Life Levelled Up: The Internet and the Awakening of the Planetary Superorganism

The Internet represents much more that just a technological shift or economic game changer. It signifies a phase shift in evolutionary complexity on par with the emergence of the Eukaryotic Cell. Yet we are so caught up with the consequences to society, business and government that we have scarcely had a chance to ponder its significance within the broader context of evolutionary history.

But how can we talk of the Internet – a collection of artificialities like computers and cables – in the context of evolution? In the terms of life? While we typically draw a sharp conceptual line between life and technology, the natural and the synthetic, we should also realise that our language impresses subjective notions of the granularity of the universe. Explore the borderlands of any concept and you will soon find the definitions slippery and elusive. At what point does an ape-like ancestor become a modern human? A planet a dwarf planet?  Should we organise the natural world using Linnaean or Phylogenetic taxonomy?  In the words of scientist / philosopher Alfred Korzybski, “the map is not the territory”. Conceptual distinctions between natural and synthetic only exist in the human mind.

So while language and categorisation have been immensely helpful for humanity, it has its limitations – as any Zen Master or Quantum Physicist will testify. Instead, we must look at technology as simply another manifestation of the a more fundamental process of exotropy, and like the rest of the cosmos, just temporary arrangements of matter rippling down through time.

“Our galaxy is a kind of ecosystem where gas is processed and recycled through successive generations of stars” explains Astronomer Royal Martin Rees ”the cosmos is part of our environment in a very intimate sense.” Everything our planet is composed of – everything we are made of – is just another arrangement of the molecules from those long dead stars. And although the mobility of animal life gives an impression of separateness from the rest of nature, it is still part of us as we are of it. The oxygen flowing through the troposphere is as much a part of us as a lung, the sun is as much a vital organ as our heart. And it is only in the last century with the advent of computers have we had the chance to even begin to grasp the extent of this interconnectedness, and identify the evolutionarily transitions that have given rise to this awesome complexity.

Although many philosophies have spoken of the world in such terms, it wasn’t until the 1960s we began to glimpse these intricacies in the language of science. It was NASA scientist James Lovelock who made the the first credible attempt to explain the world was a single, self organising system. His theory – the landmark Gaia Hypothesis – supposed that the trillions of organisms that constitute the biosphere are part of a single vast system that regulates the atmosphere by a complex process of chemical feedback. This self regulation allowed Earth to retain a more or less stable temperature – or “meta equilibrium” – for the last 4 billion years, despite energy output from the sun increasing by 25% during that period. So although the atmosphere has swung between hothouse and ice age phases, it has never reach a point that it would be fatal to all life.

At the other end of the scale were revelations about the origins of single celled organisms. In 1966 American biologist Lynn Margulis discovered that the Eukaryotic Cell – of which all complex life is composed – had emerged through the symbiosis of several previously free roaming entities including mitochondria and chloroplast bacteria. Endosymbiotic theory – which showed that symbiosis rather than competition was a key driving force in evolution – was rejected by her peers as preposterous. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when experimental evidence emerged to prove that mitochondria and chloroplasts have different DNA that that of the organisms that help constitute that her ideas were vindicated.

These and other discoveries in fields such as systems theory led to a new view of evolution that put symbiosis and emergent, self organising behaviour at its core. While previous theories of evolution had emphasised competition between species as a driving force in evolution, this new view held that major phase shifts in evolutionary complexity came about through co-operation between organisms. What were once diffuse networks of organisms or molecules began that over time coalesced into self organising groups out of which a new type of intelligence, a new type of entity, emerged.

In their influential book Major Transitions in Evolution, John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry argued that there have been eight major shifts in the complexity of life, all characterised by increased cooperation among parts, increased span of interdependence and increased complexity of informational flow. These were:

  1. From replicating molecules to bounded population of molecules

  2. From populations of replicators to chromosomes

  3. From RNA chromosomes to DNA genes and proteins

  4. From Prokaryotes to Eukaryotes

  5. From Asexual clones to sexual populations

  6. From single cell protists to multicelluar organisms

  7. From solitary individuals to colonies

  8. From animal societies to language-based human societies

In the view of Smith, Szathmáry and others, humanity is defined by cooperation and interdependance, enabled by complex exchange of ideas via language.  In his 2010 book The Rational Optimist, biologist Matt Ridley argues the evolution of ideas is directly related to trade, which he sees as “prehistoric and ubiquitous” and a lubricant for memetic exchange. As trade networks grow, it leads to increased specialisation and increased interdependence between diffuse groups. Economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek called this Catallaxy, expanding possibility brought about by a fractal division of specialisation over time.

Increased specialisation leads to more innovation and diversification of technology, which leads to progress. It is simply not possible for small, self sufficient societies to operate independently at the same technological level when cut off from from what Ridley calls “The Global Brain” over successive generations. North Korea and Tasmania are only two such examples of societies breaking down because of isolation from the rest of mankind.

Ridley’s “Global Brain” is analagous with what Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin calls the “noosphere”, the “sphere of human thought” brought about by the interaction of human minds through the exchange of information.

The Noosphere or “Global Brain” – is the medium in which memetic exchange occurs. A vast ocean of competing ideas slugging it out to entrench themselves in human brains and from there, to compete for conscious attention in order to be replicated. Aided by neuroplasticity and high fidelity communication, our ideas have become multi-generational, spiralling off on their own evolutionary directions. And just as organisms have teamed up in symbiotic relationships in order to endure – memes have coalesced into larger conglomerations that we would call – in the terminology of psychologist Susan Blackmore – “memeplexes” – massive package of memetic information that comprise a certain worldview or perspective. Clustering into their own memetic species and subspecies, diversifying and thriving into elaborate new forms while others succumb to intellectual extinction events.

Traditionally, memes and memeplexes have had certain geographic boundaries – ideas bled across the surface of the Earth relatively slowly, from social group to social group via social events, from town to town via a trade routes. Sped up occasionally by mass migrations and wars, the latter of which often making a point of replicating certain species of memeplex. As transport methods improved over the centuries, and mass communication technology came to more and more people during the 20th century, this has began to occur exponentially faster. What the Internet facilitates – on a fundamental level – is the mass distribution of memetic information on a planetary scale. It has put conceptual and technological evolution into overdrive.

Teilhard saw the noosphere in an evolutionary context, moving towards a “‘etherised’ human consciousness… a single, organized, unbroken membrane over the earth”. H.G Wells also wrote of the “World Brain” where “The whole of human memory can be, and probably in short time will be, made accessible to every individual.  This all-new human cerebrum can have at once, the concentration of a craniate animal and the diffused vitality of an amoeba”. Just as the interaction of diffuse elements gave rise to higher forms of intelligence during past evolutionary transitions, will the interaction of human minds on a global scale give rise to a form of collective intelligence?

Different organisms equipped with different sensory apparatus experience different subjective realities. The mantis shrimp for instance sees with 12 colour receptors in its eyes, compare to our 3. The Duck Billed Platypus can sense ripples in the electric field. Their awareness of the universe are markedly different from ours, and are based solely on their sensory “input”.

Humans do not posess excellent sight, hearing or smell. In fact compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, human senses are rather meagre. What we do have instead is a large brain and the sensory amplifier we call the noosphere – a second perceptual strata that has allowed us to greatly extend and augment the capability of our comparatively limited senses. Memeplexes are prisims with which to skew the data from our sensory organs into something comprehensible, but more than this, language has allowed us to use the eyes, ears and brains of the rest of humanity both now, and through culture, reaching back down through time.

Consciousness was not an epiphany; there was no Eureka moment in the Pleistocene where a caveman announced to his or her bemused tribe that they were self aware. Consciousness evolved, and it did so through interaction with other minds and with the environment itself. Our road to self awareness was a gradual, group effort brought about by a collective understanding of the universe over time.

What happens then, when the Internet removes the limiting factors on memetic exchange? Where available information about the environment essentially becomes the sum of all information? Our society generates more information in a year that was generated between the dawn of time and 2003. A single human mind cannot possibly grasp this immensity alone. But the interaction between billions of them might. What we might call the Catallaxy of Consciousness will result in a world of increased specialisation in understanding of specific facets of our understanding of the cosmos, but with the important difference that these diffuse parts are now fundamentally interconnected and not isolated. Neural connections in the Global Brain can now be made almost instantaneously.

This is the final step in the symbiosis of multi-cellular organisms and technology.

Whereas before technology has augmented us physically through machines and tools, the Internet is now augmenting our minds.  In the near future, the Internet will become to our minds what fire has become to our stomachs. We have used fire so long – roughly 1.8 million years – that is has changed us biologically. While other large mammals either spend hours chewing food with large molars or use muscular stomachs to wring nutrients out of food, humans outsource this task to fire. In doing we freed up crucial evolutionary resources to spend on that big, energy hungry brain. In augmenting our brains, we will free up resources dedicated to memory to analysing and sorting information and establishing new connections between previously unrelated phenomenon.

In this sense, humans and technology have long been symbiotes. What is happening now, is we are reaching critical mass, making a transition into something greater than the sum of its parts. Philosopher and futurist Kevin Kelly calls this the Ninth Transition of Evolution, where humans and machines move towards “a single thinking/web/computer that is planetary in dimensions.” It is a nervous system for a planetary organism out of which will emerge a new form of intelligence.

We are synaptic connections in a Global Mind that uses the sensory organs of supercolliders and radio telescopes to see into the deepest realms of matter and the edges of space and time. The primal impulse of the planetary superorganism is to replicate, to send seeds of its ecology to distant worlds it can terraform in its own image. It is the future of life in he cosmos, and after billions of years stirring to life, finally, it is awakening.