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With Liberty and Connectivity For All - Robert Wright
NOTE: Following up on his "Buliding One Big Brain" NY Times Opinionator blog post of last week, which I reposted here with an introduction and links to other books on the subject, Robert Wright further explores the implications of an emerging planetary superorganism comprised of nature, humanity, and technology. (For those interested in this subject, I highly recommend Wright's book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny and Joel deRosnay's, The Symbiotic Man: A New Understanding of the Organization of Life and a Vision of the Future.)
When you write a column suggesting that maybe the Internet is weaving the human race into a giant superorganism, you naturally wonder whether readers will think you’re crazy. So last week, having written that column, I checked out the comments section. “Yes,” wrote someone from Minnesota known as Greenpa, “the superorganism is quite real. As I’ve been saying for 40 years, to anyone I thought would not instantly run for the men in white with the big butterfly nets.”
Thanks for the reassurance, Greenpa. Happily, few commenters issued a call for butterfly nets. Indeed, some took the column seriously enough to get spooked by it. Thinking of us as mere cells whose needs are trumped by the survival imperatives of a global techno-organism “gives me shivers,” said the commenter DA06488.
Many others, far from thinking I’d gone off the deep end, encouraged me to venture beyond the shallows. Several recommended that I read the mystical Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who in the mid-20th century built a theology around the superorganism idea. He saw the emergence of a global brain (the “noosphere”) as part of God’s plan to lead humanity toward “Point Omega” — which, as best as I can make out from Teilhard’s dense, poetic writing, will be a kind of worldwide organic love blob. (Count me in!)
One commenter — the theologian Philip Hefner, who once wrote a pithy little book on Teilhard — suggested that a Teilhardian view could allay the fears of the DA06488s of the world, showing that we cells needn’t be enslaved or diminished by the superorganism. Teilhard, wrote Hefner, “saw that the evolution toward the interconnected brain is one pole of the dialectic, while the enhancement of the ‘cell’ is a co-equal pole… . One needs to have a metaphysic (or theology) that recognizes both elements of this dialectic. Perhaps you can write your next piece on this balancing of the two poles.”
Well, it’s been a slow news week, so why not? I mean, I can’t come up with a whole theology. But I can highlight a sense in which the emerging superorganism challenges us cells to reach greater moral and spiritual heights — and, in the process, to preserve our hard-earned freedom, thus leaving DA06488 little cause to get the shivers.
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.” Or, as he more aphoristically put it: “To say ‘love’ is to say ‘liberty.’”
Maybe we have something to say about the exact shape the superorganism takes, and how comfortable an abode it is.
I can’t honestly say I know what he meant by that. But there’s an interpretation of it that makes sense to me, whether or not it’s the kind of sense he had in mind. Indeed, as mushily optimistic as his equation of love and liberty sounds, I think that, recast in more modest form, it’s eminently defensible and crucially important. Here’s the way I’d put it: The less hatred there is, the more freedom there will be.
There’s no denying the threat to freedom that technology poses. For example: those cell phones that let us tap into the noosphere from any location are also eavesdropping devices — and I don’t just mean that your cell phone carrier, and hence the government, can listen in on your calls. I mean that your cell phone carrier, and the government, can listen to your conversations when your cell phone is sitting in your pocket unused; the phone can serve as a remotely activated microphone that turns your home or office into a sound stage, unbeknownst to you.
Of course, in America, the government can’t go around eavesdropping without a court order — right? Right — except when a president who is fighting a war on terrorism secretly authorizes a warrantless wiretapping program, as President Bush did in 2002.
True, that program was confined to phone conversations Americans have with foreigners, and, true, it was eventually brought to light by a free press. But whether such policies provoke mass outrage and get overturned depends on how scared of terrorism people are at the time. The warrantless wiretapping story broke when Americans weren’t as scared as, say, on Sept. 12, 2001, but were still kind of scared, so the story caused a kerfuffle but not a brouhaha. Imagine how little resistance even bigger encroachments on privacy might meet if implemented when people were truly terrified — if say, terrorists had just killed tens of thousands of Americans, or were thought to have a nuclear bomb. In general: The more fearful we are, the more liberty we’ll willingly sacrifice in the name of security.
So how do we reduce the level of fear? Well, a more sober assessment of threats would help. But actually reducing the threats, or keeping them from growing, would be nice, too.
And how do we do that? By reducing the amount of hatred in the world. In an earlier technological era, isolated pockets of hatred emerged and subsided with no salient consequence. But modern technologies — the very technologies that keep the noosphere humming — make it easy for far-flung people with a common hatred to find one another and organize to deploy violence. Hateful terrorists in Pakistan team up with hateful terrorists in Yemen to find, energize, and mobilize hateful people in America; and the more grass-roots hatred there is in Pakistan, Yemen and America, the easier all of these players find it to survive and exercise their hatreds.
I’ve delivered this part of the sermon — on what I call the “growing lethality of hatred” — before, so rather than elaborate I’ll just link to an elaboration. But it’s worth pausing to ponder what’s at stake here in terms of privacy and liberty.
There is a ton of data about you out there — lots of surveillance video (assuming you do things like walk around in cities); your e-mail messages, phone calls and browser search history; your credit card purchases; and, at the moment, your exact location (assuming you’ve got a cell phone on you). The technologies that are weaving people together, and giving society an increasingly organic cast, are also giving machines more data about these people. It matters under what circumstances various parties — certainly including the government — get access to the data.
And, leaving aside this ongoing data dump, it matters whether the government can, in the name of fighting terrorism, hold American citizens in jail indefinitely without trial, or even assassinate them without trial if they’re overseas — prerogatives claimed by, respectively, the Bush and Obama administrations.
If indeed the threat of terrorism grows as hatred grows, then we could buy ourselves more freedom by reducing the amount of hatred; the famous trade-off between security and liberty isn’t calibrated in ironclad terms after all.
To put the point more generically: maybe the orderly functioning of the superorganism needn’t imply the slavish obedience of the cell. Maybe we have something to say about the exact shape the superorganism takes, and how comfortable an abode it is.
I’m sure this isn’t as richly spiritual, or as deeply cosmic, a conclusion as Professor Hefner was hoping for when he assigned me this column. But this view has its spiritual aspects. Comprehending culturally distant people well enough to grasp and thus begin to undermine their hatreds strikes me as a spiritually enriching challenge — especially since succeeding could wind up helping them as well as you (even liberating them as well as you, if in somewhat different senses).
What’s more, the motivation behind this inter-cultural outreach — the fact that the welfare of Americans depends on how many violently discontented people there are half a world away — reflects a pretty interesting and pretty cosmic trend: 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.