Tom Atlee on Societal Collective Intelligence Feedback Loops

Excerpted from Tom Atlee:

“Intelligence is a cognitive feedback system that allows us to adjust appropriately to changing conditions.

Here’s how it works – at least ideally: Using our intelligence, we observe and organize what’s going on in and around us. We learn – by reflecting on what we observe, calling up memories, and creating understandings – recognizing patterns and creating ideas and narratives. We decide on how to act, based on our understandings. When we observe the results of our actions and reflect on what we observe, we can modify our understandings – our ideas, stories, beliefs, and worldviews – to take into account what we’ve observed. This is “learning from experience” – the most fundamental role of intelligence.

The same dynamic happens with collective intelligence in society. As a society, we use things like science, journalism, blogs, twitter feeds, and intelligence services to collectively observe what’s going on within and around our society. We use pundits, academia, government deliberations, boardroom conferences, online forums and other conversations to reflect on what we’ve observed and to formulate our responses based on what we think we’re learning. We call up relevant pieces of the past using libraries, databases, history, the records of mass media, and our own individual memories. We take action through corporate and government policies and activities and the billions of decisions and activities of variously informed individuals, families, networks, and other social groupings. We then reflect on the results of what “we” have done, not only through the institutions I mentioned earlier – science, journalism, etc. – but also through the investigations and protests of activists and other political players working through political campaigns and lobbying.

This is our societal collective intelligence – or lack of it – the feedback system through which our society responds to changes in its collective circumstances – changes like climate change.

If our society is not responding well to the issues it faces, we can be sure there are faulty circuits in the cognitive systems that constitute our collective intelligence. Are there forces distorting science and journalism, preventing them from performing their proper roles with integrity? Are their systemic design issues or parasitic influences that prevent government deliberations, corporate conferences, and individual citizens and consumers from taking into account what needs to be taken into account? Do certain cultural assumptions and worldviews color the thinking of both powerholders and depowered citizens so they can’t perceive – or they obsessively deny – emerging threats and possibilities? Is the flow of information and collective memory smooth and useful – or does the society manifest dangerous levels of collective Alzheimer’s, unable to even remember who it is in the larger scheme of things? Do the change agents who seek to correct society’s failings attend only to specific cases or issues – or to healing and upgrading the systems and cultures that constitute their society’s collective cognitive capacity – it’s collective intelligence and wisdom? These are important questions that can direct the attention of change agents to more fruitful targets, based on an understanding of collective intelligence.

How well does our society’s collective intelligence feedback system – the many ways we collectively learn (or not) from experience – recognize and deal with the feedback systems that generate climate change? What factors help us do this – and which ones hinder us? THIS is what we need to attend to.” (

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