The Cloud and The Crowd: Distributed Cognition and Collective Intelligence

By Joy-Lynn Ruiz

The history of distributed cognition can be traced back to the first time man took chisel to stone, stick to dirt, or even spoke to another individual. The ability to spread our consciousness onto other media is a fundamental part of our intelligence. Without this ability we would be unable to store all of the knowledge we collect throughout our lives. Merlin Donald first developed the concept of “the myth of the isolated mind” (Donald, 215) in reference to the tendency of cognitive scientist to believe “that minds are self-sufficient monads bounded by their physical container (usually the brain).” (215) Over time, it was discovered that culture has a major influence on the cognitive distribution process, specifically the technological artifacts we employ for distribution. In turn, the media chosen actively reinforce the cultures that use them. One major factor in our current stage of collective intelligence is the method by which we distribute our cognition to computers, both for off-loading and shared cognition. Cloud computing, as we call it today, gives us the ability to synchronize information over multiple platforms. Even more, it allows us to synchronize information simultaneously between individuals and groups. Is it possible that by analyzing forms of modern collective intelligence, such as Wikipedia, Google Search Algorithms, Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, Facebook, and other socially driven websites, we can achieve a better grasp on the concept of collective intelligence and how it has evolved into what it is today? Starting with a brief history of distributed cognition through the use of computers and the evolution of distributed computing through the cloud, we will analyze today’s collective intelligence and the possibility of it being better understood.

What is Distributed Cognition?

As with any analysis we start at the beginning, the moment when we as Homo sapiens discovered that objects in our environment could be used to better work through mental processes. Combining this with our already inherent social skills, we were able to spread our knowledge further and discover more. This act of harnessing the physical world around us has been deemed by scholars and theorists such as Gavriel Salomon (1993) and Ed Hutchins (1991) as distributed cognition. Distributed cognition allows me to use a computer to relay my thoughts to you, the reader. A more technical definition of distributed cognition is “a scientific discipline that is concerned with how cognitive activity is distributed across internal human minds, external cognitive artifacts [off-loading], and groups of people [shared cognition], and how it is distributed across space and time.” (Zhang and Patel, 2006) Distributed cognition has also been defined as:

A new branch of cognitive science devoted to the study of: the representation of knowledge both inside the heads of individuals and in the world …; the propagation of knowledge between different individuals and artifacts …; and the transformations which external structures undergo when operated on by individuals and artifacts…. By studying cognitive phenomena in this fashion it is hoped that an understanding of how intelligence is manifested at the systems level, as opposed to the individual cognitive level, will be obtained. (Flor and Hutchins, 1991)

There are two forms of distributed cognition as determined by Gavriel Salomon (1993): off-loading and shared cognition. Off-loading is the use of external artifacts to extend the mental processes, or “off-loading what could be elaborate and error-prone mental reasoning process as action constraints of either the physical or symbolic environments” (Salomon, 48) Zhang and Patel clarify that the use of off-loading for distributed cognition is not simply a matter of making a process easier, but to complete tasks that “without which the tasks either cease to exist or completely change in nature” (335).


Cognitive Off-loading by Ryan Mochal and Alberto Samaniego

The other side of the cognitive distribution process is shared cognition, or distributed cognition across individuals; people working together to solve a problem. Salomon describes shared cognition as “the social distribution of intelligence…in activities such as the guided participation in joint action common in parent-child interaction or apprenticeship, or through people’s collaborative efforts to achieve shared aims”. (Salomon, 50) This is different from off-loading because “people, not designed objects ‘do’ cognition”, and as such is actually better described as “distributed intelligence”. (50) The members of the group can fill in for off-loading, but also assist as a processor, being able to process the information that they are given. The other benefit to shared cognition is that the members of the group can provide information that can ultimately aid or change the dynamics of the situation. Zhang differentiates between two views of shared cognition, the reductionist and interactionist view. The former believes that the group is no greater than the individual and that group behavior can be understood from a single member. The latter would speculate that the group behaviors can only be understood through the group behavior, or that processes and actions change within the group setting that would be unobservable in a single member (335-336). Despite the differences of opinion between the best ways to analyze distributed cognition between individuals, it is ultimately the act of shared cognition that will help us analyze forms of collective intelligence today, through the use of the cloud.

 How Has The Cloud Enhanced Our Distributed Cognition Processes?

Over the past few years, the ability to link multiple cognitive off-loading technologies together through cloud computing has enhanced our cognitive off-loading and shared distribution abilities. The amount of information you were able to store on a computer is now multiplied a thousand fold through the cloud. The ability to work with others, without ever having to naturally speak or see them, has made the ability to complete complex tasks remotely a common day practice. What the Cloud itself is differs depending on the context in which it is used. The Cloud is really just a network of servers set up across the world that share information and allow users to access that information based on their access requirements. The Cloud to a business manager is a network, a way to connect applications and multiple computers to each other. To the layman, the Cloud is a place to store information that is inaccessible to others or access the same information on multiple devices. The common misconception is that these two places are different, when in fact they are one and the same. The only difference is who can access the data within it, or the security. A third function of the Cloud is to store all of the data that is entered into cyber space. Every web page we visit, photo we upload or video we watch is located in the Cloud. Data accessed on the internet used to be stored in a single dedicated server, so when you access the page, you were actually connecting to a server in California. Now, there are multiple connected servers around the world that can host these sites or retain information for later retrieval. “Cloud computing, includes activities such as Web 2.0, Web services, the Grid, and Software as a Service, which are enabling users to tap data and software residing on the Internet rather than on a personal computer or a local server.” (Nelson, 2009) Mike Nelson regularly conducts presentations on the Cloud and Cloud computing (video below). For the purpose of this essay, the Cloud refers to the Internet or World Wide Web and can be used synonymously.

Michael R. Nelson: The Internet of the Future: The Cloud of Things

So what does this have to do with distributed cognition? Well, now that you can access web applications and data stored in the cloud on any device, 24/7, our ability to off-load either for storage or problem solving has been enhanced greatly. Not only can we store information, but we can access anywhere, at any time. That stored information can be shared with anyone, at any time, and together we can accomplish anything, at time. Our cognition and intelligence has basically become omnipresent.

 How has Cloud Computing Effected Collective Intelligence?

What is Collective Intelligence?

With all this being said, we return to our original objective in understanding how collective intelligence has evolved through the cloud. Collective intelligence has grown outside our natural communities to include the entire human population. Together, with people around the world, we are able to perform acts of “intelligence” that are far more efficient than if we perform them alone. Thomas Malone of the MIT Sloan School of Management and founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, has defined collective intelligence “as groups of individuals acting collectively in ways that seem intelligent”. He uses “families, companies, countries, and armies” as examples of “groups of people working together in ways that at least sometimes seem intelligent”. (Malone, 2012)

The idea of collective intelligence is not possible without distributed cognition, specifically shared cognition. The use of virtual collective intelligence is not possible without off-loading cognition through the computer and ultimately the Cloud. Francis Heylighen and his associates at the University of Brussels have been trying to understand the correlation between distributed cognition and collective intelligence.  They have concluded that “distributed cognition is seen as the confluence of collective intelligence… or the extension of cognitive processes into the physical environment.” (1) This works through the process of off-loading, which ultimately provides the platform for shared cognition. “This ‘offloading’ of information onto the environment makes this information potentially available for other agents, thus providing a medium by which information sharing, communication and coordination can occur”. (3) This process of off-loading has been enhanced through the use of computers and the Internet, allowing for multiple agents to have access to information and communicate to accomplish a common goal.

Examples of Collective Intelligence


Wikipedia, established in 2001, is a free online collaborative encyclopedia of world information that is populated and maintained by the user community. The English edition of the Wikipedia site has well over four million articles, created and edited by the Wikipedia community, or “Wikipedians”, which consist of over 20 million users, 20% of whom reside in the United States. Having edited a Wikipedia articly myself, collective intelligence in this process is essential to its success. Aside from the required research for understanding the subject matter in order to create or update a page, there is an extreme amount of collaboration required to ensure that information is accurate, comprehensible, properly cited, and robust. The use of message boards and “sandboxes”, places to work on articles before officially publish them, assist users with the collaboration processes. Although my article was already rather well developed before my input, there are other more controversial articles that require a group effort to publish. Thomas Malone has been quoted saying that “Wikipedia, where thousands of people all over the world have collectively created a very large and amazingly high quality intellectual product with almost no centralized control. And by the way, without even being paid.” (Malone, 2012)

wikipedia 1 wikipedia 2

The Red Balloon Contest



Map of DARPA Network Challenge Balloon Locations

The 2009 DARPA Network Challenge, or the Red Balloon Challenge, was a contest that challenged people around the world to locate 10 weather balloons in the United States for a chance to win $40,000. Without owning an aircraft, this task would be almost impossible for an individual alone and the contest makers at DARPA new this. The purpose of the contest was to “explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems.” ( The final winners of this challenge succeeded in meeting that goal in less than 9 hours after the challenge began. The MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team consisted of over 5,000 members who either assisted directly in finding the location of each balloon or helped in recruiting more people for the search. The majority of these participants used online sources such as the MIT recruit link sent out by the initiators, Facebook, Twitter, etc., to join the group and provide information about where the balloons were (or were not). There was also a second place prize awarded to GTRI “I Spy a Red Balloon” Team for finding nine of the ten balloons. The strategy for this group consisted of creating a website three weeks prior to the launch of the contest that recruited approximately 1,400 people. The belief was that the more people who were connected to their team versus any other, the greater the chance that if someone spots a balloon they will reported it back to GTRI. (Tang et al., 2009)

Red Balloon mit_red_balloon_challenge_team

Method used by the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team to track reported balloons


Another clever tactic used by the GTRI Team was using web search engines as an instant advertisement for their team. The team used “search engine rank optimization for the Web site to make its participation in the Challenge readily discoverable”. (Tang et al., 2011) The ability to control the auto-complete options for search engines like Bing and Google, is another form of using collective intelligence. “Google takes the judgments made by millions of people as they create links to web pages and harnesses that collective knowledge of the entire web to produce amazingly intelligent answers to the questions we type into the Google search bar.” (Malone, 2009) Of course this is all done through very sophisticated algorithms that calculate a variety of variables very quickly as you type, but it cannot be done without the input of the millions of people that use Google daily. The information used by this algorithm is a direct result of the searches we make and pages we create. The result is a program that works for us by using the information that others provide.

Google Docs and Google Drive are two other prime examples of the use of distributed cognition and collective intelligence. Although we do not always see the product of the work done in these cloud based applications, the experience of simultaneously working on a document with multiple contributors in real time is unlike any we have ever had before. At no point could two or more people work on one document without writing over top of each other waiting for the document to become available for editing. The documents that are created can be uploaded to the Google Cloud Storage, or Google Drive, for instant access to or storage by any computational device.


At first glance, I would not include Facebook on a list of intelligent things, but when you consider how we use Facebook, and not the site itself, you realize the intelligent aspect of it. We use Facebook to organize, inform, advise, and relate to others, who may or may not actually be our friends in the natural world. On a regular basis groups and petitions are created that bring together people for a particular cause. has posted a list of the top most successful Facebook groups in 2009 (Smith, 2009). The top groups with over four million members were:

  1. Let’s break a Guinness Record! 2010! The Largest Group on Facebook! (5,894,904 members)
  2. Six Degrees Of Separation – The Experiment (4,437,060 members)
  3. Feed a Child with just a Click! (4,206,122 members)
  4. We Will Not Pay To Use Facebook. We Are Gone If This Happens (4,163,024 members)

Although some of these groups may not seem like intelligent causes, the idea that they can coordinate to achieve a goal like breaking a World Record or testing the “six degrees of separation” theory, indicates that’s they are using some cognitive ability to solve a problem.

YouTube and the Virtual Choir

YouTube has become a regular part of our daily lives since its inception. Most people in the Western world cannot go more than 24 hours without hearing it mentioned online, in the media, by friends or strangers. Through the use of YouTube in 2003, Eric Whitacre dreamed the idea of having people from all over the world to participate in a choir through recorded videos that are uploaded to YouTube. Using music that he composed and a video of himself conducting the choir, he sent out a call to the world asking for singers to perform any part they wished and record it. The result was the first ever Virtual Choir. The original Choir in 2010 contained 185 singers from 12 countries. In 2011 the choir consisted of 2,052 singers from 58 countries.  The 2012 project, had almost 4,000 singers from 73 countries. In all of these projects the vast majority of the participants never met Whitacre or each other, and yet, they were able to sing together harmoniously. Whitacre’s latest accomplishment was using the internet to have the choir members sing live (using Skype) from the around the world, instead of using video recordings. Initially this does not seem like a form of collective intelligence, but when after considering the idea that one person wrote the music, hundreds of people sang the music in locations all over the world, and others worked to download, scrub, and format video and audio into one cohesive piece, all of these are in fact intelligent activities that are required by individuals to create a group product.

Ted Talks: Eric Whitacre and the Live Virtual Choir

Eric Whitacre conducting the 2012 Virtual Choir 4

MMO Games

Video games have come a long way since Atari Pong and Frogger, and collaborative video games have come just as far. Since the first online games like Everquest and Dungeons and Dragons, online gaming has become a global sport, with championships and up to thousands being spent by individual players each year. The current most popular games such as League of Legends and World of War Craft, have reached the height of the online gaming phenomenon. Referred to in the gaming community as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), these games require teams or guilds in order to excel and cooperation to win battles. Most of the time the members of these teams are only familiar with each other through these online environments, however with the use of online voice communication mediums, such as Skype, and the shared online web application that allows them all to access the game simultaneously, they are able to communicate and work in real time to coordinate the activities in the games.

League of Legends: Team Coordination

World of Warcraft: Players figuring out a game plan for defeating an enemy



The use of the Cloud for distributed cognition and collective intelligence has been instrumental in lives of the inhabitants of the Western world. With the use of modern technology we have risen to a new level of collective intelligence that consist not of members of our immediate surroundings, but of people across the globe. From video games to music to bodies of work, we have proven that our cognition and collective intelligence can span both space and time. It is the hope that further research can be conducted into our current form of collective intelligence through a better understanding of distributed cognition and cloud computing and that the “myth of the isolated mind” can be further proven correct. It is exciting to consider what can be accomplished when the world puts its heads together.


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  • Zhang, Jiajie, and Vimla L. Patel. “Distributed cognition, representation, and affordance.” from Pragmatics & Cognition 14.2 (2006): 333-341
  • Salomon, Gavriel, ed. Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Hutchins, Edwin. “The social organization of distributed cognition.” (1991).
  • Flor, Nick V., and Edwin L. Hutchins. “A Case Study of Team Programming During Perfective Software Maintenance.” Empirical studies of programmers: fourth workshop, papers presented at the Fourth Workshop on Empirical Studies of Programmers, December 7-9, 1991, New Brunswick, NJ. Intellect Books, 1991.
  • Heylighen, Francis, Margeret Heath, and Frank Van. “The Emergence of Distributed Cognition: a conceptual framework.” Proceedings of collective intentionality IV. 2004.
  • Smith, Justin. “The 25 Facebook Groups with Over 1 Million Members” Inside Facebook. (2009) Retrieved December 14, 2013, from
  • Tang, John C., et al. “Reflecting on the DARPA red balloon challenge.”Communications of the ACM 54.4 (2011): 78-85.
  • Malone, Thomas, Robert Laubacher, and Chrysanthos Dellarocas. “Harnessing crowds: Mapping the genome of collective intelligence.” (2009).
  • “COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE: A Conversation with Thomas W. Malone”, 11.21.12. Web. December 14, 2013

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