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Collaboration and Collective Intelligence (But Where's Pierre Lévy?)

We're now in the second plenary session at MiT5, which was opened by Tom Malone who began by introducing the concept of collective intelligence (and MIT is now starting a Center for Collective Intelligence). The first speaker is Trebor Scholz from the Institute for Distributed Creativity, and he notes that one of the key questions in participatory, collective environments is now that of labour - all the many activities performed by the users in such spaces can be described as a form of labour, but in the main such labour contributes particularly to the value of the spaces within which it takes place, not so much to the fortune of those performing that labour. This, Trebor says, is a further move towards the commercialisation of social life - the very few benefit from the work of the very many, in a classic capitalist move.

Some 40% of all online traffic is today created by some ten pages; some 12% of time spent online by Americans is spent on MySpace; this is further boosted by convergent devices which connect to such spaces even from social, mobile situations. At the same time, in the process users build friendships, share life experiences, gain fame, find dates and jobs - but their personal information is pressed into pre-defined patterns, their profiles are often owned by the proprietors of these spaces, and there is a strong lock-in to some of these lifecaching spaces: it is very difficult for users to leave without losing a great deal of their social network. There is a great need to make these power and property relations more transparent to Net users, and to fairly share the monetary value of the invisible labour contributed by users. This is a question of media literacy.

Cory Ondrejka, the Chief Technology Officer for Second Life, is the next speaker (and he also spearheaded the decision by Linden Labs to allow users to retain property in the creations they contribute to the environment). He begins by noting that Linden Labs itself is run on a radically distributed internal structure, and says that this has also influenced the design of Second Life itself. In particular, he notes the fact that Second Life is not a game - there is no ultimate goal, and no in-built conflict motivating user actions. In many ways, Second Life resembles a country (its game space is roughly the size of Singapore, it's in-game economy has a GDP of some US$60m monthly), but Cory is very adamant that Linden is not a government, but a corporation.

Cory suggests that the core difference between Second Life and the Web is that the Web remains fundamentally a solo experience, even in spite of its communicative features; Second Life, on the other hand, is very much a group environment which allows immediately for synchronous interaction between participating users. This also enables more effective user co-creation both of the in-game spaces and of the Second Life environment itself.

Last up is Mimi Ito. She focusses especially on the functioning of the collective imagination in the digital age; today, this is conducted often through the activation of media references in personalised and customised ways. Media has become the conduit through which we connect to a larger body of culture that is beyond the grasp of the individual. Rich media content is a vocabulary through which we communicate and share - relying on an abundance of media references as well as an abundance of media forms and formats. In Japan, Pokemon is a particularly salient example for this; it boosted the complexity of form and content of children's media beyond any level previously imaginable, and involves an intense exchange of information as well as physical media. While perhaps appearing mundane, it models learning which takes place in a group social setting, and demonstrates participation (and modes of participation) which are highly relevant in the participatory age.

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