A recent pole of readers of The Ecologist magazine showed that 74% thought that one person could make a difference. I must say I found this quite disappointing … particularly for a magazine which one assumes probably has a high percentage of activists among its readership.
For some reason, this pole reminded me of an article I read in National Geographic about swarm theory. The article describes the remarkable way in which thousands of simple creatures following simple rules acting on local information, communicationing quickly through their networks can reach a consensus. And, that these rapid, high volume, simple interactions can control complex behaviours and solve extremely complex problems. All this, with no leadership, management or central control. It then goes on to show how this collective intelligence is being used to improve business efficiency.
The replication of swarm theory must surely be the sought-after holy grail of those deploying social networking technologies on corporate intranets. However, there are some significant differences between animals and humans in swarms or crowds. Animals never ask questions like: ‘What’s in it for me?’. Crowds are only ‘intelligent’ if the individuals within them act responsibly; if they use their initiative rather than slavishly copy each other or wait to be told what to do and when to do it; and crowds are only intelligent if individuals always act in the best interests of the community. But, perhaps most importantly of all, collective intelligence can’t work unless everyone believes that one person can make a difference.