Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Emergence of a social conscious

Human society is a unique phenomenon on earth. While the other species of animals also have been observed to be living on fairly well connected groups, what I am referring to is the global human society. It is so ubiquitous that we almost take it for granted. The lives of our ancestors when they lived in a group, in a small geographical locality without much of either knowledge or aspiration of anything that lay beyond it, is according to me on a social evolution scale fairly similar to those of the animals. The uniqueness I am referring to emerged on the scene when human beings started to interact with other groups of their species beyond their own locale. The only criteria I consider important here is that of causal connection of events in the lives of either group pre and post advent of such interaction. Before men started interacting to remotely located groups, it is unlikely to have their lives being affected by each other. Obviously they would be affected by common causes such as flood and rain etc. What won’t matter is say a skirmish in one quarter and some discovery of a medicine in another. In that sense alone their groups are not significantly different from those of animals.

However, when they could interact, things must have become somewhat more complicated. On one hand, there could be trade and cooperation, on the other, loot and conquest. For better or worse, people’s lives after starting to interact with other groups of people must have changed, more and more with time. Eventually, today we stand in a world where the causality of events in our lives has become so complicated that chaos theory alone (along the lines of how it models the immensely complex atmosphere of earth) can aspire to depict it remotely! There are obvious causal connections in a top down sense. Simply put, the powerful people affect the lives of all the residents of this planet irrespective of the nationality of the powerful person or of the potential “affectee.” What I wish to point out however is somewhat beyond that as well. Today, we are slowly evolving into a world where the even the “powerful” are increasingly looking like what can very aptly be described as “puppets.”

I am not talking about anything supernatural, all powerful, omnipotent holding these puppets. The puppet drivers are our collective selves. Through a high level of connectivity, we have given almost a sort of distinct identity to the totality that we are. While this may sound a nice example of democracy at work, I am referring to things more than politico-economic control. Over a period of several centuries, we have not evolved into a society where paradoxically while in a philosophical manner we endorse individual freedom, at a social level we are becoming more and more interdependent. It is entirely beyond doubt that the menial and survival related “low-end” activities are now standardized and distributed across the society and each one of us has more time to him/herself than ever before. While this is true, this interdependence has also resulted in an ever increasing level of complexity in our social organization. What is even more interesting to notice is that this complexity further fuels the interdependence and it is precisely musing about the general direction this trend it likely to take in near future that this essay talks about.

Let us use an analogy. Human body has several million/billions of cells. Each cell has some function to perform. It lives a certain life much shorter than that of the human body. It interacts at times with cells which do the same things that it does, at times with cells which do different things that its own. They are arranged in groups called tissues which in turn are organized into groups called organs and in turn organ systems. The human society can be likened to an organism. Human being therein serve as cells. There is no point either expounding the obvious similarity or in stretching the analogy to claim that that particular aspect is uncommon across the two. There is something beyond that which I want to bring attention to. Just as a conscious human being is not quite aware of the individual cells and their work, the cells need not be “aware” of the consciousness either. Human beings likewise, can go about their daily chores while still being unware of a social conscious. And if we were to draw the analogy further, somehow “awareness” as we know it, does not seem to be something a cell can possibly have on account of its lack of central nervous system, there are inabilities in individual human being which make them incapable of understanding the existence of the social consciousness.

Now the crucial part. The “social conscious” as I am depicting here is not only a simile or analogy. It is a speculation on the evolution of human society. We can either leave the analogy at the level of calling it an interesting and informative tool to understand the complexity of society as an organism or take it to the next level and question if over time a truly conscious society will play a role in its evolution.

At this point I would like to end the analogy and take the concept forward standalone. The evolution is not like what human beings evolve as through natural selection and mutations etc. Nor are their any other instances of this species if existent. Coming back to the central theme of evolution here onwards, what difference does it make if the social conscious does exist? Depending on the answer to that, the relevance of the whole concept can be judged.

Two potential paths human society can take in future are one those of increased prosperity in general and two that of overall/near complete destruction. In the former we can eventually sort out differences, eradicate poverty as defined today; device ways to make things significantly better for a diminishing human population with increasing mechanization. In the latter, the differences can overpower the similarities and weapons used against each other can wipe out all but a few here and there. Can the social self have some influence over which one will prevail? Please do note that I am not contesting possibility of there being another million of scenarios for the future. The point is whether the social self matters in the choice of which one to move towards.

The reason for asking this is driven partially by the inability to locate the actors in today’s world. People who can be pointed to as causes are either merely symbols or at best “switches.” Behind the apparently personal act of great significance are hidden forces which shaped and sized the mind of the actor. Overall, the interdependent society affects its members so much that no one person can ever aspire to transcend it. The whole is so much larger than the sum of its parts that the idea of the whole having its own consciousness looks plausible. It is on this basis that I am thinking of the further evolution.

So far, the individuals did seem to be “doing” things. The information flow was weak and slow. The desire as well as ability to affect people beyond a very limited range was quite low despite the quite evolved communication and trade links. After imperialism, the connectedness and consequently interdependence increased significantly. Twentieth century was characterized by emergence of information age. In twenty first century we are going to see how this is also going to be one more factor in the growth of the social conscious. More about it later. Coming back to the temporal growth of this social conscious, like an infant it merely observed the events shaping itself. If it is existent, it did not interfere much. It is only now that the social self is coming of age. Why?

First factor is that of information – content and speed. Speedy diffusion of Knowledge enables creation of meta systems abstracted from individuals. Secondly, the collective memory of human race now has much to its credit including science, technology, medicine, arts etc. This is also a system of abstracting the content from the subject. While it was intended to make knowledge available to all, it also served as a reservoir independent of any actor. Thirdly, improving standards of living are leading to more leisure for even the common man.

Taken in isolation the factors do not sound as effective. Put them together to see their combined effect. As against the past, now we have lot of people having a good deal of free time and good amount of bequeathed knowledge of universe around them and also being able to communicate with each other across the globe in real time at low costs. What does that lead to? It leads to enhancement of collective thinking, alignment of ideas and building on each others’ thoughts in real time. Taken to its logical extreme, this is what I think will lead to the eventual coming of age of the social self.

What can we speculate about this self assuming it exists? It will not have the same set up as ours. Will it try to survive? Will it try to be “happy”? Will it try to enslave its components (that is us)?

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