Pierre Lévy : Collective Intelligence – Chapter 7 – The Four Spaces

eJournal: uffmm.org, ISSN 2567-6458,
24.March 2022 – 6.April 2022, 08:04 h
Email: info@uffmm.org
Author: Gerd Doeben-Henisch
Email: gerd@doeben-henisch.de


In the uffmm review section the different papers and books are discussed from the point of view of the oksimo paradigm. [1] In the following text the author discusses chapter 7 of the book “Collective Intelligence. mankind’s emerging world in cyberspace” by Pierre Lévy (translated by Robert Bonono),1997 (French: 1994)[2]


In a proceeding post the general idea of the book of Lévy has been discussed. The final impression was, that Lévy’s vision of collective intelligence embedded in the development of human culture shows a high agreement with the oksimo paradigm of the author of this text. Reading continuous with some more chapters of the book. It starts with chapter 7, the beginning of Part II of the book

Chapter 7: The Four Spaces


In this chapter Lévy is bringing back some ideas of chapter 1, pp.5-10, where he did a partitioning of the timeline of the development of life on earth according to some criteria. The main topics are ‘Earth’, ‘Territory’, ‘Commodity Space’, and ‘Knowledge Space’.


Beginning his selected timeline with the advent of humanity on earth Lévy describes in a short but highly dense text (cf. p.131f) his view of the interaction of humankind with the earth, which appears for him as an all embracing permanence, without origin, not a small ecological niche, but a ‘cosmos’ with stars, imagined gods, freely envisioned ancestors, continuously re-creating the experience of the earth with signs, languages, tales, rituals, and tools. The realness of the earth is mixed up with human emotions, dreams and fantasies and thereby allowing some transcendence being an inner dimension of the all embracing earth-humankind experience.


Whenever humanity appeared in the history of life on this planet, for the last 12.000 years Lévy sees for these times a phenomenon called ‘territory’.(cf. p.133) The unbounded experience of an unlimited ‘cosmos’ reverberating in every human individual becomes ‘structured’ by a more organized environment by ‘real things’ and ‘new forms of the social bond’. Here ‘civilization’ begins: “… rearing of animals, agriculture, the city and state, writing, the strict social division of labor, ..”(p.133) Although one can say that the territory “dominates, confines, encloses, describes, and measures it [the earth?]”(p.134), the unconfined earth has not disappeared, it always strikes back providing an ever continuing conflict.(cf. p.134) During this Neolithic period [3] the new reality reverberated not only to the individual, but “to the great social machine, to the state.”(p.134) In this time the majority of humanity “were peasants who inhabited the territory.”(p.135)

Commodity Space

After ‘earth’ and ‘territory’ as as form-factors of society and the reverberating mind Lévy sees then a next big modification in the cultural patterns of humanity which he circumscribes as ‘commodity space’ [4].(cf. pp.135-138) He characterizes this new mode by a statement like this: “… but a new world built from the incessant circulation of money in an ever tightening, ever quickening loop.”(p.135) And he continuous: “Crossing borders, upsetting territorial hierarchies, the dance of money brought in its wake an accelerated movement, a rising tide of objects, signs, and individuals.”(p.136) And Lévy sees a close relationship between this new commodity space and ‘capitalism’, which “draws everything in its orbit” (p.136) Associated with the wake of science, technology and the flux of signs everything is becoming changeable by reinterpretation, constructible by technology, and exchangeable by money. The old Neolithic territory is mixing up with these new forms of interactions and transactions making Capitalism with industry and commerce the “principal engines driving the evolution of human societies.”(p.137) For Lévy is capitalism the main factor: “… the great cybernetic machine of capital … seems invincible, inexhaustible. Capitalism is irreversible. It is economy and has made economy the permanent dimension of human existence.”(p.137)

Knowledge Space

In this chapter the imaginative power of Lévy’s language which encloses the reader all the time comes to an intensity wich is hardly to surpass. Between statements like “The knowledge space doesn’t exist” (p.138) and “The knowledge space has always existed” (p.139) he is practicing a kind of ‘conjuring up’ something, which is there and is not, not in the usual sense. For Lévy ‘knowledge’ is “not simply scientific knowledge” (p.139) and it “can’t be reduced to so-called rational discourse.” (p.139)

The knowledge conjured up here is something which “qualifies our species, Homo sapiens.”(p.139) It “is a knowledge-of-living, a living-in-knowledge, one that is coextensive with life. It is part of a cosmopolitan and borderless space of relations and qualities, a space for the metamorphosis of relationships and the emergence of ways of being, a space in which the processes of individual and collective subjectivization come together.” (p.139) This knowledge follows a “virtual emergence”. (p.139) But, as such, the knowledge space “is not a return to earth, but a return of the earth to itself, an overflight of the earth by itself at the speed of light, an uncontrolled cosmic diversification.”(p.141)


Here some comments on the position of Lévy.

Comments on ‘Earth’

Already in this short text of Lévy, in his mental reconstruction of a time which has passed long ago, one can ‘sense’ a basic dynamic structure which allows a permanent interaction of human actors, human populations with the real earth and with each other. But this richness of behavior, these varieties of effects are only indicators of a fascinating ‘inner structure’ of human actors, which does not appear as a ‘dead object’ but as some new kind of living: the impressions of the world are becoming ‘transformed’ in multiple ways individually but also by social entanglements. The symbolic spaces function as a medium, like a catalyst, allowing transformations in the mental-cognitive space, which are steering the public behavior and by resonance they feed back into this inner dynamics of a symbolically mediated world-mind. There is a continuing process of the real world interacting with a distributed mind world. And this distributedness of a real world by a minded world is not fixed to one individual human actor alone but is present in all the members of a group, a population by understanding, by talking, by acting. This distributed manifestation of a symbolic mind world enables a ‘new reality’, a ‘cognitively mediated real world’, a true ‘virtual world’ as the primary world in the inner dynamics of every human actor.

Comments on ‘Territory’

Lévy continues with his dense descriptions of the changing behaviors and social patterns manifested by humanity spreading over the surface of the earth. The growing number of members of groups, tribes which are using more and more the advantages of special territories, of special tools and procedures, of new formats of social bonds. But he does not dig into the ‘inner reality’ of individual and distributed minds, which function as the ‘soul’ of these new social machines, the new ‘states’. With the ‘change’ in the format of the environment perception, mwithemorizing, thinking inevitably is changing too. And the connecting language with their adapted meanings is mimicking these changes in many details. Thus the changes of the ‘outer environment’ are reverberating inside and inducing an inner cognitive-mental world, a ‘true virtual reality’, which functions as the ‘primary picture of the world’, a ‘distributed’ one. If some individual ‘fails’, if it ‘dies away’, the ‘distributed inner world’ will not change: it ‘preserves itself’ and ‘feeds back’ to all individuals of the society as the ‘given norm’. The real world is touching us as a ‘particular’ experience, but the ‘distributed inner world’ is a ‘network of associations’, an ‘informed whole picture’, giving ‘sense to each part by this inner connectedness’. The writing is an invaluable tool to support parts of this distributed inner world to be kept, be memorized.

As the environmental ‘properties and structures’ are being transformed into new social-cultural patterns and the distributed thinking is ‘absorbing’ these, then the ‘distributed inner pictures’ will ‘overwrite’ the world ‘behind the daily experiences’. Humankind in a city has no longer an idea of a world without a city. Collective intelligence generates its own ‘mental gravity’. Negatively this is a kind of a ‘locked-in syndrome’. If the ‘distributed mental models’ enable some more ‘deep-sighted’ or ‘far-sighted’ perspectives supporting ‘survival in the future’ then it can be ‘positive’, a ‘constructive locked-in syndrome’. But this variety of a ‘locked-in collective intelligence’ is constantly in danger to ‘believe more in itself’ than to the ‘world talking by partial experience’.

Comments on Commodity Space

The suggestive spirit of Lévy’s description of the commodity space is strong. Indeed, it looks like a hidden power which moves everything in new combinations, new orders, new interpretations, mostly associated with money and power. The installation of new forms of interactions and transactions crossing classical borders of territories like birds in the air appears to transcend the old world of territories. Values seem now to be able to live everywhere, owned by everybody, changing everything.

Comparing these cultural patterns to those of non-human biological species reveals that these new phenomena are indeed not ‘in the air’, they are rooted in the special capabilities of human persons and their new forms of cooperation by communication, enabling the spreading of new ideas rooted in the brains of individual bodies. Cutting the communication would disable ideas of being spread, would enclose ideas ‘in itself’, nothing would be possible.

Modern societies which systematically are suppressing public communication supporting only special opinions practicing a modified form of cutting communication and they show weak forms of disintegration of knowledge and cultural behavior.

Thus ‘capitalism’ and associated forms of ‘economy’ are not complete ‘autonomous phenomena’ but are presupposing certain kinds of communication mediating certain kinds of ideas which influence the behavior. And this ‘behavior of individuals’ is driven by different kinds of ideas, emotions, and desires. Those ideas which seem to ‘support’ capitalism and associated forms of economy are not ‘absolute’ ideas, not ‘inborn’ ideas; therefore these ideas can be changed, can be ‘improved’ and thereby they can — in principle — change behavior and thereby they can change the whole culture. And, besides this, the reality of the cosmos, of the planet earth and the biosphere, which is a ‘given’ reality, follows its own ‘independent logic’ and can lead to a ‘crash’ with a culture, which is ‘too far away’ from this empirical reality.

Comments on Knowledge Space

As stated above, Lévy’s language is impressive, dense, poetic. To some extend this is triggered by the kind of appearance how the knowledge space is given and not given. He stresses several times that the other mentioned anthropological spaces — Earth, Territory, and Commodities — are not vanishing; they are still there, stay in existence with all their real power, but the knowledge space is somehow different, somehow new, is nevertheless also there, ‘not unreal’, ‘virtual’, ‘in between’, subjective but at the same time ‘collective’.

As mentioned in preceding comments what is – in my understanding — missing in Lévy’s wonderful tale is the ‘anatomy of the virtual in realness’. As we know from an individual homo sapiens exemplar it has a ‘real body’, but inside this body there are ‘inner processes’ which as processes are still ‘real’, but these processes are constituting a complex network of inner states which are ‘mapping each other to each other’. Small parts of this ‘self-mapping’ are know as ‘consciousness’, and ‘self-consciousness’. Real structures (neurons, brain) are setting up relations which as such are again ‘mapped’ to other structures and thereby building up an ‘inner semantic space’ which allows the ‘re-imagination’ of signals from the ‘outer world’ which we assume as ‘real’ like our own body.

This inner semantic space of a single brain already commands ‘now’ and ‘past’, concrete versus abstract, associations, arrangements, playing with combinations, embedded always in emotions, feelings, drives. The ‘virtual’ compared to the assumed outer world is here ‘the real’, that, what is going on.

And already with the presence of the homo sapiens population with interactions there exists between homo sapiens exemplars a communication, enriched with symbolic languages, which makes every individual to a ‘part of a whole’, which is reverberating also in the inner spaces of everybody. This ‘being part of a whole’ being reflected in the individual inner spaces induces a ‘knowledge space’ right from the beginning which is (virtually) real but not real like the surrounding bodies; the knowledge space is part of oneself (part of the own ‘identity’), but it is not a real-real object but a real-virtual one.

With the emergence of new cultural technologies — writing, books, libraries, computers, computer networks, etc. — it is possible that a human population extends its symbolic space into a partially mechanized symbolic space with new kinds of ‘processes’ dealing with symbols. From the outside it can be (miss)understood as if the semantic space has been de-coupled from the individual members of the knowledge space and can be processed without the individual members. The vision of ‘intelligent machines’ is rising with wild fantasies that this kind of machines can overtake the role of humankind in the long run.

A simple closer look to the ‘anatomy of the virtual being real’ can show that the ‘power of a common language’ is completely rooted in the machinery of a brain in a body. All kinds of ‘meaning’ exist only in these ‘inner mappings’ of neurons onto neurons, where one part of the neurons delivers ‘signals of the outer body world and the own body’ and the other part of the neurons is processing these signals in complex dynamics structures representing somehow the implicit structures of the ‘primary signals’. Because these mapping-processes, this kind of ‘encoding’, is not deterministic but radically ‘adaptive’ in a non-deterministic way, it is completely impossible to substitute this multidimensional dynamic space of possible meanings by secondary processes bounded to symbols alone. What these so-called data-driven artificial machine-learning processes can ‘grasp’ as ‘meaning’ are only some ‘shadows of meaning’ implicitly causing some ‘orders’ in the set of symbols. But ‘some order’ is not ‘meaning’ in the original sense.

Thus a further development of the knowledge space rooted in the huge set of brains coupled by communication and reinforced by virtual echoes of the whole in the individual can only improve if the mechanization of the symbol space by machines keeps a close contact to the original meanings located in the individual brains. Such a ‘contact’ must be ‘real’, must be entangled with the human interactions in a way, which enables a new symbiosis of human mind and mechanized symbol spaces. The today man-machine interfaces are mainly wrong because their design is not guided by a true vision of the human rooted knowledge space but by simple machine metaphors which do not match with a truly knowledge space.

The wonderful picture of Lévy, given in the idea that the knowledge space “is not a return to earth, but a return of the earth to itself” is true in the light of the paradigm of the biosphere which by evolution has ‘brought into being’ biological structures of ‘internal self-mappings’ which allow a biological system, a ‘system of life’, to ‘think virtually’ about alternatives of the now, to think virtually about appearing ‘patterns of the real’, about ‘what it is what there is’ and much more. In this sense is humankind the maximum action of life itself onto life, onto earth, onto the whole universe. But, again, this new dimension of life, the true knowledge space, is not something ‘in the air’, it is a ‘radically real process’ which only can work if the ‘real conditions’ are satisfied. We have to do a ‘real job’ to become more ‘universal’.


[1] Gerd Doeben-Henisch,The general idea of the oksimo paradigm: https://www.uffmm.org/2022/01/24/newsletter/, January 2022

[2] Pierre Lévy in wkp-en: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_L%C3%A9vy

[3] Neolithic period in wkp-en: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neolithic

[4] Commodity in wkp-en: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodity