from 3rd Edition of The Global Brain
Twenty-five years ago, when this book was first published, the information revolution had hardly begun. There were no personal computers, cell phones, pagers, CDs, DVDs, or digital cameras, let alone a Worldwide Web. Few of us at that time foresaw where the dawning digital technology would take us; even science fiction writers were wide of the mark. Some did tell of a world run by powerful computers; but these were computers that filled buildings, not ones that could slip into your pocket.
My own interest in computers goes back to my schooldays. In my teens, I built very simple logic circuits out of wires and relays. On leaving school, my first job involved working on an 8K machine that filled a room, and took half-an-hour to boot up. Then, in 1970, whilst studying for a post-graduate degree in computer science at Cambridge, I witnessed the early days of computer networking. We had one of the largest computers in the country, aptly named Titan, which took up an entire floor of the computer lab. A 3-inch thick cable led from Titan, down through a hole in the floor, to a PDP-7 below, one of the first computers to boast a visual display. Sitting there, sending commands from one computer to another, I realized that computer networks were going to play a significant role in the future, yet still I had little conception of where it would all lead.
The birth of the Internet proper came in 1983 (the year after the first edition of this book was published), with the creation of a network linking major US universities. Back then, however, most of us still saw the Internet's future in terms of data transfer. Today we live in a very different world; email, search engines, video streaming, interactive maps, telecommuting, video chat, multiplayer games, on-line mega-stores, virtual worlds and increasingly inventive software, are transforming the way we live, work and play. The global brain, which I predicted in the first edition, has today become a reality.
If there is one lesson to be learnt from this rapid change, it is that we have no idea of what new developments will arise over the next twenty-five years. Or rather, we may have ideas, but they will almost certainly be as wide of the mark as science fiction writers were in the sixties and seventies. Moreover, as we are all only too well aware, the pace of change is continually accelerating, and we will probably witness as much change in the next ten years as in the previous twenty, or more. So it would be foolhardy to predict where we will be even ten years hence. The one thing we can say for sure is that there will be a sustained exponential growth in processing speed, memory, network complexity, and bandwidth—knitting us ever more tightly into a single global organism.
This book is about more than just the global networking of computers. Several other lines of thought were key to the bigger picture of humanity's future emerging in my mind.
In 1975, an article in New Scientist caught my eye. In it, the British research chemist, James Lovelock suggested that the biosphere of planet Earth might be functioning as a single self-regulating system, maintaining the optimum conditions for the continued evolution of life. Four years later, he published his seminal book, The Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, which instantly attracted both the heart of the nascent environmental movement and the ire of the scientific establishment. At that time, Lovelock called it the Gaia Hypothesis, but over the years, with more research, several international conferences devoted to the subject, and a growing number of scientists lending support, the proposal has become accepted to the point that it is now referred to as Gaia Theory, and more neutrally as "earth system science". Today Gaia is almost a household a word. It has fueled the environmental movement, has been incorporated into the names of foundations, businesses, rock bands, health foods, cosmetics, and fictional characters, and found its own natural logo—a picture of our planet taken from space.
When I first came across Lovelock's idea, I began to wonder what humanity was contributing to Gaia. Most of the planet's ecological systems have been around for hundreds of millions of years; homo sapiens is a very recent addition. What is our function, if any, in this super-organism?
Our forte, as compared to other species, is in communication and the processing of information. Given my existing fascination with computer networking, it was an obvious step to see humanity as a planetary nervous system. For me, at least, the term "global brain" was here to stay.
The Evolution of Consciousness
During the same period, I had come across the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French priest and paleontologist, living in the early twentieth century. He viewed evolution from a broader perspective, seeing it not only as the evolution of increasingly complex living forms, but also as the evolution of consciousness. Moreover, he saw an end-point to this evolution—the collective spiritual awakening of the humanity (which he called an "Omega Point"), thousands of years in the future. However, he did not taken into account the implications of ever-accelerating change. In his later years, he commented on the impact of radio and television in bringing humanity together. Technologies like these, he said, were bringing the Omega Point much closer. Just before he died, the first computers were coming on the scene. Perceiving the potential of this new technology, he predicted that they too would bring the Omega Point even closer. If he had lived to see the emergence of the Internet, he would probably have realized that the complex interconnectivity that would provide the basis for the Omega Point could come very soon indeed.
After studying Teilhard de Chardin, the interlinking of humanity took on a significance that was not just confined to the practical value of being able to access any information, from anywhere, in any form, or even the significance this had for Gaia. Over and above these aspects, there was a much grander evolutionary perspective, and one that brought consciousness into the picture. Could Teilhard de Chardin's Omega Point represent the emergence of a fully conscious global mind. Was the global brain laying the ground for an awakening earth?
As the book neared completion, I saw that its central theme was our collective awakening. By this time, I had contracts with publishers in both the USA and Great Britain. My British publisher, Routledge and Kegan Paul, liked my final title The Awakening Earth. In the USA, however, Tarcher had test marketed The Global Brain and, feeling that was much more saleable, wanted to stay with that. That is why the book initially appeared with two titles. With this edition, we hope to eliminate any possible confusions by integrating both titles.
A Crisis of Consciousness
Our burgeoning interconnectivity has brought home the fact that we are one people, living on one planet, with one common destiny. We are becoming increasingly aware that humanity's actions are now threatening the continued well-being of Gaia. If we continue acting in our own short-term interests rather then the long-term interests of the system as a whole, we may very soon become extinct.
In the early seventies, some people began voicing their concern about the damage we were causing to the environment, and the potential disasters that lay ahead. In those days, such people were often dismissed as "unduly alarmist", or simply ignored. Today there is hardly anyone who is not aware of the tragedies that could befall us if we do not resolve these environmental issues.
Thankfully, the nations of the world did come together to avert one potentially catastrophic disaster—the destruction of the ozone layer. In this case, avoiding disaster meant replacing the CFCs in aerosol cans, refrigerators and air-conditioners with more benign gases. And we made the transition with little social disruption. Most of us hardly noticed the change.
Today we are aware of an equally serious danger: climate change. Hardly a month goes by without a panel of scientists warning of the dire consequences of continued global warming. Yet weaning ourselves off fossil fuels is a going to be a far more difficult task than ending CFC production. How many would be willing to give up their cars, pay much more for their household energy, and forego many of our comforts and luxuries? Nor are governments showing much eagerness to implement the kind of controls on carbon emissions that might possibly avoid catastrophe. We know what we need to do, but it seems we lack the will to do it.
It is becoming increasingly clear that, if we are to change our behaviour, we first need to change our thinking. The most important fight at this crucial stage in our evolution is not the fight against poverty, the fight against deforestation, the fight against pollution, or the fight against corrupt governments. Each of these issues is very important, and it is essential that we persist in resolving them, but this will not occur until we resolve the struggle between our self-centered attitudes and the inner knowing that there is more to life than gratifying our material desires.
At a joint meeting of the US Senate and Congress in February 1990, Vaclav Havel, past president of the Czech Republic, said that twenty-one years of suppression had given him one certainty:
Consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim. For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness, and in human responsibility.
He concluded by stating,
Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe towards which this world is headed—the ecological, social demographic or general breakdown of civilization—will be unavoidable.
That is also a topic of this book—not just why this revolution is essential, but how we can bring it about. The basic wisdom already exists. It is there in the spiritual traditions of all cultures; it has been articulated by the saints and wise people of all times; and it is there inside every one of us. It is the truth we each know deep within. The question is how do we tap this wisdom? Can we live it, rather than just talking about it? Can it permeate our minds and hearts enabling us to put this wisdom into practice?
An Optimistic Outlook?
Over the years many people commented on how refreshing they find my "optimism". This is surprising to me. I do not consider myself an optimist in the sense that I believe everything will work out fine. Nor am I a pessimist. I do believe that we are passing through the most challenging and dangerous times that humanity has ever experienced. Indeed, these may well be the most challenging times the planet herself has ever experienced. And the outcome is far from certain. If humanity does not wise-up rapidly, then it seems very likely that this current phase of human civilization will come to a sad and perhaps painful end.
There are those who believe it is already too late, that we may have already caused irreversible damage to the environment, and it is only a matter of time before we suffer the tragic consequences. Some argue that the inertia of political systems is so great that, even if it were possible to avert disaster, the appropriate changes will not be made in time.
While there clearly are grounds for such pessimism, we should not forget that unexpected events or discoveries can change everything. We have entered the age not of prophecy and prediction, but of the unexpected. Ahead of us may lie many unexpected political changes, economic changes, disasters, changes in climate, changes in thinking, changes of heart among our leaders—and possibly changes so unexpected that we cannot even imagine what they might be. Moreover, as the pace of change continues to increase, the unexpected will come upon us faster and faster.
There are no plans we can make to deal with the unexpected. But we can prepare ourselves. We can develop greater stability within so that the unexpected does not provoke fear or destabilize us; and we can foster a greater inner flexibility so we can respond to changes with presence of mind rather than repeating the patterns of the past.
Then, as we gain a greater inner stability and equanimity in this changeful world, we may find the courage to express our deeper values and use our technology to create the world of our dreams. Perhaps then the global brain can awaken to its global heart.