Interview with Nelesi Rodriguez, published in spanish in the academic journal Comunicacion , Estudios venezolanos de comunicación • 2º trimestre 2014, n. 166

Collective intelligence in the digital age: A revolution just at its beginning

Pierre Lévy (P.L.) is a renowned theorist and media scholar. His ideas on collective intelligence have been essential for the comprehension of some phenomena of contemporary communication, and his research on Information Economy Meta Language (IEML) is today one of the biggest promises of data processing and of knowledge management. In this interview conducted by the team of the Comunicación(C.M.) magazine, he explained to us some of the basic points of his theory, and gave us an interesting reading on current topics related to communication and digital media. Nelesi Rodríguez, April 2014.


C.M: Collective intelligence can be defined as shared knowledge that exists everywhere, that is constantly measured, coordinated in real time, and that drives the effective mobilization of several skills. In this regard, it is understood that collective intelligence is not a quality exclusive to human beings. In what way is human collective intelligence different from other species’ collective intelligence?

P.L: You are totally right when you say that collective intelligence is not exclusive to human race. We know that the ants, the bees, and in general all social animals have got collective intelligence. They solve problems together, and –as social animals-, they are not able to survive alone and this is also the case with human species; we are not able to survive alone and we solve problems together.

But there is a big difference that is related to the use of language: Animals are able to communicate, but they do not have language, I mean, they cannot ask questions, they cannot tell stories, they cannot have dialogues, they cannot communicate about their emotions, their fears, and so on.

So there is the language, that is specific to the human kind, and with the language you have of course better communication and an enhanced collective intelligence; and you have also all that comes with this linguistic ability, that is the technology, the complexity of social institutions –like law, religion, ethics, economy… All these things that animals don`t have. This ability to play with symbolic systems, to play with tools and to build complex social institutions, creates a much more powerful collective intelligence for the humans.

Also, I would say that there are two important features that come from the human culture: The first is that human collective intelligence can improve during history, because each new generation can improve the symbolic systems, the technology, and the social institutions; so there is an evolution of human collective intelligence and, of course, we are talking about a cultural evolution, not a biological evolution. And then, finally, and maybe the most important feature of human collective intelligence, is that each unit of the human collectivity has an ability to reflect, to think by itself. We have individual consciousness, unfortunately for them, the ants don`t; so the fact that the humans have individual consciousness creates at the level of the social cognition something that it is very powerful. That is the main difference between human and animal collective intelligence.

C.M: Do the writing and digital technologies also contribute to this difference?

P.L: In the oral culture, there was certain kind of transmission of knowledge, but of course, when we invented the writing systems we were able to accumulate much more knowledge to transmit to the next generations. With the invention of the diverse writing systems, and then their improvements -like the invention of the alphabet, the invention of the paper, the printing press, and then the electronic media- human collective intelligence expanded. So, for example, the ability to build libraries, to build scientific coordination and collaboration, the communication supported by the telephone, the radio, the television makes human collective intelligence more powerful, and I think that it will be the main challenge our generation and the next will have to face: to take advantage of the digital tools; the computer, the internet, the smartphones, et caetera; to discover new ways to improve our cognitive abilities, our memory, our communication, our problem solving abilities, our abilities to coordinate and collaborate, and so on.

C.M: In an interview conducted by Howard Rheingold, you mentioned that every device and technology that have the purpose of enhancing language also enhance collective intelligence and, at the same time, have an impact on cognitive skills such as memory, collaboration and the ability to connect with one another. Taking this into account:

  • It is said that today, the enhancement of cognitive abilities manifests in different ways: from fandoms and wikis, to crowdsourcing projects that are created with the intent of finding effective treatments for serious illnesses. Do you consider that every one of these manifestations contribute in the same way towards the expansion of our collective intelligence?

P.L: Maybe the most important sector where we should put particular effort is scientific research and learning, because we are talking about knowledge, so the most important part is the creation of knowledge, the dissemination of knowledge or, generally, the collective and individual learning.

Today there is a transformation of communication in the scientific community; more and more journals are open and online, people are doing virtual teams, they communicate by internet, people are using big amounts of digital data, and they are processing this data with computer power; so we are already witnessing this augmentation, but we are just at the beginning of this new approach.

In the case of learning I think it is very important that we recognize the emergence of new ways of learning online collaboratively, where people who want to learn are helping each other, are communicating, are accumulating common memories from where they can take what is interesting for them. This collective learning is not limited to schools; it happens in all kinds of social environments. We could call this “knowledge management”, and there is an individual or personal aspect of this knowledge management that some people call “personal knowledge management”: choosing the right sources on the internet, featuring the sources, categorizing information, doing synthesis, sharing these synthesis on social media, looking for a feedback, initiating a conversation, and so on. We have to realize that learning is and always has been an individual process at is core. Someone has to learn; you cannot learn for someone else. Help other people to learn, this is teaching; but the learner is doing the real work. Then, if the learners are helping each other, you have a process of collective learning. Of course, it works better if these people are interested in the same topics or if they are engaged in the same activities.

Collective learning augmentation is something that is very general and that has increased with the online communication. It also happens at the political level; there is an augmented deliberation, because people can discuss easily on the internet and also there is an enhanced coordination (for public demonstrations and similar things).

  • M: With the passage of time, collective intelligence becomes less a human quality and more one akin to machines; this affair worries more than one individual. What is your stance in the wake of this reality?

P.L: There is a process of artificialization of cognition in general that is very old; it began with the writing, with books; it is already a kind of externalization or objectification of memory. I mean, a library, for instance, is something that is completely material, completely technical, and without libraries we would be much less intelligent.

We cannot be against libraries because instead of being pure brain they are just paper, and ink, and buildings, and index cards. Similarly, it makes no sense that we “revolt” against computer and against the internet. It is the same kind of reasoning than with the libraries, it is just another technology, more powerful, but it is the same idea. It is an augmentation of our cognitive ability -individual and collective-, so it is absurd to be afraid of it.

But we have to distinguish very clearly the material support and the texts. The texts come from our mind, but the text that is in my mind can be projected on paper as well as in a computer network. What it is really important here is the text.


C.M: You’ve mentioned before that what we define today as the “semantic web”, more than being based on semantic principles, is based on logical principles. According to your ideas, this represents a roadblock in making the most out of the possibilities offered by digital media. As an alternative, you proposed the IEML (Information Economy Meta Language).

  • Could you elaborate on the basic differences between the semantic web and the IEML?

P.L: The so called “semantic web” –in fact, people call it now “web of data”, and it is a better term for it– is based on very well known principles of artificial intelligence that were developed in the 70s, the 80s, and that were adapted to the web.

Basically, you have a well-organized database, and you have rules to compute the relations between different parts of the database, and these rules are mainly logical rules. IEML works in a completely different manner: you have as many data as you want, and you categorize this data in IEML.

IEML is a language, not a computer language, but an artificial human language. So you can say “the sea”, “this person”, or anything… There are words in IEML, there are no words in the semantic web formats, it doesn’t work like this.

In this artificial language that is IEML, each word is in semantic relations with the other words in the dictionary. So, all the words are intertwined by semantic relations, and are perfectly defined. When you use these words, create sentences, or create texts; you create new relationships between the words, grammatical relationships.

And from texts written in IEML you have algorithms that make automatic relations inside those sentences, from one sentence to the other, and so on. So you have a whole semantic network inside the text that is automatically computed, and even more, you can automatically compute the semantic relations between any text and any library of texts.

An IEML text automatically creates its own semantic relations with all the other texts, and these texts in IEML can automatically translate themselves into natural languages; Spanish, English, Portuguese or Chinese… So, when you use IEML to categorize data, you create automatically semantic links between the data; with all the openness, the subtleness, and the ability to say exactly what you want that language can offer you.

You can categorize any type of content; images, music, software, articles, websites, books, any kind of information. You can categorize these in IEML and at the same time you create links within the data because of the links that are internal to the language.

  • M: Can we consider metatags, hashtags, and Twitter lists as a precedent to the IEML?

P.L: Yes, exactly. I have been inspired by the fact that people are already categorizing data. They started doing this with social bookmarking sites, such as The act of curation today goes with the act of categorization, of tagging. We do this very often on Twitter, and now we can do it on Facebook, on Google Plus, on Youtube, on Flickr, and so on. The thing is that these tags don`t have the ability to interconnect with other tags and to create a big and consistent semantic network. In addition, these tags are in different natural languages.

From the point of view of the user, it will be the same action, but tagging in IEML will just be more powerful.

  • M: What will the IEML’s initial array of applications be?

P.L: I hope the main applications will be in the creation of collective intelligence games; games of categorization and evaluation of data; a sort of collective curation that will help people to create a very useful memory for their collaborative learning. That, for me, would be the most interesting application, and of course, the creation of a inter-linguistic or trans-linguistic environment.


C.M: You’ve referred to big data as one of the phenomena that could take collective intelligence to a whole new level. You’ve mentioned as well that in fact this type of information can only be processed by powerful institutions (governments, corporations, etc.), and that only when the capacity to read big data is democratized, will there truly be a revolution.

Would you say that the IEML will have a key role in this process of democratization? If so, why?

P.L: I think that currently there are two important aspects of big data analytics: First, we have more and more data every day. We have to realize this. And, second, the main producer of this immense flow of data is ourselves. We, the users of the Internet are producing data. So currently lots of people are trying to make sense of this data and here you have two “avenues”:

First is the avenue that is more scientific. In natural sciences you have a lot of data –genetic data, data coming from physics or astronomy-, and also something that is relatively new; the data coming from human sciences. This is called “digital humanities”, and it takes data from spaces like social media and tries to make sense of it from a sociological point of view. Or you take data from libraries and you try to make sense of it from a literary or historical point of view. This is one application.

The second application is in business, in administration –private or public. You have many companies that are trying to sell services to companies and to governments.

I would say that there are two big problems with this landscape:

The first is related to the methodology; today we use mainly statistical methods and logical methods. It is very difficult to have a semantic analysis of the data, because we do not have a semantic code, and let’s remember that every thing we analyze is coded before we analyze it. So you can code quantitatively and you have statistical analysis, code logically and you have logical analysis. So you need a semantic code to have a semantic analysis. We do not have it yet, but I think that IEML will be that code.

The second problem is the fact that this analysis of data is currently in the hands of very powerful or rich players –big governments, big companies. It is expensive and it is not easy to do –you need to learn how to code, you need to learn how to read statistics…

I think that with IEML –because people will be able to code semantically the data– people will also be able to do semantic analysis with the help of the right user-interfaces. They will be able to manipulate this semantic code in natural language, it will be open to everybody.

This famous “revolution of big data” is just at its beginning. In the coming decades there will be much more data and many more powerful tools to analyze it. And it will be democratized; the tools will be open and free.


C.M: In the interview conducted by Howard Rheingold, you defined collective intelligence as a synergy between personal and collective knowledge; as an example, you mentioned the curation process that we, as users of social media, develop and that in most cases serves as resource material for others to use. Regarding this particular issue, I’d like to analyze with you this particular situation using collective intelligence:

During the last few months, Venezuela has suffered an important information blackout, product of the government’s monopolized grasp of the majority of the media outlets, the censorship efforts made by the State’s organisms, and the self-imposed censorship of the last independent media outlets of the country. As a response to this blockade, Venezuelans have taken upon themselves to stay informed by invading the digital space. In a relatively short period of time, various non-standard communication networks have been created, verified source lists have been consolidated, applications have been developed, and a sort of ethics code has been established in order to minimize the risk of spreading false information.

Based on your theory on collective intelligence, what reading could you give of this phenomenon?

P.L: You have already given a response to this; I have nothing else to say. Of course I am against any kind of censorship. We have already seen that many authoritarian regimes do not like the internet, because it represents an augmentation of freedom of expression. Not only in Venezuela but in fact in different countries, governments have tried to limit free expression and the people that are politically active and that are not pro-government have tried to organize themselves through the internet. I think that the new environment created by social media –Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, the blogs, and all the apps that help people find the information they need– helps to the coordination and the discussion inside all these opposition movements, and this is the current political aspect of collective intelligence.