[unrev-II] Re: Engelbart and the self-organizing "collective intelligence" or "hive mind" concept

From: John J. Deneen (jjdeneen@ricochet.net)
Date: Thu Jul 19 2001 - 12:43:13 PDT

  • Next message: Gil Regev: "RE: [unrev-II] Cultivating the Songlines of the Noosphere"

    I find the opinion below very interesting relative to "The
    Bio-Networking Architecture: A Biologically Inspired Approach to the
    Design of Scalable, Adaptive, and Survivable / Available Network
    < http://netresearch.ics.uci.edu/bionet/publications/mwang-saint2001.zip


    I won't quote out of context, so this archive link is where I extracted
    the dialog of opinions about "Free labor: producing culture for the
    digital economy." (see below, after the 3th paragraph)
    < http://www.nettime.org/nettime.w3archive/nettime.200004 >

    It is not difficult to imagine a future where billions of people
    regularly access applications running inside the global network as part
    of their daily lives. To make this future a reality, network
    applications must overcome three critical challenges. First, they must
    scale to handle the enormous demand placed upon them. Second, they must
    adapt to dynamic user demand and network conditions. Finally, network
    applications must survive partial failures and remain available to their

    Over millions of years of evolution, large scale biological systems,
    such as the bee or ant colony, have developed mechanisms that allow them
    to scale, adapt, and survive. Consider the bee colony. Bee colonies
    scale to a large number of bees because all activities of the hive are
    carried out without centralized control. Bees act autonomously,
    influenced by local conditions and local interactions with other bees.
    When building the hive, bees are guided only by the structure of the
    partially completed hexagonal cells around them. There is no master bee
    that controls the building of the hive. The bee colony also adapts to
    dynamic conditions, often to optimize its food gain relative to energy
    expenditure. When the amount of honey in the hive is low, a large number
    of food gathering bees leave the hive to gather nectar from the flowers
    in the area. When the hive is nearly full of honey, most bees remain in
    the hive and rest. The bee colony is survivable because it is not
    dependent on any single bee, not even the queen bee. Therefore, the
    colony can still survive after a predator kills a number of bees. In
    fact, the desirable characteristics of the bee colony, scalability,
    adaptability, and survivability, are not present in any single bee.
    Rather, they emerge from the collective actions and interactions of all
    the bees in the colony.

    We believe that the challenges faced by future network applications have
    already been overcome in large scale biological systems and that future
    network applications will benefit by adopting key biological principles
    and mechanisms.

    Free labor: producing culture for the digital economy

    Tiziana Terranova
    Department of Cultural Studies
    University of East London
    East Building, 4 University Way
    E16 8RD

    course tutor of the MA in Multimedia: Production, Theories, Cultures
    < http://www.uel.ac.uk/multimedia/masters >

    Free labor: producing culture for the digital economy
    Tiziana Terranova

    The real not-capital is labor. (Karl Marx Grundrisse )

    Working in the digital media industry is not as much fun as it is made
    out to be. The NetSlaves of the homonymous Webzine are becoming
    increasingly vociferous about the shamelessly exploitative nature of the
    job, its punishing work rhythms and its ruthless casualisation
    (http://www.disobey.com/netslaves/). They talk about "24-7 electronic
    sweatshops", complain about the 90-hours week and the "moronic
    management of new media companies". In early 1999, seven of the fifteen
    thousands 'volunteers' of America On Line rocked the info-loveboat by
    asking the Department of Labor to investigate whether AOL owes them back
    wages for the
    years of playing chathosts for free . They used to work long-hours and
    love it; now they are starting to feel the pain of being burned by
    digital media.

    These events point to a necessary backlash against the glamorization of
    digital labor, which highlights its continuities with the modern
    sweatshop and point to the increasing degradation of knowledge work. Yet
    the question of labor in a 'digital economy' is not so easily dismissed
    as an innovative development of the familiar logic of capitalist
    exploitation. The NetSlaves are not simply a typical form of labor on
    the Internet, they also embody a complex relation to labor which is
    widespread in late capitalist societies.
    In this paper I understand this relationship as a provision of 'free
    labor', a trait of the cultural economy at large, and an important, and
    yet undervalued force in advanced capitalist societies. By looking at
    the Internet as a specific instance of the fundamental role played by
    free labor, this paper also tries to highlight the connections between
    the 'digital economy' and what the Italian autonomists have called the
    'social factory' . The 'social factory' describes a process whereby
    "work processes
    have shifted from the factory to society, thereby setting in motion a
    truly complex machine" (Negri 1989). Simultaneously voluntarily given
    and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited, free labor on the Net includes the
    activity of building websites, modify software packages, reading and
    participating to mailing lists and building virtual spaces on MUDs and
    MOOs. Far from being
    an 'unreal', empty space, the Internet is animated by cultural and
    technical labor through and through, a continuous production of value
    which is completely immanent to the flows of the network society at

    Collective minds

    The collective nature of networked, immaterial labor has been simplified
    by the utopian statements of the cyberlibertarians. Kevin Kelly's
    popular thesis in Out of Control, for example, is that the Internet is
    a collective 'hive mind'. According to Kelly, the Internet is another
    manifestation of a principle of self organization which is widespread
    throughout technical, natural and social systems. The Internet is the
    material evidence of the existence of the self-organizing, infinitely
    productive activities of
    connected human minds . From a different perspective Pierre Levy draws
    on cognitive anthropology and poststructuralist philosophy, to argue
    that computers and computer networks are sites which enable the
    emergence of a 'collective intelligence'.

    Levy, who is inspired by early computer pioneers such as Douglas
    Engelbart, argues for a new humanism, "that incorporates and
    enlarges the scope of self-knowledge and collective thought" . According
    to Levy, we are passing from a Cartesian model of thought based upon the
    singular idea of cogito (I think) to a collective or plural cogitamus
    (we think).

    In Levy's view, the digital economy highlights the impossibility of
    absorbing intelligence within the process of automation: unlike the
    first wave of cybernetics which displaced workers from the factory,
    computer networks highlight the unique value of human intelligence as
    the true creator of value in a knowledge economy. In his opinion, since
    the economy is increasingly reliant on the production of creative
    subjectivities, this production is highly likely to engender a new
    humanism, a new centrality of
    man's [sic] creative potentials.

    Especially in Kelly's case, it has been easy to dismiss the notion of a
    'hive mind' and the self-organizing Internet-as-free market as euphoric
    capitalist mumbo jumbo. One cannot help being deeply irritated by the
    blindness of the digital capitalist to the realities of working in the
    hi-tech industries, from the poisoning world of the silicon chips
    factories to the electronic sweatshops of America OnLine, where
    technical work is downgraded and workers' obsolescence is high . How
    can we hold on to the notion that cultural production and immaterial
    labor are collective on the Net (both inner and outer) without
    subscribing to the idealistic cyberdrool of the digerati?

    We could start with a simple observation: the self-organizing,
    collective intelligence of cybercultural thought captures the existence
    of networked immaterial labor, but also neutralizes the operations of
    capital. Capital, after all, is the unnatural environment within which
    the collective intelligence materializes. The collective dimension of
    networked intelligence needs to be understood historically, as part of a
    specific momentum of capitalist development. The Italian Autonomists
    have consistently engaged with this relationship by focusing on the
    mutation undergone by labor in the aftermath of the factory. The notion
    of a
    self-organizing "collective intelligence" looks uncannily like one of
    their central concepts, the "general intellect", a notion that the
    autonomists "extracted" out of the spirit, if not the actually wording,
    of Marx's Grundrisse. The "collective intelligence" or "hive mind"
    captures some of the spirit of the "general intellect", but removes the
    autonomists' critical theorization of its relation to capital.

    In the autonomists' favorite text, the Grundrisse, and especially in
    the "Fragment on Machines", Marx argues that "knowledge - scientific
    knowledge in the first place, but not exclusively - tends to become
    precisely by virtue of its autonomy from production, nothing less than
    the principal productive force, thus relegating repetitive and
    compartmentalized labor to a residual position. Here one is dealing
    with knowledgeŠ which has become incarnateŠ in the automatic system of
    machines" . In the vivid pages of the
    "Fragment', the "other" Marx of the Grundrisse (adopted by the social
    movements of the sixties and seventies against the more orthodox
    endorsement of Capital ), describes the system of industrial machines as
    a horrific monster of metal and flesh:

    The production process has ceased to be a labor process in the sense of
    a process dominated by labor as its governing unity. Labor appears,
    rather, merely as a conscious organ, scattered among the individual
    living workers at numerous point of the mechanical system. Subsumed
    under the total process of the machinery itself, as itself only a link
    of the system, whose unity exists not in the living workers, but rather
    in the living, (active) machinery, which confronts his individual,
    insignificant doings as a mighty

    The Italian autonomists extracted from these pages the notion of the
    "general intellect" as "the ensemble of knowledgeŠ which constitute the
    epicenter of social production" . Unlike Marx's original formulation,
    however, the autonomists eschewed the modernist imagery of the general
    intellect as a hellish machine. They claimed that Marx completely
    identified the general intellect (or knowledge as the principal
    productive force) with fixed capital (the machine) and thus neglected to
    account for the fact that
    the general intellect cannot exist independently of the concrete
    subjects who mediate the articulation of the machines with each other.
    The general intellect is an articulation of fixed capital (machines)
    and living labor (the workers). If we see the Internet, and computer
    networks in general, as the latest machines-the latest manifestation of
    fixed capital-then it won't be difficult to imagine the general
    intellect as being well and alive today.

    However the autonomists did not stop at describing the general intellect
    as an assemblage of humans and machines at the heart of postindustrial
    production. If this were the case, the Marxian monster of metal and
    flesh would just be updated to that of a world-spanning network where
    computers use human beings as a way to allow the system of machinery
    (and therefore
    capitalist production) to function. The visual power of the Marxian
    description is updated by the cyberpunk snapshots of the immobile bodies
    of the hackers, electrodes like umbilical cords connecting them to the
    matrix, appendixes to a living, all-powerful cyberspace. Beyond the
    special effects bonanza, the box-office success of The Matrix validates
    the popularity of
    the paranoid interpretation of this mutation.

    To the humanism implicit in this description, the autonomists have
    opposed the notion of a "mass intellectuality", living labor in its
    function as the determining articulation of the general intellect. Mass
    intellectuality - as an ensemble, as a social body - "is the repository
    of the indivisible knowledges of living subjects and of their linguistic
    cooperationŠ an important part of knowledge cannot be deposited in
    machines, butŠ it must come into being as the direct interaction of the
    labor force" . As Virno
    emphasizes, mass intellectuality is not about the various roles of the
    knowledge workers, but is a "quality and a distinctive sign of the whole
    social labor force in the post-Fordist era" .

    The pervasiveness of the collective intelligence both within the
    managerial literature and Marxist theory could be seen as the result of
    a common intuition about the quality of labor in informated societies.
    Knowledge labor is inherently collective, it is always the result of a
    collective and social production of knowledge . Capital's problem is how
    to extract as much value as possible (in the autonomists' jargon, to
    'valorize') out of this abundant, and yet slightly untractable terrain.

    Collective knowledge work, then, is not about those who work in the
    knowledge industry. But it is also not about employment. The
    acknowledgement of the collective aspect of labor implies a rejection of
    the equivalence between labor and employment, which was already stated
    by Marx and further emphasized by feminism and the post-Gramscian
    autonomy . Labor is not equivalent to waged labor. Such an understanding
    might help us to reject some of the hideous rhetoric of unemployment
    which turns the unemployed
    person in the object of much patronizing, pushing and nudging from
    national governments in industrialized countries (accept any available
    work or elseŠ.) Often the unemployed are such only in name, in reality
    being the life-blood of the difficult economy of 'under the table',
    badly paid work, some of which also goes into the new media industry .
    To emphasize how labor is not equivalent to employment also means to
    acknowledge how important free affective and cultural labor is to the
    media industry, old and new.

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Jul 19 2001 - 12:57:17 PDT