A Global Digital Nervous System

18 September 2003

by Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

Is it possible that the Earth is an integrated, self-regulating, living organism?
That’s the essence of the ideas described by Peter Russell, a Cambridge University physicist, computer scientist, and futurist, in his book The Global Brain Awakens. I read Russell’s work whenever I’m interested in reawakening my perspective on global trends. Many in the business world seeking out “the next big thing” see “it” — whatever it is — in the larger context of what some describe as a rapidly emerging, global digital nervous system. This makes ideas articulated by people like Russell highly relevant to information technology professionals.

What is the global digital nervous system, and what does it mean for you and me? For starters, it suggests that our notion of “business IT trends” is a very small fraction of the more vast landscape of life. Russell explains that when we examine the Gaia Hypothesis — put forth by Dr. James Lovelock of NASA in the mid-1960s and 1970s — we discover a fascinating theory of the biosphere as one living system, where its numerous subsystems play diverse and mutually interdependent roles. Much of this thinking also came out of the mid-1940s with the emergence of General Systems Theory and the work of biologists Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Paul Weiss. General Systems Theory is a way of viewing the world as an interconnected hierarchy of matter and energy. An example of this in action is how we breathe in oxygen from plants while plants take in carbon dioxide that we exhale.

Lovelock coined the term “Gaia Hypothesis” in honor of the Ancient Greek word for “Earth Mother Goddess.” He described how the planet evolved as a vast self-organizing system to reach stable equilibriums necessary to support life. Planetary temperature rose sharply for millions of years and then leveled off to an optimal range. Oceans saw salinity rapidly rise and then settle in to a steady concentration. And if we view the world as a living organism, then the rotational pulse of days and nights might resemble a heartbeat. Seasons are its breath. The rainforests resemble Gaia’s lungs. The oceans, rivers, and streams are her circulatory system. If all are part of a highly complex, mutually dependent system, then what role might humanity play?

One possibility is that humanity is like a vast nervous system in which each of us is a single nerve cell. In the past few hundred years, we’ve witnessed a massive population explosion. Recent data suggests that it’s beginning to slow along an S-shaped curve. Several European countries are approaching zero population growth, with the US not far behind. China and India, with perhaps half the world’s population, may see zero growth in the near future.

In a developing fetus, there is a similar explosion of cells comprising the brain and nervous systems. It begins after the eighth week of conception and then completes at about week 13. In the next phase, the billions of isolated nerve cells start communicating with one another, growing fibers to connect with cells on other sides of the brain. It takes about 8 to 10 billion atoms to make a cell. There are also about 8 to 10 billion cells in a human brain. Similarly, scientists expect that the earth’s population could taper off at around 8 to 10 billion people. We are now at about 6.3 billion.

On the heels of a dramatic pass through the Agricultural and then the Industrial Ages, we are now in the midst of a breathtaking surge of interconnectivity as a result of the Information Age. Our telecommunications and information processing infrastructures are increasingly leading humanity to be more interconnected. We can share our thoughts across great distances at nearly the speed of light. Billions of messages are traveling across the globe in an ever-increasing World Wide Web of communication. Russell asks, “Is this Gaia growing herself a nervous system?”

Throughout all of evolution lies a dominant trend: the progressive linking of smaller units into larger and larger ones. First families. Then tribes and communities. Civilizations. States and provinces. Nations. (Even things like “Cutter Consortiums.”) This complex linking — made more possible by software and communications technologies — parallels the evolution of large-scale mental functions. The Internet is quickly becoming a collective repository for human knowledge. Web searches and page links quickly call up associated information similar to the way a person might remember. Expert systems form new associations and synthesize data to produce new discoveries. On the whole, this “super-organism” exhibits characteristics where it begins to think and learn on its own. Will it begin to collectively “feel” as well?

At Princeton University, scientists have created what is known as the Global Consciousness Project (GCP). The GCP began in 1998 and today comprises a network of 50 random number event generators called REGs that are located around the globe. What they do is like flipping coins, but in the electronic domain. Their continuous streams of data are sent over the Internet to a main server located in Princeton, New Jersey. This data is archived and the REG charts are examined for correlation with events that may evoke a worldwide consciousness. Incredibly, when major world events occur, they start flipping more in unison. Examples of events that evoked striking patterns include both peaceful gatherings and disasters: a few minutes around midnight on any New Year’s Eve, the first hour of NATO bombing in Yugoslavia, the papal visit to Israel, a variety of global meditations, and several major earthquakes.

On the morning of 11 September 2001, the world experienced the shock of the terrorist attacks at New York’s World Trade Center (WTC), in Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Until that day, the REGs exhibited purely random behavior. But shortly before the attacks began, an incredible thing happened — the behavior of the generators exhibited an extreme nonrandom deviation. This stunning pattern started before the first WTC tower was struck and persisted for more than two days.

Roger Nelson, director of the GCP, described that the network reacted in a powerful and evocative way. He says that “the implication of the GCP/EGG data registering our shock and dismay is in some sense quite obvious. It says that even insensate electronic random number generators can see the effects born of hatred and despair.” He goes on to say: “One way to think of these startling correlations is to accept the possibility that the instruments have captured the reaction of a global consciousness beginning to form. The network was built to do just that: to see whether we could gather evidence of a communal, shared mind in which we are participants, even if we don’t know it.”

Clearly we are living in a time in which we are all playing an incredible role in the earth’s evolution. Through our cycles of invention and reinvention of information technologies, we are, in the larger picture, participating in the creation of Gaia’s global digital nervous system. Who would have thought that through our day-to-day tasks of laying communications conduits using wires, fiber optics, and now wireless technologies that we are actually interconnecting the world’s brain cells? And that by building software that runs on these networks, we are manifesting the firing of the nerves that send thought and information through Gaia’s mind. What an amazing thing to be part of, as professionals participating in the information revolution!

To CIOs and IT leaders, these notions can serve to inspire us. The world may indeed be a living entity that has the potential for self-healing and self-maintenance, as Dr. Lovelock describes. But it is also increasingly fragile and can fall ill; its fate may reside in the choices we make. This perspective might help us decide what we work on, what we put out into the world, and how well we do it. Every project and its outcome should matter. If these things are part of the earth-body and earth-thoughts, we’d want them to be for a greater good. We’d want to ensure that our global brain is sane, and not insane.

And lastly, if there is evidence that a global consciousness is emerging, then it might suggest that we think of ourselves and our world in a powerful new way — one that influences how we live and relate to one another. People like Peter Russell and Roger Nelson urge us to consider the message of ancient philosophies in the face of compelling evidence that there may be such a thing as a global consciousness: that we are all interconnected. What we think, the way we feel, and how we act has effects on others everywhere in the world. Nelson says, “It urges a new understanding that we must learn to accept each other and help support each other, everywhere in the world, if we are to live in peace on this beautiful earth.”

— Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

© 2003 Cutter Consortium. All rights reserved.