[permaculture] Co-intelligence (long)

keith Johnson keithdj at mindspring.com
Mon Oct 28 17:47:12 EST 2002


by Tom Atlee

Have you ever been in a stupid group made up of intelligent people? I mean, 
each person in the group is pretty smart and creative, but when they get 
together they seem to get in each other's way?  They can't seem to make 
decisions, they fight, they can't get things done. Or maybe they make 
decisions that are unimaginative - or even
destructive.  Or they just go round and round as the world passes them by.

Or maybe the groups you know have a strong leader.  If the leader is good, 
maybe the group acts intelligently - makes good decisions, gets things done.  
But maybe the leader is bad... or maybe people are rebelling against a good 
or so-so leader... or maybe a good leader burns out and the group flounders.

Or maybe some group you know has a unifying ideology or belief that holds 
them all together - until someone tries to do something creative or 

Have you experienced these things?  Have you ever seen them among activists 
in social change movements?

I have.  And I've also experienced a few rare groups where everyone's a peer, 
where leadership is shared, where a special kind of energy among them allows 
them to explore and solve problems together, successfully.  I've watched 
people with very different ideas, backgrounds, aptitudes and knowledge using 
that diversity creatively.
They come up with brilliant solutions and proposals - better than any of them 
could have come up with alone.  The group seems more intelligent than its 
individual members.

Seeing these extremes, and observing what a large role these dynamics play in 
efforts to make a better world, I've chosen to study them, to see what I can 

I call these dynamics "collective intelligence" -- which manifests as "group 
intelligence" in groups and "societal intelligence" in whole societies.

Intelligence refers to our ability to sort out our experience in ways that 
help us respond appropriately to circumstances - especially when we're faced 
with new situations.

Societal intelligence, then, refers to the ability of a whole society to 
learn and cope creatively with its environment.  Societal intelligence 
includes all the characteristics and institutions that help whole societies 
respond collectively and appropriately to their circumstances.

Although I first got interested in this subject by observing dysfunctional 
activist groups, I soon realized that these groups simply manifested the 
dynamics of our dysfunctional society.  Our society as a whole doesn't know 
how to solve its problems
intelligently, doesn't know how to use its diversity creatively, and is 
moving inexorably towards its own self-destruction.  Was it any wonder that 
many activist groups displayed the same characteristics?

It seemed to me almost axiomatic that, if we don't improve collective 
intelligence - our collective problem-solving, responsive capabilities - none 
of our other social and environmental problems would get solved.  And, if we 
could achieve some breakthrough in societal intelligence, all the other 
problems would, in a sense,
solve themselves in the natural course of socially-intelligent living.  You 
don't have to solve all a person's problems for them if you increase their 
ability to solve their own problems.  The same goes, I suspect, for societies.

So I've been doing some research on this.  And one of the first things I 
stumbled across was the possibility that democracy is a stage in the 
evolution of societal intelligence.

Let's suppose societies go through stages.  In an early stage, a society 
might be run by the strongest warriors.  Such a society would organize itself 
and survive through the use of physical force.  Force has a black-and-white, 
win/lose logic to it which works in simple circumstances but doesn't work in 
the face of (and cannot support)
greater complexity or subtlety.  As the need for more complex relationships 
evolve, such a society would need to complexify its repertoire of responses.

They might, let's suppose, shift into a stage where traditions are the 
guiding principle.  Every problem has a standardized solution, handed down 
from generation to generation.  Almost like instincts get handed down 
genetically, traditions are handed down through instruction and example.  
Traditions (like instincts) usually evolve
from experience, so they're appropriate and workable as long as the 
environment doesn't change.   But a society may find tradition hampers their 
creative responsiveness when they're faced with novel circumstances.

In a sense, a society based on ideology may be similar to one based on 
tradition.  Ideologies are usually powerfully useful within a specific zone 
of operation.  But they have their limits and, when those limits are reached, 
the ideology prevents successful, intelligent responses from emerging.

When traditions or ideologies are made obsolete by changing circumstances, a 
society needs to find a more flexible form of intelligence.  It needs to be 
able to observe changes, create new appropriate responses, and then implement 
those responses.

Societies seem to have different strategies for this.  The wise leader 
(Plato's philosopher king) is one strategy.  The wise leader says what to do 
and everyone does it.  While this has, on occasion, worked for decades at a 
time, leaders are subject to change without notice (by dying, being 
overthrown, suffering breakdowns of various
sorts, or losing their perspective or integrity in the giddy heights of 
power).  So philosopher kings present a problem:  they change, and not always 
appropriately for the society.  Maybe it would help to depend on more than 
one person.

The idea behind the Soviet Communist Party was that it, as a collective 
entity, would be the wise leader, the vanguard of the proletariat.  Its 
Central Committee would come up with what to do, then everyone would do it.  
The main weakness of this approach proved to be Lord Acton's infamous saying: 
 "All power tends to corrupt.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely."  Once the Party and its individual 
members based their calculations on their own - rather than the society's - 
best interests, the "vanguard approach" became very questionable as a 
strategy for social intelligence.  Also, as Soviet society grew more complex, 
it became harder to manage from a
central point.

Which brings us to democracy.  The basic principle of democracy is that those 
affected by a decision will make it.  This inherently decentrist, creative, 
responsive strategy has one main problem:  It assumes that people are able 
and willing to make intelligent decisions in groups.

Since this is not always the case, we've evolved what we call "representative 
democracy" where we choose philospher kings (e.g., presidents) and vanguard 
committees (e.g., Congresses) to make our decisions for us, throwing them out 
when we don't like what they do. This has a rough sort of workability.  In 
election years everyone takes a bit of time to review the society's problems 
and possible
solutions and, at least in theory, chooses the best solutions and wisest 
persons to empower for the next few years. 

Unfortunately, this strategy is also undone by Lord Acton's prophecy. 
Representation centralizes power, and that centralized power attracts 
corrupting influences to itself (especially from other centralized powers in 
the society like corporations).  So we balance it with all sorts of interest 
groups, grassroots movements, unions, legal checks and balances, etc.  
American history is a beautiful tale of democracy
progressing and regressing at the same time in the most remarkable ways, 
evolving as it goes.  Unfortunately we can't afford too many more democratic 
regressions (concentrations of power):  our social problems are so great, 
change is happening so fast and human power is growing so rapidly that we are 
confronted with a daunting choice: make our next quantum leap in societal 
intelligence or collapse as a culture.

Our challenge is, simply, to learn how to become not only democratic but 
wisely democratic as individuals, as groups and as a society.  We need to 
learn how to generate a spirit of partnership (non-domination) among 
ourselves; to increase our individual responsibility and co-leadership 
abilities; to master consensual group dynamics and communication skills; to 
creatively utilize our diversity (including our differences of opinion and 
style); to increase the accessibility of information and other resources; and 
to nurture our own and each other's deep realization of our needs, our 
stories, our values and our capabilities.  There are many ways to do each of 
these, and there are probably other things we need to do, as well.

This is a new field of investigation and activism.  We need to clarify what 
we need to do - and how to do it - to enable our societal intelligence.  Then 
we need to spread these understandings and practices into the society.  To 
the extent we succeed, I suspect our groups and our society will start 
behaving intelligently, quite naturally.

But there's a significance to all this that goes beyond democracy and saving 
our hides from extinction.  To the extent we achieve societal intelligence, 
it seems to me that we will shift to a different kind of society entirely.  
The evolutionary leap may be equivalent to the evolution of individual 
intelligence.  We may reach a state in which
societies become intelligent entities - neither a monolith unified by 
conformity nor a machine made of fragmented individuals, but a thinking 
organism made of discrete participants, each contributing their unique and 
essential creativity into the dynamic wisdom and power of the whole.

Or maybe not.  Maybe it will just be a good society to live in. Either way, 
it seems to me worth working for.

July 1992, revised September 2002

Tom Atlee * The Co-Intelligence Institute * PO Box 493 * Eugene, OR 97440
http://www.co-intelligence.org *  http://www.democracyinnovations.org

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