Online Teaching and Collective Intelligence: The Poison or the Cure?

By Catherine Malabou


In this remarkable book, Catherine Malabou focuses on the transformations of ‘intelligence’ as it moves from genetics to epigenetics to automatism. Historically grounded, philosophically astute, and engagingly written, this book is highly recommended for anyone interested in intelligence—artificial and natural—and in contemporary configurations of what counts as human.

~N. Katherine Hayles, author of Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious

We’re kicking off Women in Translation Month with Catherine Malabou’s Morphing Intelligence: From IQ Measurement to Artificial Brains. A strikingly original exploration of our changing notions of intelligence and the human and their far-reaching philosophical and political implications, Morphing Intelligence is an essential analysis of the porous border between symbolic and biological life at a time when once-clear distinctions between mind and machine have become uncertain. Read this guest post by Malabou, and remember to enter this month’s drawing for a chance to win a copy of the book!

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The ancient Greek word “pharmakon” is paradoxical and can be translated as “drug,” which means both “remedy” or “cure,” and “poison.” In “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Derrida traces the meanings assigned to pharmakon in Plato’s dialogues: remedy, poison (either the cure or the illness or its cause), philter, drug, recipe, charm, medicine, substance, spell, artificial color, and paint. Derrida notes: “This pharmakon, this ‘medicine’, this philter, which acts as both remedy and poison, already introduces itself into the body of the discourse with all its ambivalence.”

In the concluding chapter of Morphing Intelligence, I expressed the wish that one day, AI and cybernetics might help build a “collective intelligence,” based on distance learning, even if I was aware that it would be a pharmakon.

I wrote: the “pedagogic value of distance learning is incalculable because it is based on the new educational paradigm of cooperative learning or an ‘autodidact society.’  Experimental democracy cannot be conceived of today outside the global self-governance of knowledge.” At the same time, I knew that the implementation of collective intelligence was not without its difficulties. On the one hand, the technological automaticity associated with cyberspace encourages autonomy. Each individual is free to do as they wish there, to produce themselves and organize their knowledge as they see fit. As the French philosopher Pierre Levy writes, cyberspace “ceaselessly redefines the outlines of a mobile and expanding labyrinth that can’t be mapped, a universal labyrinth beyond Daedalus’ wildest dreams.” This space belongs to everyone: “As cyberspace grows it becomes ‘universal’ and the world of information less totalizable. The universality of cyberspace lacks any center or guidelines.” This universality without central meaning, this organized disorder, this labyrinthine transparence, belongs to collective intelligence defined as “universal without totality.”

Does the plurality of intelligences always disappear into the amalgam of consumer desires?

On the other hand, it is clear that paradoxically the emergence of this type of universal also authorizes new hegemonies in the economy of the culture industries, generated by computer lobbies that threaten automatic autonomy and substitute it with uniform practices and behaviors. These phenomena offer a deceitful smooth image of empathetic, behavioral, global libidinal unity without breakdowns or negativity. In this respect, “collective intelligence is more a field of problems than a solution.” In fact, one might wonder whether the intelligent collective is autonomous or enslaved—or whether it is not the plaything of an organism more powerful than itself. Does the plurality of intelligences always disappear into the amalgam of consumer desires? Jacques Rancière expresses this same concern when he writes: “The collective intelligence produced by a system of domination is only ever the intelligence of that system.” Against that system, the challenge is to “share with anybody and everybody the equal power of intelligence.” The tension at work here thus derives from the internal opposition of two concepts of automatism at work: a uniformization and normalization of behavior versus equality and the sharing of intelligence.

Such was the state of my reflection when I was writing the book. Then COVID-19 appeared and generated the massive crisis we are in. I was not expecting to face practical consequences to what I had written a few years ago. Like many, I was obliged to move to remote teaching and conducted two graduate seminars online last spring.

I missed my own body. I missed my gestures, writing on the board, standing up, moving. Strangely enough, my students, even if derealized, seemed livelier than me.

I was surprised to see that it was not as bad as I might have feared. I had about twenty students in each class. All of them attended all sessions, and there were good discussions each time, with very few technical glitches. I committed myself to the teaching as sincerely and entirely as ever. In a sense, it did not change much. But it was entirely different. I missed my own body. I missed my gestures, writing on the board, standing up, moving. Strangely enough, my students, even if derealized, seemed livelier than me.

Pharmakon! There is no doubt this is what cybernetics is.

We have no other choice than to fight the virus with another virus. Such is perhaps the secret message of intelligence. Yet I do hope I can return to the classroom one day.



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