“The genius of the many is a captive giant, whose freedom is the ends and the means of all other things.” This is a line from my novel (A Conspiracy of Wizards; see An epic mythology), uttered by the wizard Evenstar to his disciple Algono, both expressing one of the underlying dynamics of nature about which the novel is ultimately about, and foreshadowing a metaphorical representation of it: A fiery giantess trapped in a mountain (a volcano myth; see The Hollow Mountain), representing the pent-up power of Mother Nature herself.

Nature (more specifically, the terrestrial biosphere) is a product of the genius of the many, of time and numbers, of a “selfish gene” (to use biologist Richard Dawkins’ term) replicating, mutating, and competing (or struggling) for reproductive success, in a process of non-linear diversification and proliferation (i.e., there are ebbs and flows to both). This diffusion of thriving, of experimentation, of massive quantities of failed variations interspersed with occasional successes, winnowing down the spectrum of forms to those which can articulate themselves into the transcient biological and geological landscape of their time and place, is the progenitor of human existence. And, as might be expected, the progeny (humanity and human history) resembles but is not identical to its parent (the biosphere and “natural history”).

I have already described this resemblance in a series of essays (Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). This is not another reiteration of that theme. Here, I am focusing on a single aspect, an underlying dynamic: The relationship between the Many and the One (see E Pluribus Unum and Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems for related discussions). More specifically, this post is about the aggregation of the many into a more or less robust unity, focusing especially on the robustness of information processing.

Arguably, the robustness of information processing is precisely what defines the genius of the many, as exemplified in the progressions of biological evolution and human history (parallel phenomena on different time scales, with a different breadth and depth of forms). Genes are packets of information, and evolution is how they are naturally processed (accidental mutations fit themselves, successfully or unsuccessfully, into their environments, modifying the environment in which both previous and subsequent accidental mutations must fit themselves, in an evolving matrix of informationally defined forms). And the same is true for human technologies and social institutional forms, including the various ways in which organized divisions of specialized labor are accomplished: It is all information-based (see Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, for a discussion of these interrelated generators of human historical progress).

The informational foundation of our existence is not just what we normally identify, such as the product of universities and research institutions, or the communication of information through our various media, but also the full range of human activities: all of the norms, values, techniques, rituals, arts, recreations, jokes, gestures, expressions…, in short, all that constitutes human life.

In human affairs, there are two fundamental facets to the genius of the many: One that is the product of averaging, and one that is the product of aggregating. The first aspect is best illustrated by the fact that if you have a thousand people guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, the average of their guesses will be far closer than any individual guess, and, in fact, will be remarkably close to the actual number. The second aspect is best illustrated by the robustness of a division of labor in a market economy, in which the organic articulation of separate expertises and activities produces greater aggregate wealth. This essay is primarily about the second facet, but it is important to remain aware of the first as well, that the “averaging” of our diverse opinions and assessments also contributes to our collective genius, and that, in many circumstances, seeking more moderate positions is recommended by such awareness. But it is through the aggregation rather than the averaging of our individual consciousnesses in which the most robust expressions of the genius of the many can be found.

Embedded in our technologies and social institutions is something analogous to the human genome, but encoded in cognitions rather than in genes, and more fluid (or faster flowing, and acceleratingly so as a result of its own feedback loop) due to the speed and intentionality of cognitive communication, mutation, adaptation, and competition for (cognitive) reproductive success. Our intentionality is a part of this process: To the extent that we, individually and collectively, prefer some outcomes over others, our will, and how we exercise it, affects this evolutionary process for better or worse. The two predominant variables affecting the quality of the effect our will has on this process are the degrees of reason and goodwill employed in our efforts: A deficit in either leads to less desirable aggregate outcomes, while an abundance of both leads to more desirable aggregate outcomes, in proportion to the extent of the deficit or abundance (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, for a discussion of how we can and should organize in service to these two values). 

In a sense, embedding reason and goodwill into our social institutional landscape, and cultivating them as the predominant (metaphorical) flora and fauna of that landscape, is the recursive function of the genius of the many in service to human welfare (by which I mean not just the relative absence of devastating hardships, but also the increasing presence of conditions which give full expression to the human spirit and the joyful celebration of life). As the quote from my novel says, freeing the genius of the many is both the means and the ends of this goal, because it both produces and defines human welfare. Thus, we value individual liberty both as an end in itself (enabling each of us to more fully pursue and celebrate our own lives), and as a means to the end of aggregating into a more creative and productive society.

A slight digression is required here, to distinguish liberating the genius of the many, on the one hand, from liberating individuals from oppression on the other. The two are related, but not identical. The former depends both on the liberation of individual creativity and initiative, and the aggregation of that individual creativity and initiative into a collectively productive force. The latter is a more unbalanced concept, focusing only on the individual and not on the articulation of individual efforts into a collective and mutually enriching enterprise. The latter is the blind ideological expression of a historical recalibration, in which the tendency of societies to be overcentralized and oppressive was confronted and eroded, and the ideology favoring individual liberty rose in prominence in those societies which most successfully confronted this previous historical imbalance.

Unfortunately, in contemporary America, the pendulum has swung too far, creating an ideological obliviousness to our interdependence and mutual responsibilities to one another. We need now a new conceptual framework, which recognizes both the value of individual liberty, and the value of organizing into a collective enterprise for mutual benefit and in service to humane values and ideals. The genius of the many is not liberated by disintegration into mutually indifferent individuals, but rather by recognizing the complex and subtle relationship between the individual and society (see, e.g., Liberty & InterdependenceLiberty & SocietyLiberty Idolatry, and The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism). Indeed, true liberty is something subtler and richer than mere freedom from government; it is a function of our mutually liberating collective enterprise, which endows us with the conceptual and material means to live fuller, more expressive, and more gratifying lives, with a wider spectrum of possibilities available to us.

It is true that the genius of the many does not always serve this end, that its product can be temporarily diverted toward its own containment. It is sometimes tapped in service to goals that do not seem to serve human welfare at all, such as building great monuments to ancient rulers (e.g., the pyramids), or enriching the few on the backs of the many. In the former instance, such ostentatious displays are both the oppressive aggrandizement of the rulers who commission them, and are a symbolic consolidation of our collective genius, an expression of the degree to which a society has managed to organize itself sufficiently to mobilize enormous resources in service to the mere advertisement of that ability. It is analogous to the Irish Elk, which, according to a still debated theory, went extinct due to having evolved ostentatious antlers in males, as a way of advertising to females their ability to squander their surplus nutritional intake (and thus their prowess in being able to obtain and consume that surplus) on a mere symbol of such prowess (the antlers having reduced their competitiveness vis-a-vis other species, eventually leading to their extinction).

But this diversion of the product of the genius of the many, in human societies, is generally in service to the few, or in service to blind militancy. It gradually leads to the collapse of the society that indulges in it under its own weight (much as the Irish Elk did under the weight of their antlers), rather than the invigoration of that society by virtue of the continuing liberation and mobilization of the genius of the many. A good modern example is the Soviet Union, which mobilized enormous resources in service to a militant totalitarianism, but in an unsustainable way.

In other words, diverting the product of the genius of the many away from human welfare, and away from liberating individual initiative and creativity, expresses and consolidates a current degree of liberation of that genius, but often curtails further liberation of it, and even contracts the existing degree of liberation. One theory of the rise of modern democracy in England illustrates this most clearly: According to the theory, the constant internecine wars of Medieval Europe create a constant pressure on monarchs to mobilize sufficient resources to fund those wars. The pressure was greater than it was in other parts of the comparably developed world, because European states had resisted (since the fall of the Western Roman Empire) consolidation into a strongly centralized large empire, leaving kings to vie with other kings close enough to pose an immediate and constant threat to the throne itself. The English solution to this problem was the gradual granting of increasing rights, first to nobles, and then expanding outward, in order to liberate the individual initiative and effort sufficient to produce enough taxable resources to fund these wars. In other words, to compete through utilization of rather than display the genius of the many requires liberating more of it rather than merely channeling it into the production of monumental works.

While historically, (implicit and explicit) competition with other (internal and external) polities was the generating force of the progressive liberation of the genius of the many, we have within our power the ability to replace that motivating force with one more directly committed to the maximization of human welfare. We can compete, in other words, not against each other, but against suffering and in service to our collective well-being.

So the question is: How do we organize ourselves to best liberate and mobilize this genius of the many in service to human welfare, broadly understood? Again, the two essential ingredients to such organization are reason and goodwill. We must increasingly focus our efforts on serving humanity rather than merely serving either ourselves individually (or locally) or serving some blind ideology which evolved in haphazard response to the end goal we can now explicitly define and pursue. And we must do so by subjecting all policy choices to the crucible of systematic and procedurally disciplined “reason.”

Government is our agency for such collective decision-making. We have two basic challenges facing us vis-a-vis government: 1) Ensuring that it serves our collective welfare rather than the welfare of smaller, privileged sub-groups; and 2) ensuring that we enable it to do so most effectively. These are somewhat in tension with one another, because democracy, which evolved in service to the former demand, can limit or obstruct the mobilization of specialized knowledge and expertise through a division of labor that best serves the latter demand. The challenge for us, and the vehicle for most effectively liberating and channeling the genius of the many, is how to most efficiently and effectively articulate these two mechanisms into a single coherent system.

Our national ideology has enshrined both of these values (democracy and division of labor through a market economy), but has conceptually divorced them from one another, obstructing their articulation. In the popular American view, the economy may benefit from specialization and a division of labor, but government benefits from direct popular control of decision-making. We may want to hire our surgeons on the basis of their training and expertise, but we don’t want to entrust such responsibilities to our governmental representatives. The problem is that governance is, like surgery, an information-intensive task, requiring the mobilization of precise knowledge and analysis in service to well-designed public policies. And the challenge we face in governing ourselves accordingly is not dissimilar to the challenge face in other principal-agent relationships: We have an agent to whom we must delegate some specialized functions, but in such a way that we ensure that that agent is acting in our interests rather than its own (at our expense).

The most efficient way to accomplish this is to align the interests of the agent with those of the principal, so that when the agent pursues its own interests most robustly, it incidentally is also serving its principal’s interests most faithfully. This is what social institutions generally attempt to accomplish, through market mechanisms, hierarchically imposed rewards and punishments, diffuse social approval and disapproval, and internalized values invoking one’s own “conscience.”

On the other side of the relationship, the complacency or disengagement of the principal permits the agent to run amok. In order to improve our articulation of the interests of the principal with the expertise of the agent, we need a principal, a polity, that is as engaged as possible, actually tracking the outlines of the information that the agent will be mobilizing, just as the parent of a child about to undergo surgery might want to be as well informed and involved as possible, even while recognizing that they have to entrust their child’s life to the surgeon’s expertise.

In America today, we suffer the combination of a polity that blindly entrusts its own self-governance to a government it feels disassociated from, while simultaneously distrusting that same government and wanting to impose on it its own uninformed will. What we need instead is a polity that has access to and an interest in the details of what it means to govern ourselves intelligently, and works with our agents to utilize their expertise in service to our informed and engaged collective will.

To most effectively liberate the genius of the many, we need to organize ourselves from top to bottom, filling in the chasm between “people” and “government,” forming layers of engagement, and channels of information flows, so that our various potential contributions to intelligent self-governance flow “inward” to our agents, while the outlines of the relevant expertise to which we must frequently defer flow “outward” to the polity. (Again, my outline for how to go about doing that can be found at The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified). By doing so, we can most effectively and organically institutionalize the incorporation of both reason and goodwill (or collective will) into our political decision-making processes, more fully liberating the genius of the many, and, by doing so, more fully liberating the human spirit.

No sooner do I write and post an essay on the literally evolutionary nature of modern information technologies (, then I come across an article in The Economist zeroing in on one aspect of exactly what I’m talking about (

In my novel (, a wizard ruminates that “the genius of the many is a captive giant, whose freedom is the ends and the means of all other things.” Wikinomics is about another large step in the liberation of that captive giant, by reducing the transaction costs involved in massive decentralized network communications. Ronald Coase famously said that in the absence of transaction costs, we would bargain our way to maximum utility. Some have interpreted Coase’s Theorem to be more about the formidable obstacle posed by transaction costs than the efficacy of bargaining our way to paradise. But, in either case, the internet has dramatically reduced the size of that obstacle.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

I almost titled this post “Knowledge AND Power,” as a play on my previous post a week or so ago titled “Knowledge is Power,” but decided to be less cute and more descriptively precise. published today an article on a Boulder company’s contribution to smart grid technology ( “Power Tagging,” the name of both the technology and the company, involves embedding “a digital signal deep in the flow of electrons that can be read through the noise.” The larger implication is the gradual evolution of more efficient energy delivery systems, by, for instance, incorporating real-time cybernetic feedback loops that allow energy delivery to adjust to conditions, much as a thermostat turns on and off the heat or air conditioning in a home. But the implications of a smart grid, and particularly of this new technology, are that the more information flows with the energy itself, the more efficiently the demands on the system (e.g., producing exactly the right amount of energy to balance the grid in real-time, a physical requirement of energy production and distribution) can be met.

More generally, information and energy are the intertwined life-blood of human and natural systems. The biosphere on Earth is fueled, ultimately, by the sun (starting with photosynthesis, at the start of the food chain), and evolves through the reproduction, occasional mutation, and competition for reproductive success of packets of information (genes). Human systems are embedded in, and echo, this pattern (as I discuss in my post “The Politics of Consciousness”: In our earliest form, on the African savanna, our fuel came from that solar-powered food-chain and, eventually, the combustion of some of its products (i.e., fire). Our early development involved ways in which to utilize that energy source (feeding domesticated animals, and using fire in the preparation of food and tools, for instance). Much of human history thereafter can be understood in terms of the evolution of energy sources and the technologies for utilizing them (from levers and pulleys to nuclear reactors and solar panels).

Parallel to, and informing, this evolution of energy sources and technologies, is our own cultural evolution involving the innovation, diffusion, and synthesis of ideas. But just as our own evolutionary process is an echo of Nature’s, we in turn have created a technological echo of our own, by creating information technologies which vastly accelerate the reproduction, mutation, competition, and evolution of human cognitive information. And now, we are increasingly taking steps which will allow that information to operate independently of us, just as a thermostat does, with technological systems reacting to information that no human being need ever be aware of.

The potentials for increased efficiency and efficacy in how we address the challenges and opportunities which face us are enormous. Despite the hyperbole that has sometimes surrounded the Computer Revolution, few recognize just how dramatic a threshold we have entered in just the past few decades. From a historical perspective, it may come to eclipse the Industrial Revolution in importance, just as the Industrial Revolution in many ways eclipsed the Renaissance and Enlightenment which were preludes to it.

Just as our own echo of natural evolution is a vastly accelerated process, so too the technological echo we have created promises a new quantum acceleration once again. Human history is an acceleration of natural history due to the increased rate of information-packet reproduction (as fast as we can communicate), mutation (as fast as we can modify), and selection (as fast as we can choose what to believe or what technology to utilize). The secondary evolutionary echo that may occur as a result of information technologies operating autonomously could be another quantum acceleration still, communicating, processing, modifying, and selecting information not only at the accelerated speed that modern computers can, but with the accelerating acceleration (i.e., increasing nth order rates of change) produced by the accumulating innovations themselves. We’ve already begun to experience the first whisper of this new acceleration, with the rapid communications and data processing capacities of modern computers, ushering in new wonders of comprehension and capacity at an accelerating rate. But that is still restrained by our own cognitive speed, still the bottleneck through which our computer-augmented data processing must pass. It is when the evolutionary process of self-replicating, mutating, adapting packets of information by-pass us completely that the new echo begins in earnest.

In a book about speculative future possibilities that I read decades ago (and can remember neither the title nor the author), one idea the author floated was the prospect of robotic combination space-faring/mining machines that could self-replicate with the materials that they mined from extraterrestrial bodies, bringing back virtually unlimited material resources to Earth. (Obviously, we would also need to invent self-replicated garbage collectors removing the equally prolific production of waste, else be even more deluged by garbage than we already are!) Now, imagine combining such machines with any variety of self-replicating and self-disposing/recycling machines to perform any variety of tasks. Finally, imagine their ability to process information about changing conditions or potential design improvements diagnosed from experience, and self-modify when reproducing in order to adapt to this information.

Such an accelerated process may well also accelerate our ability to safely and cleanly tap and utilize the universe’s abundant supply of energy sufficiently to meet any demands placed upon it. Both drivers of evolution, of progress, -information and energy- would be placed on autonomous growth curves, with problem-solving algorithms incorporated into them. It is even conceivable that self-replicated computerized machines could create not only their own off-spring, but their own novel inventions as well, new self-replicating computerized machines to accomplish new tasks newly identified.

Of course, the immediate future offers prospects more modest than these far-fetched possibilities, but dramatic prospects nonetheless, and prospects that will become increasingly dramatic with the passage of time. What it requires of us is a willingness to progress, an understanding that we have not yet arrived at our final condition, that our lot in life can indeed be dramatically improved, and that it is incumbent upon us to facilitate our advance toward an ever-more robust, sustainable, and fair social order to the best of our abilities.

But, as Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and great potential for disastrous unintended consequences. This is true on several dimensions; technological, environmental, and social institutional. As some have noted, we may be on the brink of creating what is essential mechanical life-forms, and unleashing forces we will no longer be able to control. The most common and imminent concern involves nanotechnology: The creation of microscopic machines that can be used, for instance, to target diseases in the body, and can be programmed to reproduce and adapt to changing conditions by reprogramming themselves as they do so. Michael Crichton, in one of his typically scientifically-almost-plausible-but-extreme renditions of this concept, wrote the novel Prey, which depicted swarms of such nanites becoming very effective predators.

Clearly, more dramatically exploiting Nature, both on Earth and beyond, means more dramatically risking the destabilization of the complex systems which comprise us. We must always remain vigilent, and increasingly so, that our increasingly robust harvesting of Nature’s bounty is not done at the expense of the stability and sustainability of the systems which produce that bounty.

And the fear that informs conservatives, that the more we act with a concentrated will, the more we risk losing ourselves to the center of power thus created, takes on new dimensions as well in a future such as the one I have outlined. Vigilantly avoiding the possible pitfalls of falling prey to our own technological and institutional inventions is one more demand upon us, and one we must keep forever at the forefront of our contemplations. But the liberating possibilities of both a more effective and expansive social institutional context, and a more effective and expansive technological context, both  facilitating the provision of needs and wants and opportunities beyond all but our wildest dreams (just as the present is beyond all but the wildest dreams of those of generations and centuries and millenia past), freeing us to grow and celebrate life in ways more profound and subtle than merely meeting the demands of survival which were forever our first and most formidable shackles, is a dream not to be denied.

Despite the risks involved, I find the path we are on more exciting than frightening, one which, when combined with our inevitable increasing mimicry of nature in the production of more organic and organic-like technologies and social institutions, holds the promise for a very bright future indeed.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

In Sunday’s edition, The Denver Post published an excerpt from Gary Hart’s new book, “The Thunder and the Sunshine: Four Decades in a Burnished Life” ( In it, Senator Hart describes his participation on the Church Committee, established to investigate the excesses of U.S. intelligence agencies. While discussing how to pry information from these agencies, Senator Hart suggested that maybe they should start by asking the intelligence agencies for the files they had on each of the members of the committee. The silent reaction was broken when Barry Goldwater said, “I don’t want to know what they’ve got on me.”

J.Edgar Hoover’s files on John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. are well-known, and the fact that he used such or similar information, on various occasions, to exercise power over the people to whom it pertained is rarely doubted. Governments, and corporations, employ spies to acquire information about one another, to steel secrets, to plant lies, and, in general, to obtain and manufacture information.

On scales large and small, possession of sensitive information that someone or someones don’t want revealed imparts power over those that have it, and can use it to blackmail those who don’t want it published. On scales large and small, successfully imparting to others a belief, an artifact of knowledge true or false, is the fundamental exercise of political power. Possessing and controlling, to some limited degree, the flow of accurate knowledge in order to manipulate the actions of individuals, and supplementing it by orchestrating or encouraging the flow of inaccurate information in order to manipulate the perceptions of others, is the essence of political power.

By various means, and through various agencies (both public and private), nations, corporations, and other organizations invest large sums of money in research and development, in the production of scientific and technical information, in order to produce goods more efficiently and effectively, or to produce goods not yet offered, or to prevail in military contests, or to conquer diseases, or to achieve some other goal never before achieved (and thus extend human liberty into new domains never before available to it). Knowledge both improves a social entity’s ability to compete and prevail, and expands the range of actions or feats that are possible.

But, ironically, part of the product of this process is expertise in the deception of others. The politics of timed and honed leaks, of intentional gaffs, of the selective release of accurate information supplemented by well-placed falsehood, is part art and part science, increasingly sophisticated and effective. Even so, it is embedded in more complex and organic human processes, the conflicting agendas of various actors with various talents, the uncontrollable forces of profit-seeking and self-aggrandizing propaganda. The real political struggle is played out on the field created by this chaos, by the various professional manipulators of information attempting to impose their preferred order upon it.