At the Heart of Collective Intelligence

These are the four texts at the heart of my collective intelligence PhD. Themes: acting collectively, decentering-knowledge, distributed learning, self-representation and aliveness.

These are the four texts at the heart of my collective intelligence PhD. Common themes running through the texts are: acting collectively, decentering-knowledge, distributed learning, self-representation and aliveness.

Three of these texts are collectively authored: the Jo Spence exhibition catalogue (2005), the Zapatistas’ Intergalactic Chronicles (1997), and the Tecnopolitical paper on the new paradigm of distributed politics (2013). Collective authorship is important, because whilst many publications are about collective intelligence, these publications are living examples of collective intelligence. In this instance, as these collectively authored pieces are largely about events and ideas collectively experienced and co-constructed by the authors, they are also living examples of self-representation and self-produced media, which in turn relate to political values of autonomy and sovereignty.

The fourth text, authored solely by Sherry Turkle and entitled “Life on the Screen” was published in 1995 during the early years of the internet. It transmits the excitement of those times as our lives were transformed by the arrival of the internet, home-computing and other computerised technologies. It was the first place I found the idea of distributed intelligence articulated clearly. More generally, Turkle brought to life a very hands-on analytical approach which she described as a kind of bricolage. She drew parallels between the evolution of home-computing (the distinction between PCs and Macs) and the evolution of critical theory (the move from modernism to postmodernism), which showed how thinking through objects is a very powerful way to make theoretical ideas accessible. She also constructed ideas like “alive enough” to problem-solve sticky points in artificial intelligence. Reading Turkle’s book made light bulbs go off in my head. In synthesis with my own experiences in social movements, Turkle’s research fleshed out parallels I had observed between online life and life in social movements, particularly in terms of collective intelligence and collective bodies. The book was gifted to me by photographer Teresa Arozena many years ago when she herself was doing a PhD. Speaking with Teresa and then reading Sherry Turkle’s book had a big impact on my personal intellectual and creative development, highlighting the importance of encounters and relationships in the development of knowledge.

Talking of bodies, in the top left hand corner of the pic directly above, there is a picture of Jo Spence with a cross over her left breast. A body. Reminding us that the collective mind is not an immaterial force floating around the internet. Rather, the collective mind has a collective body or bodies. As a photographer, thinker and collective actor in 1970-1980s UK, seamlessly mixing image and text, Jo Spence did social media before the internet even existed. Jo Spence visibilised political and material faces of knowledge, art and everyday life; de-centering systems of representation and connecting with longstanding practice such as Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. The material and the body is certainly key in my experience of collective intelligence. Thinking of times in social movements, I felt a visceral sense of a collective body that could be mobilised: you could make a call to action out into the networks and not only get an answer, but also movement in response, as the various parts of the vast collective body woke into action. Many years later, in a strange twist of life mimicking art, my own PhD experience also reflected Jo Spence’s work with collectives of mothers who weren’t getting the childcare they needed and the (political) impacts that had on their lives and work:

Original image by: Hackney Flashers Collective & Jo Spence
Tweeted by @frictionfilms
#WhoGetsToCreateKnowledge #WhoDoesWhatWork See Tweet on childcare for postgrads in UK 2019:

The second two texts are self-produced from within particular movements or networks (depending on your preferred concept). Movements which have been strongly referenced in fleshing out “cycles of struggle” encompassing the alter-globalisation and anti-capitalist movements around the turn of the millennium, as well as the 2011 protests following the 2008 financial crisis. The Zapatista “Intergalactic Cronicles” documents the “First Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and against Neoliberalism” in 1996. The meeting in Chiapas, Mexico, brought together just over 3,000 activists from around the world, in addition to people from the EZLN already living in the region. It took place just a year and a half after the historic Zapatista uprising on the 1st of January 1994, which successfully established an autonomous region that exists until this day. The Zapatista uprising was possibly the first “viral campaign” and has been credited variously as the “first informational guerilla movement” (Castells, 1997, p. 72), a “prototype of militant social netwar” (Ronfeldt et al, 1998, p. 1), and the “First Postmodern Revolution” (Carrigan, 2001). Regardless of whether it’s useful to think in terms of cycles of struggle, the Zapatistas undoubtedly have had a powerful imaginative, technical and political influence on generations of activists (Notes from Nowhere, 2003), and bring network, assembly, anti-capitalist and Southern perspectives strongly to the table.

Next up: Tecnopolitica and distributed politics… Drawing out the themes…


Jo Spence exhibition catalogue: Ribalta, Jorge et al (2005). Jo Spence. Beyond the Perfect Image. Photography, Subjectivity, Antagonism. Barcelona, MACBA.

Turkle, Sherry (1995). Life on the Screen. Identity in the Age of the Internet. Touchstone, New York.

EZLN, Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional [Zapatista Army of National Liberation] (1997). Crónicas Intergaláticas. Primer Encuentro Intercontinental por la Humanidad y contra el Neoliberalismo [Intergalactic Cronicals. First Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and against Neoliberalism]. Buenos Aires, La Rosa Blanc

Toret, Javier, Datanalysis15M, Antonio Calleja-López, Pablo Aragón, Oscar Marín Miró, Alberto Lumbreras, and Miguel Aguilera (2013). “Tecnopolítica: la potencia de las multitudes conectadas. El sistema red 15M, un nuevo paradigma de la política distribuida” [Technopolitics: the potential of the connected multitudes: the network system 15M, a new paradigm for distributed politics]. IN3 (Internet Interdisciplinary Institute), Barcelona.

Further references:

Arozena, Teresa (2019). Her website showing her photography, writing and research:

Carrigan, Ana (2001). “Chiapas, the First Postmodern Revolution”, in A Ponce de León (ed.) Our Word is Our Weapon, p. 417-444. London, Serpent ́s Tail.

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