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Food For Thought

The Global Brain

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Although the idea of a Global Brain may sound like something you’d read about in a 21st century science fiction novel, it is in fact a concept that first emerged in the social and biological sciences in the late 19th century, when an increasing number of evolutionary and social theorists began to realize that the entire human system was, in a sense, “behaving.” As scientists began to identify underlying patterns in global human systems – that appeared to be structured and self-organizing, in the same way as are those of any biological organism - scientists hypothesized that our species could, in fact, be understood as a “superorganism” as opposed to a random collection of individuals, families, groups, cities, or nations.

One of the first things to alert scientists to this possibility was the very nature of human, animal, and plant metabolism itself – which is the mechanism by which individual biological organisms process matter and transform it into energy, allowing us to live, reproduce, and function on a daily basis. The metabolic process is a highly complex one, and it is probably safe to say that no one understands it in its entirety. We do know, however, that metabolism consists of eight primary functions or “functional subsystems,” all of which have been identified and discussed by cyberneticist Francis Heylighen in his 2007 paper on the Global Brain:

• Ingestor - i.e., eating, drinking, inhaling
• Converter - i.e., digestive system, lungs
• Distributor - i.e., circulatory system
• Producer - i.e., stem cells
• Extruder - i.e., urine excretion, defecation, exhaling
• Storage - i.e., fat, bones
• Support - i.e., skeleton
• Motor - i.e., muscles

We also know that within our very own global society, we can find an analogous mechanism that perfectly mirrors the metabolic function of biological organisms, and in which we can identify the following “functional sub-systems:”

• Ingestor - i.e., mining, harvesting, pumping
• Converter - i.e., refineries, processing, plants
• Distributor - i.e., transport networks
• Producer - i.e., factories, builders
• Extruder - i.e., sewers, waste disposal, smokestacks
• Storage - i.e., warehouses, containers
• Support - i.e., buildings, bridges
• Motor - i.e., engines, people, animals

If we take the time to look at the world in this light, it is easy to see that human systems - taken together – can easily look like a giant, planetary superorganism.
But, if this is true, then where is the brain in this superorganism?

Most complex multicellular organisms have some type of nervous system, and many have centralized brains that allow them to process information, to learn from past events and experiences, and to non-randomly predict the future. Do we see evidence of this type of activity in the human superorganism? Do human systems, examined globally, display the ability to process information, to learn from past events and experiences, and to non-randomly predict the future?

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, scientists could not identify a global nervous system. And it is no wonder. During this period in human history, our communication systems were quite primitive, with most of us relying on postal services, physical meetings, and landline telephone systems to interact at even the most basic level. Only toward the mid-20th century did computer scientists, evolutionary scientists, physicists, and a few science fiction writers begin to suspect that a global nervous system was developing or emerging. Some came up with the idea that a "noosphere" could explain the organized, behavioral nature of human systems, that evolution was, in fact, pushing us towards a kind of planetary consciousness. Others saw the possibility that a global world knowledge center consisting of all human thought – was in the process of being created.

But what could create such an entity?

Well – the Internet, of course.

With the development and widespread use of the Internet, scientists could finally identify the emergence of a nervous system. From the very beginning, humans have been quick to adapt to its many uses, to rely on the Internet to store, catalogue, and process vast quantities of information – and most importantly, to facilitate communication and data transmission, breaking down more and more physical and geographical limitations as time went on, and in so doing, changing the very way humans relate to one another on a daily basis. Very few would disagree that the Internet, still in its infancy, has already completely transformed our planet and our species. With the advent of the Internet, there is nothing to prevent humans from forming connections, building social groups, and collaborating with one another, regardless of where we are on the planet.

Thank you Internet.

But is this nervous system comparable to the nervous system of a biological organism? Again, the patterns and functions seem eerily similar. In an animal’s nervous system, the following functions can be identified:

• Sensor i.e., sensory organs
• Decoder i.e., perception
• Channel and net i.e., nerves, neurons
• Associator i.e., synaptic learning
• Memory i.e., neural memory
• Decider i.e., higher brain functions
• Effector i.e., nerves activating muscles

In the global nervous system, the following functions can similarly be identified:

• Sensor i.e., reporters, researchers, etc.
• Decoder i.e., experts, politicians, public opinion, etc.
• Channel and net i.e., communication media
• Associator i.e., scientific discovery, social learning, etc.
• Memory i.e., libraries, schools, collective knowledge
• Decider i.e., government, market, voters, etc.
• Effector i.e., executives

All that said, the question remains: Are we in the process of building a Global Brain?

To answer this question, it would be a good idea to back up a little and define what we mean by Global Brain.

Right now, the idea that a Global Brain may exist in the future is merely a hypothesis, according to which scientists have posited that a higher distributed intelligence may, in fact, be emerging from an otherwise complex network of people, machines, and ideas. According to this hypothesis, a Global Brain would, through our continued collective action and/or consciousness, eventually have the ability to mediate and to regulate all human activity. Now, before we begin comparing the idea of a Global Brain to that of an Orwellian Big Brother, let's remember that the Global Brain is a “distributed” intelligence. Such an entity would not be controlled by any one agent. In fact, the Global Brain's existence would depend exclusively on the behavior and existence of its neurons (i.e., us). Just as your own “global brain” (i.e., you) is produced by the collective behavior of your neural networks, the Global Brain’s behaviour would be dependent on the collective thoughts and wishes of individuals and organizations around the world.

In my opinion, the evolution of a Global Brain is – in the very least - theoretically possible. After all, many technological and system-level trends appear to point towards the emergence of such an entity sometime during this century.

Consider, for example, the following trends:

1. Everyday, humans around the world continue to provide increasing amounts of data to the Internet, including information that we had once considered personal and private.

2. Everyday, humans around the world are spending increasing amounts of time on the Internet.

3. Everyday, humans around the world have increasingly easy and cost-effective access to the Internet.

All of these trends are likely to continue. It is not difficult for most of us to picture a world – in 2030 - when all humans are on the Internet, all the time - sharing, liking, tweeting, hash-tagging, commenting, discussing – generally outsourcing our lives to a medium that has access to all of our personal and collective information. Assuming that these trends will continue, one can easily hypothesize that at some unfixed point in the future, most or perhaps all human interaction will take place there.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that a Global Brain does, in fact, exist – or is in the process of development - and that we are simply the neurons that make up this vast nervous system. Using the analogy of a human brain, we know that a Global Brain could not function if its neurons were not fully connected with it, if its neurons were not engaged in a continuous stream of communication with one another. A Global Brain, after all, could not exist if its neurons were disconnected from it or from one another.

In the last decade, we have seen computers shrink in size and weight, becoming increasingly portable, accessible, and user-friendly. Whether in the form of laptops, tablets, or other mobile devices, we are using computers in more intimate ways. We have come to rely on computers on a daily basis for all kinds of reasons and they, in turn, have become ubiquitous in our lives. In the 1970s, computers could be found only in laboratories, research facilities, and universities. In the 1980s, they invaded the work place. In the 1990s, computers found their way “en masse” into our homes. In the 2000s, they found their way into our pockets in the form of mobile gadgets, portable phones, and listening devices. In this decade, we are already beginning to witness the emergence of "wearable" computers (i.e., Google Glass, Smart Watches). In the 2020s, computers will make our homes, businesses, and transportation grids intelligent, and in the 2030s we will probably begin to allow computers into our own bodies, so that they can interface with our organs, including with our brains.

In this light, it is easy to see that a global nervous system may indeed be coming to life, and that once the Internet is connected to or somehow integrated into our brains, we will have given it the power to mediate everything we do, say, and think, and that we will be able interact with it as seamlessly as we currently do through the medium of spoken and written language.

The Global Brain refers, in short, to the Internet at its full maturity. It will be an intelligent planetary network of people, machines, and ideas – a collective system within which we will probably spend most of our existence. Will it be conscious? Well, WE are conscious. So if all human consciousness on the earth is merged together on one planetary communication medium, my guess is that this will give rise to a meta-consciousness. Evolution, taken to its natural next step, will permit us to create an all-encompassing global consciousness endowed with its own intelligence and its own nervous system, opening doors to innumerable possibilities that could never have existed otherwise.

If you’d like to know more about the Global Brain, come see me at Microryza.com where I am attempting to raise money to fund my research, and where I have included additional information about this very exciting project. I look forward to answering your questions at: https://www.microryza.com/projects/is-the-internet-evolving-into-a-global-brain.

Photo Credit: Istockphoto

Cadell Last is a science writer and evolutionary scientist with a Master’s Degree from the University of Toronto, with experience in the fields of anthropology, biology, cybernetics, and history. He is in the early stages of his doctorate research at the Global Brain Institute in Belgium, working under cyberneticist Francis Heylighen. If you are interested in supporting Cadell’s groundbreaking research, or would like to find out more about it, please visit Microryza.com or contact him directly via Twitter (@cadelllast).

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The Beaches

by Hanna Rose

Based out of Toronto, Ontario, The Beaches is an alternative rock band made up of four talented young women: Leandra Earl, 19, on keyboard and guitar, drummer Eliza Enman McDaniel, 18, singer and bass player Jordan Miller, 17, and guitarist Kylie Miller, 16. The all-girl band has been described by SXSW as “proud teen pioneers of the new wave of fem-rock” while their music has been hailed as “sassy” and “saw-toothed,” recalling “The Strokes, Elastica, The White Stripes, Metric and The Runaways,” snarling with “romantic defiance, youth rebellion and peer solidarity.” The band, which released their first self-titled EP in 2013, will be releasing their second EP entitled “Heights” on May 5, 2014 – which promises to be yet another incredible expression of the band’s desire to explore themselves as artists: “Our sound is still very rock based but we've added many synth elements. 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Jordan and I were always fascinated with music from a young age. We were placed in guitar lessons at ages six and seven, and that's where this whole thing started. We also learned some vocal music theory in school. Leandra is classically trained. She started playing piano at a really young age too. Jordan, Eliza, and I have taken lessons, but I wouldn't say we are classically trained.” ***** I was especially drawn to one of the band’s songs entitled “Little Pieces,” which can best be described as an electrifying and edgy introspective work that displays a remarkable amount of maturity for such young musicians. Kylie talked about the inspiration behind the song: “Little Pieces is about a person struggling with their mental stability, who's trying to battle their demons.” Kylie went on to describe the band’s music as alternative/synthy rock, and gave me a glimpse into the band’s creative process: “Our music is influenced by so many artists, including Metric, Jack White, Elastica, and David Bowie. The writing process has always been extremely important to us. It's a five-way collaboration between the band members and our music guru James Quinn. Someone will come up with an idea and we will work it out and then usually Jordan will write lyrics afterwards. Jordan, our lead singer, normally takes control of writing the lyrics, but we all collaborate. We write everything together and we like to bounce ideas off one another. Sometimes, we collaborate with other artists. For example, we just did a super fun writing session with Ryan from Mother Mother. We just jammed and hung out. 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Published by SXSW. Retrieved on April 1, 2014 at http://schedule.sxsw.com/2014/events/event_MS28935 ***** Image Credit: The Beaches Music and lyrics copyrighted to The Beaches Featured Song: Little Pieces

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Pretty Rosebud

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Lastly, I wanted to portray how we all pass down patterns of behavior and the issues that come with them.” In Pretty Rosebud, Chuti’s portrayal of the main character - Cissy - is powerful, emotional and revealing. Cissy strives for perfection to please those around her - a theme Chuti and I both agreed is far too common today – which often causes people to be torn between what they are taught they should be, and who they desire to be. Chuti explained: “Striving for perfection is an impossible pursuit. There are many different types of expectations that women face - to get married, have children, juggle a career and family, the list goes on. What happens when a woman doesn't want that? Or “fails” to achieve that? Or changes her mind along the way? The expectations - and limitations - of women are firmly entrenched in society, which can thwart the potential of women and in effect, [of] society as a whole. 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The Dream Theater

by J.D. Coburn

In the town where I grew up, there is a landmark lost to time. It is called The Dream Theater. Mom regaled me with stories of the movies she saw at The Dream along with some about the Bijoux, which every seven year old pronounced “Beye-Jewox.” By the time I came around, the Bijoux had already been converted to a carburetor repair shop. Only the marquee hanging over the bricked-in doorway belied its former life. But The Dream… From the street, its tattered opulence greeted the eye. Before someone had broken the marquee’s neon tubes - that had formed the stars, clouds, and the name; before vandals had smashed the glass doors through which shadows beckoned from within; before the gilded frames that held the “One-Sheets” feature posters had been bent and torn from the building; before the local economy demanded support for one theater instead of three; before the screen, projectors, and organ had been sold to smaller theaters and a growing church; before the advent of television - there was The Dream Theater. After it closed, I could not allow myself to walk on the side of the street where The Dream stood. Fears that debris from The Dream would fall on me and inspire dreams of my own kept any intimate contact well out of reach. But they couldn't keep me from dreaming. My imagination went on great spelunking explorations into the caverns of The Dream. In my mind, the seats were formed with an invisible foam so comfortable that sitting on them was like floating on a cloud. I imagined that the seats were transparent - so that even a small child seated in the back could clearly see the whole of the big screen. That's misleading. The truth is that one had to look three times to see the whole of the big screen in The Dream. The screen had to be that big to hold the stories it told: Captains Courageous, Giant, Stagecoach, Cleopatra, Citizen Kane, The Old Man and the Sea, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill A Mockingbird, Wuthering Heights, The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur. Stories they'll never tell again. Stories that cannot be told on a screen smaller than that of The Dream. The carpets in The Dream made you feel like you were walking on the thick mossy floor of a virgin forest. Every step felt as though yours was the first footfall to find that spot. Unless the bottom of your shoe stuck to the floor. A gentle tug at the sole to remind one that The Dream was, in fact, open to the public. No matter, you were inside. Something magical was going to happen as soon as you sat down. You just knew it. And, you had popcorn. An epicurean delight so great as to be restricted to times of sheer amazement only. Popcorn was the precious fruit that grew wild in The Dream. There you sat in front of the light bathed curtains that protected the screen and dampened the sound of the huge hall. Soft metallic pastels shimmered like shark skin between the folds and shadows of the curtains. It was an elegant atmosphere that assured you that tonight, your dream would come true - just as soon as the lights dimmed. So, you waited. Anticipation built until you thought you might burst. Then, in one moment that was no different from the rest, in one inexplicable instant, the lights began to dim. Imperceptibly at first, then clearly and increasingly, the lights were adjusted to a perfect level of darkness. For watching cartoons. Yes. If you were so fortunate as to go to a Saturday matinée, there would be three cartoons, and a double feature. There would also be a serial. A serial was a short film - sixteen minutes - the length of one reel of film. It showed the last few moments of the previous episode, followed by a story that would bring a happy resolution to that episode’s troubling end, followed yet again by a new struggle which inevitably ended with our hero once again hanging from a tree root on the side of a steep hill with hungry tigers fixed both above and below him. Just when one problem was solved, another seemingly inescapable doom, took its place. There was no way out! Flash or The Lone Ranger or Cisco was coming to an inglorious and unfair end. How could they end it there? Who knew if I could come to the movies again next Saturday? Ticket prices had just gone from twenty-five to thirty-five cents! The living definition of the cliffhanger resided in The Dream. (Actually, Cisco always ended the serial with some uplifting message and a salutation from Duncan Renaldo that was so warm and sincere, you felt like you and The Cisco Kid were real pals.) It wasn't too many years later that John Lennon told us that “The Dream Is Over.” They demolished the Dream to make way for the new J.C. Penny store downtown. ***** Image Credit: 1941 RKO/Turner Entertainment

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Aaron Schwartz

Fascinating. Thanks, The People Project.

4 days ago

Eduardo Ribeiro Alves

I like (very much!)

4 days ago

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