The Web is the greatest collective intelligence engine in human history. We are living through a Renaissance in democratic thought and individual opportunity.
All the news is bad. Or so it would seem. We are witnessing the decline and fall of Europe, according to TIME magazine. It's hard to find an optimistic journalist or opinion writer these days. That's okay. Because if there is any decline and fall, it is the decline and fall of media. Of course, that's an exaggeration, but traditional media is increasingly being sidelined. We get more and more of our news from our peers-people like us-through Twitter, Facebook, blogs.
I'm reading a very interesting book at the moment called Rome by Robert Hughes. Two things struck me while reading it. The Romans liked to look back, viewing the past as some mythical, pure place which, of course, it wasn't. Just like today. It is surely one of the most striking characteristics of human behavior to use the past as a stick to beat the present with.
The other thing is how enthusiastic Robert Hughes gets about individual effort. Michelangelo's heroic painting of the Sistine Chapel is described in vivid detail. But Hughes can't quite summon the same intensity of admiration for the massive amount of collaborative effort that was Rome. For example, it took 120 years to complete today's St. Peter's Basilica. A city, like Rome or New York, is its people. Its character and history is that of millions, not small groups of individuals.
The greatest human achievement is the ability for large numbers of people to live together and cooperate with each other. This powerful collaboration has resulted in language, architecture, dance, music, literature, science. Ironically, our greatest achievement does not excite us. Committees are always something that get our scorn and derision. We understand our world through the prism of heroic individuals. We write history based on these individuals, not groups. Then we read history and say: "Look, it was the individual who done it!"
The Internet was invented by a committee. The Internet gives us a very interesting gift. It is a middle ground between the genius of the individual and the genius of the group. Sure, there can be mob activity and extremism on the Web. However, its tremendous power is in its ability to quickly and efficiently amalgamate the decisions of many individuals. It represents trends and averages.
So, the beauty of the Web is not about bringing a large group of people into a room and asking them what they think. It's about finding the general wisdom in a multitude of individual decisions.
Editor's Note: You may also enjoy WEM: The Web is Critical. The Web Team is Not.
The philosopher Karl Popper once said that he thought one of the greatest threats to civilization was not mob behaviour, but rather 'great men' behavior. We have this desperate need for a great man who will show us the way and solve all our problems. As the world gets more complex, the Great Man need will become more dangerous.
It is not an either-or situation, of course. We need individual and social intelligence. 'A camel is a horse designed by a committee,' they sneeringly say. Well, if you were in the middle of the Sahara, which animal would you prefer?