The Dawn of Cybernetic Civilization

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.

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10 thoughts on “The Dawn of Cybernetic Civilization

  1. Alex, in my view the electric car is evidence of the the problem, not evidence of the solution. Would 7 billion people driving electric cars really be sustainable? I respect peoples’ right to respond to these times as they wish, but more clever gizmos aren’t any kind of an answer, IMO. Perhaps we need to change our engineering-driven relationship with Mother Nature instead…

  2. There is something quite beautiful about being part of this new system. I have heard some arguments that we are all becoming addicted to the Internet, but that would be like being addicted to your sense of taste, touch, smell, hearing or conversation and written communication. They become apart of us. They extend our experience of the world around us. Internet addiction seems to be an overused term to 1. poorly canvas more specific disorders, and 2. hide behind while society deals with the cognitive dissonance of such a rapid and massive change.
    Great article.

  3. as you say yourself your idea is borrowed from concepts of the past ranging from the medieval microcosm/macrocosm-in-one conundrum to the idea of the planet and all its ınhabitants as single cell (the Gaia theory)elegantly expounded by E.W. Wilson in
    Lives of a Cell – you have simply transposed it to the cybernetic realm. But believe i feel very connected to the earth and its ecosystems without all that cybernetic baggage, having lived under the radar and off the grid for over 35yrs. – no credit cards no p.c. no cell phone and no regular job. İt can be done most pleasantly with some energy and stamina – i recommend it!
    a ’68 dinosaur

  4. Interesting. But that super-organism of your requires way more energy and materials to exist and to grow than planet Earth can provide and good ol’ Herbert Stein always has the last word in a situation like this.

    Also, I suspect that as soon as true cost of energy and food is passed to the end users we’ll see very fast shrinkage of the Internet traffic and services, disappearing data centres, etc. It is possible that in 50 years only military and super-wealthy will have computers and even they may not have the Internet at that point.

  5. @marita – isn’t it deliciously ironic that we’re having this chat on the internet? Even someone like you uses the auspices of the exoskeleton. We can work to reduce our connection with it, but can we ever break free? I don’t think so. Sometimes I think it’s a conceit even to try, but hey, that’s just me…

    @Leon – I fully expect the impact of climate change to put an end to human growth in less than 50 years. When I factor in the mutually amplifying effects of a couple of dozen other known planetary damages, I’m not willing to bet on anything past 30 years. IMO we are living in the final flowering of technological, cybernetic civilization. Smoke ’em if you got ’em…

  6. I think there is plenty we can do about the situation. The solution is cheap and inevitable. The community has crowd created connectivity (ie internet), information (ie world wide web), software (ie; open source software), community (ie social networks) … the crowd will also create collaboration, knowledge and wisdom. The community has been creating the foundation of the next stage of economic development for decades.

    The Information Age has ended in Centralised Stagnation. Productivity is declining or negative and debt is being used to maintain living standards. The Information Age is exhausted and further investment will not improve the situation. In this stage of economic development we needed to centralise decision making and structures because of the limitation of out technologies (primarily point to point communication).

    We are in a ‘trapped transition’ between ‘Centralised stagnation’ (Information Age) and ‘Distributed prosperity’ (Wisdom Networks). Wisdom Networks are an elective singularity and reshape the status quo using the peer to peer structure of the internet … escaping ‘centralised stagnation’ … and achieving ‘distributed prosperity’ by lifting community output from 18.2% to 55% of potential by restructuring human time and attention.

    We can take action now and bring about the next stage in 2-5 years, or we can wait another 16 years for evolution to take its course. I am optimistic. We are simply in a “trapped transition” between two economic development stages “Centralised stagnation” (Information Age) and “Distributed prosperity” (Wisdom Networks).

    The point to point communication of the Information Age centralised power and wealth. The peer to peer structure of Wisdom Networks (or the next stage of economic development) distributes power and wealth more evenly. We are in a “trapped transition” because the status quo either doesn’t see, or resists, the next stage of economic development.

    I delivered a presentation to the Comms Day Wholesale + DataCentre Summit on 17th July 2013. The topic of the presentation was “Let’s crowd create Australia 3.0 for $500k in 2 years … an elective singularity to advance to the next stage of economic development?”. The presentation, complementary article and supporting information are available online at is.gd/cd17jun13 . There are many Wisdom Networks presentations on various sectors including society, health, equity market … please have a look and let me know what you think.

  7. >Interesting. But that super-organism of your
    >requires way more energy and materials to exist
    >and to grow than planet Earth can provide

    While I will agree with anyone here that Ray Kurzweil is certifiably insane, I will admit that I also grow extremely weary of the usual level of pessimism about our ability to produce electricity, post-oil.

    Anyway, the truth is that the Singularity isn’t coming any time soon, kids; so we can stop either fearing or anticipating it, whichever the case may be. I still haven’t seen quantum computing outside of Area 51, and you can forget about strong (that is, human level or greater) artificial intelligence emerging on our current chip based architecture. It isn’t going to happen.

    The most you’re going to see for the next 20-30 years at least, is a gradual progression of teenagers walking around bearing a closer and closer resemblance to Borg drones; but even that will only come from incremental or iterative development of handheld or wearable tech that already exists right now.

    So stop worrying. The current economic powers that be are far too addicted to maintaining the 1950s style consumerist paradigm, to allow anything other than incremental gimmicks to develop; and by that I mean slightly cooler or more heavily feature-laden mobile phones, or maybe tablets.

    This is something which I think more permies perhaps need to try and understand; that the very same economic forces which prevent *us* from taking over the world, likewise work to keep Ray Kurzweil and the transhumanist funny farm in check, as well. ;)

  8. Hallo
    i have a ear chip implantat which work with electro magnetic rays.i hear that it is possible to deactivate the chip.i hear that it is possible to encrypte the chip and send a kill command to deactivate the chip.
    best regards
    Raheleh Mahjour

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