[Viewpoint] The pitfall of ‘collective intelligence’

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[Viewpoint] The pitfall of ‘collective intelligence’

A sensible collaboration and convergence of individual ideas and opinions freely expressed by a multitude of ordinary people with sundry values can amount to meaningful contribution and asset to the society. In his writings, British author Peter Russell refers to “collective intelligence” as the zeitgeist of the digital era. French media scholar Pierre Levy also champions the happy marriage of digital networks and social media in promoting collective intelligence.

Social network services like Facebook and Twitter have emerged as important knowledge watering holes for collective intelligence. Media opinion polls are based on the theory that knowledge of the consensus among ordinary people can offer meaningful guidance and also forecast what lies in the future.

Social media and computing are allowing ordinary people to raise their voices and build a consensus. They give the kind of power to common folk that once was monopolized by a small group of elite and powerful. They can be as instrumental as the court jury system. They offer a valuable service to today’s society, as monopolies in knowledge and opinion can lead to dogmatic abuse of power.

But the nature of collective intelligence in our society raises several questions. First of all, we doubt whether our society is mature enough in its diversity of values and knowledge. In the political sphere, most ordinary people stay on the axis of right/conservative and left/liberal. There is no middle ground - you are either on our side or the enemy’s.

This ideological polarity, which discourages reasonable dialogue and debate, may have been caused by the bisecting of the Korean Peninsula into the communist North and democratic South. Shrewd politicians, the intelligentsia, teachers and the media played their roles in deepening the polarization of our society,

It is not easy for an people to maintain complete integrity in their views. We can be swayed by others when we are unsure about our own thoughts. Naturally, Facebook and Twitter can be easy references to glean some kind of expertise.

Opinion polls measuring the approval ratings of potential presidential candidates have also become popular, although the election is a year and half away. Ahn Cheol-soo, software pioneer and professor, joined the front-runner group even though he has repeatedly expressed no interest in politics. The polls and approval ratings are serving as auditions for aspiring political stars.

Modern technology’s manner of bringing together and collaborating popular opinions is also seriously flawed. Facebook and Twitter are raw, uncensored and unfiltered thoughts. Most people are on the receiving end. Tweets usually flow one way.

The value of collective intelligence - the free flow of communication and the sharing of thoughts - is undeniable. Yet there looms a dark side to it as well. A coach has the authority to name the best 11 national players to play in a semifinals of a World Cup soccer match. We cannot imagine that process being done through opinion polls, approval ratings or by an online consensus reached on a social networking service an hour before the game.

We place confidence in the coach’s ability to select the best possible team members to play against the opposing team after a thorough study of each of the members of his team and his opponent’s, as well. Of course, accountability follows the coach’s decision. But various groups of experts in our society can potentially be silenced or rendered irrelevant if the clamorous crowd of collective intelligence decides to take them on.

Expert intelligence must be impeccable without any moral defects or subjectivity. It must be driven by true understanding, wisdom and vision. Incompetence can be even more perilous than immorality.

The public is enraged by the stupidity of the operators of the Korea Power Exchange, who failed to do the simple math of power supply and demand, leading to a day of rolling blackouts and by the financial authorities who idly watched savings banks steal customers’ money to lend recklessly and finally go bust.

The public cannot be blamed for turning to collective intelligence for guidance and hope. They are met with disappointment there, too. It is a pity that our society is at the mercy of the light and shadow of collective intelligence.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of mass communication at Korea University.

By Ma Dong-hoon
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