The Global Brain
by Cadell Last
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