Building One Big Brain
The New York Times, July 6, 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
What Technology Wants
By Kevin Kelly
Viking, 412 pages
Kelly says that technology is increasingly like "a very complex organism
that often follows its own urges."
Technology is weaving humans into
electronic webs that resemble big brains in corporations and so on. I don't
think it's outlandish to talk about us becoming neurons in a giant
The new technologies are creating new social bonds.
We're being lured away by people on Facebook, people in our inbox, people
who write columns about giant superorganisms.
Technology is letting
people link up with more and more people who share a vocational or
avocational interest. And it's at this level, the social level, that the new
efficiencies reside. The scattering of attention among lots of tasks allows
us to add value to lots of social endeavors. The incoherence of the
individual mind lends coherence to group minds.
We're not the first
humans to go cellular. The telephone let people increase the number of other
brains they linked up with. People spent less time with their few inherited
affiliations and more time with affiliations that reflected vocational or
Having more affiliations meant having more
superficial affiliations. Other-directed people have more social contacts,
and shallower contacts, and they have more malleable values that let them
network with more kinds of people.
This fragmenting at the individual
level translates into broader and more intricate cohesion at the social
level. We've been building bigger social brains for some time.
it be that the point of evolution has been to create these social brains,
and maybe even to weave them into a giant, loosely organized planetary
brain? Kind of in the way that the point of the maturation of an organism is
to create an adult organism?
I think this prospect is compatible with
Darwinism and with scientific materialism. Is it bad news for humans if the
evolutionary process points toward something bigger than us, something that
The superorganism that seems to be emerging isn't a
totalitarian monster. I think we ultimately have to embrace it. The
alternative is worse. If technological progress grinds to a halt, it will be
because chaos has engulfed the world.
Liberty and Connectivity
By Robert Wright
The New York Times, July 13, 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
The mystical Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in the mid-20th
century built a theology around the superorganism idea. I can see a sense in
which the emerging superorganism challenges us cells to reach greater moral
and spiritual heights.
Back when Teilhard was writing, the
superorganism metaphor was lovingly invoked by fascists, totalitarians, and
other undesirables. Teilhard insisted there was no cause for worry so long
as people drew on their spiritual resources: "There need be no fear of
enslavement or atrophy in a world so richly charged with charity."
Maybe we have something to say about the exact shape the superorganism
takes, and how comfortable an abode it is. I can't honestly say I know what
he meant, but there's an interpretation that makes sense to me: The less
hatred there is, the more freedom there will be.
Imagine how little
resistance even big encroachments on privacy might meet if implemented when
people were truly terrified. The more fearful we are, the more liberty we'll
willingly sacrifice in the name of security. We can reduce the level of fear
with a more sober assessment of threats. We can reduce the threats by
reducing the amount of hatred in the world.
Since the Stone Age,
technology has been intertwining the fates of more and more people, and thus
expanding their horizons of concern. If being woven into a giant global
brain means the further intertwining of our fates with the fates of others,
maybe there's something to be said for it.
Wright and others on the evolution of
AR The proximity of Wright's
idea to my
proposal in G.O.D. Is Great needs no
When I told Wright of this fact, he replied that in the
United States big trucks go around with "G.O.D." on the side, standing for
Guaranteed Overnight Delivery. Hah!