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Encyclopedia or Cosmopedia? Collective Intelligence and Knowledge Technospaces

Panagiota Alevizou

In his seminal book entitled Collective Intelligence, Pierre Lévy offers an analysis of the WWW instruments, such as hypertext (1998: 155-7) to articulate a theoretical proposal regarding the ways humans can potentially access to, collaborate over, and indeed, produce and reproduce knowledge (1998: 215-6).

The idea of a technology, and in this case, computer technology that makes possible a shared or collective intelligence originate, from Vanevar Bush and Ted Nelson[1], and it also echoes Douglas Engelbart's ideas and early designs on software that would 'augment intellect' and enable us to think collectively [share mental associations] rather than simply haul masses of information around us" (1998: 27). Lévy's vision is deeply posthumanist (1998: x). It expresses an investment on the communication possibilities of networked technology to satisfy the desire for accelerating social production of knowledge.

Today, I will attempt to present my critical reflection on Lévy's conceptualisation of the relationship between knowledge and technology. I will combine this with analyses on Wikipedia. I shall concentrate on Lévy's understanding of networked media technologies in relation to universalism and totality, authority and hierarchy, representation and cognitive transcendence. I critically assess much of the cosmopaedic 'knowledge hive' that Lévy envisages by arguing for the necessity of locating such online knowledge forms within the totality of relations that produce them. Understanding such totality not only can defend forms such Wikipedia but also improve their collective purposes.

Lévy's theorizing is useful because it reconnects the relationship between technology and knowledge. And in doing so, it attempts to link the ontological with the material dimension of technology and the interfaces that constitute what he defines as virtuality (Lévy 1998; 2001: 19-22).

Lévy argues that the fluidity of meaning generation attached to oral communication and live performance (what he calls somatic technologies) can be re-enacted and also reinvented with digitization. Lévy contends, that digital technology addresses the detail; and as a result, by enabling users to recreate and modify messages at will, this technology becomes important for the message[2]. In a way, this ability restores some of the performative and contextual elements of somatic technologies, like orality. More importantly, these extensive elements can magnify the scope of reading, materialize the senses and re-establish sensibility with context, while preserving the media's power of recording and reproduction (ibid: 49).

He uses the example of a hyperdocument that is sensitive to contextual change because it has been created and restructured in real time by an online network community. Examples can include featured the discussion part of the featured article on posthumanism ( and the Wikipedia community portal.

For Lévy, it is this microcosmic treatment of information that constitutes cyberspace. Lévy argues that virtual information is immaterial and can exist beyond specific territories. This can produce a new form of experience in the interaction with the texts and the generation of meaning. It can also producer new means for organizing human groups; contrary to modes of organization facilitated by media technologies (e.g. hierarchical, classificatory, bureaucratic), virtuality can embrace 'human wealth attribute by attribute' to produce large, self-organizing communities.

The cognitive perceptions of the members of a knowledge/discourse community taken individually may be incomplete or inaccurate (see Bush 1945/2000) but together they form a trans-active and transitive memory system that shares domains of knowledge. This can restore the level of organicity that defines oral communities. Virtuality is this sense can restore what has never been modern.

This for Lévy is arguably a 'new humanism' (Provenzo 1997: viii) "that incorporates and enlarges the scope of self-knowledge into a form of group knowledge and collective thought" (Lévy 1998: 17)[3]:

What is collective intelligence? It is a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time ... The basis and goal of collective intelligence is the mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatized communities (ibid: 13)[4]

This type of 'knowledge exchange' works against economies of hierarchy, authority and privilege (ibid: 18), through self-creativity and self-advertisement (unlike control of information evident in broadcast and print modes of communication[5]).

The development of new knowledge communities is part of the changing concept of the 'public'; their interactions produce a new form of language and a new textuality that constitutes cyberspace. In a sense this re-incarnates the notion of knowledge as a 'public good' - a notion that originates from the days of St Augustine who argued (de doctrina Christiana) that knowledge unlike physical possessions must be freely shared.

As I mentioned earlier Lévy calls this space cosmopaedia. It encompasses linguistic and ontological elements (Lévy, 1997b). Ideally, both its multimodal and dialogic qualities lead to an increase of information in shared electronic spaces. See table:

  • journal chronological narratives
  • Informal
  • Knowledge, info, personal experiences
  • Immediate
  • Visible time
  • Record chronologies
  • Blurring of personal experiences
  • public and migratory through rss feeds
  • contextual
  • thematic
  • threaded discussions
  • highly structured content
  • evolving knowledge libraries, organic
  • invisible time
  • A-temporal Collaborative, overt
  • Record chronologies, tagging, comparison
  • Public/private
  • Actors, concepts, instances
  • Community
  • migratory
  • Threads, themes, associations
social reference systems
  • List of shared resources & references.
  • Use Tags to organise info
  • Invisible time. Personal memory aid, collaborative tool
  • Rank, annotate & discuss items
  • Tagging & folksonomies
  • Indexical

Wikis recapture the original perceptions of the web as a browsing/editing medium. In Wikipedia Unbound sections we see a clear sense of conventions and purpose (that of a general encyclopaedia: to provide overview and that of a reference/text book. We also see guides on authorship, editorial issues of currency, neutrality, revision, etc and stylistic guidelines.

Let me know go back to the notion of cosmpaedia. Lévy uses the social dispersal of meaning as a notion that emerges within and makes possible the evolution of 'cosmopaedia'. Unlike earlier visions of global encyclopaedias or libraries (see Wells, 1938; Bush, 1945; and also Rayward: 1997), 'cosmopaedia' is highly dialogical and transgressive of its own boundaries. As 'universal' knowledge becomes the sharing between changing individuals (a product of dialogue indeed, "we are the text" he argues in Toward Super-language), there can be no totality/enclosure possible.

But Lévy's understanding of encyclopaedia, the transformation of which shapes cosmopaedia, is both problematic and limited. This is the point that I would like to embark my critique and continue with the limitations of both cosmopaedia and collective intelligence.

Lévy understands encyclopaedia as a signifier of the 'circle of knowledge', and interprets it as the 'cyclical interaction of knowledge and learning'. According to this logic, like the circle, encyclopaedia exists only in a single dimension: "It is a line. This figure accurately reflects a knowledge that is mostly conveniently expressed in the form of text, for text is physically linear..." (1998: 215). Because of this linearity and because it is bound in the closed circle (albeit its is often seen to represent the infinite), the encyclopaedia, is a typical form of the totality of knowledge, according to Lévy. Although fixed by the limitations of print, the organization of knowledge in encyclopaedias since the Enlightenment were not ordered by a circle (which was after all the translation of 7 liberal arts), but by the alphabet or by 'tree'-like (and therefore hypertextual) hierarchies between the disciplines[6].

Late Renaissance reference works (like Margarita Philosophica) often presented architectural structures, as though the reader were progressing towards the inner sanctum of truth. Enlightenment encyclopaedias (Cyclopaedia, the Encyclopédie) evolved to embrace the notion of 'knowledge trees' demonstrating how the branches of arts and the sciences grow out of the organization of the mind. Some other ones employed geographical metaphors, world maps or a globe. Many of the tree-like or architectural structures were informed by assumption on moral significance (deriving from a Christian sense of virtue like in Margarita Philosophica, which matched the liberal arts with several stages in life). Branching taxonomies in the early modern period abandoned moral significance for a rationale one, while world maps also became popular metaphors for classifying. Francis Bacon promoted this by describing an elaborate division of human learning as an 'intellectual globe' - which also influenced classification in the Encyclopédie. Alphabetical arrangements addressed the problem of recording new flows of knowledge without renegotiating taxonomies in a functional way [some like Lucien Goldman saw this as a moment of emancipation against the intellectual order imposed by the hierarchical schemas], while others like Brockhous and Britannica presented hybrid organizations. Wikipedia reinstated this globe metaphor, as a planetary computing grid (see logo) or a neural net...thought the arrangements are also thematic, alphabetical and arbitrary. What I have also found from my critical reading of encyclopaedia's history and from my recent research into encyclopaedias' digital evolution trajectories, is that generic conventions and the ordering of knowledge goes side by side with not only the available media technology, but also with the symbolic meaning and commodity status of encyclopaedia as a self-education medium. In other words, taxonomies reflect specific ideological assumptions and are directed by commercial or other incentives. Wikipedia presents knowledge as collections of (verbal and visual) ideas that can arrange themselves into a kaleidoscope of both hierarchical and associative patterns (see structures and main portals in There too we see a combination of the popular, the current, the arbitrary and the hierarchical. Aiming to address some of the criticism over factual inaccuracies, superficiality and lack of integrity, some of the content is starred as 'Featured Articles'. These are what the committee believes to be the best articles in Wikipedia. They are reviewed by scientific committees of experts for accuracy, neutrality, completeness, and style according to featured article criteria. Working on improving 'the quality' issue, some within the community (contributor and mailing list administrator) push further for a scalable page rating system, which unlike an editorial committee, will scale with the contributor base and will highlight areas in need of attention or validation. This somehow echoes, Lévy's ideal figure of knowledge in cyberspace: "collective intellects" he argues, "are effectively capable of constructing their own cosmopedia", (1998: 216), aiming in 'mutual recognition and enrichment' but also striving to "ensure success in our highly competitive environment (ibid: 1). Lévy aims to establish the relationship between ontology and epistemology that was abandoned, as he claims, since E. Kant, by illustrating that "there are as many qualities of being as there are ways of knowing" (1998: 215)[7]. A questions then rises: what are the factors motivating contributions to open source production of goods and does this relate to the 'quality' of contributions to such goods? Inspired from such analyses of cyberspace Jaron Lenier (2006) articulates a general attach on distributed cooperative networked information production and specifically on Wikipedia. He has two driving concerns. The first is the loss of individuality, the devaluation of the unique engaged individual responsible for a system of information and knowledge. This is an issue that Lenier argues diminishes quality to the mediocre. The second concern is more space bound: Lenier questions metafilters and formations of the 'hive mind' as another part of the information economy. I shall draw again on Lévy to conflate these points and defend Wikipedia, but also raise my own concerns (see also Blenker, 2006).

An answer to Lenier's first point, I suggest, may come from what Lévy considers as the 'non-separation', interpretative continuum characteristic of cosmopedia:

For collective intellects knowledge is a continuum, a large patchwork quilt ... the cosmopedia dematerializes the boundaries between different types of knowledge. In place of the fixed organization of knowledge into discrete and hierarchical disciplines - or the chaotic fragmentation of information and data - there now exists an unbroken, dynamic topology... a pluralistic image of knowledge, the cosmopedia is the mediating fabric between the collective intellect and its world, between the collective intellect and itself. (1998: 217)

This unrestricted view of Cyberculture against economies of hierarchy and privilege aim to promote social production as part of the struggle against the 'information superhighway' model of the Net, and for the re-democratization of cyberspace in opposition to commercial economies, zoning and segmentation. This can become actual through cosmopaedia that repeals homogenization to heterogeneity.

What we see in Wikipedia is that individuals cluster around topics they care about, diverse discourse communities that link and talk through page histories, watch lists and topics discussions. We see a range of choices developing different paths for conditioning what issues are relevant and salient, through distributed systems that while imperfect, is less easily corrupted than mainstream media. Wikipedia is not voiceless, as Lanier contends. We see expressions of personality in the talk, discussion pages, not least in the Wikipedia unbound pages. Wikipedians do not forget the conventions of an encyclopaedia. Rather they attempt to use technology in order to accelerate cognitive transcendence and social production of knowledge. We see alternative notions of authorship in section on 'editorial control' in page histories and in topic discussions, alongside nuances of considered opinions and structures that formulate the normative beliefs of the wikimedia organization. Following the employment of selection criteria, strategies are now in place to freeze articles in order to prevent tempering and violations, while those articles that do not meet any of the selected criteria are nominated for removal. Regular users set up watch lists for articles they care about, so they are notified immediately for new edits, while others chat online on ongoing issues, from article details to general policy. Often balancing between alternative and mainstream, (between Big Brother and eBay), wikipedians perhaps aim to appropriate collective consciousness and mutual recognition for enrichment and cognitive transience.

What's great about Wikipedia is the fact, as Larry Sanger argues, that it offers a way to organise enormous amounts of labour for a single intellectual purpose (2006, n.p). That sense of purpose I think is transparent in both layout, and in the rich context of many articles; in this sense it cannot be faceless; its participants develop persistent identities around definitions and taxonomies (see Foucault, 1989). But connecting personality and personal responsibility with the idea of authorship, in the way Lanier does is like claiming that 'real authorship' is the royalty-bound copyrighted authorship that is beyond the public good ethic of knowledge that Wikipedia attempts to promote.

Having said all that we must not be oblivious of the challenges that articulations of collective intelligence and cosmopedia hinder. In this sense I tend to agree with Lenier that, there it is not always clear that this notion of information and communication is anything else than the liberal counterpart of the 'information superhighway' (see Kelly 1992; 1999; also Day 1999: 266). Information here is reduced to being a mode of communication, and it remains structured by formalized horizons of language and technology, which evade the fact that indeed information networks and the Net, emerged from the political and economic conditions that are very closely connected with the rest of industrial society. Our collective intelligence emerge within specific media and technological infrastructures and platforms that have specific biases. If it is to avoid overthrowing academic and publishing elites for a new media-savvy and literate elite, we need to interrogate Wikipedia in terms of its social and political properties and limits.

Much of Lévy's definition of cosmopedia evades investigating in detail the different properties of different communicative devices or constructive spaces[8]. By assigning virtualization to a new space of textuality, Lévy fails to interrogate technology (or the different information technologies) in terms of their social and political properties and limits. So long communication is viewed in terms of tokens of information by subjects who are defined in terms of presence and representation, avoiding to investigate the social relations that enable communication and information sharing, in their totality, then understanding the interplay between language, knowledge and technology and defining their ideological boundaries remains difficult.

Lévy's 'information utopia' can be inspiring for grasping the cultural ethic of wikimedia and the blogosphere. But as much as this essentialist approach enlightens some elements of the cultural interfaces of the Web it also obscures the clear relationship between the Web, digital knowledge forms and the rest of the industrial society[9].

Here we need to be reminded of two things: firstly, that cosmopedia is an attainable utopia and not a condition completely actualized yet. And secondly that the relationship of collective labour with the construction of knowledge as a public good, rather as a commodity. This new modality of social production of knowledge enabled by the combination of social software, digital media and peer to peer collaboration offers new opportunities for encapsulating not the universal (global) ideal of enlightenment but the emphasis to the local and the particular relationships of posthumanism. To address constraints and challenges appropriately me need to consider offline collectivist efforts at dis-intermediating formerly top-down systems on education.


  1. In the 1940s Bush proposed a utopian model for a memory machine(memex) as part of the anxiety for making a bewildering volume of knowledge accessible. Nelson’s visions were encapsulated in project Xanadu, which presented the possibility of creating and annotating personal anthologies of texts, connected through associative linking. Both systems placed the ability to create individual structures and personal hierarchies of knowledge.
  2. In an attempt to avert criticism of technological determinism, in Cyberculture, Lévy sees the emergence of cyberspace as accompanying, translating and promoting, the general evolution of civilization. More specifically he argues that 'a technology is produce within a culture, and a society is condition by its technologies. Conditioned, not determined. ... This an infinitely complex and partially indeterminate set of interacting processes, which strengthen or inhibit one another' (2001: 7).
  3. We are passing thus from a Cartesian model of thought based upon the singular idea of cogito (I think) to a collective or plural cogitamus (we think) and hence to a collective ontology (from ergo sum to ergo sumus=we are)
  4. This notion of 'digital collective intelligence' contends to be egalitarian, arguing for the communication of information between individuals regardless of their social inscriptions.
  5. Far from merging individual intelligence into some indistinguishable magma, collective intelligence is a process of growth, differentiation, and the mutual revival of singularities (ibid: 17, emphasis added).
  6. How the structures and selectivity suggest certain ideological assumptions?
  7. Lévy contends that 'cosmopaedic knowledge brings us closer to the lived world ... our relationship to knowledge-filled representations can simulate our aesthetic relationship to the world by integrating elements of sensibility, imagery, even its imaginary dimension' (1998: 216).
  8. Rather than something completely new, the Net/Web has intensified, as Robins and Webster (1999); argue, previous trends (namely capitalism) of the industries, such as telephony, media and computers, which converged to create the Net (see also Terranova 2000: 40-42).
  9. Rather than something completely new, the Net/Web has intensified, as Robins and Webster (1999); argue, previous trends (namely capitalism) of the industries, such as telephony, media and computers, which converged to create the Net (see also Terranova 2000: 40-42). Much of Lévy’s line of thought, as indeed the common rhetoric which dominates both cyberlibertarians (e.g. Kelly 1992; Kelly 1999) and the discourse on the information society captures the existence of networked immaterial (collective) labour, but also neutralizes the operations of capital (see Terranova 2000; 2004), or as Robins argues, it 'represents the attempt to reconcile political idealism with the corporate reality principle' (1999: 20). This tradition of thought highlights more importantly, the scale of value in a knowledge economy, the dominant state of and assumption about knowledge in the post-industrial


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