In late May, more than 50 bystanders in London lifted a double-decker bus to free a cyclist who was stuck under its wheels. Accounts describe the first people on the scene realising that in order to help the injured man, the bus had to be hoisted off his legs. A few initial volunteers were joined by many others who heaved in the right direction. The bus was successfully raised a few inches, the victim pulled out and taken to hospital.
This is a wonderful example of collective solidarity and joint action, but is it also a case of collective intelligence? Can it be compared to Wikipedia or open source software, where thousands contribute their knowledge and skills? Most people would probably say that lifting the bus was an instinctive emotional response to an emergency situation, which has little to do with intelligence and a lot to do with strength and determination.
I would argue the contrary. In both cases participants have to be able to form a joint goal. There has to be the capacity to think not just as individuals but as a group. Mattia Gallotti and Chris D Frith call this 'we-intentions', other cognitive scientists like Michael Tommasello have talked of shared or joint intentions and the capacity to 'read' other people's minds. People at the scene of the accident described feeling what others were thinking and then starting to move together.
This uniquely human capacity of understanding other people's intentions, and making one's own understood by others, is at the basis of all forms of collaboration. It is a particularly baffling phenomenon when it happens remotely and asynchronously, as we are seeing more on the internet.
The human capacity of understanding other people's intentions, and making one's own understood by others, is at the basis of all forms of collaboration – as we are seeing more of on the internet
Another shared trait is the fact that the bystanders, just as the open source developers, acted out of a pure sense of civic altruism. Their act was voluntary, selfless, and only partially organised by some members of the crowd shouting out directions. An amateur video of the event shows a relatively chaotic scene with some people joining in, others giving up, others watching, some totally unaware. This lack of an overseeing plan, a hierarchy and a clear division of roles, is again something common to many recent forms of collective online participation. As we know the internet is crowded, messy, at times ugly but hugely collaborative. We can imagine how different the scene would have looked if an army platoon had been involved but the crowd's efforts were fast and effective.
The third component of what we generally call collective intelligence is the presence of tools or digital systems on which activities are coordinated and knowledge is constructed. The internet is providing powerful platforms not only to share but to assemble and reconfigure knowledge in infinite ways. Collectives can therefore profit and learn from tools that they have contributed to building, and this recursive process supports the overall intelligence of the social groups involved.
Of course hauling the double-decker did not involve any tools, nor did it create a reusable set of data. However the bystanders did something with the bus that is similar to what happens in cultural evolution. They transformed the 'affordance' of an object (the action the object allows a user to perform on it, eg a knob affords twisting or pulling). By doing something with the bus which is unthinkable, they in fact reconfigured their relation to their environment. In fact these passers-by did exactly what has been done for centuries in science, which is to reconfigure objects and the environment to other goals and situations.
It is highly possible that years of online interaction is massively increasing our capacity to collaborate and read others' intentions. What happened in London is a small manifestation of our growing capacity for collective intelligence.