The Human-Human Interface"The idea is that of the earth not only becoming covered by myriads of grains of thought, but becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope...grouping themselves together and reinforcing one another in the act of a single unanimous reflection... thanks to the prodigious biological event represented by the discovery of electro-magnetic waves, each individual finds himself simultaneously present in every corner of the earth." - Teilhard de Chardin
An awareness module, with a business model and creepy undertones, but still.
Following is the introduction to the sequel to Neurosphere. Technology is just one trend hinting at the emergence of a global intelligence.
The Day of Ten Billion
Visionaries throughout history have envisioned a world of minds linked together, a thinking layer, a noosphere (in the coinage of Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin.) In my book Neurosphere, I used the example of the Internet to look at technology that appeared to be developing, almost evolving in a biological sense, into forms that are linking human minds together.
One of the tenets of such millennial thinking is that the human population is foreseen to be approaching a total of 10 billion, coincidentally or not so, the same as the number of cells in the cerebral cortex of the human brain. At this level, some kind of magic happens and the billions of humans begin to act as one.
It’s a beautiful dream, but there’s a rub. Several rubs. Wars, genocides, episodic starvation, tidal waves, floods and earthquakes kill an order of magnitude more people as years go by. Can we evolve to the utopia of unified mind before we kill each other off? To me, the fact that we survived the era of mutually assured destruction is a very big indication that Yes, We Can.
And so I wanted to write about the outlines of the coming world of ten billion, which will not be a perfect utopia any time soon, but neither will it be a total disaster. But this won’t be a prescriptive manual of practical steps to assure we all get there together. My technique is not prescriptive, but observational. It is a catalog of behaviors, trends and institutions that seem to be emerging with or without conscious thought of any unified endgame. As I treated technology trends extensively in Neurosphere, the emphasis here will be behavioral and sociological.
As some of the utopian theorists have it, it can’t happen any other way. Top-down strategies like the United Nations didn’t do it. (But how about the slow motion, thirty-odd year construction of procedures, currency and minutiae that now make up the European Union? Perhaps.) Those theorists have a word for the magic of how living organisms arise – autopoesis – or self-organization. A decentralized process of granular elements inventing the best solutions for local problems, and the solutions that expand without resistance begin to propagate. They scale. And the inference is that if the growing number of humanity are to start functioning as a collective intelligence, it will probably self-organize and scale in just the same way.
Getting to 10 Billion - Humanity By the Numbers
The environmental movement that bloomed in the 1960s took as an article of faith that were “limits to growth”. All the predictions were straight lines – if we keep doing this, we will max out in starvation and wholesale environmental destruction. The prophets were both right and wrong. A population that has grown 50% in the last forty years has not resulted in wholesale starvation, nuclear devastation or widespread social unrest. But the arrival of global warming as a global threat, as environmental protection has fallen short of substantial victory, begs the question. But maybe the straight line predictions have now evolved to something more complex.
For now, the growth continues. But there is now consensus that the human population will peak around 40 years from now at just short of 10 million people.
According to population projections, world population will continue to grow until around 2050. The 2008 rate of growth has almost halved since its peak of 2.2% per year, which was reached in 1963. World births have levelled off at about 134-million-per-year, since their peak at 163-million in the late 1990s, and are expected to remain constant. However, deaths are only around 57 million per year, and are expected to increase to 90 million by the year 2050. Since births outnumber deaths, the world's population is expected to reach about 9 billion by the year 2040.
World historical and predicted populations (in millions)
Year 1800 1900 1999 2008 2050 2150
Billions .978 1.650 5.978 6.707 8.909 9.746
Does It Scale?
I first heard about economies of scale in college freshman Economics. (I got a grade of C in the course.) It was close to twenty years more before I heard telecommunications engineers talking about technical solutions for ways to add new money making services to be delivered over existing networks without massive new capital expenditures.
The creative types among the engineers would come up with a way to deliver a service, but often after peer review and development prototypes, they would come back one day and say ruefully, “but it doesn’t scale.” Meaning technically, it delivered the bits in a certain format over a certain distance successfully. But if every customer on the network was to get the same services, investment per customer did not drop steadily per new customer added. The cost of adding the millionth customer was as high as adding the first – economically, you couldn’t charge enough for the service to cover the cost of getting it to the customer.
Now consider the task of feeding, clothing and sheltering 10 billion in 2040 without global warming destroying the habitat or mutating viruses killing the masses of people. Does humanity itself scale?
I heard Bill Clinton speak in Pittsburgh, just after the election of President Barack Obama. My rough transcript:
America is a different place today. We don't have time for these divisions over race, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else. We know we live in an interdependent country and an interdependent world. Everybody knows that one major significance of the last election is that [Obama] is the first African-American president, and for people at a certain age, that is a very big deal. It lifts a burden off of the history of the presidency, and allows parents to tell their kids that they can live up to their dreams. That is important. [applause] But for your purposes, the second element of significance of the Obama election may be even more important; particularly for those that are younger, for your future. This was the first presidential election to occur in a country that is self-consciously communitarian. That is not always more liberal on the issues, but understanding that we are going to rise or fall together. We don't have time for these phony divisions anymore. We'll not have time to pretend that we don't need to care what other countries think of us anymore. We are too diverse and in every other way. For a long time, Hawaii was the only state that had no majority race. For the last several years, California has had no majority race. Unless immigration slows to nothing, the United States will have no majority race by 2015.
What’s interesting about Clinton’s observations is that no one planned for this turn of events. NAFTA had no social policies in mind when it opened North American borders, just economic goals. The subsequent immigration boom was another instance of events and populations just organizing themselves.
Biologist/philosophers Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela coined the term autopoiesis to describe the tendency of living systems to self-organize. Indeed, they proceeded from the general observation to determine that consciousness itself was the product of self-organization given sufficient complexity of the organism. It is not yet a rigorously supported claim, but the claim is persuasive that, with sufficient numbers and complexity of the human population, a kind of global consciousness will emerge.
I certainly have made that leap, but it’s not necessary to make the leap to still make use of the observation that complex systems are likely to self-organize, and it takes a minimum of humility to conclude that you will not be able to predict in advance how it’s going to play out. This is true particularly in a system of which you are a small, 1/10,000,000,000th part.
Outline of the Investigation
What are the strategies by which humanity is dealing with growth? What are the autopoietic, emerging characteristics of the noosphere?
This book deals with five or six trends – some extensively treated elsewhere, and not the only ones for sure. But some of these trends are usually lost in the paeans to economic globalization, or the screeds of the battlers of Seattle. (Of the latter by the way, with whom I have more than a little sympathy, the question is not why their arguments against the dangers of globalization aren’t valid, but why they aren’t winning more mind share in the public policy decisions of the global mind.)
I believe these trends and characteristics help understand how people are self-organizing, how it works in reality. This is precisely not a blueprint – I’ll leave that for the Al Gores, Buckminster Fullers and others with brains large enough to consume the data and output and develop a Plan.
- Logo Nation and The Earthtone Covenant
- The End of Nature
- Terror Smog and the Evolution of Violence
- Social Entropy
- Nobody’s Right Anymore
- China My China
Logo Nation and The Earthtone Covenant
“How do we do it?? Volume !!!”
One quite well-observed economic trend is the ongoing gigantic roll up of small businesses into large – Joe’s Hardware becomes Home Depot. A lot has been written (and money made, by some; lives ruined, for others) about the financial elements of this transformation. In short, it scales – in other words you the shopper get the same goods for less money, and (sometimes) broader choice. But, as some say, the problem is you lose Joe in the process. (I like to think that’s why my dad, restaurateur Ted Dulchinos, didn’t embrace The Franchising Boom in the mid-60’s, and did quite well with his one and only Windmill Restaurant.) Profits, and jobs, leave the local community.
Either way, people in larger and larger numbers have gravitated to just such chains. It’s not quality, or even price necessarily (e.g. the pricey Cheesecake Factory). I look a little bit at why we gravitate to chains and logos and rarely count the losses – I call it the Earthtone Covenant and it’s more about emotion and belonging, even fake belonging, than anything else. A neighbor in my new (cookie-cutter) housing development once said, “you know, a lot of people move to different parts of the country to follow jobs, sometimes several times, and they see an Applebee’s or a Home Depot and they get some comfort from the familiarity.”
Another example, media consolidation, from radio to television to newspapers, reflects an interesting psychological component. Clear Channel Communications began the roll up of independent radio stations, understanding that the bulk of customer interest is in the Top of the Charts, popular music. Republican corporate apologist and FCC Chairman Michael Powell (son of General Colin) saw no problem – “despite consolidation, customers have more choice than ever.” Well, one might quibble. When I was a kid, local DJ’s could break a “regional” hit by a local band, a hit that had a chance of building regional success into a top 40 national hit. Clear Channel instead actually fakes the local aspects, reading local weather reports in Denver from their central studio in L.A. The customer has no idea that there is no local employee, only a local transmitter tower. But narrow musical genres still generate megastars, from Michael Jackson to Lady Gaga.
Even more emotional, consider the so-called megachurch. There’s no more emotional content than religion. These megachurches have grown robustly in recent decades, while neighborhood, often ethnocentric, churches shrink as younger generations intermarry or move to the suburbs. There’s been an interesting trend that megachurches seem to start off conservative, but then may evince a global, and more conventionally “liberal” or politically progressive stance. For example, several megachurches now support strong environmental protection, in the service of “protecting God’s creation”.
Set aside the dangers to your immortal soul, there are near-term dangers to this manner of economic organization, driven by national and international supply chains that populate the huge acreage of big box chain retail space. Consider the Denver blizzards of December 2006, when suddenly the local Safeway was out of milk and couldn’t get more over the roads and rails that had shut down. The shortened three-day supply chain, so necessary to drive the volumes and keep inventory costs lows, can be disrupted and disrupted in a big way (and sometimes lethal way – consider the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.)
Another danger of such consolidation was evident in the financial crisis of 2008, where consolidated financial or insurance institutions (AIG) came to create a category of nominally free enterprise considered “too big to fail”.
The bottom line question is this – are consolidated global businesses actively manufacturing common desires, enabled by technology and iconic branding strategies, or are such global businesses successful simply because they appeal to common desires that already part of, or a growing part of, human nature.
The End of Nature
"Who speaks for the trees?" - Dr. Seuss
Downstream of the water treatment plant for Denver, water quality tests reveal traces of molybdenum, a key element in the manufacture of reinforced steel. Molybdenum is mined on the other side of the Continental Divide from Denver. But Denver’s drinking water is actually piped up and over the Divide to Denver. Its source is runoff from places like the Climax molybdenum mine in Leadville, long since closed for environmental travesties. And yet, water is made to run uphill to slake the thirst of the next Los Angeles, because the sun shines 300 days a year and the skiing is great. And so are the ATV trails over land dead a hundred years from arsenic-based gold mining. When water runs uphill, the word “nature” has lost an essential part of its meeting.
While global warming has emerged as the quintessential global environmental issue, the momentum and scope of the problem is such that the best solutions currently imagined will not reverse significant changes that are already underway. At best, we will stave off disaster, and maybe construct sustainable hybrid natural/man-made ecologies, but perhaps never again will nature reassert itself from human engineering and human impact.
Terror Smog and the Evolution of Violence
The global assault on nature is driven in part by economic imperatives, or desires. Worldwide, the U.S. the USSR and its descendants, and now China, seem intent on trading weapons for access to oil and other natural resources in developing countries – Persian gulf, Caspian Sea, Africa – and those arms have helped to ramp up the violence in tribal societies, e.g. Darfur in Sudan.
These trends build on fifty years of post-war attention to the Cold War by the US and USSR. Byproducts of this War, whether overthrowing popularly elected Arab leaders like Mohammed Mossadeq in Iraq, or supporting fundamentalist monarchs like the al Saud family in Saudi Arabia, seem to have contributed to (though of course in no way justified) the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Here we are, nine years later, and Osama Bin Laden is still at large, Iraq is not quite pacified, Afghan religious nuts are still on the loose, and terrorist attacks kill hundreds each month. But not enough such attacks (and not in America) to spur full blown outrage and action. One major attack has occurred since 9/11 in England, one in Spain, one in Saudi Arabia, and one in Morocco. Much of the hatred is focused on American and allied troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It seems Americans have become accustomed to low-level terrorism the way we have become accustomed to low level drug violence say, or as described in The End of Nature, declining levels of air quality.
Just as we as a society have rejected fully clean air in favor of a watered down clean air act and therefore relatively cheap electricity and cheap industrial goods, and therefore have learned to live with smog, we have rejected any significant withdrawal from global intervention against terrorism (or pursuit of access to cheap third world natural resources). So we have terror smog.
The world has a ready supply of suicide bombers and their handlers. That equilibrium is likely to end up with annual events causing loss of life in the hundreds in effectively random distributed events. Just as we won’t know where to find the terrorists, they will become less and less able to define adequately symbolic targets.
“The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” – William Gibson
A corollary to terror smog is that there appears on a global level to be a kind of social entropy at work. America is richer than any nation, but the poor are drawn to the economic opportunities. Thus the overall economic average status trends down over time in the U.S., and trends up through the rest of the world (in no small part due to remittances from immigrants back to their home countries). Labor costs have been globalized over the past thirty years, and while Asian countries or India have benefited from outsourcing, traditional U.S. labor force contributors have fallen into relative poverty.
In another dimension, we can study the history of progress of values like education or democracy in the world, and note that the most progressive thought takes a long time to percolate. Counter–reformations slow the reformations and renaissances. France undergoes a democratic revolution, then falls back under a dictator.
Crime is one transmission medium of social entropy. Drug wars are about the export of illegal activity (to foreign countries or impoverished communities domestically) to support the illicit consumption back home. But illegal immigration isn’t really about crime; it’s about the migration of people toward areas of greater opportunity.
And again referring back to The End of Nature, as environmentalists advocate the greening of America, they correspondingly fear the desire of China to raise living standards, and consequently per capita energy consumption, to levels like the U.S. has reached today after a century of unfettered consumption. That trend, if extrapolated across the globe would consume all available resources long before we hit 10 billions of population. Maybe enough developed economies can trend down enough to accommodate some overall increased consumption in developing countries, and perhaps seed the scaling of renewable energy to enable development without disaster.
Nobody's Right Anymore
“Tears, you can't count the tears,
Everybody's got to go from here.” - Jay Ferguson
A corollary to social entropy is that the invaders and victims of wars comprise most of the world, and probably a majority of peoples have belonged to both camps, and so everyone has a reason to seek justice for past crimes. There are many examples of a regression to nationalism and all the way to genocidal crimes against humanity. Everyone has a legitimate position that they are the true religion; but every such declaration requires someone else to be wrong. Nobody’s right anymore.
In Yugoslavia, Serbs and Croats and Muslims all laid legitimate claim to a history of hundreds of years of self determination, yet none could see any but their own as taking precedence based on selective readings of history. In the Middle East, the Jewish claim to the land of Israel is documented for thousands of years, but certainly Arab Palestinians (not mention Armenian or other Christian Palestinians) have lived in the same land for at least a thousand years or more. Who is “right”?
Jews are interesting case studies who call to mind other nomadic people in contemporary times. Gypsies, Tibetans, Bedouins and Kurds are some of the peoples trying to survive today in the margins between nation-states. States find nomads pesky at best and threatening at worst. The Kurdish homeland for example lies at the headwaters of the life-giving Tigris and Euphrates rivers, straddling Turkey, Iran and Iraqi water supplies. The pressure on nomads is growing in a globalized terrorist world, where your every neighbor might be a suicide bomber, and anyone who hasn’t been part of your world for generations is suspect.
Closer to home in America, African-Americans fought for freedom for hundreds of years. Yet their legitimate claims to equal opportunity ran into the needs of more recent immigrants who had nothing to do with slavery, or those claims clashed with the downward mobility of lower middle class whites who perceived affirmative action as a zero sum game. I always thought Spike Lee captured the dilemma in the movie Do the Right Thing. The black man who throws a trashcan through the pizza restaurant window was, despite committing a crime, doing the right thing in his own context.
In this complicated world, everyone is wrong in some context. And yet it seems impossible to right the wrongs without creating a new wrong. At some point, everyone needs to forgive if not forget, and move on.
I guess this was prescriptive, which I tried not to be. But it’s not a top-down prescription. It’s only going to go as far as individuals will take it. As a third generation Greek American, I was struck by events of 1999, when an earthquake devastated eastern Turkey. Out of apparently nowhere, an outpouring of aid money and supplies came from Greece, for five hundred years an Ottoman-occupied territory, and for two hundred years after that holding a grudge (as I heard from my parents who weren’t even born in Greece.) But somehow finding a way to overcome history and look across the sea at a people, neighbors with whom they had more in common at the end of day than not. This will be the way the Neurosphere is stitched together – one heart to one heart at a time.
China My China
“From the pagoda the world looks so tidy.” – Brian Eno
If population is in itself the driver of planetary consciousness, we might look to the most populous country in the world , China, for clues and harbingers of the world to come. My initial observations indicate some expected and some unexpected, autopoietic if you will.
The first characteristic that we in the West observe is what some critics see as the dystopian results of collective consciousness, or unity achieved through oppression and dictatorship. The Cultural Revolution in China in the mid 1960s was a time of seeming madness and self-destructive cultural behavior. Twenty years later came the repression of calls for even modest democratic reforms culminating in the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
The political instincts of China’s leadership seem reflexively devoted to keeping a unified political unity. These instincts are reflected in efforts to control separatist tendencies in Tibet and the Xinjiang province of ethnically distinct Tibetan and Uighur peoples. China designates these as “autonomous” regions of China, but treat them as wholly a part of China, and react quickly to quell what Chinese authorities call “splittist” efforts. This word comes up often in their treatment of the Dalai Lama. The results may be oppressive of minorities, but the instinct seems autopoietic and almost an unconscious reflex.
Another somewhat expected effect of population growth is China’s projection of power around the world to protect access to food, minerals and energy resources. China has been active in Africa, without concern for niceties like democracy or human rights, in order to protect their interests in the continent’s mineral wealth.
The economic manifestation may be the most surprising. The opening of the Chinese economy by Deng Xiaoping which he termed market socialism, took many observers by surprise especially when it became wildly successful without a corresponding political opening. As Professor Brian Holmes put it,
This is why today’s China is so unsettling; capitalism has always seemed inextricably linked to democracy, and faced with the explosion of capitalism in the People’s Republic, many analysts still assume that political democracy will inevitably assert itself. But what if this strain of authoritarian capitalism proves itself to be more efficient, more profitable, than our liberal capitalism? What if democracy is no longer the necessary and natural accompaniment of economic development, but its impediment?
An interesting byproduct has been American business willingness to ignore human rights abuses, labor exploitation or other less savory aspects of the Chinese autocratic/capitalist hybrid. This fault line, largely unremarked upon, was exposed by the recent dustup between China and Google. Google had famously agreed to violate the core tenet of the Internet economy by allowing China to restrict and censor search results when it entered the Chinese market. No longer did the Internet “interpret censorship as damage and rout around it’, as netizens of Silicon Valley used to say. After 5 years, Google decided to lift the censorship and risk losing some or all of its business in China. Again quoting Holmes,
It seems that a global corporation is now doing battle with an extremely powerful state on the terrain of information. A rare event. Or there is an extremely convoluted strategy that we cannot yet understand. One way or another, how fascinating.
And finally, before leaving the subject of China, there are more personal, and absolutely mind boggling and horrific effects. In early 2010, starting March 23rd (through May 12 as of this writing), came a wave of inexplicable attacks on schoolchildren – stabbing to death of children in schools by older men who have no particular connection to those children or schools. Seventeen killed, 100 wounded, and no patterns – beyond the most basic theme of adults attacking defenseless children in schools. Even here, Chinese government reaction has been to severely restrict any reporting of incidents, it says for fear of more copycat killings.
One Chinese commentator wrote, “they do not know their victims personally, so the assaults “must be an expression of their dissatisfaction with society…We believe a rapidly changing social environment has a huge influence on people’s personalities. That’s the deeper correlation we should attend to.”
I have been wondering if all the strange mass murders and suicides of the 20th century, especially in the USA, from the University of Texas sniper in 1966 to Luby’s Cafeteria to Virginia Tech, are also a strange message from the future global mind, the result of the unbearable, unconscious impact of the growing unity on the troubled souls who have no glimmer of any utopian future. These troubling events may be the final refutation of even the idea of such a transition, or else they embody the so far incomprehensible mystery of our transition to a noosphere.
“Something’s happening here
What it is aint’ exactly clear.”
- Stephen Stills, Buffalo Springfield
See The Revenge of Gaia for an opposing view.
On the other hand, the source of terrorism itself may be the result of the unifying tendencies of the neurosphere itself
Brian Holmes – Swarmachine Activist Media.
As the deterritorializing revolutions, tied to the development of science technology and the arts, sweep everything aside before them, a compulsion toward subjective reterritorialization also emerges. And this antagonism is heighted even more with the phenomenal growth of the communications and computer fields, to the extent that the latter concentrate their deterritorializing effects on such human faculties as memory, perception , understanding , imagination etc. And I think that it is as ar esult of an incapacity to adequately confront this phenomenal mutation that collective subjectivity has abandoned itself to the absurd wave of conservatism that we are presently witnessing. Public Netbase, p. 218
In Neurosphere, I characterized the War on Terror as ultimately war on ourselves.
though not nearly the most densely populated.
11/16/2009 – “title” essay on Continental Drift web site.
(nettime January 13, 2010 see also Date: February 14, 2006 6:45:12 PM EST
Subject: In Rare Briefing, China Defends Internet Controls; Since we are discussing the censorship of the Internet by the Chinese government, this might be relevant to the discussion.
NY Times May 13 , p.1.
"To replace barcodes, RFID tags will need to cost a penny or less. But Cho says this should be achievable if all the layers on a tag can be deposited with a roll-to-roll process"
I especially like the part about sensors harvesting power from "the ambient radio power from television , FM radio and WiFi networks. Props to Tesla..."
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