Thursday, July 18, 2013

the human eusocial prime directive - cybernetic civilization

paulchefurka | Humanity appears to be in the grip of a global system - one that we originally created, but which is now shaping our lives independently of our wishes.

I've recently begun to suspect that humanity is at a point of endosymbiosis with our electronic communications and control technology, especially through the Internet. In a sense, we humans have incorporated ourselves as essential control elements of a planet-wide cybernetic super-organism. The precedent for something like this is the way that mitochondria migrated as bacteria into ancient prokaryotic cells to become essential components of the new eukaryotic cells that make up all modern organisms, including us.

To expand on the "super-organism" concept a bit, it looks to me as though what humanity has done over the last few centuries is built ourselves a global cybernetic exoskeleton. Although its development started back with the emergence of language and the taming of fire, it's most visible in the modern world, and especially in the last two decades.

Transportation systems act as its gut and bloodstream, carrying raw materials (the food of civilization) to the digestive organs of factories, and carrying the finished goods (the nutrients) to wherever they are needed. Engines and motors of all kinds are its muscles. The global electronic communication network is its nervous system. Electronic sensors of a million kinds are its organs of taste, touch, smell and sight. Legal systems, police and military make up its immune system.

Human beings have evolved culturally to the point where we now act largely as hyper-functional decision-making neurons within this super-organism, with endpoint devices like smart phones, PCs and their descendants acting as synapses, and network connections being analogous to nerve fibers.

Just as neurons cannot live outside the body, we have evolved a system that doesn't permit humans to live outside its boundaries. Not only is there very little "outside" left, but access to the necessities of life is now only possible though the auspices of the cybernetic system itself. (For example, consider living without a socially-approved job. It's barely possible for a few people, but essentially impossible for most of us.) As we have developed this system around us, we have had to relinquish more and more of our autonomy in favor of helping the machine continue functioning and growing.

While we can no longer survive outside our cybernetic exoskeleton, in return it can't exist without our input. I realized over the last month or so that this means the symbiosis has already occurred. If I had to put a "closure date" on it, the period where it transitioned to its current form was around 1990 (plus or minus a decade or so). We didn't even notice it happening - to us it just looked like our daily lives going on as usual.

I realize that I'm re-visiting an old, familiar science-fiction idea. In reality it seems to have happened through a quiet, "natural" process of coevolution driven by the mutual amplification effects of human ingenuity, electronic technology and large amounts of available energy - rather than through the drama of a Borg-like assimilation of humans into a hive mind, or Ray Kurzweil's eschatological vision of a Technological Singularity.


Dale Asberry said...

Isn't it more like Kurzweil's scatalogical vision of a Technological Singularity?

CNu said...

Being dominated by Colossus is not as bad as being dominated by other members of your deuterostome species...,

John Kurman said...

Ah, 1970, three years before the end of civilization as we know it. And, if I am not mistaken, Colossus is voiced by Paul Frees. (Boris Badenov on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show). Checking IMDB... nailed it! But! I figured Jerry Goldsmith for sure was the composer, and it turns out it was Michel Colombier, who did the incidental underscoring on New Jack City.

I suspect first appearance of the waterphone (used in so many 70s crime TV shows like Columbo):

I should make one of those fuckers.

John Kurman said...

Oh, and Joan Slonczewski made similar musings:

My guess is, if you're gonna trend, you're gonna be wrong, i.e. the Singularity will be obsolete by the time it gets here.

CNu said...

lol, dood somebody ought to pay you for your crate-excavating command of cinema erata and general aesthetic grip!

CNu said...

lol, the same nihilistic psychopimps who paid siskel, ebert, shawn edwards, et al..., to extract frivolous pop cultural pellets from their pooters as if these should effect my opinion-making. At least with your ruminations one is bound to learn a little bit (actually quite a bit) and you've thus far shown your aesthetic sensibilities to be on point.

Ed Dunn said...

Guess you never been to a Comic-Con event lately?

umbrarchist said...

I saw that back in the day. Nice flik for the times. There have been rumors of Will Smith doing a remake for some time. But he should do:

The Two Faces of Tomorrow by James P. Hogan

It is still futuristic even though it is only 9 years younger than Collosus.

It shows a much more realistic vision of where we could be headed.

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