Humanity appears to be in the grip of a global system – one that we originally created, but which is now shaping our lives independently of our wishes.
I’ve recently begun to suspect that humanity is at a point of endosymbiosis with our electronic communications and control technology, especially through the Internet. In a sense, we humans have incorporated ourselves as essential control elements of a planet-wide cybernetic super-organism. The precedent for something like this is the way that mitochondria migrated as bacteria into ancient prokaryotic cells to become essential components of the new eukaryotic cells that make up all modern organisms, including us.
To expand on the "super-organism" concept a bit, it looks to me as though what humanity has done over the last few centuries is built ourselves a global cybernetic exoskeleton. Although its development started back with the emergence of language and the taming of fire, it’s most visible in the modern world, and especially in the last two decades.
Transportation systems act as its gut and bloodstream, carrying raw materials (the food of civilization) to the digestive organs of factories, and carrying the finished goods (the nutrients) to wherever they are needed. Engines and motors of all kinds are its muscles. The global electronic communication network is its nervous system, the world’s financial network its endocrine system. Electronic sensors of a million kinds are its organs of taste, touch, smell and sight. Legal systems, police and military make up its immune system.
Human beings have evolved culturally to the point where we now act largely as hyper-functional decision-making neurons within this super-organism, with endpoint devices like smart phones, PCs and their descendants acting as synapses, and network connections being analogous to nerve fibers.
Just as neurons cannot live outside the body, we have evolved a system that doesn’t permit humans to live outside its boundaries. Not only is there very little "outside" left, but access to the necessities of life is now only possible though the auspices of the cybernetic system itself. (For example, consider living without a socially-approved job. It’s barely possible for a few people, but essentially impossible for most of us.) As we have developed this system around us, we have had to relinquish more and more of our autonomy in favor of helping the machine continue functioning and growing.
While we can no longer survive outside our cybernetic exoskeleton, in return it can’t exist without our input. I realized over the last month or so that this means the symbiosis has already occurred. If I had to put a "closure date" on it, the period where it transitioned to its current form was around 1990 (plus or minus a decade or so). We didn’t even notice it happening – to us it just looked like our daily lives going on as usual.
I realize that I’m re-visiting an old, familiar science-fiction idea. In reality it seems to have happened through a quiet, "natural" process of coevolution driven by the mutual amplification effects of human ingenuity, electronic technology and large amounts of available energy – rather than through the drama of a Borg-like assimilation of humans into a hive mind, or Ray Kurzweil’s eschatological vision of a Technological Singularity.
Here are some data that describe aspects of the system:
- The data traffic of the global Internet is now over 150 terabytes per second, and will be over 400 TB/sec by 2016;
- There are over 12 billion devices attached to the Internet, rising to over 20 billion by 2016;
- There are over 6 billion mobile phones in use world-wide;
- There are over 1 billion personal computers in the world;
- Human beings today use on average 20 times the energy our distant ancestors did. For highly developed countries like the USA and much of Europe, the number is 50 to 90 times as high.
- This growth in energy and technology use is occurring in a global population that has itself grown 7-fold since 1800. We are now part of a gigantic, world-wide, networked growth system (you are invited to think of "The Matrix" or "The Machine Stops" here…)
The spying recently unveiled by Edward Snowden is a natural part of such a system. A system needs to know what’s going on in order to function optimally, so monitoring systems appear. Their development isn’t so much a product of human malice as a result of the standard need of any organism to know what’s going on in its "body". While these espionage systems developed from human political intentions, their value is intrinsic to the super-organism. They act as part of a nervous system that detects and signals critical information from place to place in a living body.
Such a cybernetic super-organism should be expected to exhibit rapid, conscious, teleological evolution driven by a mesh of human ideas and electronic information rather than the slow Darwinian genetic/reproductive process, so the possibility for the rapid emergence of unexpected social behaviors would seem to be fairly high. One of these behaviors is a variety of self-protective immune responses directed against what it sees as "rogue cells" within its body – cells that just happen to be people. Those immune responses are rapidly becoming more subtle and pervasive as the development of the cybernetic aspects of the organism explode in complexity and scale. The official and quasi-official responses to Ed Snowden "going rogue" are a perfect example of this mechanism in action.
The super-organism has transcended and incorporated the people that created it. It is now independent of human values, concerns and goals.
I don’t even think there is anything we can "do" about this situation. We certainly can’t reverse it, and it’s an open question whether we can even moderate its development at this point. This new super-organism, of which we are unwitting components, has achieved a momentum and life of its own.