Storage Soup

Nov 6 2008   1:41PM GMT

What if the cloud is really a brain?

Beth Pariseau Beth Pariseau Profile: Beth Pariseau


The idea that the human race has a global brain or a composite consciousness isn’t a new one. It’s at least as old as the Transcendentalist movements of the 1800’s, and the rise of computer technology has long sparked imagination about the possibilities for such universal connection made literal. The frequent recurrence of the idea among varying groups and individuals might even be considered evidence that such a superconsciousness exists. Creepy.

One of the most recent variations of this idea is currently making its way around the Internet, in the form of an essay by Kevin Kelly titled “Evidence of a Global Superorganism.” In it, Kelly draws on those concepts of collective consciousness, and postulates that the Internet/cloud is in itself a distributed, virtual, collective consciousness.

But more importantly, Kelly argues, the particular consciousness “emerging from the cloak of wires, radio waves, and electronic nodes wrapping the surface of our planet,” isn’t actually our own.

This megasupercomputer is the Cloud of all clouds, the largest possible inclusion of communicating chips. It is a vast machine of extraordinary dimensions. It is comprised of quadrillion chips, and consumes 5% of the planet’s electricity. It is not owned by any one corporation or nation (yet), nor is it really governed by humans at all. Several corporations run the larger sub clouds, and one of them, Google, dominates the user interface to the One Machine at the moment.

None of this is controversial. Seen from an abstract level there surely must be a very large collective virtual machine. But that is not what most people think of when they hear the term a “global superorganism.” That phrase suggests the sustained integrity of a living organism, or a defensible and defended boundary, or maybe a sense of self, or even conscious intelligence.

…It starts out forming a plain superorganism, than becomes autonomous, then smart, then conscious. The phases are soft, feathered, and blurred. My hunch is that the One Machine has advanced through levels I and II in the past decades and is presently entering level III.

This idea is familiar, and maybe a little bit frightening if you’ve read a lot of science fiction or seen The Matrix. Although a recent online survey found that people are less afraid of intelligent machines than “how humans might use the technology.”

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