Collective Intelligence in the Service of the Electronic Republic. AGH UST Researchers Analyse the Influence of Computer Science Techniques on Social Participation

In what way can the Internet increase the participation of citizens in governing the country? The Faculty of Humanities and its Research Group for ICT Applications (information and communication technologies) in the public domain answer such questions. The team, led by Doctor Rafał Olszowski, analyses electronic forms of social participation and studies whether the idea of collective intelligence will help us discover a new political model. After all, there is increasing evidence that ICT-aided democracy – contrary to Churchill’s claims – does not have to be the worst form of government.

Genesis of the idea

To properly understand the idea underlying the foundation of the democratic system, we have to dig deeper into the source and answer the question who a citizen really is. According to Aristotle, a citizen was a human who had the possibility of participating in public life, especially the possibility to participate in ruling. Making decisions pertaining to the entire political community in ancient Greece happened, in turn, during meetings on the agora, a gathering place in the centre of the city, where debates concerning the future of the Greek city-states were held. Such a place for rational discussions, two millennia later, was to become the Internet. People have hoped to create a space in which citizens could talk and collectively decide the fate of their countries. Dr Olszowski calls this ideal situation an electronic republic.

Election today

What are we dealing with now? The most widespread model of democracy is representative democracy, which is based on the premise that citizens elect their representatives who, in their name, govern the country and make decisions pertaining to its development. The less popular model is direct democracy, where citizens themselves make choices by voting, having a significant influence on the governing of their country. In this political system, the Greek idea of citizenship finds its fullest expression, because every inhabitant of a particular country, provided that they can make free choices, co-decides about the fate of the entire society. One of the examples of the aforementioned direct democracy is electronic democracy (e-democracy), which aims to engage all citizens in public matters through the use of information and communication technologies, allowing for Internet referenda. There is one major general objection one can have against direct democracy, namely that, in reality, it means the mob rule, whereas the expert rule would be much better.

Collective wisdom

Is that the case, though? Aristotle, alluded to at the beginning of this article, had already written in Politics that the mass of united people, even made entirely of unremarkable people, can be better as a collective unit than all its individual members, having greater possibilities together rather than standing alone. The philosopher used music pieces as examples; he wrote that one human can accurately assess one element, another human can assess a different element accurately; however, all of them can accurately assess the entire piece. After more than two millennia, it turned out that Aristotle might have had a point. In a book published in 2004, titled The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki argued that a non-specialised group of people may be in the right about economy as well as in politics. Case studies from the world of psychology and business, according to the author, were proofs that there is a huge probability that the masses will give no worse answers than the totality of experts.

Scientists who currently study the collective wisdom phenomenon focus primarily on the analysis of the transfer processes of a considerable amount of data, which they try to dissect in search of regularities. To do this, they use the achievements of novel domains of knowledge from the computer science field, such as Big Data and machine learning. Organising, for instance, large-scale Internet traffic, researchers prove that the averaged response of a mass of anonymous Internet users is sometimes even better than an expert opinion. In order for collective wisdom to occur, certain conditions must first be met. Initially, cognitive diversity plays a rather important role; it is a situation in which the mass contains the largest number of different points of view. Then, what is also important is that the answers must be given autonomously, i.e. independently of any form of pressure, because otherwise the collective wisdom changes into a lemming rush.

Collective intelligence

One of the researchers who deals with the problem of collective decision-making is a French sociologist, Pierre Lévy, who in 1994 coined the term ‘collective intelligence’. A pioneer of a scientific approach to this matter is Professor Tadeusz Szuba, who, in 2001, working at the AGH UST at that time, has created one of the first formal models of the phenomenon in the world. He used mathematical logic and defined it as the feature of the social structure that can characterise both human masses and bacterial cultures. The Polish researcher came up with the idea of measuring the Collective Intelligence Index (IQS).

The analyses conducted by the Research Group for ICT Applications from the Faculty of Humanities are connected to a slightly different form of collective intelligence. The team, led by Dr Olszowski, examines primarily smaller social groups – for instance, choices made by city residents and the behaviours of local groups of people. Contrary to the researchers studying large-scale collective wisdom, the AGH UST researchers analyse the collective intelligence on a small scale. What they find important in their research is focusing on groups of people who not only meet the condition of autonomy, but are also consciously involved in a given problem, which is connected to the sense of mission.

‘If we have a particular group of people who are to make a collective decision, then research shows that the variety of thinking styles of this community, i.e. their cognitive diversity, usually results in a better outcome. However, they must represent certain common values and goals, as well as have a sense of group identity’, claims Dr Olszowski.

The research group studies, among other things, forms of e-democracy used to date, focusing primarily on the initiatives originating in Central Europe. An interesting object of their analyses is, for example, the citizen budget of the city of Krakow. Based on conclusions drawn from monitoring social initiatives that use information and communication technologies, the team attempts to formulate theses related to the influence of ICT on social participation. The group tries to determine which political model best suits the system in which a citizen actively participates in establishing the electronic republic.

‘In the framework of our research team, we analyse existing ICT-aided social initiatives. We also try to figure out how such initiatives influence the creation of public policies, as well as the adopted model of citizenship. In other words, we try to answer the question of who a citizen really is in an electronic republic, whether they are really co-creators of the public sphere, or rather consumers, as is the case in the liberal model, where they receive particular services for which they pay taxes’, explains Dr Olszowski, describing the current activities of the team.

In the service of the electronic republic

Circling back to the question of how all this translates to the legitimacy or illegitimacy of direct democracy, one may say that the impact is huge. If it is so that a community is, under certain conditions, giving equally good (or even better) answers as a group of experts, the idea gains a significant justification. The idea, in turn, may become reality exactly in the form of the aforementioned electronic republic, which allows people to become citizens to the fullest extent, i.e. to participate truly in making decisions beneficial to their political community; this, in turn, satisfies a very important need of agency, which, at the same time, unifies the society. However, this does not mean that the state is unnecessary. In the republican model, the role of the state is to provide regulations and infrastructure necessary to vote, guarding the course of the procedure, and then implementing the choices made by the voters. Rational politics should comprise several pillars, social initiative being one of them.

‘ICT-aided small communities can be a strong element of the public sphere. Such communities should balance government institutions operating on the premises of bureaucracy, as well as large media corporations which increasingly influence the Internet’, says Dr Olszowski, directing our attention to the third subject of the modern public sphere.