Monday, March 28, 2011

The Individual versus the Collective After First Contact

We humans grow closer by the minute thanks to technology. The ability to tweet a message in Egypt and read it instantly in Detroit may be routine, but it can be seen as the development of humans from the individual to the collective. The question to ponder: are we part of an inevitable move toward a collective consciousness? What might that mean for First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization?

Let’s start with the technology. The trend of interconnectedness between humans took off with the invention of the printing press, continued with the invention of the telegraph and telephone, moved forward with the formation of the mass media and has blossomed with the development of the Internet. What does all this mean for humans? Adam Gopnik has an interesting take on the matter in a recent New Yorker magazine review of books. The article focuses on the Internet as part of a larger cultural shift. Gopnik points to recent works by Andy Clark, “Supersizing the Mind”, and Robert K. Logan “The Sixth Language.” Their claim is that our technology is not only changing the way we think, but is rapidly becoming part of how we think. One of the more provocative lines by Gopnik:

“…the Internet produces the global psyche: everyone keyed in like a neuron, so that to the eyes of a watching Martian we are really part of a single planetary brain.”

The idea of a single planetary brain is a believable concept given the rise of smart phones. We are joined into the global information network by a device in our pocket. As smart phones decrease in cost and increase in number it seems likely they will become the norm. Great numbers of us will be joined together pocket to pocket. At what point do we decide that the clumsy little boxes get in the way, and we seek out brain interfaces for smart devices in our head?

Michael Chorost understands the concept perhaps better than most. He already has a chip installed in his head: the engine that runs his cochlear hearing implant. It’s a personal perspective on the larger issue of collective consciousness that is the topic of his new book “World Wide Mind.”
“If human minds could work directly with the Internet, two grand unifications would happen at once,” Chorost said. “First, humans would become more closely connected with each other…we would have entirely new ways to sense each other’s presence, moods and needs. A person with a suitably wired brain could be aware of other people as if they were part of her own body, the same way she knows where her own fingers are. Second, humanity and its tool, the Internet, would become a single organism with entirely new powers. Not just a mere hybrid, but a new species in its own right.”

What Chorost proposes is a profound change in humanity and perhaps one that could help us understand an extraterrestrial civilization. It is, of course, dependent on the nature of extraterrestrials, if they exist at all. Is collectivism a natural part of the development of intelligent beings? Would an extraterrestrial society, many years advanced from us in technology, be more collective and less driven by the individual?

It’s an important question, because it could determine how the relationship between an extraterrestrial civilization and humans would progress. If they are very different from us, perhaps not recognizing the individual at all, it may be tough for us to relate to them.

That essential difference could produce fear here on Earth and create a bitter debate. We are currently a society that celebrates the individual, while forming the collective frameworks necessary to survive and grow. There is already a growing battle between the individual and the collective that can be witnessed in U.S. politics. One could argue that democrat and republican differences come down to a question of the self versus the collective. Conservatives want less government and more individual control. Liberals want stronger government and a collective benefit. I know this is an extremely simplistic view of the much larger political debate, but it does hold some indication of how the future might go After First Contact. If an extraterrestrial civilization was collective in nature there could be significant dissent from human individualists. It might even impact the nature of our relationship with such a civilization. The individualists would argue that interaction with alien collectivists could turn humans into bee-hive like creatures, and thus away from our very humanity. It seems likely that no matter what the differences between us and them, those differences are likely to be of great concern to many on the planet, and perhaps rightfully so. Preserving who we are as humans would be of considerable importance After First Contact, especially if our new friends are much more technologically and socially advanced. The pressure to follow in alien footsteps and take on their characteristics could be immense.

Much of human development is currently driven by individual acts of genius and then a corresponding response within the framework of society. Facebook was created by one bright guy in a Harvard dorm room. But Facebook grows today thanks to the thousands of Facebook employees working together.  Facebook became what it is because of the millions of relationships that join human beings together: family, friends, co-workers and hobbyists. Are we prepared to give up that individual, spark producing, genius? Could the movement toward a collective consciousness actually impede our development? Perhaps there is a natural progression of individual led achievement building to a more collective model, with increasing technology and the rise of artificial intelligence?

What we are becoming here on Earth could be of great interest to the visiting extraterrestrial. Are we developing the types of tools that will allow us to better understand who they are, and our place in the wider universe? Our fragile state of affairs, both socially and politically, might also be of interest. Are we really ready to cope with the impact of First Contact and the question of what we might become After First Contact?

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