An interesting IO9 article by George Dvorsky started an equally interesting discussion on Facebook about the subject:
How Much Longer Until Humanity Becomes A Hive Mind?

Much of the IO9 discussion centered around the idea that, for humans to become a true hive-mind, physical technology would have to be added to the brain, allowing people to communicate with each other and control each others’ actions.  A recent experiment where two lab rats were wired together to “share each other’s thoughts” was  cited as a logical next step in creating the hive-mind.  Much of the Facebook chatter agreed with this, and mostly debated when it was likely that we’d be wiring our brains to each other.

I say: Humans are already hive-minds.  We have been, in fact, since we invented society.

Man has already developed a collective consciousness, created through language and shared culture, and directed through communal institutions and modern telecommunications—television, radio, social media and the web.  We are taught the same lessons, given the same guidance and expected to accomplish the same goals, ultimately designed to integrate our needs into those of society. We are told what threatens us and who the enemy is, and act as a unit to repel invaders to our shores and preserve our way of life.

If that’s not a collective consciousness, I don’t know what is.

Author John T. Steiner’s comment on that was:

Telecommunications isn’t the same as a collective consciousness. For that to be true our most basic and unconscious impulses must affect others.

And, in fact, they do. We respond to love, hate, distrust, disgust, curiosity, suffering, all based on our observations of other people, often catching subconscious cues people send out and identifying feelings they may be trying to hide or supress.  And our basic impulses affect others, to a great extent, through good old fashioned watching, talking and listening.

Think about this: Ants, bees, etc—the original templates of what we refer to as “hive-minds”—aren’t literally conscious of each other’s minds; they respond to basic communications (mostly visual, aural and olfactory) and act according to prearranged patterns, some instinctual, some learned. And in truth, it’s not as organized as the name suggests… a great deal of it is instinctual, and just happens to work out.  (The ones that didn’t work out suffered the expected Darwinian fate.)

And even if we don’t want to ascribe any amount of real intelligence to ants and bees, the fact is that they can exercise the power of choice in what they do, depending on the circumstances: An ant, charged with taking care of pupae in the nest, when presented with multiple pupae, can choose which one they will tend to first.  Or, if a threat arrives in the nest, they can choose to turn away from the pupae in order to warn other ants or defend the nest.  Bees clearly exercise choice when they approach a meadow of flowers and try to find those with the most nectar… or avoid the flowers when a human with a fly-swatter shows up.

Hive creatures don’t have some kind of telepathic warning systems: If an ant or a bee reacts negatively to its surroundings, it communicates to others nearby with visual, aural or olfactory signals that something is wrong, so they can avoid it.  That is no different than the actions and reactions you’d see in a human society.  Or a wolf pack.  Or a pod of dolphins.  Or a flock of birds.

The only difference between animals and humans is that humans have a different name for their hive: SOCIETY.  We are taught from birth the signals and expectations of our society, and by and large, we follow those signals and expectations in order to maintain our positions and do our parts in society.  And you may notice that fits the description of a hive, as well.

More of humans’ actions are learned than instinctual, and we often formalize rules (as laws) to pass on to others… but we still respond to communications and act according to instinctive and/or learned patterns. And despite our individual independence, a great deal of our actions can still be boiled down to instinctive or social-based responses to communications stimuli. A check-out line, a highway or a riot are all great examples of hive minds at work. So are elections, factories, farm collectives and movie productions.

Yes, we have more autonomy than most instinct-based critters; but we are still a lot more rigidly controlled by society’s rules than even we’d like to admit.  We allow society to guide our actions through risk-reward methods.  When a commercial shows you a green shirt, then shows you people who look complimentary in it, or are actually complimented, that is society telling you: “Buy that shirt, and other people will approve.”  Sure, you could buy a red shirt… but in more cases, you will buy the green shirt, and look forward to the accompanying approval.  You are acting in accordance with the wishes of the hive to be approved of.

7 of 9Okay, so we don’t look like Star Trek’s Borgs… but if you look again at the people who pay more attention to their cellphones than where they’re walking, listening to voices in their ears, letting social media instruct them on what TV shows to watch and what bars to drink at and which politicians to vote for and whose news is more accurate… you might start to see the real picture.

No, we don’t have wires running into our heads… but we still know what others are thinking and saying and doing, and what they want us to think and say and do, thanks to our senses and our communications systems.  And because we (mostly) want to be a part of the greater society, we very often do the things the hive supports, sometimes without even a further thought about whether we should.  So don’t let the missing wires fool you: Humans are a hive-mind, in full operational mode.

Taking it to the next step (and what some people are obviously thinking): Would we want to literally hand over control of others’ actions to a controller through a neural interface?

To answer this, consider: Would such a system share everyone’s input with everyone else?  A million voices all talking at once in my head?  No; no one could sort through the cacophany of minds, all trying to communicate at once; that’s not going to work.  The only way for that to work would be for one POV to be broadcast to everyone, with the result that people whose individual POV may have some value to a situation will only be subsumed by the one controller’s POV, and subsequently lost.  All other possible opinions… gone.  Only one person’s opinion matters.  And there’s absolutely no value in that.  You are wasting a valuable resource… a human mind.  Might as well have a robot do your work.

And it’s inefficient.  Your one-POV mindcast may be actionable by the one human lemming who happens to be at the right place at the right time… but all your other lemmings, wherever they are and whatever they are doing, will be taking the same action.  So, while one person is screwing in a light bulb, a hundred others are standing in the middle of the office, the McDonald’s line, the bathroom, rotating their wrists in the air like they just don’t care.  Individual control is needed so individuals can realize they are not the ones standing in front of a light fixture, and they can stand down.  And no one person is going to be able to send individual commands to more than a few people at a time… no future Patton is going to control his entire army from the hilltop through his mind.

So, do we want to go further?  Absolutely not, there’s not a single good reason for it.  We’re already the hive-minds we want to be.  Want to hard-wire it in?  Fine.  But it won’t make your hive-mindedness any more efficient than it already is.

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