The biggest changes may be on the Internet. Consider the way Google uses group smarts to find what you're looking for. When you type in a search query, Google surveys billions of Web pages on its index servers to identify the most relevant ones. It then ranks them by the number of pages that link to them, counting links as votes (the most popular sites get weighted votes, since they're more likely to be reliable). The pages that receive the most votes are listed first in the search results. In this way, Google says, it "uses the collective intelligence of the Web to determine a page's importance."
Wikipedia, a free collaborative encyclopedia, has also proved to be a big success, with millions of articles in more than 200 languages about everything under the sun, each of which can be contributed by anyone or edited by anyone. "It's now possible for huge numbers of people to think together in ways we never imagined a few decades ago," says Thomas Malone of MIT's new Center for Collective Intelligence. "No single person knows everything that's needed to deal with problems we face as a society, such as health care or climate change, but collectively we know far more than we've been able to tap so far."
Such thoughts underline an important truth about collective intelligence: Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it's made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part. For those of us who sometimes wonder if it's really worth recycling that extra bottle to lighten our impact on the planet, the bottom line is that our actions matter, even if we don't see how.
Think about a honeybee as she walks around inside the hive. If a cold wind hits the hive, she'll shiver to generate heat and, in the process, help to warm the nearby brood. She has no idea that hundreds of workers in other parts of the hive are doing the same thing at the same time to the benefit of the next generation.
"A honeybee never sees the big picture any more than you or I do," says Thomas Seeley, the bee expert. "None of us knows what society as a whole needs, but we look around and say, oh, they need someone to volunteer at school, or mow the church lawn, or help in a political campaign."
If you're looking for a role model in a world of complexity, you could do worse than to imitate a bee.