Our Next Evolutionary Leap

by Scott London

As hippie-mystic John Perry Barlow has pointed out, the Internet has a lot in common with the 19th century American West. It’s vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous, hard to navigate, and up for grabs. Large institutions already claim to own the place, but most of the actual natives are solitary and independent, sometimes to the point of sociopathy. It is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new ideas about liberty.

If you can appreciate the beauty and logic of this metaphor, you would no doubt appreciate what some innovative scientists and philosophers have to say about the evolutionary potential of social networking. The digital revolution, they say, has a lot to tell us about not only the emerging society of the 21st century but also the farther reaches of human consciousness.

One of the most compelling metaphors comes from physicist and philosopher Peter Russell who sees globe-spanning computer networks as part of an embryonic “global brain.” Extrapolating from recent theories in the fields of physics and geobiology, he maintains that the planet itself is a living system and that each person on it is a cell in a kind of global nervous system. As a species, he says, we’re advancing to the point where it will be possible for our minds to link together to create a collective human consciousness.

This shift represents “our next evolutionary leap,” he told me in an interview. Breakthroughs in telecommunications and computer networks are pointing us in that direction. “The interlinking of humanity that began with the emergence of language has now progressed to the point where information can be transmitted to anyone, anywhere, at the speed of light. Billions of messages continually shuttle back and forth, in an ever-growing web of communication, linking the billions of minds of humanity together into a single system.”

The global brain metaphor may strike some as more of a poetic vision than a realistic possibility. But when I asked evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris about this, she said that metaphors have an important place in science. To speak of atoms as little solar systems or as whirlpools of energy is to invoke metaphors, she pointed out. “Metaphor simply means that you take something that is familiar to you and use it as a pictograph or an image of what you are trying to describe that you don’t yet understand well.”

Sahtouris believes that Western science in the throes of a sweeping transition “from mechanics to organics.” In her book Gaia: The Human Journey from Chaos to Cosmos, she talks about the need for a more holistic perspective that recognizes nature not as a giant clockwork mechanism, as the Enlightenment thinkers conceived it, but as a self-organizing living system.

The beauty of the web, in her view, is that it exemplifies many of the characteristics of a dynamic living system. It’s based on equality, reciprocity, diversity, and local autonomy. One example of this, she told me, is “the way each part pays its bills and lets people from all other parts use its territory.” The Internet “has the potential for being the largest, most democratic living system humanity has ever created.”

When I asked Deepak Chopra how he sees the promise of social networking, he offered a more metaphysical perspective. In his view, the net is as a perfect metaphor for the “mechanics of creation.” As he put it, the basic conclusion of contemporary quantum theory is that the raw material of the world is, in effect, non-material. Many of our new technologies owe their existence to this fact. The invention of computers, fax machines, radio, and satellites were all made possible by understanding that the atom — once thought to be the basic unit of matter — is not a solid entity at all, but a “hierarchy of states of information and energy in a void of all possible states of information and energy.”

Put in its simplest terms, this means that so-called “objective” reality is not objective at all, but “a radically ambiguous and ceaselessly flowing quantum soup,” in Chopra’s words. This “field of all possibilities” is directly affected by impulses of energy and information. That is to say, thoughts are the raw material of the universe and therefore fundamentally shape reality.

New technologies such as the Internet and virtual reality furnish us with an excellent metaphor, he says, because they demonstrate “that reality is ‘virtual’ before it gets precipitated into a space-time event.”

While traditional scientists and other die-hard skeptics wave aside the idea that thoughts shape reality, there’s a growing acceptance of this view on many fronts. It’s part of a profound change of consciousness occurring in our culture, as bestselling author Marianne Williamson puts it. “You don’t have to be a spiritual seeker in California, you can be a businessman in Connecticut dealing with the revolution in computers. In other words, no matter what area of life and endeavor we’re in, we’re seeing the signs of a sea change,” she says. No one is denying that we’re moving into a new era in politics, in business, or in science, so “why should we deny that it’s a new era in terms of all human consciousness?”