Debugging the Noosphere
It looks like the noosphere is an idea whose time has come, and it may well be the idea that defines its time, and frames the time ahead—but is it a good idea? Is it a viable, sound idea in social, spiritual, and evolutionary terms? Widespread enthusiasm about the noosphere dominates the discussion over its importance; indeed, over its very nature. For many, it is unquestionably a boon to humanity, both the mark of “conscious evolution” and the supreme instrument of its attainment. But I wonder if lack of critical assessment among those who embrace the noosphere concept might be a serious detriment to the vision they hope to achieve with it.
One point is indisputable: the noosphere, whatever it will turn out to be, is manifesting in technological media. It is the ultimate tool of psychotechnology, if you will. The cybernetic control panel through which humanity realizes global awakening, etc. But how does such an extraordinary and complex tool get up and running? Consider the technology of the space shuttle. It is difficult to imagine what went into designing, engineering, and constructing that piece of high tech hardware, not to mention what it took to launch and navigate it. Additional to all the complex tasking the project required, there was an enormous amount of troubleshooting. Many problems were anticipated and avoided, others were solved after they showed up. Some problems, such as the faulty O-rings responsible for the crash of 1987, were not solved until after they had caused disastrous consequences.
Why should the noosphere be any different? In design, construction, and application, it presents a huge challenge to troubleshooting. Or debugging, as they say in IT. According to the Wikipedia entry, debugging is “a methodical process of finding and reducing defects in a computer program or a piece of electronic hardware, thus making it behave as expected. Debugging tends to be harder when various subsystems are tightly coupled, as changes in one may cause bugs to emerge in another.”
Debugging the noosphere is not going to be an easy job, or a fast fix when potential problems are identified. And disasters may occur before certain problems are detected. The telling phrase in the Wikipedia entry is “making it behave as expected.” With the noosphere, the first phase of debugging has to involve looking closely at what we expect from this medium. Expectations may have to be adjusted to develop the noosphere in a way consistent with our evolutionary arc as a species. And the definition of our evolutionary arc is, needless to say, a matter yet to be fully elucidated!
Contemplating this challenge, two factors come to mind. One is the notion of prosthetic substitution defined by Marshall McLuhan. The other is the Gaian concept of “coupling,” alluded to in the Wikipedia entry.
In his 1964 book Understanding Media, subtitled “The Extensions of Man,” McLuhan made a single critical observation that can now be applied to troubleshooting the noosphere. He said that new media can be extensions of human faculties, but they can also become prosthetic substitutes for our faculties. A prosthesis like a set of false teeth is useful if you lose your teeth. But imagine wearing false teeth over a set of good, functioning teeth. That is prosthetic substitution.
So far McLuhan’s point has not, to my knowledge, been applied to the noosphere. We must ask, Is the noosphere an extension of human faculties for communication, design, and networking, or it is a cybernetic prosthesis, a technological substitute for those faculties? How would we know the difference?
The second factor relates to tight coupling, or structural coupling, a concept found in Gaia theory, general systems theory, cybernetics, etc. The current view of the noosphere assumes a tight coupling between each individual mind on the planet and the emergent planetary mind. If psyche and cosmos are interactive—I reckon most readers would accept this principle—we expect to see the flowering of that interactivity in the workings of the noosphere.
But the dynamic of psyche-cosmos coupling is not so simple. It is not bipolar, but tripolar. The three components are psyche, cosmos, and psyche’s concept of the cosmos. I define psyche-cosmos coupling as the alpha mode of interactivity, denoting live, direct, spontaneous feedback between the two components, and psyche-concept coupling as the beta mode, denoting interaction between the mind and its concept of the cosmos, not the cosmos itself. I would then call the process in which the psyche-concept dynamic overrides and may even preclude the psyche-cosmos dynamic, beta mode blocking, or simply betablocking.
Human systems are tightly coupled, mind to mind, as well as coupled to the master mind console of the noosphere. The problems induced by betablocking will be immense and intricate, because each individual mind will have to adjust its interaction with the noosphere on the basis of its subjective concept of that medium. Objective agreement on the concept—read: the current consensus of what the noosphere is and how it works—may actually impede its development. Critical dissent over the concept, and debugging where required to “make it behave as expected,” will advance and improve our realization of the noosphere.
So far it is not clear if the noosphere is a concept in the mental realm or a process in the biosphere. Consistent with Vernadsky’s definition of the lithosphere and biosphere, the noosphere is widely regarded as a continuum existing in its own right, though based in human cognition. Does this make the noosphere a cognitive extension of the natural world? Is it a real component of nature, or a technological construct we humans are imposing on the planet?
It might seem that mounting enthusiasm about the noosphere will foster its emergence and insure a huge leap ahead for humanity, but there is a paradox in this particular instance of technological confidence. Without troubleshooting, the current concept of the noosphere may impede or distort its emergence. Right now there is no telling where this concept will take us, but the risk of prosthetic substitution is immense. That, to my mind, would be a wrong turn for our species.
It is widely agreed that the emergence of the noosphere involves a planet-wide open source discussion, but so far this great conversation is a one-party event. Radical critiques of IT (from Jeremy Rifkin and others) are not incorporated by proponents of the noosphere. (I haven’t yet read Lawrence Hagerty’s The Spirit of the Internet, which may be an exception.) The role, or even the acceptability, of critical assessment within the great conversation now underway remains to be seen. The long, complicated process of troubleshooting the noosphere has barely begun.