Thursday, July 08, 2010

building one big brain?

NYTimes | Maybe the essential thing about technological evolution is that it’s not about us. Maybe it’s about something bigger than us — maybe something big and wonderful, maybe something big and spooky, but in any event something really, really big.

Don’t get me wrong. I join other humans in considering human welfare — and the welfare of one human in particular — very important. But if we’re going to reconcile human flourishing with the march of technology, it might help to understand what technology is marching toward.

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?

If we grant the superorganism scenario for the sake of argument, is it spooky? Is it bad news for humans if in some sense the “point” of the evolutionary process is something bigger than us, something that subsumes us?

I have to admit that I’m not totally loving the life of a cell. I’m as nostalgic as the next middle-aged guy for the time when focus was easier to come by, and I do sometimes feel, after a hard day of getting lots of tiny little things more-or-less done, that the superorganism I’m serving is tyrannical — as if I’m living that line in Orwell’s “1984”: “Can you not understand, Winston, that the individual is only a cell? The weariness of the cell is the vigor of the organism.”

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. Fist tap Nana.