Clever us?

The big question from last week was: can the system be clever when the individuals within it aren’t?

A common example of group intelligence is the fairground game of guess-the-number-of-sweets-in-the-jar. The chances of any one individual guessing correctly are low. However, the chances of the average of many guesses being correct is high (for a fuller analysis of the phenomena and an explanation as to how it breaks down when people get to discuss their guesses see this excellent article from Discover Magazine). So, in this case, every single individual could be wrong, and the collective could be right. Score 1 for Connectivism.

However, does this work for more complex calculations? There are plenty of counter-examples where collective wisdom breaks down. It could be said that our inability to address the threat of environmental catastrophe and the recent credit crisis are perfect examples of the madness of crowds. Jaron Lanier in his book ‘You Are Not  A Gadget’ argues that collective decision-making breaks down when not dealing with simple value-free calculations, and that any celebration of ‘mob-rule’ mentality is both misguided and demeaning:

If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people [creating the content] and making ourselves into idiots.

Anyone observing the ebb and flow of trends on twitter would be hard-pressed to disagree.

So, we are back to a familiar model where an individual adds a pole to the scaffold of human knowledge for the next person to clamber on. This is a tried and tested approach and forms the basis of academic peer review across the globe (i.e. show us what you found and how you found it). As such, the Connectivism theory is not wrong in valuing the process of learning over the product. Neither is it saying anything new.


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