Building One Big Brain

By Robert Wright
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 superorganism.

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 avocational choices.

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.

Could 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 subsumes us?

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 God
 

AR  The proximity of Wright's idea to my proposal in G.O.D. Is Great needs no further emphasis.
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!