NPR logo The Battle Between The Individual And The Collective Is Just Beginning

The Battle Between The Individual And The Collective Is Just Beginning

I came across a must-read NYT piece yesterday called "Building One Big Brain." In it, Robert Wright riffs on some on the relationship between humanity and technology, giving a big tip of the hat to Kevin Kelly and his upcoming book What Technology Wants.

The gist of it is that we are becoming less and less like individuals and more and more like elements of a greater whole, a giant brain or computer:

... but it’s true that technology is weaving humans into electronic webs that resemble big brains ... And 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.

As I remember, this is not too far off from the reason given for the Earth's existence in the science fiction (comedy) classic The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy.

In that fictional story, the Earth was created by super-smart, pan-dimensional beings to calculate the meaning of life and satisfy their need to know why the universe exists. Robert Wright suggests in his piece that the meaning of life is evolution itself:

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?

While that explanation for our existence may make you giggle, Robert Wright is quite serious and largely accepting of the idea. He wants to figure out how we define and harness this apparent trend:

If you accept that premise, then the questions are: What sort of human existence is implied by the ongoing construction of a social brain; and, within the constraints of that brain, how much room is there to choose our fate?

I find myself more on the side of people who are asking how we fight back and turn society away from a future where we just become one big hive mind or, worse yet, slaves to a new brand of intelligence.