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 the effects technology has on our social lives. To wit, several years ago I mused on how software was tracking 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 integral to the big ticket items comprising the human experience. Morality, the creation of happiness and joy, our sense of responsibility and obligation... these are all tied up in the ways in which we socialize. It is presumed that our social rules evolved as we as a species evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Contemplating how these ancient behaviors will integrate with modern technology is a fascinating pastime. And there's no doubt that technology has affected our social lives. Consider all the commentary about the death of face-to-face communication and the rise of online social life. Take dating: people may now chat for weeks or months online before meeting in person.

The internet is not the only technology that has affected how we socialize. Clubs and public committees used to be a prominent part of American life. The sociologist Robert Putnam noted that in the latter half of the 20th century membership in such organizations dropped substantially (around 40%.) The culprit? 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.

That said, I suspect internet technology is affecting our social behaviors in ways more disturbing than television. I've been a Facebook user for several years but 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 person for years) and the attention they're getting. It's childish, I know, but there's something about the site that evokes this. And it's not just me, apparently, as this New Yorker article comments on the strange relationship between Facebook use and unhappiness. I've heavily curtailed my Facebook time and find I don't miss it.

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

Nonetheless, we know technology is marching forward at greater and greater speed. 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 will become more and more difficult to ignore the virtual world.

Author Michael Chorost has thought quite a bit about this subject and collected his thoughts in the book "World Wide Mind---The coming integration of Humanity, Machines and the Internet." His take is, opposed to mine, largely optimistic. He, to paraphrase the classic Simpsons' line, welcomes our new interweb overlords. And he uses his book to make a thought provoking and cogent case that we all should.

First, a word about Chorost. As he described 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 became a nerdier version of the classic cyborgs that populate science fiction and was happy to do so. 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 technological integration that Chorost envisions is not simply cochlear implants for all, or Google glasses, or ever richer kinds 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. Until now, though, it's always had a sci-fi farwayness; it was the kind of conceit that could be discussed with the presumption that it would either never happen or would happen so far in the future that we would be dead. Not so, says Chorost, who 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--- correlate 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 thinks 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 etc. So, in your brain, you have a collection of cliques that represent things that you perceive in the outside world (objects, smells, sounds, etc.) as well as emotional affects ("Danger!") and more ethereal ideas like justice, or romance. The problem however is that the neural cliques that represent these things in your brain are not the same as in mine or anyone else's (though they are likely in the same genreal locations in each brain.)

*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 we can then send information from one brain to another. Of course, tracking brain activity is not easy business. 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 possible toolset. With optogenitics, neurons can be genetically altered to glow green when they fire. The firing of neurons can then be tracked and read when tiny fibers acting as lenses are inserted into the brain. So, if you can figure which of a person's cliques represents a cat and you alter those neurons to glow upon activation, you can track 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. Thus, If you know where a person's cat clique is, 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. (Knowing only that someone is thinking about cats really isn't a killer app.) But Chorost seems confident that some technology could arrive to deal with these issues.

A problem, hinted at earlier, is that everyone's brain is different. Even if the firing of cliques could be tracked, how do we know that this clique represents "cat," this other one "frog" and this other one "love" etc.? Chorost states that the 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 ideas and concepts, 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. 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 might be an ego driven behavior and it's one I am trying to tend to if not curb, but I think 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 led 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 simply 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. I'm not particularly opposed to this and often it's rather unobtrusive, but 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 properties of web based social media that could carry over into 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 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! (Though a fair amount of organization would be required.)

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 (despite the purported democratization that technology is supposed to bring). There are a few really 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 so? 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 more and more. When it comes to the internet, I love the "on demand" part---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 turn away.") You can fairly argue 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 "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 be disconnect is not so much a sign of misanthropy or egotism, but adulthood.



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