The idea that the world itself could be considered an overarching form of mind can trace its roots deep into the religious longings of pantheism- the idea that the universe itself is God, or the closest thing we will ever find to our conception of God. In large part, I find pantheists to be a noble group. Any club that might count as its members a philosophical giant like Spinoza, a paradigm shattering genius such as Einstein, or a songbird like Whitman I would be honored to belong to myself. But alas, I have my doubts about pantheism- at least in particular its contemporary manifestation in the form of our telecommunications and computer networks being granted the status of an embryonic “global brain”. I wish it were so, but all the evidence seems to point in the other direction.
Key figures in this idea that our communications networks might constitute the neural passageways of a great collective brain predate the Internet by more than a generation. The great prophet of sentience emerging from our ever growing and intertwined communications networks was the Jesuit Priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He stated it this way:
We are faced with a harmonized collectivity of consciousness, the equivalent of a sort of super-consciousness. The idea is that of the earth becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope, so as to form, functionally, no more than a single vast grain of thought on the cosmic scale …
A more dystopian take on this was brought to us via the genius of Arthur C. Clarke in his 1961 short- “Dial F for Frankenstein” in which the telephone network “wakes up” and predictable chaos ensues. Only one year later the poetic and insightful Marshall Mcluhan gave us a view mixed with utopian and dystopian elements. We were weaving ourselves together into what Mcluhan called a “global village” filled both the intimacy and terror that was the hallmark of pre-literate societies. De Chardin looked to evolution as the source of comparison to the emergence of his “Noosphere”, Mcluhan looked to the human brain. We had, he thought, “extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing space and time as far as our planet is concerned.”
The phrase “global brain” itself would have to await until the 1980s and the New Age philosopher Peter Russell. Russell pushed the analogy between telecommunications networks and and the human brain even deeper managing to fuse together the two major views of the meaning of our telecommunications networks: Chardin’s evolutionary analogy with Mcluhan’s view of telecommunications networks as a nascent global brain. Russell saw the emergence of the human brain itself as an evolutionary leap towards even more interconnectivity- a property of the universe that had been growing at least since the appearance of life and reaching an apogee with the new computer networks tying individuals together.
In a period of rising communications across the nascent Internet, Russell held that the 10 billion neural connections of the human brain represented a phase change in the evolution of consciousness that would be replicated when the projected persons living on earth in the early 21st century would themselves be connected to one another via computer networks giving rise to a true “global brain”. With the age of the Internet just beginning, Russell would soon have company.
During the heady early 1990’s when the Internet was exploding into public consciousness the idea that a global brain was emerging from the ether graced the pages of tech mags such as Wired. There, journalists such as Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg could quote without any hint of suspicion Internet gurus like John Perry Barlow to the effect that:
We stand today at the beginning of Teilhard’s third phase of evolution, the moment at which the world is covered with the incandescent glow of consciousness. Teilhard characterized this as “evolution becoming conscious of itself.” The Net, that great collectivizer of minds, is the primary tool for our emergence into the third phase. “With cyberspace, we are, in effect, hard-wiring the collective consciousness,” says Barlow.
In 2002 Francis Heylighen of the Free University of Brussels could state his hopes for the emerging global brain this way:
The global brain will moreover help eliminate conflicts. It in principle provides a universal channel through which people from all countries, languages and cultures of this world can communicate. This will make it easier to reduce mutual ignorance and misunderstandings, or discuss and resolve differences of opinion. The greater ease with which good ideas can spread over the whole planet will make it easier to reach global consensus about issues that concern everybody. The free flow of information will make it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to plan suppression or war. The growing interdependence will stimulate collaboration, while making war more difficult. The more efficient economy will indirectly reduce the threat of conflict, since there will be less competition for scarce resources.
The Global Brain/Mind is one of those rare ideas in history that prove resilient whatever happens in the real world. 9-11 did not diminish Heylighen’s enthusiasm for the idea, which shouldn’t be surprising because neither did anything that occurred in the decade that followed his 2002 essay; including, the invasion of Iraq, the global economic crisis, failure to tackle world impacting phenomena such as climate change, increasing tensions between states, rapidly climbing economic inequality, or the way in which early 21st century global revolutions have played out to date. The hope that our networks will “wake up” and give rise to something like Chardin’s “Omega Point” continues to be widely popular in technology circles, both in the Kurzweilian Singularity variety and even in guises more aligned with traditional religious thinking such as that expounded by the Christian Kevin Kelly in his recent book What Technology Wants.
Part of the problem with seeing our telecommunications networks and especially the Internet as an embryonic form of global brain is that the idea of what exactly a brain is seems stuck in time and has not kept up with the findings of contemporary neuroscience. Although his actual meaning was far more nuanced, Mcluhan’s image of a “global village” suggests a world shrunk to a comfortably small size where all human being stand in the relation of “neighbors” to one another.
The meaning would have been much different had Mcluhan chosen the image of a refugee camp or the city of Oran from Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague. Like the community in Stephen King’s new TV production Under the Dome, Camus’ imagined Oran is hermetically sealed off from the outside world. A self-contained entity that is more a form of suffocation than community.
Much more than Mcluhan, thinkers such as Russell, Barlow or Heylighen see in the evolution of a single entity an increase of unity. The deepening of our worldwide communication networks will in Heylighen’s words “help eliminate conflicts”, and “make it easier to reach global consensus”. This idea that the creation of one entity embracing all the world’s peoples along with the belief that the development of self-awareness by this network is the threshold event both stem from an antiquated understanding of neuroscience. The version of the human brain proponents of the global brain hope the world’s telecommunications networks evolves into is a long discredited picture from the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. If the Internet and our other networks are evolving towards some brain like state it’s pretty important that we have an accurate picture of how the brain actually works.
As far as popular tours through the ganglia of contemporary neuroscience are concerned,none is perhaps better than David Eagleman’s Incognito The Secret Lives of the Brain. In Incognito, Eagleman shows us how neuroscience has upended one of the deepest of Western assumptions – that of the unity of the self. Here he is in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air:
EAGLEMAN: Yeah. Intuitively, it feels like there’s a you. So when somebody meets Terry Gross, they feel like: Oh, yeah, that’s one person. But in fact, it turns out what we have under the hood are lots of neural populations, lots of neural networks that are all battling it out to control your behavior.
And it’s exactly a parliament, in the sense that these different political parties might disagree with one another. They’re like a team of rivals in this way, to borrow Kearns Goodwin’s phrase of this. They’re like a team of rivals in that they all feel they know the best way to steer the nation, and yet they have different ways of going about it, just like different political parties do.
You need not be Ulysses who had himself strapped to the stern of his ship so that he could both listen to the song of the Sirens and resist their murderous call to have some intuitive sense of divisions within the self. Anyone who has resisted the urge to hit the snooze button one more time understands this. What is remarkable is how deep modern neuroscience has revealed these internal divisions to be. A person need not suffer Dissociative Disorder with multiple personalities or be a drug addict. The internal rivalry over who we really are is manifest in every decision where we feel pulled in two or more directions at once.
The related idea that Eagleman tries to convey in Incognito is just how small a role self-awareness plays in the workings of the human brain. The vast majority of what the brain does is actually outside of the perception of the consciousness. Indeed, one of the primary roles of self- consciousness is to learn new stuff only to bury it outside of conscious access where further interference from the self-conscious brain will only end up screwing things up. Once you know how to play the piano, ride a bike, or tie your shoelaces actually thinking about it is sure to turn you into a klutz. It’s not even that the self-conscious part of the brain is like George W. Bush “the decider” of our actions. It’s more like the news report of whatever neural faction within us has its hold on the reins of power. Like journalists in general, the self-conscious “I” thinks itself more important than those actually calling the shots.
What is perhaps surprising is that this updated version of the human brain actually does look a lot like the “global mind” we actually have, if not the one we want. The equivalent of the brain’s “neural populations” are the rivalrous countries, corporations,terrorist organizations, criminal groups, NGOs, cooperating citizens and others who populate the medium of the internet. Rival, and not so rival, as in the recent case of the US spying on EU officials, states, use the internet as a weapon of espionage and “cyber war” corporations battle one another for market share, terrorist and criminal entities square off against states and each other. NGOs and some citizen groups try to use the Internet to leverage efforts to make the world a better place.
As for this global brain, such as it is, obtaining self-awareness: if self-awareness plays such a small role in human cognition, why should we expect it to be such a defining feature of any “true” global brain? As Eagleman makes clear, the reason that the human brain exhibits self-awareness is largely a matter of its capacity to learn new things. The job of self-awareness is to make this learning unconscious like the pre- programmed instincts and regulatory functions of the body. Only once they are unconscious is their performance actually efficient. If any global brain follows the pattern of the one between our ears the more efficient it is- the less self-aware it will be.
This understanding of how the brain works has counter-intuitive, and what I think to be largely unexplored implications outside of the question of any global brain. Take the issue of uploading. The idea behind uploading is that our minds are a kind of software where our thoughts and memories can be uploaded offering us a form of immortality. Uploading seems to necessitate its flip-side of downloading as well. In the future if I want to learn how to play the oboe instead of painful practice I will be able to download into my mind all the skills needed to play and in a flash I’ll be hitting out the tunes like Jack Cozen Harel.
Our current understand of the brain seems to throw a wrench into uploading and downloading as far as thoughts are concerned. For one, the plural nature of the brain leaves one wondering which of our neural populations make into into the afterword or whether they should make it through as one entity at all? The gregarious part of myself has never like the introverted bookworm. At death, maybe before, why not make the divorce final and let the two go their separate ways?
Seeing the downloading of thoughts in light of contemporary neuroscience opens up other interesting questions as well. If our self-awareness is most in play when we are going through the tedious steps of learning something new perhaps we should describe it as a slow bandwidth phenomenon? An increase in the efficiency in getting new things into our heads may come at the cost of self-awareness. The more machine like we become the less self-aware we will be.
Those are interesting questions for another time. To return to the global brain: Eagleman made use of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s characterization of Lincoln’s cabinet as “a team of rivals”. With the Civil War fresh in our memories, perhaps we could extend the analogy to say that recent efforts by countries such as China to de-internationalize, or de-Americanize the Internet are something like the beginning of a movement to “secede” from the global brain itself. As a pre-publication review of Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business:
Ultimately, Schmidt and Cohen even foresee the possibility of the world’s countries deliberately breaking the Internet into several distinct Internets. According to Gara’s reading of the book, the authors “speculate that the Internet could eventually fracture into pieces, some controlled by an alliance of states that are relatively tolerant and free, and others by groupings that want their citizens to take part in a less rowdy and open online life.
Whether such a fracturing would constitute the sort of deep loss Schmidt and Cohen present it as or something much less dire depends on how one values the global brain as it exists today. As I see it, our networks are nowhere near the sort of sentient and essential globe spanning consciousness the global brain’s most vocal advocates wish it to be.
We do, however, have hints of what such a true global brain might look like in things like IBM’s Smart Cities Initiative which allows cities like New York and Rio to get instant feedback from their citizens along with a network of sensors that allow these cities to respond accordingly and target their services.
Yet, what makes something like Smart Cities work is that this feedback is plugged into services and governance with clear paths of response. A similar network of sensors and feedback systems that instead spanned the earth itself would need somewhere to be plugged into. A brain needs a body, but where? As of yet our tools of global governance are not even up to the information steaming from the limited global brain we have. This would allow us to, among much else, not just monitor but care for our earth. To take on the responsibilities of the terrestrial, if not cosmic, adults we are.
As long as we hold that there is some degree of similarity between the network under our skulls and the network civilization we have been constructing since the first telegraph message in 1844- “What hath God wrought?”, then we need to update our understanding of what a global brain would actually be. This needs to be based both on current neuroscience and where our networks are themselves trending in addition to our commitment to actually heed what such networks might tell us. To do otherwise is to be blinded to the truth by our deep longing for a pantheist deity: hugging close like the earth- mother of a child’s fable.