Collective Consciousness

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There is one sense in which people conceive of the noosphere as a futuristic planetary-scale entity of some sort—a fully functional superorganism with a global brain and collective consciousness, brought into being as the Internet evolves into an increasingly powerful and capable interconnecting force.

In another sense, however, we live in the noosphere now—though perhaps not fully functional as a global superorganism at this point. In that sense, the noosphere has been evolving for hundreds of thousands of years. It began to form — albeit at much smaller local scales — when humans first used symbolic language to communicate, and reflect on their place in the universe using symbolic thought. Whereas life’s evolution up until that point had been biologically-based — mediated through information networks of genes — human evolution became noospherically-based, mediated through cultural information networks instead.

Though she might not state it in exactly those terms, Marta Lenartowicz seems to favor the second sense. She is studying the evolution of the global brain and collective consciousness as a member of the team at the Center Leo Apostel (CLEA) for transdisciplinary studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Free University of Brussels), led by Francis Heylighen.

CLEA is part of an international effort initiated, funded, and directed by Human Energy to provide a scientific foundation for a theory of the noosphere. Their research builds on the related concepts of the Global Brain and the distributed intelligence of the Internet. In addition, CLEA is working with HEP to develop an integrated, meaningful, science-based worldview called the Third Story.

Those first human groups, known as hunter-gatherers, became small-scale noospheric superorganisms in their own right. They used language to coordinate and regulate their activities. They evolved ever-more sophisticated technology and developed survival strategies that enabled them to adapt to virtually every environment on the earth. By the time the last ice age came to an end, humans had become a planetary species, and the stage was set for the next phase of the noosphere’s growth.

The noosphere’s evolution involved the scale of human groups as well as the nature of the information networks that connected humans and technologies of all sorts. Information networks took a giant leap with written language, first on clay tablets, then handwriting on paper, and much more recently the printing press. With each new information technology, the shared knowledge contained in the collective consciousness of the Noosphere grew, and the rate of its growth accelerated.

The next great leap in technology-assisted collective consciousness was ushered in with the telegraph, less than 150 years ago. Information that had theretofore taken months to disseminate across the planet was transmitted in minutes instead. As we know well, information technology progressed rapidly from that point to the Internet we use today, along with social media, video conferencing, and access to the accumulated information contained in the noosphere literally at our fingertips.

Those two senses of the noosphere may seem at odds with each other. In the first sense we expect a human superorganism functionally organized at a planetary scale. Needless to say, we’re not there. If we were, solving problems like pandemics and climate change — or armed conflict between nations — might not seem quite as daunting.

In the second sense we accept that the noosphere is a work-in-progress. The size and complexity of noospheric superorganisms has increased across the long sweep of human history, reducing conflict and enhancing cooperation at ever larger scales—from hunter-gatherer groups, to villages, to cities, to nation-states, to our nascent global society today.

In this conversation, Marta discusses these different perspectives with Science of the Noosphere’s David Sloan Wilson.

Marta Lenartowicz Transcript