Who’s the brains of this outfit? Maybe all of us

Robert Wright has an interesting piece in the NY Times titled “Building One Big Brain.” In response to concerns that modern technology is affecting the way we think, he has a suggestion:

But maybe the terms of the debate — good for us or bad for us? — are a sign that we’re missing the point. Maybe the essential thing about technological evolution is that it’s not about us. Maybe it’s about something bigger than us — maybe something big and wonderful, maybe something big and spooky, but in any event something really, really big.

He goes on to propose that

…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; certainly an observer from outer space, watching the emergence of the Internet, could be excused for looking at us that way.

While this may feel to us like a new phenomena, Wright notes that it’s happened before:

If it’s any consolation, we’re not the first humans to go cellular. The telephone (and for that matter the postal system before it) let people increase the number of other brains they linked up with. People spent less time with their few inherited affiliations — kin and neighbors — and more time with affiliations that reflected vocational or avocational choices.

This earlier case, Wright observes, had a major effect on Americans’ social behavior:

In the 1950 sociology classic “The Lonely Crowd,” David Riesman and two colleagues argued that the “inner-directed” American, guided by values shared with a small and stable group of kin and friends, was giving way to an “other-directed” American. Other-directed people had more social contacts, and shallower contacts, and they had more malleable values — a flexibility that let them network with more kinds of people.

In other words, Riesman, like Carr, noted a loss of coherence within the individual. He saw a loss of normative coherence — a weakening of our internal moral gyroscope — and Carr sees a loss of cognitive coherence. But in both cases this fragmenting at the individual level translates, however ironically, into broader and more intricate cohesion at the social level — cohesion of an increasingly organic sort. We’ve been building bigger social brains for some time.

The phenomena of “bigger social brains” stands as an interesting counterpoint to the fervent passion for individualism expressed today by many in politics and the media. Perhaps in some way these passionate individualists are sensing this emerging change and, frightened by the prospect, are fighting it with all they’ve got. Perhaps this is partly at the root of the fierce anger we see expressed at Tea Party gatherings and the like.

Perhaps. But if that is the case, it seems pretty clear their efforts are doomed unless they roll back technology to a time before the internet and television…and probably the telephone.

If change is being created by technology, then the only way to prevent it would be to get rid of that technology. But that’s not going to happen. Advances in technology often give new power to those who have that technology. People tend to not give up such power, especially if they see themselves engaged in a mortal fight for the “good old ways” over what they perceive as “evil new changes.” Sooner or later they’ll decide to keep the power and adapt to the change.

In any event, I think this perceived tension between individualism and the collectivism inherent in “social brains” is another reflection of an outmoded way of thinking. Sooner or later we will come to recognize that the wave/particle duality applies to humans as well as elementary particles: we are always and simultaneously both individuals and members of collective groups.

Now if we could just wrap our brains around that – both individually and socially.


About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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