Design, Synthesis & Collaborative Intelligence
Three terms, design, synthesis, and collaborative intelligence address the challenge of integration from different perspectives.
The prevalence of the spiral pattern at all scales in nature offers an image for a non-hierarchical problem-solving model that operates through convergence of the parts into a whole, the gradual coming into focus of disparate pieces of the puzzle.
Design has been relegated to a specialized connotation as something only humans as designers do, which leaves us without a term to describe design in nature and to understand that such exquisite design could not occur solely through a process of natural selection that eliminates the least fit. We have ignored the other half of evolution, the creative half. “Design” is often misconstrued in the English language to be solely an attribute of objects, neglecting that “design” is also a verb – a directed process toward a coherent outcome. Design is the process of producing an outcome that responds to recognized needs, whether that process was evolutionary or interventionist. The terms design and environmental selection do not presume intelligence. Intelligence is manifest as an emergent after-effect.
Synthesis is the co-equal complement of analysis, the process of systematically assembling parts into a whole. Buckminster Fuller defined synergy as the behavior of whole systems, unpredicted by the observed behaviors of the system’s separate parts or any subassembly of the system’s parts. Synergy is the essence of chemistry, exemplified by an alloy that has greater tensile strength than any of its component elements. It is also the essence of life. Fuller contrasted synergy with a chain that is no stronger than its weakest link.
Collaborative intelligence represents what next generation crowdsourcing has potential to accomplish, the assembly of many inputs into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts exhibiting synergy.
We have a distorted view of the process of evolution because of our pervasive military metaphor — the so-called target of selection. If our understanding of evolution is restricted to the half domain of competition for survival of the fittest, we will fail to see that Nature offers a model for how to cope with the environmental crises looming in our future. Evolution’s competitive paradigm has a complementary, collaborative paradigm.
And if our understanding of design is restricted to the half domain of top-down design, we have no terms to describe how we as individuals can participate in a bottom-up strategy to achieve global environmental sustainability.
Left: Jasper Johns Target on an Orange Field (1957) at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles.
Two terms have been misconstrued, leaving gaps in the English language without terms.
The first misconstrued term is “collaboration.” One computer scientist objected, “You cannot speak of ‘collaborating arguments.’ I argue that agents cannot collaborate; even robots cannot collaborate. They’re not conscious.” Yet we glibly speak of “competing arguments.” We speak of competing organisms, not requiring them to have a high level of consciousness to compete. To assume that only humans, and some other complex life, can collaborate, leaves us lacking a term to describe the dynamics through which synergy is achieved and through which all of life evolved.
We accept that “competition” occurs throughout Nature. Why have we relegated “collaboration” to the specialized niche of higher-level consciousness? How does making competition a big, universal term, and collaboration a narrow, specialized term restrict what we can understand? “Collaboration” should designate the complement of “competition” — both equally important dynamics.
Synergetic evolution requires sacrificing our first sacred cow, our notion that competition for “survival of the fittest” alone enabled life to originate and evolve. The riposte of the traditional view is that collaboration simply increases the ability to compete effectively. That’s indisputable. But does competitive effectiveness explain how collaboration enables evolution to point its arrow toward complexity? Or why?
The second misconstrued word is “design.” We need to reclaim the word “design” to describe the discipline for understanding evolution as life’s way of designing its future survival, bottom up. There are many books on the “philosophy of science,” few on the “philosophy of design.” Design should not be dismissed as intuitive and ad hoc, as many scientists assume. It is characterized by systematic principles studied in the science of complex systems.