Ecyclopedias, Hive Minds and Global Brains. A Cognitive Evolutionary Account of Wikipedia

  • Jos de Mul


Wikipedia, the crowd-sourced, hypermedial encyclopedia, available in more than 290 languages and consisting of no less than 40 million lemmas, is often hailed as a successful example of the “wisdom of the crowds.” However, critics not only point out the lack of accuracy and reliability, uneven coverage of topics, and the poor quality of writing, but also the under-representation of women and non-white ethnicities. Moreover, some critics regard Wikipedia as an example of the development of a hive mind, as we find it in social insects, whose “mind” rather than being a property of individuals is a “social phenomenon,” as it has to be located in the colony rather than in the individual bees. In this chapter an attempt is made to throw some light on this controversy by analyzing Wikipedia from the perspective of the cognitive evolution of mankind. Connecting to neuropsychologist Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Modern Mind (1991), in which he distinguishes three stages in the cognitive evolution (characterized by a mimetic, a linguistic, and an external symbolic cognition respectively), it is argued that the development of the internet, and crowd-sourced projects like Wikipedia in particular, can be understood as a fourth, computer-mediated form of cognition. If we survey the cognitive evolution of hominids and the role played in this evolution by cultural and technical artifacts like writing, the printing press, and computer networks, we witness an increasing integration of individual minds. With the outsourcing and virtualization of the products and processes of thinking to external memories, softbots, and other forms of artificial intelligence, we appear to be at the edge of the materialization of the hive mind in a superhuman or even post-human “global brain.” This chapter ends with some speculative predictions about the future of human cognition.



This chapter was originally presented at the symposium “Reading Wikipedia,” organized by the Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences on November 23, 2015. The reason for the symposium was that the Wikipedia community was awarded the Erasmus Prize 2015 ( The present version has been updated and adapted to the subject of this book. I would like to thank Alberto Romele for his useful comments on the first version.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Erasmus University RotterdamRotterdamThe Netherlands

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