Just Say No to the Noosphere


By Wil Forbis

December 1st, 2013

Anyone who follows my writings (e.g. anyone who respects a keen intellect and sharp curiosity) knows I've become quite fascinated with how computer and internet technology affects our social lives. To wit, several years ago I mused on how early social apps like myspace tracked what I called "social currency"--- the various favors and tit-for-tats we humans exchange with each other. More recently, I commented on how social networks like Facebook and Twitter attack our perhaps illusionary notions of individuality.
Will the Noosphere be all smiles?

The topic interests me partly because our social behavior is tightly integrated into the big ticket items of the human experience. Morality, happiness and joy, our sense of responsibility and obligation... they are all tied up in the ways we socialize.

It is presumed our rules of socialization evolved as our species evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Contemplating how these deeply rooted social rules will be affected by modern computer technology is a fascinating pastime. And we see these two forces crashing together all around us. Consider all the commentary on the death of face-to-face communication and the rise of online social life.

The internet is not the only technology that has affected how we socialize. Television was the first great disrupter. The sociologist Robert Putnam once noted that, in the latter half of the 20th century, membership in social organizations like clubs and public commitess dropped substantially (around 40%.) After collecting extensive data, he blamed television, stating that "[TV] is the single most consistent predictor [for social disengagement] that I have discovered." The boob tube plopped itself down in our living rooms and we curtailed many of our social activities.

I suspect internet technology is affecting our social behaviors in ways more disturbing than television. I've been a Facebook user for several years and recently conceded there's something about using the social network that bothers me. After a binge of reading through my news feed I often feel jealous of the exploits and lives of my friends (many of whom I haven't seen in years.) And it's not just me, as this New Yorker article points out. I've heavily curtailed my Facebook time and find I don't miss it.

I also think the "everything all at once" style of internet communication affects my ability to concentrate. I'm constantly assaulted by incoming emails and text messages while simultaneously hearing the siren call to check my web stats or my Soundcloud profile. Again, I don't think I'm alone and studies seem to back this up.

Nonetheless, we know technology is marching forward at exponential speeds. The internet, which used to be available only on our computers, is now on our phones, our televisions and will soon be in our kitchens, bedrooms and who knows where else. It's becoming much harder to ignore the virtual world.

Author Michael Chorost has thought a lot about this subject and collected his thoughts into the book "World Wide Mind---The coming integration of Humanity, Machines and the Internet." His take is, opposed to mine, largely optimistic. He welcomes the thought of technology embedding itself deeply into our lives. And he uses his book to make a thought-provoking case that we all should.

A word about Chorost. As he detailed in an earlier book, "Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human," he's had to contemplate the integration of humanity and technology on a level more personal than most. Hearing impaired for most of his life, Chorost had two cochlear implants "embedded" into him when his lost all his hearing a decade ago. He happily became a nerdier version of the classic cyborgs that populate science fiction. His technological ears gave him his hearing back and undoubtedly enriched his life. (Chorost's earpieces are discretely visible in the picture adorning the back inside flap of the book jacket for "World Wide Mind.")

The integration of technology and man that Chorost envisions is not simply cochlear implants for all, or Google glasses, or ever richer forms of data arriving in our Facebook and Twitter feeds. He advocates using technology to bring to life an idea first theorized by the 20th century French philosopher Pierre Tielhard de Chardin: the noosphere. This idea is, to quote Chorost, nothing less than "the binding of individual human beings into a collective entity." If this sounds familiar, it should. This kind of "uni-mind" concept is a familiar trope of science fiction though, until now, it's always had a sci-fi farwayness as if it would either never happen or would happen far in the future. Not so, says Chorost. He thinks the noosphere could be possible in a reasonable time frame.

How would the noosphere work? Chorosts describes one model in thrilling detail. We first have to understand and accept that our inner life---our perceptions, thoughts and emotions--- correlates to neurological events in our brain. Chorost focuses on groups of neurons---he uses the term "cliques"---and notes that specific groups fire* when we experience a particular thought or emotion. For example, every time you think about a black cat, the same cliques fire. (That's a bit of an oversimplification but good for our purposes.) The general consensus of modern neuroscience is that these cliques correspond to properties of the cat: its blackness, furriness, inscrutable feline nature, and so on. In fact, you have collections of cliques that represent not only your perceptions of the outside world (objects, smells, sounds, etc.), but emotional affects ("Danger!") and ideas like our concepts of justice and romance.

*To be clear here: neurons communicate to each other via a combination of electrical and chemical signals. It is this process I refer to when I use the term "fire."

Chorost proposes that if we can track the firing of these neural cliques then we can read a person's brain. Of course, tracking brain activity is not easy. This is what EEG helmets and MRI chambers do, but they are imprecise and bulky tools. Chorost sees the burgeoning technology of optogenetics as offering a useful toolset. With optogenetics, neurons can be genetically altered to glow green when they fire. The firing of neurons can then be tracked and read by tiny fiber lenses that are inserted into the brain. Thus, if we can figure which of a person's neural cliques represents a cat and we alter those neurons to glow upon activation, we will know when a person is thinking about a cat.

Optogenetics has one other interesting use. Neurons can be genetically altered to fire when exposed to light. So, if you insert tiny wire flashlights (more precisely, fiber-optic cables) into a person's brain, you can activate that person's neurons. If you know where a person's cat clique is then you can make that person think about a cat.

(Click here to see a video of a mouse being controlled via optogenetics.)

As Chorost explains, this technology effectively gives us a way to read from a human brain (by tracking cliques that light up when they fire) and write to a human brain (by causing cliques to fire when activated by light.) We have two way communication*.

* A caveat here: Optogenetics is more of a proof of concept of read/write technology for brains than anything else. There are plenty of challenges, like how to wire enough of a brain with tiny fibers to get enough meaningful information out. But Chorost seems confident that technology will eventually solve these issues.

A problem, hinted at earlier, is that everyone's brain is different. Even if the firing of cliques can be tracked, how do we know that this person's clique represents "cat," while this other person's clique represents "frog" and this other person's clique represents "love"? Chorost argues brain output would have to be fed into a computer that would "learn" to make these kinds of correlations. (This might sound fantastic but is actually reasonable. Computers have actually been doing a decent job of learning languages via a similar manner*. So, if we could track the brain activity of two people, correlate that activity to perceptions and ideas, and then connect those two brains we would have wordless, telepathic communication. And, if we could do this for many people, perhaps everybody, we would have the noosphere!

* This link goes to an article about scientist Douglas Hofstadter. The information about computers learning language is deep in the piece. To get there, do a search on the page for "Candide."

What would the noosphere be like? Chorost thinks it would be pretty swell. Loneliness would be held in check, happiness would be contagious, minds would join together to work on humanity's problems. As Chorost states, "Collective action would feel like taking part in a symphony."

It sounds like a dream, no? But I think we can raise some concerns. I, for one, value my privacy. I'm disinclined to get on Facebook, much less join some kind of uni-mind. Additionally, I value my individuality. I like taking credit for what I've accomplished (small those accomplishments might be.) This behavior might be an ego-driven, and it's one I'm trying to curb, but it's a common human sentiment. Would this be lost in the noosphere?

Chorost tackles this concern in a chapter called "The Future of Individuality." He notes that the aforementioned philosopher Tielhard thought that grouping individual life forms into a greater whole often leads to more individuation, not less. Chorost writes, "When single celled organisms come together in a multicelled one they became more specialized... They form membranes, eyes, nervous systems." Here Chorost makes an interesting point: we are already a kind of borg---we are comprised of millions of different cells that work together (usually) and somehow share a consciousness. But I'm not certain that the biology/noosphere analogy is valid enough to bet the farm on it.

If you look at the web as a kind of early version of the noosphere you are not encouraged. Far from being a place where people work together in harmony, the web is a place where comments sections and blogs are full of ideological hatred and personal attacks. Conspiracy theories thrive. Teenagers are bullied to suicide*. Is anyone looking at this and saying, "More, please"? Chorost acknowledges the internet's ill effects on socialization, but replies, "I see these as growing pains produced by tools that are so new we haven't fully adapted to them yet. What remains to be done is literal body assimilation of the network by optigenetic or other means. The internet will not assimilate us. We will assimilate it."

* These arguments are certainly not my own and are probably best expressed in contrarian computer scientist Jaron Lanier's book "You Are Not a Gadget." Chorost addresses Lanier's complaints but prefers to remain optimistic, predicting that "Lanier's humanistic concerns, while valid at the moment, will turn out to have been applicable mainly to a passing stage of technological development."

Another concern with the noosphere: every technology-driven network man has so far developed---mail, telephone, radio, television, electronic social media (mySpace, Facebook, Twitter etc.)---has been beset by advertising. Will hooking up to the noosphere mean that Wal-Mart will be beaming the latest sales directly into my brain (perhaps as a payment for access)?

Chorost does convincingly advocate for some aspects of a noosphere scenario. It's noted that people feel a empathic connection to people in their social circles---their families, groups or tribes. It seems reasonable that connecting people via technological telepathy (or, to use Chorost's term, telempathy) could result in a widening of social circles such that people would feel a connection with strangers they previously feared. This could result in an increase in tolerance and understanding. And creativity. Anyone who's ever seen the fruits of a brainstorming session would agree that, if three heads are better than one, three thousand are probably even better!

That said, I can't escape the sense that Chorost is making it all sound too easy. He seems to think that, once we hook up to the noosphere, the various human animosities, miscommunications and jealousies will sort themselves out. But one thing that is apparent observing social networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube (not Google+ since nobody's there) is that they are hierarchies. There are a few popular (and hence powerful) people and a whole lot of losers*. This makes sense in light of theories that argue perception of social hierarchy is wired into our brains. As such, even with the empathy inducing abilities of brain-to-brain connections, I suspect the noosphere would be plagued with the common human envies and neuroses that every other modern network is beset by.

* You often see people describe their sphere of influence in terms of how many Twitter followers they have.

I do think Chorost's views should be considered. However, I object to his (and a large segment of society's) festishization of connectedness. He seems to be saying that to be in constant communication with your fellows is pure bliss and to be disconnected and alone with yourself is a state to be feared.

Is that true ? I like to connect with people, sure, but I also like to be able to be alone with my thoughts, to focus on one thing (or nothing) for long periods of time. There's something very meditative about it. And I find modern technology intruding upon this process. I love the "on demand" part of the internet---the ability to look up interesting articles, long forgotten songs and amusing cat videos on a whim. But the internet is not just on demand, it's demanding. It plagues me with emails, text messages, blog posts and links that hijack my primal interests. ("Do I want to see this article about Kim Kardashian's botched butt reduction surgery? No... and yet I cannot look away.") You can say that I simply need more self-discipline, and I do. But things were so much easier before.

I reminded of one of Jaron Lanier's ideas. In his book "You Are Not a Gadget" he posits that technology has enabled humans to extend our adolescence. We can behave as young people for more and more of our lives. (40 is the new 30 and all that.) What do young people do but gab incessantly with each other about largely trivial topics---exactly what people on Facebook, Twitter, The Huffington Post, etc. do. Lanier proposes that our constant need for interaction is a form of separation anxiety. We don't want Mom to leave, and if she must, we replace her with a million virtual umbilical cords to our fellows. Seen in this light, the urge to disconnect is not so much a sign of misanthropy or egotism, but adulthood.



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