisms, such as for instance the ideal management of internal diversity, which is a must if one wants to improve the quality of final outcome and decisions, or, in the narrower case of human groups, the necessity of having enough women as participating individuals – which I guess can be rephrased and updated in those circumstances where the group is composed by only female participants (I am thinking of some of my own classrooms, where all students are female).

Collective intelligence is defined as follows by the editors (one of them is director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence; the other one is professor of Computer Science at Stanford): "groups of individuals acting collectively in ways that seem intelligent" (p. 3). And they immediately add the following caveats and specifications: 1) the definition does not try to define "intelligence" (which makes it compatible with a lot of other definitions of collective intelligence, which are countless), 2) it supposes that the intelligence is manifested by some kind of behavior (certain contributors to the volume even suggest that the difference between collective behavior and collective intelligence is open to debate); 3) it also requires that one can identify the individuals that participate in the process (even if these individuals are for instance different types of neurons within one individual brain), 4) the fact that there must be some form of collective action does not signify that all individuals share the same goals or that they must always cooperate; 5) finally, the word "seem" in the definition draws attention to the position of the observer, for it is always of her point of view that depends the question of collective intelligence.

With the help of this robust but open definition, the editors have brought together specialists and debates from many different fields: economics, biology, human–computer interaction, artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, organizational behavior, and a somewhat heterogeneous field curiously labeled "law, communications, sociology, political science, and anthropology" (actually this is a chapter on peer production). From the very first pages in the book it becomes clear that these disciplinary voices are all truly interdisciplinary. They establish fruitful dialogues with similar questions, issues and methods in other fields. They share not only the general definition proposed by the editors but also larger theoretical frameworks such as the relationship between collective intelligence and evolutionary biology, a set of neuroscientific references, or the necessity to always unite man and technology. This provides the book with a strong internal cohesion (not a detail in the scholarship on collective intelligence, of which this handbook is of course a brilliant proof).

But back to non–specialists, who will find here extremely useful material on topics that concern every researcher. Mainly based on the Star Model developed by J.R. Galbraith, the chapter on organizational behavior, for example, is an excellent summary of the various elements that influence the work (read: the success or the failure) of an organization. It offers theoretical insights that can be usefully implemented, tested, and why not adapted by all those who either design project work or happen to work in project form (be it by choice or out of necessity). Other chapters offer extremely useful observations on types of collective work we are all contributing to today, such as Wikipedia (it seems for instance that financial rewards given to active, high–quality, top–level contributors are counterproductive, for they discourage others contributors, which is a bad thing for diversity, while not really encouraging the specialists, who are not motivated by financial gains).

If I had to make a critical note, this would concern the absence of arts and humanities, a field that has since long abandoned the mythical idea of the romantic genius and that could have made surprising contributions to the multidisciplinary field of collective intelligence. In the whole book there is only one mention of it. In the chapter on organizational behavior it is said that: "Recent studies (…) suggest that theory–of–mind abilities as measured by the RME (= Reading the Mind in the Eyes, J.B.) can be, at least temporarily, improved by reading literary fiction, which implies a new and interesting avenue of research for improving group performance" (p. 160). This may seem a little meager and it regrettably focuses only on the reception of fiction, not on the making of it, which is no less a great testing ground for the laws and mechanisms of collective intelligence. One can only hope that the second edition of this handbook will make room for the arts as well. After all, there exists a strong tradition of thinking on collective behavior and intelligence in this field as well (and not only within the subfield of the sociology of art).


Last Updated 4 September 2016

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