The Neuroshere

Posted on 30 Μαΐου , 2006


Donald P. Dulchinos

«As if the commercial hype were not enough, the economic impact of the Internet pales beside the effect it is going to have on our social and personal lives as it becomes ubiquitous. The Internet will transform many of the essential things that make us human — communication, cooperation, thinking, and most of all, our search for meaning.» ~ Donald P. Dulchinos, Introduction to Neurosphere (Weiser Books, November 2005)

…In the midst of World War I, a Jesuit paleontologist named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin looked across a smoking Belgian battlefield and saw something more:
I think one could show that the front isn’t simply the firing line, the exposed area corroded by the conflict of nations, but the «front of the wave» carrying the world of man toward its new destiny. When you look at it during the night, lit up by flares, after a day of more than usual activity, you seem to feel that you’re at the final boundary between what has already been achieved and what is struggling to emerge.

Teilhard thereafter conceived his notion of a noosphere (what I call a neurosphere), a membrane of consciousness emerging from the biosphere, constituting a single complex thinking entity. This was the direction of evolution, the Omega Point of human history and the meaning of life. His vision was one in a long line of utopian visions of a united world. At the dawn of the 21st century, many theorists of the Internet believe that the World Wide Web is an actual manifestation of Teilhard’s vision.

Do the events of September 11 and beyond reflect the final refutation of such visions of progress and unity, or the first evidence that they have come to pass? I believe the answer is the latter, as revealed by a complex weave of war, technology, history and spirituality.

The war on terrorism as proclaimed by President Bush is the incipient form of conflict within a neurosphere, not across borders but within the skin of a single global entity. The war will not be confined to Afghanistan, or Iraq, or any small collection of countries. The Al Qaeda network is said to operate within more than 60 countries. It is a stunning fact that they operated most successfully in Florida, a state it will be hard for Mr. Bush to declare war upon. And it seems increasingly clear, after 5 years of war, that the supply of fresh recruits to the terrorist cause will continue to grow.

So how do you find and defeat this enemy within? On one front of the war, Richard Clarke, cyberspace security adviser to the President War, says «We must secure our cyberspace from a range of possible threats.» But how does one secure an asset whose value comes precisely, like airline travel, from its openness and ubiquity? An asset whose value, says Bob Metcalfe’s network effect, increases exponentially with the number of computers, of conscious nodes, connected to it?

At the November 2001 Comdex trade show, the Mecca of computer geeks, companies slammed together last minute marketing positioning showing software and hardware as solutions for law enforcement and terrorism prevention. One concept thought to be helpful is data mining — this is the technical approach at the core of Carnivore, the once paranoid fantasy but since confirmed government initiative to monitor all Internet traffic for signs of crime. The technique at the core of this is not much different from that employed by any search engine like Yahoo or Ask Jeeves or Google. What’s relevant to this essay is the idea that so much human activity these days is now represented in one form or another on the Internet, and therefore the mass of Web pages, chat rooms and email logs is a unified entity within which all information resides. An entity?

Perhaps the Web at most is only a metaphor of human activity, but it is searchable. All that is good or evil in the world, or subset of the world that it represents, can be «mined» from it. The Net underscores the interconnectedness that is here, and growing.

The Panopticon, the surveillance technology of the 21st century (yet coined in the 19th), is about to be unleashed without the niceties of protected civil liberties or the illusion of privacy. This will mean that someone could be watching you, but also that you will be watching everyone. For every knee-jerk libertarian encrypting his banal emails there is a webcam exhibitionist begging you to look and see. We can run but we can’t hide, and perhaps we shouldn’t try.

The march of technology is inexorable. It is in human nature. And for those who scoff and point to the majority of the world still without electricity, let alone Net access, I would point out the ability of the poorest desert nomad to get hold of Kalishnikov technology all too easily. And that is where history comes in…


Posted in: Politicsonline