Friday, January 7, 2011

The Surprising Power of the Hive Mind

Have you ever heard of the alternate reality game I Love Bees? It was designed as a game to be played by a very large number of people who would form a collective intelligence (also known in popular culture as a hive mind).  Alone, it would be impossible for anyone to solve the puzzles and perform the tasks put forth, but together, the thousands of people who played not only met the designers' expectations but exceeded them, causing the game's design to change as it progressed.

I read about I Love Bees in a book I've been working through called The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and LearningJane McGonigal wrote a case study on the game for her chapter Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming. (I wrote about Jane and bringing epic wins to real life in the past.)

While reading about the hive mind via Jane, I couldn't help but think about two recent cases of the hive mind being used for good and maybe not-so-good (perhaps depending on your perspective).

The first example I thought of was Internet-based group Anonymous, and in particular their response to the Wikileaks backlash.  Tech Crunch reported in December that "[t]hus far Operation Payback has orchestrated DDoS attacks on the corporate sites of companies deemed enemies of WikiLeaks after it started releasing thousands of diplomatic cables over Thanksgiving weekend."  It's amazing and, I have to admit, a little thrilling to see that an unnamed group of online citizens can organize themselves into taking such large and noticed actions so quickly and easily.  It certainly seems more effective than many traditional protests.

Not everyone sees the actions of Anonymous as noble.  The example from just this past week, however, is undeniably so.  I first heard about the 'homeless man with a golden voice' on Reddit.  A video of Ted Williams, taken a mere five days ago on the streets, appeared on YouTube, and Reddit community seemed determined to help the guy out.  While it's not clear whether the offers for multiple jobs and even a house were the direct result of Reddit alone, it is certainly true that once again that the Internet has accomplished something really big.

So we've had examples of organized collective intelligence through carefully (but flexibly) designed games, and we've seen large groups of people coordinate themselves online to do some pretty incredible things, for better or for worse.  Is there really any reason we couldn't be tackling some of the world's toughest problems in a similar way? What will we accomplish next?


Kate said...

There's an interesting sci-fi take on this in a book by Stephen Baxter. You might like it!

Gail Carmichael said...

The chapter Why I Love Bees also referred to an interesting sounding book: "In Rainbows End, award-winning science fiction author Vernor Vinge gives us a tantalizing
glimpse of what such a CI curriculum might look like in the near future."

Kate said...

Huh. I have a bunch of Vernor Vinge in my bookshelf that I haven't read yet. I'll have to see if that one is there.

Gupfee said...

You might be interested in Jane's latest project, Gameful (, a social community of gamers with large goals.

Gail Carmichael said...

@Gupfee: Thanks for the link!

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