Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Social Superorganism and its Global Brain


Society can be viewed as a multicellular organism, with individuals in the role of the cells. The network of communication channels connecting individuals then plays the role of a nervous system for this superorganism, i.e. a "global brain".

It is an old idea, dating back at least to the ancient Greeks, that the whole of human society can be viewed as a single organism. Many thinkers have noticed the similarity between the roles played by different organizations in society and the functions of organs, systems and circuits in the body.

For example, industrial plants extract energy and building blocks from raw materials, just like the digestive system.

Roads, railways and waterways transport these products from one part of the system to another one, just like the arteries and veins.

Garbage dumps and sewage systems collect waste products, just like the colon and the bladder.

The army and police protect the society against invaders and rogue elements, just like the immune system.

Such initially vague analogies become more precise as the understanding of organisms increases. The concepts of systems theory provide a good framework for establishing a precise correspondence between organismic and societal functions.

The fact that complex organisms, like our own bodies, are built up from individual cells, led to the concept of superorganism. If cells aggregate to form a multicellular organism, then organisms might aggregate to form an organism of organisms: a superorganism.

Biologists agree that social insect colonies, such as ant nests or beehives, are best seen as such superorganisms. The activities of a single ant, bee or termite are meaningless unless they are understood in function of the survival of the colony.

Individual humans may seem similar to the cells of a social superorganism, but they are still much more independent than ants or cells. This is especially clear if we look at the remaining competition, conflicts and misunderstandings between individuals and groups. Thus human society is still an ambivalent system, balancing between individual selfishness and collective responsibility. In that sense it may be more similar to organisms like slime molds or sponges, whose cells can live individually as well as collectively, than to true multicellular organisms.

However, there seems to be a continuing trend towards global integration. As technological and social systems develop into a more closely knit tissue of interactions, transcending the old boundaries between countries and cultures, the social superorganism seems to turn from a metaphor into a reality. Although many people tend to see the super-organism philosophy as a totalitarian or collectivist ideology, the opposite is true: further integration will basically increase individual freedom and diversity.

Most recently, the technological revolution has produced a global communication network, which can be seen as a nervous system for this planetary being. As the computer network becomes more intelligent it starts to look more like a global brain or super-brain, with capabilities far surpassing those of individual people. This is part of an evolutionary transition to a higher level of complexity.

A remaining question is whether this transition will lead to the integration of the whole of humanity, producing a human "super-being", or merely enhance the capabilities of individuals, thus producing a multitude of "meta-beings".

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