There is this meme or idea that is prevalent in society, which is that we are all a collective brain. We can call this collective intelligence, decentralized mind, global computer, extended intelligence, socially augmented cognition, global nervous system, or global brain, but no matter what name we use, we will be speaking basically about the same thing. But this idea is not new. In fact, it is an idea that can be traced back to several branches of literature, many of which do not deal with technology. On the one hand, the idea of a collective mind can be seen as an extension of the idea of the market, which is our decentralized ability to coordinate productive activities among strangers. On the other hand, the idea of collective minds can be traced back to the vestigial social structures and institutions that anthropologists study. The social structures that created the social room that allow markets to exist.
These vestigial social structures matter because collective intelligence does not happen in a vacuum, where self-interested individuals spontaneously generate cooperation. Collective or extended intelligence originated thousands of years ago in pockets, where individuals who shared genes and developed traditions evolved the rules they needed to cooperate. These vestigial institutions, the ones that created room for markets to exist, are well explained in David Graeber's 2011 book: Debt:The last 5,000 years . In Debt Graeber, an anthropologist and professor at LSE, explains that markets and currencies did not emerge in the context of strangers looking to barter different goods (as in an Adam Smith proverbial village). What the anthropological record show is that, prior to having physical currencies, people had concepts of virtual currencies and debt, since they lived in small social groups where tabs did not need to be settled simultaneously. In these small tribal societies, people kept mental tallies of who owned something to whom, and where relationships would eventually balance over time. In these societies, Graeber argues, the double coincidence problem of bartering that economic textbooks use to motivate currency did not exist. Therefore, currency did not emerge as a solution to the double coincidence problem, but as an extension of the social debts that originate in small groups. In fact, what is observed in pre-modern societies are people without currencies, but with the concept of debt. It is this indebtedness to one another, and the social mechanisms that enforce the settling of these tabs over extended period of times, what provides the social glue that these groups need to exist, and of course, to develop their collective intelligence.
But eventually we transcend the scale of hunter-gatherer groups. This is where technology, such as physical currency, comes into play. The way that physical currency was introduced in many places was—once again, not to solve a double coincidence problem—but as a government innovation designed to resolve the logistic problems needed to support an army. The mechanism by which governments introduce currency to finance armies is quite simple, clever, and elegant. The idea is that early governments (those existing in a hostile, fragmented, pre-modern world) survived only if they could organize an army to protect or expand their borders. But providing food, weapons, and shelter for armies is expensive. So what governments began doing, instead of providing those things to their armies directly, was to give soldiers money to buy food, shelter, or even weapons. But citizens did not want money (they had no use for it because they had other ways of settling debts). So what governments had to do was to tax people (in many cases using the army to enforce the collection taxes). Now people needed money to pay taxes. Boom! By taxing people on the one end, and giving money to the army on the other, circulation of physical currency was turned on. In turn, physical money increased our ability to interact with strangers (and develop larger collective brains), but it did not historically emerge from that necessity.
But there are also other mechanisms that have helped create the pockets of humans where our collective intelligence can reside. According to Curtis W. Marean, an archaeologist at Arizona State, a key moment in the evolution of our species was triggered by inhomogeneities in the productivity of food patches, such as fishing holes in Africa, tens of thousands of years ago . The theory (but there is also evidence) is that great variations in the productivity of shellfish made some locations extremely attractive to early human societies. In the best places, which were few and scattered, humans could extract well over their caloric need in a single day with little effort, and therefore, could grow and thrive if they were able to secure access to these places. But since many groups competed for these places, the inhomogenity of food patches created a strong selection pressure for groups with individuals with strong feelings of group loyalty to win the best patches (as they would work coordinatedly to protect them). So our motivations to act collectively emerged in the context of selection pressure caused by inhomogenous resources. Here, it was still the environment what provided us with the triggers needed to develop the feelings and institutions that allowed us to extend our intelligence beyond individuals and to act as groups, but by creating the idea of a group, humans began putting together their brains.
Now if we fast-forward dozens of millennia to the twentieth century, we can find ideas of collective minds in Hayek's famous use of knowledge in society . This 1945 paper—which has had huge political implications that I will not discuss here—formalized the notion of market prices as an information revealing mechanism. This is the idea that what prices do is help reveal information about the supply and demand of goods, and therefore, the main role of markets is to process information in a decentralized manner (achieving a computational capacity that is beyond that of central planning efforts). In the case of Hayek, however, we are talking about a society that is much different from the ones described by Graeber: a society with global communication and transportation technologies, scalable manufacturing, and a highly developed trade and financial system. In this society, prices are the highly compressed pieces of information that summarize the information needed for large groups of strangers to coordinate their wants and needs. A collective computer powered by a very tenuous but pervasive stream of price data. Once again, the collective computer idea comes to mind.
But the previous literature on collective intelligence does not only describe the mechanisms that gave rise to the coordination of groups, but also, focus on the pairwise interactions that help us create the links by which we extend our intelligence. Take the work of the cultural anthropologists who have studied the biases determining who we are more likely to learn from. The idea here is that, since there are too many people in the world, choosing who we learn from is important . And social learning is crucial for humans because our ability to adapt to an environment depends on it. So whom do we learn from? Dozens of experiments with children have shown that people are naturally biased to learn from those who show skill, accomplishment, and prestige, or that are similar to them in age, gender, and ethnicity. This rules help determine how information is passed on from generation to generation, and what information we consider valuable. While in principle, the veracity or value of a piece of information should be independent of who is providing it, in reality, it is not. That's why Einstein quotes, even when they are fake Internet memes, sound like life lessons. Of course, valuable information does often come from those who are skilled, accomplished, and prestigious (like Einstein), but the opposite is not always true (not all information provided by those who are skilled, accomplished, or prestigious is valuable). Like all natural mechanisms, the ones from social learning are also ones that backfire.
But sometimes these pairwise interactions are aided by something other than mutual feelings of indebtedness, social pressure, currency, or social learning biases. They are aided by a social-glue that has a component of delusion. As the Israeli historian Yuval Harari argued in Sapiens, our ability to coordinate activities with strangers is facilitated when we share the same fictions. When we believe in the same gods, currency, or legal persons (technically companies), than other people. Sharing delusions allow us to agree on values, procedures, goals, and moral judgments. In fact, the "gluing" power of these shared fictions is such, that much of our history has been dedicated to hone these fictions. I am pretty sure that there isn't a book with more versions than the book of the Abrahamic religions (the book that has been edited and appended to create the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran).
So why do we need to develop fictions, create mental accounts, and decide who we should learn from? The reason is simple. It is because the computational capacities of individuals are finite, and the only way in which we can accumulate increasing computational capacity is by processing information collectively. To become a collective brain, we need to first become collective.
If you are reading this, is because you descend from a long lineage of individuals who transcended their personal level limitations by developing the institutions and technologies they needed to work collectively (those who did not, were selected out). In a nutshell, this is basically the point of Why Information Grows , a book where I explain that the capacities of economies to process information are constrained by two things: the social hardware we need to create to accumulate computational capacity (our social networks), and the knowledge and knowhow that we accumulate through cultural learning process and that allow us to build what we imagine.
But the idea that our ability to compute collectively depends on the size of the networks we can form, and their ability to accumulate knowledge, is also supported by observations. Consider the disappearance of the knowledge and knowhow that Tasmanians used to construct tools and weapons once the land bridge between Tasmania and Australia disappeared. When the population became small and isolated, the knowledge they had diminished. Another example is the strong correlation between the diversification and sophistication of a country's export mix—its economic complexity—and the mix of products that a country will make next.
So we can say that the idea of a collective brain, an extended intelligence, a human hive, a decentralized computer, a universal mind, or a global Village, is nothing new. It has been around for long, and it will be around for long.
So what is new this time around? What might be different this time is the technology. Is the opportunities we now have to download computation to devices and outsource tasks of sensing, classifying, and driving, that we could not outsource to machine intermediaries before. What is different is the potential we have to coordinate, gather, and analyze data in ways that could complement, expand, and extend the coordinating capacities of the price system, a reliable but tenuous and imperfect channel that still mediates much global coordination. Yet figuring out how to connect the world's data, and how to create the algorithms needed for that data to begin operating on itself is still an unsolved and unprecedented technical and conceptual challenge. What is also different this time around is that much of the communication that will be forthcoming will not be embodied in objects, like the screens of our phones or the ink in papers, but that it will probably happen directly between nervous systems, maybe through non-invasive wireless systems, or through implanted devices.
So what is different this time around is what has always been different when it comes to collective minds. It is not the idea of collective intelligence, but the way in which we continue to build that eternal dream.