Ants, birds swarms and schools of fish share at least one most intriguing trate: they’ve all developed the eerily impressive ability to organize in highly complex systems that are capable of truly astonishing collective achievements.
Without the coordination of any kind of centralized stewardship, these fairly simple creatures manage to pull of the most extraordinary accomplishments. Termite colonies for example are equipped with an absolutely awe inspiring architecture that include ventilation shafts, nurseries, highways and what have you – all neatly organized by something that pretty much looks like a premeditated master-plan. This peculiarity demonstrated by these assemblies of critters is so impressive that one would be excused for regarding them as a collective, almost mind-like intelligence.
It might not be for us to decide if this apparently intelligent behaviour could be called “real” intelligence or if it’s just a persistent illusion, a simulation of cognition so to speak. What we do know though, is that it is an emergent property of very simple rules that every individual in the collective follows instinctively, without being aware of the larger scheme of things.
The individual ants, so it turns out, leave traces in their environment which affect the behavior of their surrounding comrades which on their turn signal to their fellow insects and so on. Over time, from the massive aggregation of individual signals that feed back on each other, emerges what we perceive as seemingly intelligent behaviour that overshadows in its complexity the summed abilities of the singular insects.
This principle of synergy – of the whole being larger than the sum of its parts – is not an alien concept to us. For thousands of years we’re in the business of collectively achieving goals that no single human being could achieve – We hunted mammoths, domesticated animals, built the pyramids and even packed a bunch of us in tin boxes and shot them to the moon. But all of this, as impressive as it might be (and it is), is organized in a rather different fashion as the previous examples. We ourselves might be very intelligent, but our organizational structures, so it seems, are far less so.
From the neolithic period on, into the bronze age, throughout the feudal era and into our contemporary late consumer capitalism, we appear to play the same tune over and over again – We have a bunch of powerful alpha-persons compete over the privilege to control the labour of others. This is how kings got their castles and how yours truly gets his veggie burger for lunch.
This strategy, as successful as it undoubtedly was and is, has its notable downsides. This is in fact the dirty little secret of our cultural ideology: Our beloved competition is actually a very wasteful process. What happens to the value created by the losers when the winner takes it all? What’s about all the efforts duplicated over and over again in order to barely achieve a single goal while exterminating the bulk of collective efforts that went into it, without ever realizing its fruit?
Luckily, as nature so proudly demonstrates, the toolkit for collective coordination is far more diverse than the limited tools we primates could come up with. Hierarchies and competition are one way among many others to orchestrate conjoint efforts, and we shouldn’t hesitate to use them to our advantage. Nature didn’t have the courtesy to provide us with wings, now did it? And yet, we fly faster and higher than any bird mind could imagine. There really is no reason not to apply the same logic on the means of human organisation.
As with flight, it is merely a question of technological breakthroughs and the resourceful exploitation of opportunities until we find a way of harvesting organisational principles that would allow for our institutions to resemble some kind of collective intelligence. Fortunately, we live in very interesting times that provide exactly such breakthroughs – with the Blockchain undoubtedly as the most prominent example.
By recording individual actions on a distributed database and by the non intermediated exchange of economic value and mutual agreements that this record enables, the blockchain makes it possible for masses of people to coordinate themselves indirectly without involving any central authority. This indirect coordination is based on very simple rules which aggregate to complex system behaviours, and which are not imposed by any given entity, but rather are collectively agreed upon by the network as a whole. Just as ants do, only with two opposing thumbs and a neocortex attached to them.
This description might sound rather vague and incomprehensible, but so did the very first internet evangelists in the late 80s. What on earth is a network of networks – An “internet”? And what could it possibly do for me (or to me, for that matter)? Well, just lo and behold. It would be fair to say that the blockchain is about to do to collaboration what the internet already did to communication.
The first harbingers of this new emerging paradigm have been walking among us for quite a while now. Youtube, Facebook, AirBnB and their like all rely on P2P interactions between single individuals in order to create emergent value that exceeds the aggregated contributions of all the single participants combined. The problem of course lays where it always has throughout history – in the distribution of such value. This isn’t just a bit unfair (“a bit” since fairness lays in the eye of the beholder), more than anything – it’s inefficient.
No one likes to work for free – not even Facebook users and Youtube Vloggers.
The value creation in such systems might be crowdsourced, but its distribution and the behaviour of these networks in large are highly centralized, controlled and rigid, and don’t at all allow for the characteristics of collective intelligence to emerge to their fullest potential, and so it appears that the possibilities for human organisation such arrangements provide are rather limited.
The blockchain, on the other hand, allows for such networks to arise spontaneously and to distribute the value created in them to whomever contributed to its production, bypassing any middlemen. This allows for the emergence of a network dynamic that naturally drives participants into cooperation, just like the simple response to pheromone exchange does for insect colonies. The synergic effect of such a form of human organisation could be much greater than anything we’ve seen so far in the brief history of human culture and will most probably outcompete the competitive model itself.
Making cooperation more profitable than competition could overturn almost all known business models. Just take the pharma industry for example. Instead of spending years of development, just to see it all go to waste the moment you competitor seals the market in front of you with a patent he’s got a moment before you, imagine a world in which you could contribute your knowledge and effort to a shared task, advance it and help complete it, and be rewarded for all of that respectively. Instead of seeking to destroy each other efforts, we would be encouraged to build on them and to advance them further.
Just imagine Facebook owned by its users, decentralized transportation networks independent of Uber; Markets dominated by open-source communities where contributors are also shareholders, and where the value created is redistributed both fairly and transparently. Imagine the innovative potential of such organisations decoupled from the rigidities of hierarchical structures, as they twist and turn and evolve with a live and responsiveness of their own, with no one specific in charge but yet equipped with the ability to build metaphorical termite hills, way beyond the capacity of the imagination of us – the metaphorical termites. Just imagine that, wouldn’t that be the beginning of some hell of a ride?
This article was inspired by a Ted talk by Primavera De Filippi, which is available here: