Entertainment as Collective Intelligence

November 29, 2009

I’m reading the introduction to Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, which is about “the relationship between three concepts–media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence” (2).   For Jenkins, “convergence” refers to “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (2).  This brought to mind a book I read for my Ph.D. research back in the early 1990s by Marsha Kinder called Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games:  From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  She used a phrase called “transmedia intertextuality” that I never forgot; this referred to the new strategy of deploying a story and its characters in multiple media formats.  The example I recall was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with which my young sons at the time were fascinated.  This was a movie, a cartoon, books, toys, even plastic plates!  And probably much more that I’m not mentioning here…

Between then and now the phenomenon of social networking has exploded, becoming much more widespread, thereby allowing the participatory and collective nature of Jenkins’ concept to emerge.  As Jenkins notes,

Convergence does not occur through media appliances, however sophisticated they may become.  Convergence occurs within the brains of individual consumers and through their social interactions with others. . . Because there is more information on any given topic than anyone can store in their head, there is an added incentive for us to talk among ourselves about the media we consume.  This conversation creates buzz that is increasingly valued by the media industry.  Consumption has become a collective process–and that’s what this book means by collective intelligence, a term coined by French cybertheorist Pierre Levy.  None of us know everything; each of us knows something; and we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine our skills.  Collective intelligence can be seen as an alternative source of media power.  We are learning how to use that power through our day-to-day interactions within convergence culture.  Right now, we are mostly using this collective power through our recreational life, but soon we will be deploying those skills for more ‘serious’ purposes. (3-4)

This point about entertainment being the locus of emergent collective intelligence resonates with Ulmer’s “pop-cycle,” a heuretic, generative tool for electrate thinking that requires consideration of four institutional discourses (family, community, entertainment, career) and how these have influenced our identity formation.  Crossing over among these “popcycle institutions” allows us to employ images and modes of reasoning from one realm in order to solve problems in another.  For Ulmer, entertainment discourse has dominated since the late 20th century and therefore provides “the beginnings of explicitly electrate reasoning” (Internet Invention 126).  While school (the primary vehicle for community discourse) continues to privilege literate modes of thinking and knowing, those who experience these new media on a regular basis, as Jenkins suggests, are learning how to engage in the processes of collective intelligence as consumers of 21st century entertainment.

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Managing Information Overload

September 30, 2009

I was just pointed (via someone I follow on Twitter) to an article in the Harvard Business Review about how damaging information overload can be. It mentions a September 2009 article titled “Death by Information Overload” and cites the stress this puts not only on individuals but, as a result, on organizations.  But as author Alex Wright tells us in his book titled Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages, this is not a new problem.  Here’s how the dust jacket summarizes the book:

Today’s well-documented ‘information explosion’ may seem like an acutely modern phenomenon, but we are not the first generation–or even the first species–to wrestle with the problem of information overload. Long before the advent of computers, human beings were were collecting, storing, and organizing information: from Ice Age taxonomies to Sumerian archives, Greek libraries to Dark Age monasteries.

I do recognize that the problem is especially intense these days.  Part of this results from the possibilities that social networking provides for expanding and enhancing our own brain:  members of one’s PLN (Personal Learning Network) become an extension of one’s own mind in a manifestation of an emergent form of collective intelligence.   This is the “memory of the future” that Wright envisions at the end of his book:  “As people find their way online, they seem to coalesce into small groups. . . .Small, self-organized communities [emerge] around common causes and shared values” (236).  I would call these “memedoms”:  a socio-political entity that exists outside of conventional markers of identity (country, political party, etc.), one that is bounded by the contours of a particular idea or “meme.”  Witness the followers of Rush Limbaugh who call themselves “ditto-heads” because they merely repeat verbatim what the master has spoken. . . The ideas that are channeled your way depend on who you’re following on Twitter, whose blogs you read, what RSS news feeds you receive, whose slideshows you favorite on Slideshare, and so on.

Information Overload has gotten so bad that there is now an Information Overload Research Group, complete with its own set of resources that point you in endless directions toward… yes, more information–in this case, about information overload!

I suggest one way to deal with this in a presentation about a concept I developed called “mnemonomics“:  the management of memory.  If we think of ourselves as part of a larger, emergent collective or group intelligence coalescing around certain memes or concepts, then we become part of a larger whole, doing our part, whatever that happens to be, to perpetuate the meme (as when I published a letter to the editor about the upcoming international day of action for climate change organized by 350.org).  As the idea of mnemonomics suggests, we need to learn how to manage this larger, socially-networked memory that we now have available to us.

The problem is similar to the age of print literacy, when people walked around with shirts that said, “So many books.  So little time.”  Now the shirts say, “So many social networks.  So little time.”  Same difference?