Is our propensity for social media part of our design – so humans are stepping stones to the creation of a global brain?


Back when I wrote Living Networks in 2002 the idea that we were all part of a global brain was hardly mainstream, though a community of people were actively engaged with the idea.

Today the idea of the global brain seems to be very much alive. I received a tremendous response when I recently resurrected the buried introduction to Living Networks in which I described how connectivity was literally creating a new lifeform. That helped me discover Tiffany Shlain’s forthcoming film Connected which describes the implications of a nascent global brain.

Now Robert Wright, to me best known as author of the fabulous book Nonzero, has written a couple of articles on the global brain in the New York Times – the public response to the first one meriting another column. These are rich philosophical discussions, delving into some of the many issues that we are in fact all beginning to engage with.

In the first column titled Building One Big Brain, beginning by commenting on Kevin Kelly’s forthcoming book What Technology Wants, Wright writes:

I personally don’t think it’s outlandish to talk about us being, increasingly, neurons in a giant superorganism; certainly an observer from outer space, watching the emergence of the Internet, could be excused for looking at us that way.

He goes on:

Could it be that, in some sense, the point of evolution — both the biological evolution that created an intelligent species and the technological evolution that a sufficiently intelligent species is bound to unleash — 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?

This perspective puts into sharper focus the quest to discover who we are. Is our humanity in fact best defined by what is supra-human, what we create when we intimately connect our thoughts and actions?

Which brings up a multiplicity of issues, not least whether we as a species will be able to successfully transition through the extraordinary challenges we face and have created for ourselves today:

But at least the superorganism that seems to be emerging, though in some ways demanding, isn’t the totalitarian monster that Orwell feared; it’s more diffuse, more decentralized, more reconcilable — in principle, at least — with liberty.

And that’s good news, because I do think we ultimately have to embrace a superorganism of some kind — not because it’s inevitable, but because the alternative is worse. If technological progress grinds to a halt, it will be because chaos has engulfed the world; and if we don’t use technology to weave people together and turn our species into a fairly unified body, chaos will probably engulf the world — because technology offers so much destructive power that a sharply divided human species can’t flourish.

One of the deepest questions mankind has always faced is whether humans are fundamentally good or fundamentally bad. That question is taking on new meaning as small groups and even individuals gain access to tools of mass destruction. So the liberty and morality of the birth of a global brain is certainly partly about our survival.

In Wright’s follow up article, With Liberty and Connectivity for All, he considers the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who I also referenced in my discussion of the global brain, saying:

Teilhard’s milieu made him sensitive to the shivers problem. Back when he was writing, the superorganism metaphor was lovingly invoked by fascists, totalitarians and other undesirables, so he was attuned to its creepy vibes — in particular, the sense that to be a cell is to be enslaved by the powers that be. He 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.”

In other words, if our connectedness is one in which we contribute (even in small ways such as sharing interesting links on Twitter, as well as by stronger contributions such as contributing to micro-finance), we are creating something that is fundamentally good.

Since the Stone Age (as I’ve argued at book-length) 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 giant global brains. And if people respond wisely to this spiritually challenging predicament, maybe the life of a cell won’t be such a bad life after all.

There are far more rich thoughts in Wright’s article, notably about surveillance, terrorism, and the role of America in the world, which I strongly recommend you read for yourself.

A core idea here is that humans may be in fact designed to be the cells or building blocks of the emerging global brain. We exist as a stepping stone to something beyond us.

I have described our propensity to engage in social media and connectivity as our latent humanity – something which is fundamentally part of us but has not yet had the opportunity to be expressed. Perhaps that facet of who we have always been is only now making our destiny apparent.