Our view of the earth is increasingly Olympian.
From the middle stratosphere, the mountains ripple like waves across a sea of land, crenellations of a castle in demise. The discord of the Gods once echoed from these heights; they resolved their differences, became one God, then that one too began to vanish.
Now sweeping vistas spread like patchwork from aloft the clouds: woodland, valley, summit and plain—the blue-green hills of earth awake. Through the buckling peaks of Alps and Andes, Himalaya and Kush, white glaciers commence their retreat, liquid eons of ice abating, as the great rivers of the world gorge and narrow. They will make their way to the sea and be gone. Through a kingdom of clouds and heavenly billows, the living air reverberates with activity from beneath. Chocolate swathes of spreading desert, ochre seas, and burning jade, the ebb and flow of living and dying. This is our world, with all its wonder and implicit worries.
And the threats to this planet are being traced in ever-finer detail. The conditions are catalogued through an array of technologies only decades old. Satellites track weather along with the rise and decline of glaciation, desertification and deforestation. Recent monitoring can even catch the emergence of pandemic disease and the changing conditions on farms. Through the analysis of particulate matter in ancient ice cores and tree rings we can trace the rise and fall of temperatures across the ages, climatic causes for the decline of empires and the fall of species. With this information we can model scenarios for the future. And out in the ethers of the World Wide Web, we can glide through the landscapes of the planet, seeing the world in vivid and even historical detail on Google Earth. Perhaps it is testimony to the pace of technological development that seldom do these small miracles evoke a sense of wonder anymore.
A trillion points of extrasensory perception now illuminate the world. Satellites and monitors, readings and recordings, increasingly mediate our experience, as the surface of the planet comes to resonate with awareness. It is not just that the world is being experienced through billions of human eyes and ears, along with the senses of trillions of other living beings. This animate house of mirrors, in which so many viewpoints reflect off of one another and grow in depth, is awe inspiring enough if we but pause to give it our attention. But throughout the twentieth century, and increasingly with each passing year, we are coming to perceive the world through technological prosthetics: the echolocation of radar and sonar, microscopic and telescopic vision, heat sensors, magnetic resonance imagery and more. It was not so long ago that we knew the world only through our eyes and ears, taste, touch and smell. Now we know the world through a wide and ever growing catalogue of overlapping sensorium.
The telecommunications networks that now link us together are not unlike a global nervous system. Data is transferred through countless nodes in both cases. And new information is accumulated, organized and transferred out again. Data can now be mined through tracking the movements of cell phones. Hence, we can follow the whereabouts of masses of people as they work and shop and live. Of course, marketers will use this information to bring consumers and goods ever closer to one another, thereby connecting more and more of our lives to the marketplace.
The legal and moral implications for the invasion of privacy here are serious, and the most cutting edge ethicists have only just begun to grapple with the implications. But that same information will also allow us to better organize our cities, trace the patterns of emergent disease, and put us in contact with others traveling along similar unseen trails in life. As in the case of our web searches and surveys, there is an increasing variety of means through which individuals can group with other similar individuals. Whether this be for good or ill, it is all bringing us closer together. And it is changing the very nature of our social systems.
Humanity once grouped itself along rivers and roads and coastlines. Now we organize along invisible channels of information: websites, blogs, social networks and Twitter. The channels are openly accessible, global and non-zero sum. Unlike a river basin or coastal port, there is no limit to the number of people that can belong to a social network and the number of networks to which one might belong. Thus, we can organize ourselves into larger groups with neither the conflict that accompanies competition for scarce goods nor the force required to coordinate prodigious sums of people.
Larger and freer and more efficient means of social organization have always been available. But humanity has rarely made use of these economies of scale. The spread of ideas and technologies, knowledge and development, has been held in check by local prejudices: tribes engaged in constant warfare, ancient cities rife with ethnic and religious tensions, and industrial era nation-states, beset with bellicose nationalism. The result for the vast majority of human history has been frequent famine, chronic malnourishment, and socio-economic underdevelopment.
The human horizon has been limited, by a river valley or mountain chain and by the simple inability just to get along. It was not until the emergence of the railroad, with its shortening of distance and mingling of classes, that the nation-state really came into its own. The railroad spread ideas and goods over wider distances, broadening horizons and transforming life prospects. Unlike the empires of old, the nation-state tended to be participatory and democratic. But even the nation-state set people at odds with one another, this time over even greater distances, with the differences fought out through larger armies, with more powerful weapons.
The World Wide Web and advances in telecommunications are breaking the shackles that once bound humanity to its tiny enclaves. Regular intercourse with people on the other side of the world only became possible for most people in the last couple of decades. Until this time, world literature and news were barely accessible even for the elites. And it took massive resources to form a global organization. Now the world through which we interact is increasingly integrated and whole. The most natural scale for business and political organization is more often than not global. Ethical concerns range across the world. And the human field of consciousness is thus increasingly global. Our lives may be less cosmopolitan than we tend to think, but we are rapidly developing an infrastructure for the globalization of mind.
This is an excerpt from Theo’s recently released book, Convergence: The Globalization of Mind.
How Climate Change can Strengthen Global Resilience.
Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May
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