Have you ever heard of the Global Brain? It is a hopeful and inspiring idea. At its heart is the intriguing suggestion that humanity is birthing a global consciousness – and that the internet with all its digital connections is making it happen.
The actual phrase Global Brain was first coined by Peter Russell in 1982 and his ideas built on those of the French mystic Teilhard de Chardin who wrote:
A world network of economic and psychic affiliations is being woven at ever increasing speed – a harmonized collectivity of consciousness, the equivalent of a sort of super-consciousness. The idea is that of the earth becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope, so as to form, functionally, no more than a single vast grain of thought on the cosmic scale…
We can see this vision as part of a long historical process. Several thousand years ago individuals and tribes were confined to small geographical areas, hardly aware of the existence of other peoples. Fast forward to today: a planetary village with mass media events shared by the global population. How many people watch the soccer World Cup? From palaces to shanty-town sheds.
Humanity has developed a global network of communications. From another perspective this can be interpreted as humanity developing into a single organism.
One nicely weird suggestion is that when the world’s population reaches 10 billion people it will then equal the 10 billion synapses in the human brain. This numerical correspondence will be the trigger for a quantum leap in consciousness and evolution.
Another intriguing supernatural idea is that the Internet is a mirror of the telepathic, etheric and psychic web that envelopes humanity and Earth. Sometimes, at least to me, it seems as if Google is behaving telepathically! It knows where I want to go and what I want to find out. Spooky.
Whatever you believe about all this, you cannot deny that the transformation in communications is spectacular.
We also need some good news.
Perhaps I should be more honest. I need some good news.
I am dismayed by the rise in social inequality and the unjust distribution of wealth. Celebrity culture, greed and environmental pollution also disturb me. Equally I am not happy about the way in which Google and Facebook, let alone the security services, are able to monitor and influence our digital behaviour.
But I am a glass half-full person.
And I trust Gaia, the spirit of our planet. You might find my attitude naive.
So while some people may moan about the stupidity, worthlessness and greed of humanity as a whole, I prefer to see humanity as an expression of Gaia. From this perspective, Gaia may know exactly what she is doing in producing such a huge human population on her surface.
The quadrupling of the planet’s population, and the explosions of the industrial and then technological revolutions – these were bound to create a crisis. All of this happened in only 200 years on a planet that is four and half billion years old.
This is information that deserves repeating. 200 years of sudden growth within a history of 4,500,000,000,000 years.
It was bound to be problematic. But look at humanity’s awareness. Yes there is greed and stupidity. There is also a high awareness of all the critical issues. In general, amongst policy-makers and educationists, there is no denial.
The last century has also seen miracles that can give us hope. The profound lowering of infant mortality. The ability to feed everyone. Universal literacy. The extension of life expectancy.
And then we have the digital world. The worldwide web. The global brain.
In rural India children and farmers sit under trees and use solar-powered computers connected to a world of education, information and support. Harvard professors talk to villagers, bypassing the industrial revolution and going straight into digital relationship.
If one of us moves to a great city like London, with all the possibilities for loneliness and alienation, through online social networks we can connect with our tribe and common interests and then meet in real life.
Twenty years ago in Glastonbury (population 9000) I helped set up a local internet messaging board. Today it has over 3200 members and there is a daily circulation of notices offering and asking for help. Community is supported. Strangers are connected.
Across the planet for minimal cost families communicate freely with loved ones.
All the world’s sacred texts are also freely available online.
All of this is a liberating information revolution that benefits everyone. In France access to the web is considered to be a basic human right and across the world societies are intent on bringing Web access to everyone.
Yes the web is filled with rubbish. Yes people’s privacy can be abused. But in my opinion it is good to look at and celebrate the miracle of global communications.
Right now if I were to recommend just one short book on how to understand and use the Internet it would be Social Media Explained by Mark Schaefer. It is short, clear and highly readable. It is written for working people who know they have to come to grips with social media. At its core is the often-asserted idea that the greatest benefit of the Internet is that it helps bring us back into personal relationships.
Schaefer points out that only two hundred years ago the major place for meeting, gossip, news and trade was the market place. It had the relationships and familiarity of a village. The processes of global industrialization however created a new social order in which the local market was lost. Everything became mediated through shops, marketing and advertising. We lost contact with each other.
But in our new digital world we once again trade and connect directly with each other. On Facebook and Twitter we can wave at people as if they were across the room. We can find other folk who share our interests and attitudes. On eBay we buy and sell, human to human.
The key to success in this world, says Mark Schaefer, is to be helpful and entertaining. In the old marketplaces and villages it was easy to discern if someone was a greedy or suspicious trader or neighbour because we watched and listened to them. The same rules apply in the twittersphere and social networks. The communications are personal and we take notice.
Another book that I recommend is The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt the founder of Google and Jared Cohen. They also take a creative and positive view. ‘Connectivity encourages and enables altruistic behaviour,’ they write. ‘The best thing anyone can do to improve the quality of life around the world is to drive connectivity and technological opportunity.’
This is all very important for us – and for the future.
We are living through a global revolution and it is of course necessary to be cautious.
But it is also necessary to build hope.
At my most hopeful the Global Brain is developing into a Global Heart.
So let us use this new global medium compassionately and mindfully for the benefit of all.
If you would like to read a more in-depth academic article on the Global Brain concept see this PDF: Francis Heylighen “Global Brain as a New Utopia” – pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/GB-Utopia.pdf