Publish at July 19 2011 Updated January 28 2022

The individual and the collective facing the ocean of knowledge

A critique of collective intelligence theory and its implications for learning in virtual communities.

In an essay published on the Ars Industrialis website, Jean-François Ballay wonders about the functioning of collective intelligence and the pathologies it might conceal. This notion of collective intelligence has found renewed vitality with the emergence of the Internet but has its roots in an ancient history, since the metaphor of the ocean of knowledge is well known since the Renaissance.

However, the development of educational technologies and the potentialities they offer in terms of collaborative work have brought this metaphor back into fashion, as well as the notion of collective acquisition of knowledge, while annihilating the awareness of their limits.

Access to knowledge

One of the limits of the belief in collective intelligence is related to the mode of transmission of knowledge. While the trend is toward the commodification of knowledge, Jean-François Ballay draws attention to this:"one can "take" a commodity, one can "take" an object to use it. But one cannot "take" knowledge - nor, therefore, "give" or "sell" it, or even exchange it." Clearly, the knowledge produced in a group is not spontaneously collective. It only becomes so through social mechanisms of transmission that are themselves linked to the conditions of production.

The individual in the collective

With too much desire to magnify collective intelligence, we also forget the role of the individual as a unique being in the production of knowledge. In this regard, Ballay writes that "knowledge is always hard work, operating at the scale of each human being connected to the whole society." In other words, for collective intelligence to be truly productive, each individual involved in the process must strive for knowledge. This requires a mobilization of intelligence and imagination that must be accompanied by an incessant confrontation with the experience of reality.

Virtual learning communities

In conclusion, Jean-François Ballay's thesis consists in saying that knowledge does not spring from the grouping of individuals, as the connectivist theory of learning maintains. The effort of individuals to learn, transmit, interpret, critically analyze, and experiment is paramount in the development of knowledge.

As a consequence, the organization of learners into virtual communities and the distribution of tasks among them are not enough to activate intelligence. They need a desire to know, one of the keys to the success of these communities.

See: The myth of collective intelligence, Jean-François Ballay, January 12, 2010.

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