Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Global Panopticon and the Hive Mind

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes a specific type of prison in which the inmates can be observed at all times but do not know when they are being observed. Cells are internally lit with large windows or transparent walls and are arranged in a circle. In the centre of the circle of cells sits an observation tower which is not lit. This type of prison is called a "panopticon."

--> Privacy is a thing of the past. The newer generations, for the most part, seem to accept this, posting photos of themselves online in compromising positions and "tweeting" their every thought and movement. Privace watchdogs and rights groups are increasingly up in arms about the increasing discretion of federal authorities to monitor and control our online presence and about the misuse of private data by large corporations.

To see how far our privacy has been erroded, you only have to visit Google Earth. It will soon be possible to track our every movement using nothing but remote sensing satellites. As a remote sensing specialist, I am acutely aware of this. There are literally thousands of satellites sending terrabytes of information down to Earth, mapping the globe a thousand times over in a single day. I call this phenomenon, the "Global Panopticon."
Another thing I notice about today's young people (myself included, even though I'm not that young anymore), is that they seem to spend relatively little time living in the real world. Most of their living is done online. Walk into any bus and you will see many people staring into their cell phones, not looking out the window, not interacting with their fellow passengers. At some point, the internet becomes an extension of the brain. Suppose you're in a strange city and you get a sudden craving for coffee. Open up your smart phone and Google Maps can figure out where you are and where the nearest coffee house is in relation to you, printing off step-by-step directions.

Soon, even the intermediary in this procedure--the cell phone--will be unnecessary. The technology exists to do this directly from thought through a brain-computer interface. I estimate that it will be fully commercially viable in less than 40 years. I also predict that the vast majority of people will opt to have such a device implanted in their skulls. Make no mistake, there will be no coercion: people will be lining up for these things.

How does it work? Since the human brain operates primarily through electrical impulses sent along the neurons, all you need is an array of electrodes wired to a transceiver. A cross-wise incision is made in the gray-matter (perpendicular to the striations of the neurons) and then it is just a matter of training the brain to interpret the incoming signals and produce its own, outgoing signals which are picked up and decoded by the implant. This is the birth of the global consciousness, or, if we are more pessimistic, the hive mind.

If such a radical shift is going to take place in the nature of human consciousness, it seems we ought to prepare for it. Unfortunately, the young people, who, by-and-large, will lead the shift, strike me as anything but prepared. They will be acculturated in a way that will allow the shift to take place, but they will not be prepared.

Most multi-cellullar organisms are arranged in such a way that each cell is differentiated and performs a highly specialized function. The analogy of individual human beings as cells, however, may not be a fruitful or desirable one. I would suggest, rather, that we should strive to keep the same democratic ideals of freedom and equality that, at least nominally, exist today.

Suppose for the sake of argument we say that we need a "brain centre," a person or group to coordinate this great mass of bodies, a "ruling elite." I cannot think of a single person who would be qualified for the job.

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