The limit of collective intelligence

Groupthink dominates social networks and participatory projects (The Hindu 18/4/18)

Groupthink vs the singular voice
Groupthink vs the singular voice

Round table discussions, brainstorming sessions, participatory workshops and other design charrettes and ‘hackatons’ are all the rage in governments, NGOs, civic associations and corporations. Chances are that many people reading this article have participated in such an event at least once in the past year. It is a global phenomenon, which reflects a radical shift away from a top down and expert-driven decision-making culture, towards one that recognizes that the knowledge held by end-users is an abundant resource worth exploring. Tapping into collective intelligence can potentially improve all kind of things, from governance to city planning to product design. This new culture rests on the notion that several minds put together are better than one when it comes to producing new ideas.

A particularly interesting aspect of this trend is that it largely happens offline. Digital communication and social networks can only take us only so far. Facebook or Twitter are incredibly good at giving everyone a chance to diffuse an opinion and receive feedback in the form of a ‘like’ or a comment. But when it comes to putting our brains together and ideating, we still need to be face to face and share a physical space where billions of micro reactions can travel at the speed of a blink. Hundreds of thousands of people traverse the world every day to interact with their collaborators in person. Skype, Hangout, Slack and countless other web tools may facilitate virtual teamwork, but they can’t replace the real thing.

Illustration by Hugh Ebdy

"Sometimes we don’t just want to like or dislike an idea, or even to comment on it. We want to co-create it."

Another attractive dimension of such participatory culture is that it provides a new way of getting involved in civic issues. As Hannah Arendt once said - the “booth in which we deposit our ballots is unquestionably too small, for this booth has room only for one.” Indeed, sometimes we don’t just want to like or dislike an idea, or even to comment on it. We want to co-create it. And participation, when it is real, can bring us those few crucial steps beyond the discursive, mental space, and into action. Some of the best insights and outcomes come from actually fabricating an object, reclaiming a space, or organizing a public event. Direct action is a form of democratic participation that has been largely suppressed even in the most democratic countries. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s democratic ideal wasn’t just about people’s right to express preferences, but about their capacity to fulfil them directly.

Imagine a real world in which the value of everything was also driven by the number of votes or likes it gets. The way it happens in social networks. More votes mean your post gets higher up on the page, and then gets more views and increased circulation. This mechanism is nothing new. It is what John Stuart Mill called the “tyranny of the majority”. He warned for instance, that a religious majority could oppress a minority. Democracies have established constitutional safeguards such as decentralisation, constitutional limits or the separation of powers.


"Social networks tend to intensify a propensity to mimic peers."

Safeguards against the tyranny of the majority are very weak in the virtual world. Social networks tend to intensify a propensity of social beings to mimic peers. This creates positive feedback loops – generating memes and other viral phenomena. Such propensity has famously been exploited in the recent American elections. What was truly shocking in the Cambridge Analytica scandal wasn’t that they were targeting potential Trump voters. After all, Facebook is essentially a sophisticated advertising war machine that excels at identifying user’s preferences. What was unsettling was the idea that announcers could tap into people’s tendency to imitate their friends: “If Floyd supports Trump then I will too.” It is not only Trump supporters that mimic their peers. We all do. That’s how we share values, create norms and form communities.

The propensity to groupthink is also apparent in participatory processes offline. Loud voices and nodding heads can easily keep us quiet at a round table discussion. We are anxious to reach consensus and avoid conflict. We like to fit in. We gladly settle for the lowest common denominator, instead of leaving of the group when we disagree.

What is needed is to tap the potential of collective intelligence but never at the cost of suppressing our preferences and singularity. Rather than promoting passive consent and majority rule, participatory processes should challenge our views, stimulate our creativity and give us means to act in a complex world.