technology is weaving humans into electronic webs that resemble big brains — corporations, online hobby groups, far-flung N.G.O.s. And I personally don’t think it’s outlandish to talk about us being, increasingly, neurons in a giant superorganism
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?
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.
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’ll let Kelly speak for himself as the timely publication of his fascinating book approaches. But it’s safe to say that he’s upbeat. He writes of technology “stitching together all the minds of the living, wrapping the planet in a vibrating cloak of electronic nerves” and asks, “How can this not stir that organ in us that is sensitive to something larger than ourselves?”
No doubt some of his critics will think of ways. But the question he’s asking strikes me as the right long-term question: Not so much how do we reconcile ourselves to technology, but how do we reconcile ourselves to — and help shape — the very big thing that technology seems devoted to building?