Virtualization And THE Collective “We”

How are the modalities of collective intelligence going to be shaped in the post-industrial society?

Predicted by the science of collective intelligence in the late 20th  century[i], the consequences of a growing virtualisation of our collective “we” have blurred the notions of unity and location, which became particularly evident in the times of the global pandemic crisis of 2020[ii].

In his manifesto for the 21st century, John Urry predicted that the new sociology of flows would replace a sociology of ‘territory’, arguing that belonging almost always involves diverse forms of mobility, so that people dwell “in and through being at home and away, through the dialectic of roots and routes”[iii].

Our attachment to genius loci (the spirit of place) is still rather obdurate, but at the same time even transcending the physical and geographical boundaries with the help of Internet technologies does not make us “freer” in the cyberspace, often the opposite. The solution to the perennial debate about the global and the local, fought by sociologists in last two centuries, is indeed not about either global or local, but both.

The crucial difference from the previous industrialization periods is that in the time of the fourth industrial revolution technology can no longer be regarded as a separate, autonomous factor to affect our lives. Like often happens with any paradigm shift, the period of transition reminds me of the following situation in an airplane, when a pilot announces: “Dear passengers, I have two pieces of news for you. The first one is that we are far ahead of the schedule. The second one is that we don’t know where we are”.

So, we are wondering which impact does the creation of Web 2.0 society have on us in the 21st century?

Our vocabulary is slower to catch up with the new developments. Stepping into the new epoch, we are still using the old expressions, like “impact of tech”, implying that technology acts as an external agent that can affect our life in either  virtuous or contentious ways. However, as pointed out by Pierre Lévy more than a decade ago, technology had already become an integral property of our emergent global socio-technological system. As a complex and ambivalent phenomenon, this system, which Levy calls “cyberspace”, is one of the principal conditions for its own development and is a medium for collective intelligence[iv]:

“Like the river in Heraclitus, the data that is updated in real-time is never the same: hypertext links can connect us with an address that supplies us not with a specific text but with data: statistical results, political information, images of the world sent by satellite etc.”[v]

Emergent collective intelligence, according to Levy, is one of the best remedies for the destabilizing, and often exclusionary effects of the technological change. However, as an old saying goes,  “One man’s fish is another man’s poison”. As such, cyberspace and virtualization of identities is neither good nor bad.

It can act as poison for nonparticipants (though no individual can participate completely because of its size and diversity) and a remedy for those who are willing to plunge into its turbulence and negotiate its currents[vi].

The central point in the discussion about globalization as an emergent collective intelligence phenomenon is about how two seemingly opposing trends of globalisation and localisation can become paired. This can be done through the process of glocalisation[vii].  In line with R. Robertson, “it is not a question of either homogenization or heterogenization, but rather of the ways in which both of these two tendencies have become features of life across much of the late-twentieth-century world.[viii].

This intrinsic relationship between whole and part, forming the universality of collective intelligence phenomenon, was debated by ancient and modern philosophers alike. It is based on the assumption that everything is connected to everything, and that all is one. Following philosopher M. Bakhtin (1986),

“a meaning only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning: they engage in a kind of dialogue which surmounts the closedness and outsidedness of these particular meanings, these cultures”[ix].

The dialectical nature of communication, which is both “the hero and the villain at the same time”[x], can facilitate an exchange of information as well as distort it, leading to misunderstandings and collisions. In other words, it is no mistake that pharmakon in ancient Greece referred to both a poison and a remedy[xi], for the remedy can turn out to be a poison at the same time.

The word ‘dialogue’ also originates from the Greek roots dia (‘through’, ‘across’) and logos, (‘word’, ‘meaning’), contrary to the commonly mistaken interpretation of having something to do with “two”[xii]. Dialogue is “a meaning which flows from one participant to another[xiii].

Thus, one of the prerequisites of globalization as a collective intelligence phenomenon is the modularity of ‘flows’, as predicted by J. Urry and described metaphorically by P. Levy as the Heraclitus river. In spite of its distinct physical embeddedness, a river is constantly changing, and so are our societies. The notion of Panta rhei means that the forces of two seemingly opposing trends –  homogenization and heterogenization – are simultaneous and in the last instance, complementary and interpenetrative; even though they certainly can and do collide in concrete situations[xiv].

History is known to be characterized by “black swans”[xv] as an essential part of the Great Chain of Being. They change our forms of interaction with each other at each stage of our development or historical epoch. Hopefully, the new emergent forms will be more inclusive, more participatory and more dialogical, when unleashing the potential of our virtual global community, where ‘virtual’ not only possesses a technological connotation, but also its original meaning, derived from the Latin root virtus (“excellence, potency, efficacy”).

The struggle for collective intelligence therefore involves more than a democratization of intelligence; it involves making a virtue of our mutual dependence and sociability, which we will need to make a dominant feature of post-industrial society based on information, knowledge, and a life-long learning[xvi].

Lizaveta Dubinka-Hushcha, PhD

Postdoc at Collective Intelligence Unit, CBS


[i] Levy 1991

[ii] Dubinka-Hushcha, L. (2020). After Corona: PANTA RHEI of Collective Intelligence. Available from: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/after-corona-panta-rhei-collective-intelligence-dubinka-hushcha/?trackingId=XKq%2BW3t9fYIItkWaB9NuFA%3D%3D [Accessed 8 June 2020]. 

[iii] Urry, J. (2000). Sociology beyond societies: Mobilities for the twenty-first century, London: Routledge, pp. 132-133.

[iv] Lévy, P. (2001). Cyberculture, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, p. 11.

[v] Lévy, P. (1998). Becoming virtual: reality in the digital age, New York: Plenum. P. 62.

[vi] Lévy, P. (2001). Cyberculture, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, p. 12.

[vii] According to the Oxford Dictionary of New Words (1991: 134), the term ‘glocal’ and the process noun ‘glocalization’ are ‘formed by telescoping global and local to make a blend’. It originates from the Japanese word dochakuka to denote a global outlook adapted to local conditions.

As stated by P. Levy, “as such, virtualization is neither good nor bad, nor even neutral, but manifests itself as the very process of humanity’s “becoming other” – its heterogenesis”; Lévy, P., 1998, op. cit., p. 16.

[viii] Robertson, R. (1995). Glocalization: time-space and homogeneity-heterogeneity. In M. Featherstone, S. Lash & R. Robertson (Eds.), Theory, Culture & Society: Global modernities (pp. 25-44). London: SAGE Publications Ltd, p. 3.

[ix] Bakhtin, M. (1986). Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. University of Texas Press, p. 7.

[x] Bjerke, B. (1999). Business Leadership and Culture. Edward Elgar Publishing, p. 23.

[xi] Lévy, P. (2001). Cyberculture, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, p. 12.

[xii] Dubinka-­Hushcha, L. (2011). A Dialogical Approach to the Danish Foreign Policy. In Paulsen, M., Koefoed, O., Kromann, J. (Eds.) Learning from the Other. Intercultural Metalogues.  Århus University: NSU Press, p. 173.

[xiii] Bohm, D. (2004). On Dialogue, Routledge, 2004, p. 6.

[xiv] Robertson, R. (1995). Glocalization: time-space and homogeneity-heterogeneity. In M. Featherstone, S. Lash & R. Robertson (Eds.), Theory, Culture & Society: Global modernities (pp. 25-44). London: SAGE Publications Ltd, p. 3.

[xv] Taleb, N.N. (2008). The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable, London: Penguin.

[xvi] Brown, P. and Lauder, H. (2000). Human capital, social capital, and collective intelligence, in Baron, S., Field, J. and Schuller, T. (eds) (2000). Social Capital, Critical Perspectives, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 234.

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