What I learned in the UOKM class

Knowledge has always been essential to human civilization. The evolution of knowledge can be traced to the ways in which it is communicated, or transferred. In prehistoric times, knowledge was transient and passed down orally. Despite these fundamental differences, a constant thread in knowledge transmission throughout history has been the collaborative process.

With the inventions of paper, the printing press, and networked computing, the ways in which knowledge is accumulated and transmitted has changed considerably across history. This “evolution of knowledge” and the concept of collective intelligence are overarching themes that should be addressed in a discussion of open source and big data.

Collective intelligence

The term “collective intelligence” generally refers to the cognitive abilities of a collection of individuals. Several of the works discussed in the class (e.g., Networked, Convergence Culture, and Semantic Sphere) discuss the opportunities involved in online collaboration.

Pierre Lévy refutes the oft-cited argument of “collective stupidity”, which states that crowds are mostly stupid (this of course never refers to ourselves, but to someone else). The principle of open access does not prevent vandalism or other forms of “stupidity”, but collaborative conversation remains a highly productive method of knowledge transfer.

Henry Jenkins states that collective intelligence is more than just the sum of the collective belief; it is the collaborative process of knowledge transmission and creation. It is an active process of knowledge transmission and generation, where everyone has the potential to contribute.

Indeed, most of the knowledge that we possess comes from others – we benefit from shared experiences and collaborative learning through family, education, media – as well as through established processes such as democracy, the market, and science.

The historical context of knowledge

We have always needed knowledge, but before the 20th century, the evolution of knowledge was slow. Today, the means of transmitting knowledge are evolving quickly.

The Knowledge Management and Social Media course traced the history of communication, which essentially involved understanding the changes in the ways in which knowledge is transmitted. The history of communication follows five basic stages:

  • Primordial knowledge: Oral, transient communication
  • Hieratic knowledge: Development of writing and permanence in knowledge transmission.
  • Classic knowledge: Improvements in the manipulation of “lasting symbols” though the inventions of paper and the alphabet
  • Enlightened knowledge: The ability to reproduce symbols; invention of the printing press.
  • Hyper cortical knowledge: Further advancements through algorithmic writing and ubiquity of data.

The stages in the history of communication are relevant to a discussion of the modern transmission of knowledge and collective intelligence, as they trace the evolution of knowledge transmission. As Pierre Lévy states in a YouTube interview, since our collective intelligence is based on our ability to speak, every technology that augments our language ability will also augment our collective intelligence.

We should take advantage of the communication technologies we have accessible and understand how to better categorize ubiquitous data – as well as harness it – to foster greater collective intelligence.

Collective intelligence in modern society

Wikipedia is guided by traditional principles that govern the way the Encyclopedia Britannica is structured, but the way that information is created in Wikipedia completely sidesteps barriers to content creation faced in the traditional model.

Jenkins (2006) distinguishes collective intelligence from the “expert paradigm”, stating that online communities are demonstrating a movement away from the traditional reliance on expert sources of knowledge. Instead, collective intelligence is garnered from multiple sources under the premise that “each person has something to contribute, even if [only on] an ad-hoc basis” (Ibid:53).

This idea can be applied to the activities of Wikipedia contributors. Clay Shirky (2009) describes Wikipedia more as a collaborative process than as a final product, where the majority of users add minor content, rather than large portions of articles. Similarly, Rainie and Wellman (2012) view the strength of Wikipedia articles in the extensive peer review and collaborative process that is involved in their creation. The concept of a “final product” is different in an open access model, where an article can be updated as events change and as content is verified or disconfirmed.

Elliott relates the concept of stigmergic communication to the creation of Wikipeida articles in a discussion of the open source software movement. Stigmergy originally related to the ways in which termites coordinated the modification of their environment to construct a nest. In the hyper-cortical stage of communication, stigmergy can be applied to the ways individuals communicate with one another to modify information in the online environment through ad-hoc contributions.

Elliott states that traditional communication methods (face-to-face) are not conducive to discussions regarding large amounts of data, as there is so much complex information to negotiate. Without the mediation of a system to categorize this information, the collaborative process could undermine itself.

The future of academic publishing

Should the creation of media and transmission of knowledge reflect these developments in the historical evolution of knowledge? Despite the fact that Wikipedia is a thriving online community, barriers exist in the academic world to recognizing the validity of the open source model.

A recent article in Nature discussed how the open access movement is affecting peer-reviewed journals. It raises the concern of whether academia should start evaluating the value of data based on how often it is cited (how useful it is in the academic community) rather than its success in gaining entry into a reputed academic journal.

While this is a complex issue and would take time to implement in established academic peer-reviewed journals, as a general principle, we should utilize collaborative technologies and focus on sharing, rather than restricting content in a knowledge society. Conforming the production of knowledge to a previous stage of communication technology hinders the curation of collective intelligence.

The idea of moving away from the historical model in favour of open-source access has been included in coverage of bookless libraries, MOOC courses, and of course the highly-publicized Aaron Swartz case. It will be interesting to observe the shift in discourse surrounding open access in the months and years to come – and how this impacts the way we access and create information.


Elliott, Mark. (2006). Stigmergic collaboration: The evolution of group work, M/C Journal9(2).

Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence culture. New York: New York University Press.

Lévy, Pierre. (2011). Creative conversation. In The semantic sphere: Computation, cognition and teh information economy (pp. 108-135). Wiley: Hoboken.

Shirky, Clay. (2009). Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. Penguin: New York.

Rainie, Lee & Wellman, Barry. (2012). Networked: The new social operating system. Cambridge: MIT Press. 

Related articles

Book Review: Convergence Culture (uokm.wordpress.com)