Chorost continues to broaden his search into the outer reaches of hive-mind theory, and hits on something I’d never thought about before. “But when you put humans together with the internet, like with Google, you do start to see the beginnings of hive-mind-like behaviour. So, you have Google, which is this incredibly powerful tool for getting answers to questions. You do a search for something, the answer pops right up on a different website.
“But that’s not because the computer’s smart – that’s because Google invented clever algorithms for aggregating human decisions on what’s important, and basically collecting human words on what’s important, and giving the results of those words to people.” The conversation then takes a turn towards SEO. “Google is almost a little bit like a hive mind that, has collected all of these individual decisions, and giving you very powerful abilities to search for information.”
This idea of the hive-mind reminds me of the way in which Twitter and the blogosphere acted almost like a single consciousness during the civil unrest in Egypt recently. By making use of the internet, they turned it into a tool that organised demonstrations against a political figurehead they felt was unsympathetic to their needs, and even their rights. But when the unthinkable happened – when the Egyptian government forced national ISPs to cut off net access across the country – the global online community acted like they’d lost a limb.
It’s not my chance to ask him about the “cyborg” stuff. I’m a huge fan of science fiction, and I think one of the best things about it is watching a highly technological society progress and slowly begin to realise some of the dreams of older writers as their ideas are transformed from the possible into the probable. I found a definition of cyborg that stated it is “one whose physical capabilities are extended beyond normal human limitations”. But is that what he would want? To have superhuman hearing? Or simply normal?
“I don’t really use the word ‘cyborg’ anymore,” he starts, and I feel a tad foolish. However, he expands on the distance he’s moved from that particular term. “I did use it back in 2005, and I did it partly just to answer the question of ‘what is happening to me? What’s happening to my body?’ It was almost like going through adolescence all over again. But calling myself a cyborg just doesn’t really help me do anything, in terms of writing. I think I used the word maybe once in World Wide Mind.
“As for the idea of physical enhancement, being able to hear in superhuman ways – well me personally, I’d be happy just to be able to hear as well as you hear, which is normally. And cochlear technology’s nowhere near close to that stage. So the whole idea of physical enhancement is really just kind of off the map, it’s just not possible to build technologies that actually improve what the body does. All you can really do is fix broken parts of the body, and kind of incompletely, at that.”
Although that means my sci-fi theory is out the window, Michael contends that although we might not be able to do things better, we can certainly enable ourselves, through the use of technology, to do them differently, to do something that hasn’t been possible for us before, biologically. The film title Planes, Trains and Automobiles immediately springs to mind. We chat about the word “cyborg” some more, and he posits that the word itself has become dated, and I agree. Before we part ways, talk turns once more to World Wide Mind.
“Like I said before,” he says, “World Wide Mind – it is a thought experiment. It’s not a prediction. It’s not even a claim that brain-reading technologies are a good thing. What I’m really trying to do is make it possible to talk about technology in a new way. To ask what would happen if there was technology that let us feel what other people were feeling, as opposed to simply knowing what each other is typing, and looking at.
“I think that’s a far more important question because I think today’s technologies tend to reduce empathy. There are actually a lot of studies about how people get into flame wars online because you lose that understanding when you’re not dealing with a real person, and people tend to get very depersonalised online. and that’s really my central concern.” His concerns definitely touch upon a lot of mine – that our methods of communication are rapidly distancing us from the familiarity we should have with other people, in person.
“That is the key message of this book. Not just using technology to make us into the Borg, but using it to help us become bigger people, and to realise that technology online is not going to be enough to do that.”