Collective Intelligence in the New Age

Working together can create more meaning and bring more understanding of the world around us. The ideas in Chapter 4 of Net Smart by Rhiengold (2012) especially regarding collective intelligence and the function of the Internet to create communities, groups, and audiences that create a deeper meaning of what is happening around them is very powerful and applicable to our work with analyzing and reviewing social media principles as well as our work as technical communicators.

I have heard complaints from the generation before mine, professors, staff members, and students that came before, that the way we learn and take in information currently does not take the same amount of effort and time that it used to, thus we are as a whole not as smart as we could be, as they had to be in the world before the World Wide Web.

I wholeheartedly disagree. Are things different? Definitely. For the most part, we do not have to deal with card catalogs and worrying about not obtaining the library book we need because someone already has it out. But what we do have is mountains of information at our fingertips that needs to be read through, researched, analyzed, and ultimately accepted or discarded as useful to the project that need to be completed.

Thinking about it as the natural reaction our society has had to the advent of technology and connectedness, collective intelligence seems like a great place for us to be in.

“Now that we have gained access to digital tools that enable us to share what we know and aggregate small contributions into large knowledge repositories, a new level of collective intelligence is possible” (p. 160).

Just as a reality, it is fascinating how much I find myself depending on the opinions and knowledge of others in my personal and professional life.

I read Yelp reviews and will search through a few pages for tips and tricks about shopping: how to do it effectively, where to go for the best prices, and when to go to avoid the most foot traffic.

I use my coworkers as sounding boards when working on projects, running edits, changes, style issues, and new copy by one or more people to see how they react, even when we’re working on completely different projects.

This trend is so important to the way we think about knowledge and learning. It may seem like an obvious idea. We learn currently from teachers and professors, those who go to school and study techniques specifically to learn how to instruct and impart knowledge on others, but to my mind there is still so much stigma associated with the spirit of collective intelligence in schoolwork.

Beginning your career as a student, you do not learn that it is your right, I would say responsibility, to question the font of knowledge: a teacher. In order to retain control over groups of wild children, teachers must be seen as the ultimate authority in their spaces. As you grow older and become more comfortable with yourself and the idea that you have to have your own opinions and thoughts about the world around you, you are inundated with cultural norms and taboos. They are subjects you can’t bring up in public without receiving a negative reaction: sex, politics, and religion. There are other subjects that only apply to you and place you into a subgroup: race, gender, sex, socio-economic status, ethnicity.

By high school you have hopefully learned all the rules, overtly taught to you and covertly gathered by osmosis and have gone through puberty so hopefully you have become a version of yourself that can function in society. You have created PowerPoints and book reports and scientific models. But beyond being forced into groups by your teachers, it is still up to the teacher as the superior figure to create meaning and focus your attention on the facts and figures that you need to know.

That long analogy is meant to draw attention to the fact that with the Internet and social media, it is up to us to create meaning and monitor the information and knowledge being influenced and cultivated around us. I cannot say with complete certainty that children are reacting differently in classes. There are thousands of studies and reports about classroom teaching and management that are authored about the changes going on in classrooms because of technology and the Internet.

What works for me is the idea that we are demanding more of our teaching professionals and of ourselves than we have before. Yes, the Internet gives everyone a platform to shout their opinions from the rooftop (leading to a degradation of fields like traditional print media). It also gives us the ability to share what we know with each other, outside of the limits of a roundtables and desks with tiny chairs. Even outside the bounds of an online course taught by a PhD.

Rheingold, Howard. (2014).  Net Smart: How to thrive online. MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Posted on October 31, 2016, in Digital, Teaching, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Your point that we have “mountains of information at our fingertips that needs to be read through, researched, analyzed, and ultimately accepted or discarded as useful to the project that need to be completed” is valid, and obviously connects to Rheingold’s text. I, too, dislike the notion that technology has dumbed things down. We still have to read things and ask questions. Our first MSTPC thesis project focused on the impact of texting and social media upon students’ freshman composition writing, and found “no significant trends correlating these habits with their writing, however… the ability to navigate multiple literacies emerged during the study.” And that was in 2011, so I’m sure students’ “Crap detection” abilities have only increased. I know they still need to be taught, as this prof does specifically on online reputation, but I agree with you that learning and meaning is being made thanks to technology.

    Your other point about the ability to learn from so many others, degreed or not, via the internet is key. I learn from strangers on Twitter everyday, particularly about the latest in my research area. When it comes to this class, I’ve learned so much from all of you since you’re working professionals in the field. My PhD is in rhetoric and composition, not technical communication, but my passion for social media is what led me to propose this course and I recognize more and more how different social media channels can be used [or avoided] by workplaces thanks to the variety of students I see each Fall!

    • Exactly! So much of our idea about education, at least in my experience in college, is bound up in what your major is. It’s not until we leave/start looking for work and schools that we discover that outside of very specific job title, it’s all about how you’re able to market yourself and your skillset. We still find value in degrees and certifications, but the Internet has provided us with a great variety of sites and videos so we can pick up new skills, languages, and software.

      It’s not just enough to have the piece of paper, we have to affirm our knowledge and build connections with other professionals in order to remain relevant.

  2. Interesting analogy and commentary comparing past and present learning. I think kids are inundated with more information at a much faster rate than what they can process, analyze and synthesize, which affects their leaning behavior and retention. However, there are opportunities for alternative education for teens and adults that can be taken online which help their attention and success. IAgree, one method is not superior over another, but should be valued for the impact it has on the learner.

    • Exactly. I don’t mean to be so negative about the school system, but I have noticed a trend of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” when it comes to established ideas and traditions. As we move forward and really delve into what the technology around us can do, we have to remain open to the idea that there are some systems that will be bettered because of our new reality.

  3. I’m really glad to have read your post. It’s always nice to get another perspective about things with which I’m not entirely familiar, and online gaming is one of them. Well, all manner of video games to be frank. I know that Call of Duty is not an online game, but the idea is similar: groups of people who know or may not know one another “in real life” meeting virtually to work towards a common goal even if that common goal is considered a “game”.

    While I’ve never partaken in video games except for MarioKart and 007 on Nintendo 64 and Super Mario on Nintendo NES, the fact that the gaming industry is a multi-billion (trillion?) dollar enterprise means that a LOT of people like to play. I used to live with a boyfriend who was, dare I say, obsessed with Call of Duty. There would be times where I would get home from work and there’d be 15 guys in my living room and kitchen, cords, tvs, consoles everywhere. LAN Party? Is that what they’re called? I used to get SO upset about it. But, that was his thing. And after reading your post perhaps I should have had more respect for it and let him have his gaming. It really was a community for him.

  4. My comment above belongs to the previous post, apologies.

  5. I’ve always felt that I spent most of my undergrad years UN-learning so much of what I learned in high school. Biggest example forme is that throughout high school we were (perhaps unintentionally) taught to inflate our writing to meet seemingly arbitrary word or page counts. It took me many, many years of practice and writing/editing classes to break that habit and cut padding out of writing, mine and others’.

    In high school it was all about “do your own work” and it was cheating to work on a project or test with somebody. And then society is shocked when we get into the workforce and have no idea how to collaborate–fortunately, my undergrad university emphasized collaboration. It was a STEM school, and it recognized that most of the graduates would be collaborating with other engineers and scientists.

    I think the biggest challenge facing pre-college educators is trying to figure out what essentials need to be taught. The sum of human knowledge is growing by the day minute, and there is only so much you can teach before a kid turns 18 and goes off on his or her own. In the end, it will probably literacies–such as Rheingold’s–that end up being the most valuable. But how do you teach them?

    • Yes. This is the sort of thing I hate about our public education system (and a bit of post secondary depending on where you go). Learning cannot be limited to the classroom. At every moment, what we learn needs to be informed about what we need to do with that knowledge in a real world setting. Working with others, being as clear and concise as possible, even learning how to balance a checkbook and submit taxes are all skills we have to have as we enter the workforce.

      Like you said, we have to unlearn the best practices of one phase of our academic lives before we can actually begin to market ourselves effectively. There are so many blogs and posts about Generation Y/millennials not being prepared for the workforce. If there is any disconnect, it’s between what school has not taught us and what we need to know to be successful. Technology allows us to close the gap somewhat, we can watch a YouTube video about interviewing and apartment searching. And we have to because that practical knowledge does not belong in the classroom apparently.

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