Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Internet and the Noosphere

The shaman seers of the Fourth World generally agree that those who tenaciously cling to the past will fall into mass insanity. The serpent power of the Aquarian Age is upon us. The Kundalini of Gaia is about to awaken. No one can avoid being affected. Most human beings may go out of their minds; others will go beyond mind." -John Hogue In 1938, a Jesuit priest wrote a book in which he postulated the existence of "a sphere of thought" enveloping the Earth. (2) This book, The Phenomenon of Man, wasn't published until the late 1950s, after its author, Teilhard de Chardin, had died. In it, he called this enveloping sphere of thought the noosphere and described it as "a living tissue of consciousness" enclosing the Earth and growing ever more dense. For several years after the book's first English publication in 1959, Chardin's concept of a thinking membrane surrounding our planet provoked significant controversy in both religious and academic circles. Like many revolutionary ideas, however, the concept of a noosphere was eventually passed over by most mainstream thinkers and largely forgotten. Imagine my surprise then when I discovered that I wasn't the only one who remembered Chardin's work and had begun thinking about the Internet in terms of the noosphere.

Chardin believed that because of the spherical shape of the Earth, ideas will eventually encounter other ideas resulting in a cultural convergence of thought. This, he believed, would eventually lead to a single, self-developing framework of pure mind. Chardin used the term "noosphere" (possibly first coined by Vladimir Vernadsky (3) to represent a sphere of mind encircling the Earth. As he saw it, the noosphere encased what we call the biosphere, or sphere of life. Within this framework, Chardin saw the ongoing evolution of the human species manifesting itself as changes and advances in mind more than in body. In other words, human evolution would henceforth take place mainly in the noosphere.

As Sir Julian Huxley explained in his introduction to the first English translation of The Phenomenon of Man:

[Chardin was] deeply concerned with establishing a global unification of human awareness as a necessary prerequisite for any real future progress of mankind.

Huxley goes on to say,

In Père Teilhard's view, the increase of human numbers combined with the improvement of human communications has fused all the parts of the noosphere together. . . . But when it is confined to spreading out over the surface of a sphere, idea will encounter idea, and the result will be an organized web of thought, a noetic system operating high tension, a piece of evolutionary machinery capable of generating high psychosocial energy. (4) [Emphasis added]

This is a perfect description of what is taking place on the World Wide Web. Huxley and Chardin would be amazed and delighted if they were alive today.

Many people involved with the Internet and who are familiar with The Phenomenon of Man accept as fact that the Internet and the noosphere are interrelated in some way. If you are new to this concept, however, you most likely have a few questions, such as:

In the following discussion, it is important to keep one essential fact foremost in your mind: the Internet is not the noosphere. An Internet connection is not required, for all of humanity is already an integral part of the noosphere. This statement will become clear in the following pages as we explore the deeply woven interconnections of the mechanical Internet and the ethereal species-consciousness we call the noosphere.

What is the Noosphere?

In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard de Chardin observed that, from a historical point of view, the "stuff" of this universe is becoming ever more complex, that information is becoming ever more concentrated. He further observed that, at least in this corner of the cosmos, human beings are the most complex of all known forms found in nature. From an evolutionary standpoint, he also saw that changes taking place in the human species are occurring in the domain of mind at a much faster rate than changes seem to appear in our biology. (5) For example, many users of cigarettes understand that their smoking habit is unhealthy, yet their biological make-up continues to crave the nicotine, which brings with it all of the carcinogens found in cigarette smoke.

According to the Big Bang Theory, our universe is becoming ever more complex as it continues to cool. From an initial point of intensely concentrated and homogeneous matter, we see the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies, and planets as the primordial ball of plasma expanded, cooled, and formed structures of ever-increasing complexity. In the case of our own planet, we also see the development of biological life with its even more complex forms of matter. These organic structures are actually containers of sorts-densely packed with information. The more information an object carries in a given volume, the more complex it is. A strand of DNA is not only smaller than a grain of sand, it is also considerably more complex because it contains more information than the silicon in the grain of sand.

The densest collection of complex information we know of thus far is the human being, and human activity gives rise to even greater complexity. If Chardin is correct in asserting that reflective consciousness is "the specific effect of organized complexity," it follows that some sort of intensification of human consciousness is at least possible within the laws of biological evolution. If consciousness does expand as complexity increases, how will this expansion or intensification of mind become manifest? Will the noosphere, this "envelope of thinking substance," as Chardin called it, one day become so complex and full of information that it evolves into a higher form of consciousness in its own right? Perhaps. What Chardin foretold was an awakening of the noosphere as the result of:

In other words, a massive amount of information is building up within the relatively small confines of the planet Earth. This, Chardin believed, will result in the blossoming of the noosphere into some form of super-consciousness, once the amount of information it contains reaches a critical density.

To illustrate this phenomenon, Chardin suggested we consider our current understanding of the atom. It goes without saying that no one person could have possibly developed the complete body of knowledge we now have about the atom. He further suggests that this is not a mere accretion of information, but rather a synthesis of information that erects "as though it were a vault above our heads, a domain of interwoven consciousness." Nuclear physicists and mathematicians are not the only ones who are a part of this interwoven consciousness; also included is every child, woman, and man on the planet who has any knowledge of the atom. Awareness of the smallest tidbit of information about the atom is all that is required for the mind containing that awareness to become joined in the noospheric web of thoughts about particle physics.

Just as hypertext documents on the World Wide Web are interconnected, information in the noosphere may be conceived to be structured as webs of thought. Seemingly unrelated information becomes interconnected when two or more of these webs of information intersect in individual minds. The moment our species attains the ability to tap into the complete body of human-created information at will is the point at which Chardin hypothesizes the collective consciousness of the noosphere becomes an aware entity of some sort in its own right. As he says:

. . . and the noosphere tends to constitute a single closed system in which each element sees, feels, desires and suffers for itself the same things as all the others at the same time.

We are faced with a harmonised [sic] collectivity of consciousness equivalent to a sort of super-consciousness. The idea is that of the earth not only becoming covered by myriads of grains of thought, but becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope so as to form, functionally, no more than a single vast grain of thought on the sidereal scale, the plurality of individual reflections grouping themselves together and reinforcing one another in the act of a single unanimous reflection. (6)

In other words, it is the moment in time when the entire human species acquires super-psychic abilities. Speculation as to what this may mean and how it might come about is the subject of following chapters.

It isn't just in the sciences where these webs of thought are forming. For those of us fortunate enough to travel throughout the world, it is clear that the interchange of customs and ideas is taking place more frequently than at any other time. Discerning world travelers can see a beautiful tapestry of global awareness being woven through the interactions of diverse cultures. Exchanges ranging from the casual-like a London taxi driver telling a Japanese passenger about a recent Australian vacation-to the more complex-as with business meetings hosted by multi-national corporations-continue to make new connections in our psychic web, the noosphere. These connections are now being made at an ever-increasing rate, thanks to the Internet.

Another way to think of the noosphere is to see it as Sir Julian Huxley did, "the union of the whole human species into a simple inter-thinking group based on a single self-developing framework of thought." This, in Chardin's view, is nothing less than a collective human organism. It may take a giant leap of faith for some readers to "consider inter-thinking humanity as a new type of organism whose destiny it is to realize new possibilities for evolving life on this planet," (7) as Huxley suggests in his introduction to The Phenomenon of Man. However, if we can believe without personally seeing it demonstrated, that a nanoassembler can actually build things one atom at a time, or if we can believe that humans now have the ability to alter the structure of specific genes, is it that much more difficult to accept the existence of the noosphere?

Is the Internet the Mechanical Infrastructure of the Noosphere?

Like many of my colleagues, I view the Internet and the noosphere as inseparable, yet not the same. More precisely, I see the Internet playing the role that Chardin termed "the mechanical apparatus" of the noosphere. The following is from a paper he wrote in 1947:

To an increasing extent every machine comes into being as a function of every other machine; and, again to an increasing extent, all the machines on earth, taken together, tend to form a single, vast, organized mechanism. Necessarily following the inflexive tendency of the zoological phyla, the mechanical phyla in their turn curve inward in the case of man, thus accelerating and multiplying their own growth and forming a single gigantic network girdling the earth. And the basis, the inventive core of this vast apparatus, what is it if not the thinking-centre of the noosphere? (8) [Emphasis added]

Today you can purchase and rent cars that have satellite navigation systems which monitor the auto's movements. This information is transmitted over a communications network to companies that provide emergency roadside assistance. Thus, today's cars are actually connected to communications networks. In turn, some of these automobile monitoring networks are managed as Virtual Private Networks, otherwise known as VPNs, which use tunneling technology with the Internet for their backbone . It is now clear that the automobile is on its way to becoming a small part of a much larger machine that uses the Internet for its nervous system. This is only one example of where we are headed. Soon we will see many of our everyday household appliances and other devices Internet-enabled. Your pager will be synchronized with your daily activity planner so it automatically shifts to quiet mode during times you are scheduled to be in meetings. Your refrigerator will be connected to its manufacturer's service network through which it will be routinely checked for worn-out parts. Within a few years, there will be millions of people around the globe who will be immersed in the continuous computer environments now being designed for the "personal electronic companions" that are about to enter the market. (9) All of these examples point to the fact that we seem to be building a single, complexly interconnected, global-sized machine of some sort.

What then is the relationship of this immense machine to the noosphere? In Chardin's words:

When Homo faber came into being the first rudimentary tool was born as an appendage of the human body. Today the tool has been transformed into a mechanized envelope (coherent within itself and immensely varied) appertaining to all mankind. From being somatic it has become 'noospheric.' And just as the individual at the outset was enabled by the tool to preserve and develop his first, elemental psychic potentialities, so today the noosphere, disgorging the machine from its innermost organic recesses, is capable of, and in process of, developing a brain of its own. (10)

Can you see how the Internet has been "disgorged," or come out of, "the innermost organic recesses" of the noosphere? What are the innermost organic resources of the noosphere if not humankind? Is it not we humans who are building the Internet? Could it be that the Internet is the noosphere's "brain of its own" he refers to? Chardin goes on to say:

But in addition to its protective role, how can we fail to see the machine as playing a constructive part in the creation of a truly collective consciousness? It is not merely a matter of the machine which liberates, relieving both individual and collective thought of the trammels which hinder its progress, but also of the machine which creates, helping to assemble, and to concentrate in the form of an ever more deeply penetrating organism, all the reflective elements upon earth. [Emphasis added] (11)

By "reflective elements" Chardin means individual human beings. In other words, he sees the mechanical infrastructure of the noosphere as "helping to assemble, and to concentrate" the collective consciousness of the human species. Again, keep in mind that the Internet is not the noosphere. It is merely an infrastructure that is now available for the noosphere to use. Chardin continues his speculations about the form this mechanical infrastructure might take:

I am thinking, of course, in the first place of the extraordinary network of radio and television communications which, perhaps anticipating the direct inter-communication of brains through the mysterious power of telepathy, already link us all in a sort of 'etherized' universal consciousness.

But I am also thinking of the insidious growth of those astonishing electronic computers . . . (12)

If, as Chardin theorized:

Does this mean that there is a parallel between our association of brain/mind and the association of Internet/noosphere? If we commonly understand the brain/mind combination to compose an individual human being, then what can we say about the Internet/noosphere combination? What kind of "being" will this combination give rise to?

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