Thinking Collectively


How We Think

One of the most important ways in which our brains encode information in the form of grown relationships between neurons is so-called “Hebbian” associative learning, commonly represented in the catch-phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together.”  More specifically, in an interaction between two neurons, if the downstream or “post-synaptic” neuron is predisposed to create a signal to other neurons at the same time as the upstream or “pre-synaptic” neuron is delivering to it a chemical signal, the connection between these two neurons is strengthened, or “long-term potentiated.”

That is, to this extent the brain is an associative computer:  It detects coincidences, and tends to act in the same way it did last time the same coincidence was detected.

And this basic logic scales to the whole brain/organism.  Associative theories of learning dominate the philosophy of thought and memory.

The process of making and strengthening connections between the switching elements of our brains, the neurons, is how we build physical circuits in our heads that (among other things) cause us to do again the things that we have done before.  Information coursing through these connections is what causes our behavior.

This is not the “Global Brain”

There exists in the world the concept of a “global brain,” meaning the sum of human knowledge and involvement in sharing economies and collaborative work on projects like Wikipedia; it is spoken of as the coalescence of our knowledge and goals and work forming a qualitatively different kind of collaboration than ever existed without internet-facilitated instantaneous communication.

This is a stupendous concept, and the global brain is revolutionizing societies.  But it’s not what I want to talk about; I want to look beneath the surface of it.

Where do We Begin?

The external mind hypothesis asks whether the mind ought to be confined to the body.  Philosophers of mind have assumed that the mind is the fully embodied seat of cognition and consciousness.  But, beginning with the pioneering essay, “The Extended Mind,” by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, some have argued that it is a kind of prejudice to suggest that cognitive resources be limited to what is contained in the skin.  To adopt this view, according to its advocates, one must also accept the “parity principle.”  Clark and Chalmers write, “If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process.” …  Only sheer prejudice would forbid us from externalizing cognition, so we have no reason to restrict cognition to that which is embodied.  Suggesting that the mind must be fully contained within the skin is to support what’s been called by Chalmers “brain chauvinism” — the mind is nothing other than the brain.

A review of  The Extended Mind by Richard Menary.

I want to argue that we think collectively, that we are part of a supra-organismal collective, that when we interact my cognition contains and is some of yours and vice versa.  You tell to me words that change my brain and thus trigger in me the recall of information relevant to what you said and which I utter, and you reciprocate.  That is conversation, of course, and it’s been going on since organisms with brains learned to communicate.

But I want to call your attention to the higher-level organization:  Neurons in your head are making neurons in my head do something, and the other way around.  Both of our brains are participating in a shared process with shared resources.  We are constitutive of a system that is conceptually larger than either of us — perhaps much so.

How We Think Collectively

I want to take seriously the view that human minds participating in a social network constitute nodes in a switching network that are highly analogous to the transistors on a printed circuit, and that they are joined by internet paths that are highly analogous to the connections between cells in an individual brain.

And they actually do work in that way, given how much of the traffic we share with each other is routed and prioritized.  If I Share memes on Facebook and you Like them, a routine in Facebook’s recommendation algorithm associates those actions, and adjusts the weight of a connection in a neural network (and other things) in such a way that it encodes information about our sharing and liking and makes it more likely that we will be presented with such content in the future.  It this way, the software is disposed to behave differently than before.

Meanwhile, more or less the same thing is going on in our heads: When you see memes, your brain adjusts the strengths of connections between neurons such that they associate information about them — including that you see them and how often  — at some expense to connections representing other concepts.  Through the brain’s associational learning method, this makes memes you see often come to be taken as more representative of the world than others, and this guides your behavior, because your brain now contain different or stronger paths for information to tread.

We have already seen how the content providers manipulate our feeds to reward certain behaviors like Liking and Sharing.  But I am speaking here of something that may happen innocently and organically, in the way the systems ostensibly are supposed to be working for us.

Thus, in recursive collaboration with our technology systems, we predispose each other to repeat or suppress certain behaviors in a way that is analogous to the associational learning of cells and networks:  If my friend Shares to me a meme and I share it to another who Likes it, not only is my brain altered to record the information that the meme is representative, but so is the very system that propagates it.  That system constituted by us in interaction and the technology by which we do it has associated two signals, and all of the relevant switching elements have been calibrated accordingly, cells, brains, networks.  This makes the whole system more likely to duplicate the behavior of sharing memes of the sort it now remembers to represent the world.

Higher Orders

Of course it has to be said that humans don’t share just bits, like transistors do, or just simple and primitive imagery or other base data.  We share whole memeplexes, fully elaborated concepts like democracy, religions, and the scientific method.  These are more complicated than the former simple elements of data, but nevertheless share the features of encoding and representing information and modifying our behavior.  When we take them on board, they definitely change the weights we give to inputs, the priority with which we will produce output, and the ways in which we transform the former into the latter.

In Fame in the Membrane

The interaction between humans across social networks saliently resembles the interaction of neurons in the brain and nodes in switching networks.  Our waves of seeing and Liking and Sharing and Linking and Retweeting and Streaking and Pushing and Poking obviously resemble the “fame in the brain” or “global ignition” (PDF) that modern scientists and philosophers believe constitutes the content of our conscious thoughts.  We are conscious of that which lights up lots of neurons widely dispersed throughout the brain.

Trending topics are much like fashions or rumors, but unlike in the past they now have a permanent record consisting not only of memories in our heads but adjustments to the means of information.  They are constituted by us in symbiosis with machines and each other, interacting in a novel way that seems to be on the precipice of some sort of phase change.  What will we be when (as we will) we become more integrated with each other and with and through our machines such that we’re no longer just doing this only more so, but so much and so differently that it is actually a different kind of thing?

Is the internet, the social web, in any way “conscious” of that which arouses many diverse and dispersed humans to click links?  There are those who think that consciousness arose when the brain’s model of itself turned upon itself.  Well, we certainly are aware of interacting with each other on the social web — and, perhaps much more consequentially — the social web most definitely is “aware” of us doing it, continuously monitoring and modeling itself in interaction with us.

Humans participating in social campaigns much resemble neurons in brains collating information and driving the behavior of individuals, with manifest consequences in the world, for they drive not individuals, but communities, populations.  While the process resembles gossiping in the past, it now happens so fast, and leaves so lasting a trace, that so directly shapes future outcomes, that I would argue that it now resembles a different kind of thing: genuinely supraorganismal thought that can sum the outputs of huge numbers of individuals in mere minutes or hours in much the way that neurons collate inputs in milliseconds.

What does such a thing think?  Is there anything it is like anything to be it?

But we needn’t impute real consciousness to the social web for it to transform us in strongly emergent ways.  Whether for good or ill is presumably for us to decide, which we must, because this is not going away but getting more powerful and invasive all the time.

Granted, the EEG of our Twitter mobs, comment threads, and Facebook fads presently more resembles psychomotor epilepsy than moral philosophy.  But I think that they are so different to the interactions of the past, and are becoming so much weirder so much faster all the time, that we ought to devote serious attention to figuring out how to address, directly, the causes, uses, and consequences of this mode of collective thinking.

For this is what unites the whole system of the social web:  I believe that the basic logic and behavior of associational learning and thought scales all the way from transistors to civilizations.

And ours may be on the verge of waking up.

Featured Image:  Social network visualization, Martin Grandjean, CC

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