Jon Dron and I were pleased to see Stephen Downes’ comments on our proposed “Model of the Many“. The model focuses on the communication among the many at three levels of granularity the group, the network and the collective.

We’ve been trying to map the model to current and projected Net based learning activities and interventions. Stephen suggested that we could do better in labeling the largest granular level, which we referred to as the “collective’. In this post I try to further define the characteristics and affordance’s of the “collective” and then argue why the term collective works – at least until someone can help us with a better term!!
The collective is the aggregation of the many at levels hardly possible before data harvesting of the Net. We benefit from the collective when we use its ‘group mind’ that is mostly the aggregation of all of us as individuals, groups and networks and that creates and adds value as we use the Net. Examples of collective activities include determining the most likely source of information as determined by search engine logic that is based on crowd analysis such as the prior choices of others; determining which car to buy based on aggregated user satisfaction and repair cost data; following paths blazed and worn by others through either physical or online spaces; determining the best articles, videos or books based on ratings, reviews, views or box office receipts. We mostly consume from the collective, but by using it, we accrue data that is later mined by the collective.

The collective is the instantiation of web 2.0 especially in its capacity to support:

  • Services, not packaged software, with cost-effective scalability
  • Control over unique, hard-to-recreate data sources that get richer as more people use them
  • Trusting users as co-developers
  • Harnessing collective intelligence (O’Rielly, 2006)
  • A quick dictionary (Encarta) perusal finds 4 definitions of word collective:

    1. shared by all:
    2. collected to form whole:
    3. applying to many:
    4. worker-run under state supervision: Encarta 2007

    I think that Stephen’s objection to the word (too baggage laden) comes from a neo-anarchist disdain for the 4th definition above and the controlled and controlling notions of that definition. The first three definitions are closer to the sense in which we use the word.

    A quick check of the term collective using a collective tool (Google search) finds a diverse set of uses of the term in practice. These range from artist collectives, to video game developers, musicians, scientific communities and other assorted conglomerations of the Many – some of which we would probably describe as networks or even groups. But the popularity of the term among younger sets as evidenced by the youthful look of many sites employing the term, makes me think the word shouldn’t be relegated to fear of soviet style state sanctioned work associations. Perhaps the government/state sanctioned organization sense of the word will fade from the landscape as have most state agriculture and production collectives.

    I next bumped into the term collective from its sociological sense especially as described by Emile Durkheim and his use of terms like “collective consciousness”. To Durkheim collective consciousness

    “Being placed outside of and above individual and local contingencies, it sees things only in their permanent and essential aspects, which it crystallizes into communicable ideas. At the same time that it sees from above, it sees farther; at every moment of time it embraces all known reality; that is why it alone can furnish the minds with the moulds which are applicable to the totality of things and which make it possible to think of them”

    Durkheim 1954 (1912), p.444

    This seems to resonate with our use of the word collective, but Durkheim also used it to describe the commonality of thought and action that characterizes tribes, religions and whole societies. Durkheim noted two ways in which collective consciousness arises. The first and earliest mechanical form of collective consciousness creation is related to tribal behaviour and geographic determinism – ‘you are who you live beside’. He argued that modern division of labor, mass media, big state and industry afford a second organic development of collective consciousness. I think perhaps we are evolving now to a third mechanism that could be characterized as emergent, in which collective consciousness is formed through connection to Net based groups, networks and collectives.

    Jon also has noted the scary Borg type sense of the Collective that destroys individualism in subservience to a greater singular entity. Obviously we have concerns with this connotation of collective as well. We see the collective as a sort of communal well from which we both draw and contribute while maintaining our individuality and capacity to function at individual, group and network levels.

    Finally, I even found a keynote presentation by Stephen himself “From EduBlogs to the Collective Consciousness. In which he uses the term, so it must be good enough for us!!
    Despite use of the word collective in soviet style workplace organization, by Durkheim to refer to mechanism for collaborative thought and activity, by the creators of Star Trek, and by Stephen to demonstrate the power of various 2.0’s,

    I think ‘collective’ has currency and quite accurately describes this third and broadest form of interaction among the many. So we will continue to use the term- unless group, network or collective associates reading this can suggest a better term.