In the dampened wake of the Holidays, I found myself once again drifting aimlessly into my own mind, an activity that almost inevitably leads to a blog entry or at least mild insomnia. In this case the former; in particular, I became absorbed with the concept of a Collective “hive” mind, and how it might affect a species such as humans.
The common portrayal of such a paradigm is never positive, exemplified most vividly with the Star Trek The Next Generation antagonists: the Borg.
The Brog are a cybernetic species that specialized in the indiscriminate assimilation of foreign biology and technology. The Borg are also pivotally characterized by a collective mind… the members of the Borg are merely drones without any personal awareness or sense of individuality. Indeed the horror of assimilation, and the compulsive replacement of your individuality with the collective, are recurring themes in Star Trek, as well as other scifi stories that touch the concept.
I take issue with several of these portrayals, and ultimately assume the unpopular perspective that a collective mind would be a huge opportunity and sign of maturity for humanity. It would also represent a fundamental paradigm shift of unprecedented proportions to the “human experience”.
Nodes in the Network
The key to keep in mind is that joining a “collective” does not alter the way individual brains process, it simple interconnects the brain with others. What a connection to a collective is supposed to entail is an instant and unfiltered exchange of all thoughts and experiences between all members of the hive. Each human connected (or node) remains an individual processing center, meaning they continue to have their own consciousness and their own interface with experiences. The difference is that after the instant of initial experience, the event becomes public and known to all, and free for everyone to individually react to.
This is where the idea of losing one’s self enters the picture. Of course it is a matter of speculation, but I don’t subscribe to this model. It seems reasonable that people in a collective might arrive at interpretations or beliefs that they would not have held individually. From this deviation, we might deduce that the node is no longer an individual as it was unable to hold its own opinion. In other words, it may seem the individual’s opinion was forcibly overwritten by the collective. To the contrary, however, I would expect this sort of deviation. The change in a node’s “personal” opinion is not because the individual is unable to hold their own thoughts, but because their own thoughts mingle with every other person’s thoughts and a massive averaging takes place whereby every node individually aggregates the diversity of opinions and knowledge and arrives inexorably at the same conclusion. The key to remember is that the nodes share everything, so any differences of perspective or personality of individual nodes are subjected to every opposing opinion and perspective, allowing each node to personally agree with the “collective” personality and perspective.
This difference may seem subtle, but I insist it is not. Consider the elements that prevent people from agreeing on fundamental principals — take for instance an Evangelist and an Atheist. These two groups have entirely incompatible world views, and no amount of arguing could ever get them to agree. If they were connected to a collective, however, they would suddenly be able to exchange feeling associated with experiences, inherent instincts that cannot be explained, and they would be exposed to each other’s actual belief. As stated, they cannot have both beliefs, points would come into conflict and all internal reasoning would be shared and inclusive.
With the extra information and understanding, they would each likely arrive at some middle ground based on the various points one group or the other was unable or unwilling to internalize previously — In essence they are each so well informed and have such common experiences (personal or learned) that they nearly inevitable arrive at similar conclusions. The end result is that their opinions may have changed, but not because they had to… only because each individual grew beyond their original perspective and actually choose to agree with the collective. If disconnected from the collective, I would expect each individual to truly continue to believe whatever middle ground that had previously discovered
The ability to exchange information on the level of our “inner voice” opens up the door to this idea of true knowledge averaging. When we all have the same pieces and the same feedback on the best and worst way to use those pieces, then our interpretation of information is likely to average out to the “most-globally-reasonable” interpretation. This is not a loss by any means, it is a huge gain. It enables the enhancement of human understanding and influence to extravagantly unthinkable levels. It also does not require us to lose anything that we value in our current method of individual contributions, those contributions simple become lower level. For instance, an individual whose perspective is very innovative and new can still redirects the whole collective. But in a collective mind, that innovation can be leveraged to a greater capacity because as soon as it is discovered by a single node, it becomes available to all nodes to leverage.
Because the processing of information is still within the brain of the nodes, it makes sense that certain nodes would have certain values — some more likely to innovate and some more likely to make abstract connections, much like in our world. Again with the key difference that all nodes instantly understand how and why that innovation was realized, and can hopefully simulate the thought process.
This dispersal also allows humans to optimize themselves in ways previously unimaginable. Technology as is stands now — wikipedia, social networking, televised entertainment, music — none of it would be required anymore when culture and enrichment is available on demand. We would not lose these facets of our culture, we would simply be able to experience them without the technology middleman. I imagin a collective culture relying very little on technology or surroundings for happiness or entertainment.
Portability of Consciousness
I will close with a curious afterthought on this subject. If the individual consciousnesses in a collective were so interconnected that they could actually distribute their existence over multiple brains, a very sci-fi opportunity appears. Up until now, I describe a node as its own person who is fully connected to each other person. In many ways, this allows the group to control the group, because every decision (where to walk, what to say) is influenced and planned by the whole collective. However to execute the actual action, the host of that particular body must agree with the collective, and their brain must control their body. In this new sense of shared consciousness, individuals could actually move their consciousness between particular nodes, or even share control of nodes living primarily in the cloud. For physical tasks, a strong body might be occupied by an individual, and then for solving a problem, a node better suited to mental work might be occupied. In addition, several individuals might share control of multiple nodes at once.
This kind of collective allows humans to break the 1:1 connection that exists between a body and a mind — in fact it opens up the ability for n:m where n minds control m bodies, and n >= m. Now if a body is lost, it does not necessarily pull its host out of the collective — the host may exists redundantly across the network. Now any consciousness can actually control any body, a subtle difference from before where only one could control a body, even through its decision to do so was largely the decision of the collective.
Enlisting in the Borg
The technology to achieve the kind of interconnectivity a collective requires is no where near the horizon, and may be permanently delegated to the Sci-Fi realm. If it does every make it to reality, however, I think we stand to benefit greatly from its potential. The changes it represents to our way of life are so small compared to the amazing opportunity for peace, advancement, and growth as a species. If it ever comes to be, I envision plugging in will be a major point of contention, but inevitably everyone would seek its refuge and comfort, and be much happier they had done so.