Designing for Emergence – Monitoring Collective Network Intelligence

Peter Jones Civil media, Dialogic Design, Social Systems Design

Alberto Cottica presents the story of emergence in large, specialized social networks as the social technology necessary to address the wicked complexity of today’s societal problems.

Alberto’s analysis recognizes that citizen level participation could intervene as a powerful social force is guided (even “tweaked” as he says) by monitoring and reinforcing leverage points int he network subsystems. His recommendation for technological design is quite close to what Structured Dialogic Design accomplishes in its smaller organizational scale.

But as in most discussions of the kind, the analysis falls short in the implementation. There are no operational real examples of the theory in action (at least in the talk). Alberto doesn’t address stakeholder interaction and the formation intention, or group pathologies in any event. I agree that we should work toward the broader scale of citizen intelligence and engagement possible in web-enabled networks. We can also reach the goal of fine-tuning critical measures of social interaction in coordinated action and possibly for emergent social movements. However, collective intelligence must be distinguished from collective wise action. While intelligence of sorts (and collective awareness of that emergence) may arise in such networks, that doesn’t lead to the selection of actions that best intervene in an institutionalized social system. Knowing about is not knowledge to act.

Yet what concerns me about the positivist orientation to emergent social systems (natural sciences, technological, economic) is that the reality of messy human engagement is ignored. The technological fix is so compelling, it seems like a perfect workaround to the problems that have plagued democracy since its inception. A positivist emergence starts to look like the Singularity, an inevitable and irresistible convergence of techno-potential and societal need.

Individual intentionality is not an emergent property of groups, but groupthink, on the other hand, IS emergent in groups and may be acted upon as if individual intention. We have to be careful when ascribing group intentionality as emergent and therefore “democratic” or even desirable. Citizen-led movements (e.g., Arab Spring) are not always well-informed, even if collectively intentional, technologically enabled, and powerfully emergent as a political force.  We cannot ignore the political dimension when designing technologies for collective action. Even if a crowd can be “wise” at times, it always remains a crowd and therefore vulnerable to group pathologies.

Alberto hasn’t tested the theory in a real system – where problems occur online due to weak links between members. We have a potentially scalable system in the developing Webscope (but we have not tested the process beyond the number of people accountable in a conference call, or about 20.) I highly recommend the talk, but I also recognize and give credit for the fact that at the TED talk level, the goal is more to inspire than to guide a real strategy. But some critique of the barriers and boundaries would also offer viewers some understanding of the current reality gap.