Communities of Knowledge: The Power of Networks

30/01/2021

I recently bought a book (which has joined my daunting and ever growing to-be-read pile) called The Knowledge Illusion. The subtitle really caught my eye: “The myth of individual thought and the power of collective wisdom”. Perhaps the book may change my mind on the individual thought front – I think individual thought is still extremely important and powerful – but the notion of collective wisdom had me making parallels with other fields, from neuroscience to the cosmos. I think it is undeniable, if not plainly obvious, that creating a community of open knowledge is a natural and necessary part of any society or group.

Before any assumptions are made, I want to make clear what my understanding of the term “collective wisdom” is, and what I imagine the authors of the book mean. To me, collective wisdom does not mean a hivemind wherein everyone shares the same views and thoughts. While I would hope it heavily leans towards the adoption of critical thought and consensus of empirical facts and evidence (e.g. that climate change is a legitimate and massive existential threat), a collective is always made up of a group of individuals – individuals with their own thoughts and ideas about the world around them.

Collective wisdom is the ability to share and receive knowledge freely and critically in an openly accessible forum, be it online, in books, or through in person discussions. I’ll revisit this later in the piece, and perhaps after I’ve read The Knowledge Illusion to see what it adds to the concept beyond my cursory explanation. For now, the above suffices.

The comsic web

As someone who dropped out of science after grade 10 out of sheer boredom of the subject (why I took double the high-end maths still eludes my directionless dumbarse self), I was always interested in space. I went from detesting science to a casual interest in, now, cosmology and quantum physics. Specifically, the terrifying and humbling scale of the universe – it should come as no surprise that the philosophical questions that arise interest me a great deal too.

The above image is a representation of our universe – the cosmic web, the intricate layout of massive galaxy clusters and dauntingly large voids (fun fact: the Milky Way is inside the largest known void!). Don’t try and find yourself in that image – we are but one of trillions of galaxies, and Earth is but a spec within a spec, to however many specs you want to imagine.

Late last year, I happened to stumble across some interesting trivia from an entirely different field – neuroscience. But most fascinatingly, I stumbled across an immediate and striking similarity.

Neuronal network

The neuron network in the human brain instantly made me think of the cosmic web. The two are on entirely different scales, of course – one bound literally within our heads and the other spanning the known universe – but that just made the similarities more intriguing. Nature always loves patterns (except when it decides not to), and to draw this connection was profound.

Sure enough, when I went digging to see what, if any, other similarities there are, studies have and are being carried out to determine just that. I honestly do not understand any of the science jargon or mathematics involved – only the plain English explanations of the research and results. As it turns out, I am obviously not the only one who has picked up on this pattern, and my immediate conclusion that there must be more to it appears correct.

In particular, pertinent to the purpose of this piece, these networks contain vast amounts of information that can be spread throughout. The network is also amplified by the connections between individual parts. A single neuron may have a certain amount of “processing power”, and a group of them in the brain may have that amount multiplied by the number of neurons. But it is the network – the connections between neurons – that give us an incredible boost in just how much power and memory the human mind is capable of. The above study suggests approximately 2.5 petabytes is the limit of memory capacity, which is huge (or is it, with the technological advances fitting larger and larger quantities of data on smaller and smaller devices?).

I imagine a similar phenomenon occurs on a cosmic scale, with the above study providing the approximation of at least 4.3 petabytes of capacity required to store information on the entirety of the cosmic structure (surprisingly, not even double that of the neuronal network, but that may have to do with the equivalent sizes of the “voids” in both networks). While individual systems, like our Sol, or galaxies like the Milky Way or Andromeda, may contain a certain amount of information, the combined network is what gives us a real sense of the universe as a whole.

As an aside, the logical line of inquiry is whether or not the universe, like us, is “conscious”. Does it have a consciousness in the same way we understand it (which, to be fair, is a limited understanding), or does its scale preclude us from ever knowing, an unfathomable entity (nature, a deity, simple mathematics)?

The cosmic web and neuronal networks are natural phenomena that I really hope have more parallels discovered between them. But I believe the same phenomenon is “natural” in human society as well. By that I mean, like anarchist approaches to hierarchies, it is networks made up of individual parts that give society its incredible advantages.

Like a neuron or galaxy, an individual person contains information. Specifically, a person contains the thoughts, ideas, beliefs, experiences, memories, etc. that are “unique” to them. When you consider there are almost eight billion people on the planet, that is a lot of individuals. But individuals do not exist in a vacuum. Like the neurons in our brain and the galaxies in our universe being influenced in nature, there are countless factors that go into shaping who we are and how we view and approach the world.

There is an inherent “collective wisdom” within communities, but on the knowledge front it is particularly potent. While in terms of governance and management of work and political affairs I believe things can and should be shared responsibility, not top-down systems, only a fool would deny that the amount of specialisation in countless fields implies that no one person or even group can “know” everything. A scientist studying climate change is exploring a vastly different topic to a historian piecing together new revelations about, say, Australia’s Indigenous population.

They are not disconnected, however. Someone could read an article about the latest archaeological find in Australia while also having a keen interest in climate activism, keeping up to date on the latest research – all on top of their own regular work, whatever field that may be. And one could go another step further and use Indigenous knowledge, such as that of Australia’s “seasons” (depending on region, there are up to six or more distinct “seasons” recorded by local tribes, the four we use today simply being European imports) or climate history to help map out Australia’s shifts as the globe warms.

And then someone reads that work and, over the next few months of reading elsewhere and making connections, could write a piece about how powerful networks of community knowledge can be, likening them to neuronal and cosmic networks. And you are reading it now, bringing your own knowledge and interpretations to it.

So while this is my work, my writing, I have drawn knowledge I’ve learned from at least five or six different sources across at least as many fields to make it, all with their own sources and influences. Now it is here, being read by however many happen to stumble across this post. It is this network, this gaining, expanding, and sharing of knowledge that grows us as individuals and all of us as a community. It is this collective wisdom that allows us to bounce ideas around, pass on insights, discover new things.

We are our own intricate web, individuals belonging to larger groups, all connected in some way to the rest of the world, even if we do not realise it or comprehend it. My only hope is that all information can be open for all to see and share so that this network can run at its highest limits, and that we can all contribute in whatever way we can to increasing the collective wisdom of our world.

Liked this? Read The Purpose of Science

Previous piece: The Irony of Trump’s Twitter Ban

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