When I remember Ender’s Game, most frequently, it’s not because of the ansible, or the Buggers or the main plot. I remember it for the meaningful, open forum for political discourse that Valentine and Ender subvert before any of the main plot revs up. That’s the type of governmental transparency we’ve been hoping to see evolve for a while now. One where priorities are set in the open, as a result of public discourse and prediction markets, something akin to what you might find in Raikoth. Today, this seems at least remotely possible from a technical standpoint. You can just take the internet, build a public forum with an associated consensus function, and make laws that are goal oriented and metrics driven and accountable to working toward some almighty algorithm in order to increase the amount of contextually defined ‘good’ in the universe. If things don’t collapse into some sort of apocalypse or dystopia, maybe we’ll get there eventually.
That still leaves the big question of what ‘there’ looks like. Equally important to consider is how would the resulting society come about, out of where we are today. At this point though, I should back up and explain where we’re coming from and why this is the society we want and one that we will inevitably build.
The Humanity of Tomorrow, Today
Imagine you have all the knowledge of all the people that have ever lived or are living now. You are now, some sort of super being, a single collective consciousness that possesses the memories, thoughts and feelings of each individual human. And, let’s go further. Now, also assume you have infinite processing power so as to be capable of instantaneously simulating the consensus arrived at by grouping any combination of individuals and allowing them to discuss any given topic to they point the decide they fully agree (assuming that states of disagreement have agreed upon methods of resolution). What are you? Well, you’re definitely humanity. You have near perfect understanding of the world we live on. You also have at least as good of understanding of every individual as they have of themselves. You know the consensus that is being worked toward, and the only thing you don’t know is what the best possible route toward achieving that consensus is. Of course, you do know what the consensus is regarding that route, so you know the route you will take. (Note that this is true, even if you lack perfect knowledge of the entire universe and therefore might be making a mistake regarding that route, given some additional information or processing power, etc.)
By induction, if you back out where that entity comes from, you land on ‘a planet with sentient life’ every time. Further, that’s where we’re going as a species if we don’t fail, yet the resulting society could take a variety of forms. One of my greatest fears, for instance, is if our future humanity ends ub being derive from a single personality — or worse, a single person. Maybe that person became a godlike entity through personal exploitation of technology and genocide of every other sentient being. The technology itself will determine the embodiment of the consciousness which will in turn determine its nature. But, its personality will be determined by its past. We are a sentient species - with fleshy human-shaped embodiments that interact with our surroundings in such a way so as to create technology. That technology changes the possible embodiments of consciousness including our own. So, the future of any consciously embodied species will be a newer consciously embodied species. Assuming technology increases the capacities of embodiments, we will progressively become an ever more complicated and powerful species. The members of the species may coalesce or not (destroy one another or not) as they see fit. In any case, you get a ‘more’ collectively conscious entity just because it knows more about its constituent parts given the increases in knowledge and awareness provided via technology and collaboration.
For human beings on Earth, today, the biggest question I have about our desired future embodiment(s) is ‘Where does the will of the individual end and where does the will of humanity begin?’ Removing the modifiers ‘desired’ and ‘future’, I can answer the question right now by simply observing how our species acts and how the institutions we’ve established organize and constrain individuals’ actions. Further, we can look at the past and see how we’ve changed with increases in technology and population. And, we can project that into the future to get an idea of where our species is headed as a global, social species having individuals with our given cognitive capacity. While I think and hope this thought experiment results in a vision of humanity you and I find desirable, our past has certainly been speckled with what I might deem ‘errors’. These errors might be defined as significant deviations from the consensus function, were a consensus function to have existed at the time. More pessimistically, they might be observed as a failed implementation of a consensus function.
Normally, I keep my desired manifestation of humanity to myself and close friends because I feel the importance of my personal desires pales in comparison to the desires of the sum total of our population (the consensus function). I also spend a lot of time trying to predict what those might be and asking other people about their preferred incarnations for our future humanity. Still, the only vision I can present with clarity is my own, and as the consensus function does not yet exist in any form of which I’m aware. I guess it’s at least mildly appropriate that I contribute my opinion openly in the hope that it will one day be factored into that function after or even as it’s being borne out. And thus, we arrive at the purpose of this text. I will now present my desired vision of humanity’s future (a goal you might call it), a definition for when humanity has become collectively conscious, and a general path for how we might go from where we are toward the vision I present. Even more importantly though, I’d ask that you share your thoughts, opinions and visions of the same, humanity’s future, what we are, what we are becoming, the how, the why.
Science fiction presents to us an array of ideas with which we can construct our ideal future reality and future selves, both individually and collectively. Things like interplanetary space travel, artificial intelligence and artificial bodily enhancements exist on the verge of real technology and science fiction. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that some such innovations will come to fruition over the course of the next century. Additionally, with the impact we’ve already had on our environment on a global scale, we are being forced to develop technology that allows us to deal with weather and climate manipulation. But for me personally, the most important aspect of humanity’s evolution is our ability to abstract, merge and alter our conscious experiences and the embodiments that our consciousnesses inhabit. It’s one goal I’d like prioritized highly.
Perhaps the most important feature of the future humanity I’m imagining combines individual consciousness and collective consciousness in a dynamic fashion such that identity of the individuals and the collective(s) in which they participate are mutually dependent. In this state, a collective may choose to create or transfer a given identity from one body to another. An individual might choose to merge back into a collective, with or without a predetermined directive to separate again at a later point in time. While I think there will likely always be some individuals that participate to a very limited degree, if at all, in the collective aspects of consciousness allowed by new technology, the human collective will remain aware of any individuals residing within its local spatial domain. Initially, I imagine this human collective to represent ‘everyone on Earth’ or ‘everyone in the Sun system’ or ‘everyone in the Milky Way galaxy’ as consciousness spreads across the universe. A big question I have is whether the collective should ever possess the ability to intentionally subvert or undermine a non-participatory individual of the species. Say a bunch of humans start sharing bodies and conscious experiences and determine that this mode of existence is clearly superior, but other individuals value their unique and discrete existence as an end in itself. Does the collective have responsibility to maintain the quality of life of such individuals? Do we want to discourage this sort of thing as a species or encourage it? Assuming that individuals who don’t participate in the collective are much less able to contribute to the growth and exploration of the species, how should resource allocation be balanced fairly? While you or I may each have our own opinions, the ultimate answer must somehow reconcile our disagreements.
A Definition of Collectively Conscious
To think about our progress toward this vision, let’s use Nick Bostrom’s three axis along which he explains our development as a species: technology, insight, and coordination. Technologically, we need to, at a minimum, be able to be connected to the internet at all times. With today’s technology, this would be the same as everyone carrying a cellphone at all times and having an accessible connection to the internet. Insight into collective consciousness refers to our understanding of ourselves and our communities. We need to have a specific physical definition and understanding of our personal needs. What does it take in order to be living a thriving life? How do you measure this biologically? Do we have a survey of how successful we are at creating communities of thriving individuals and does each individual who is not thriving have the ability to state so publicly to any and all other individuals so as to be able to ask for help, should they so choose? This leads into the aspects that we could call coordination. Are we doing things to actually help each other thrive - everyone, everywhere. At a minimum, this would require a global government and some nubile implementation of a consensus function.
Because we all inhabit the same physical universe and because that universe changes over time, you can already look at humans as sharing and influencing each other’s respective conscious. But, this process looks significantly different when it’s happening via the internet than when it was happening via cave paintings and face to face conversations. By this measure, one can expect future communication technology to further enhance the ability to share ideas and influence people. For example, we might have trust frameworks and implants that allow one person to directly control the actions of another person’s body. Say I’m sitting with you in a restaurant, but you’re boxed in (sitting on the inside of a booth) and talking with the person next to you. I’m clearly dozing off and not paying attention to your boring conversation, so you tell me to go get you a beer. And, perhaps without even realizing that it’s not my own idea, I get up and order the beer you want and bring it back to the table. As long as we’ve already agreed that this sort of reasonable, respectful, limited use of body, mind and time is alright, this seems like a fine thing to be capable of sharing with other conscious embodiments. While that level of technology may be a ways off, the definition of collective consciousness I have in mind is already possible. We simply have to universalize our current technologies — smartphones with ubiquitous internet access. By definition, for humanity to be collectively conscious along the technological axis, the internet must exist, and everyone must have access to it at all times, should they so chose to connect. With that as a first goal, newer iterations can be developed and rolled out as we create them.
While we are somewhat close to achieving this definition of collective consciousness technologically, our advances along the insight access are relatively less pronounced. Insight toward collective consciousness deals particularly with the awareness of humans and humanity. This includes our individual understanding of humanity, humanity’s understanding of each of us as individuals and the understanding that humanity’s collective consciousness has of itself. Already today, the internet provides individuals with a sufficiently thorough understanding of the world and of what’s going on generally with most of humanity. However, it does not follow that those individuals draw the same conclusions given this apparently uniform access to knowledge. Still, when provided internet access, each such individual meets the technical definition presented for collective consciousness given today's technology. The awareness humanity has of itself is far more limited. Even given the general awareness the internet allows individuals to glean about the global state of humanity, there are so many people without internet access that most of the possible individual to individual human connections are impossible to make. And in order for the collective to be aware of the individuals, individuals would need a means of identifying and expressing themselves to whatever extent they choose. In this sense, humanity’s collective consciousness largely lacks even the ability to be aware of itself.
Further, the disagreement and uncertainty present within and among individuals lacks a consistent presentation. In order for a human collective consciousness to gain the required insight of itself, this sort of presentation must exist. I previously mentioned the idea of a consensus function, which is one rudimentary form that humanity’s collective consciousness could take. Alternatively, or additionally, the example of a meaningful open forum, like that of Ender’s game would suffice to be a consensus function if the forum’s content directly impacted the governing decisions made at a global level. Indeed this would also require a governing body with authority to enforce certain decisions to be implemented globally.
Global governing structures are an example of the coordination required for humanity to be considered collectively conscious. To some extent this level of organization already exists in entities such as INTERPOL, the United Nations and international courts. Yet, these organizations’ abilities fall short of meeting the level of coordination required to tackle some seemingly obvious problems. As an aside, global climate control is a great example. The problem is that global warming is considered a political issue rather than a scientific one. The result is that despite overwhelming evidence and expert consensus, our leaders have been allowed to delay action in accord with undue influence from non-scientific constituencies. And while there is no guarantee that a different system, which allows us to more effectively address issues with global climate, will also be better for humanity overall, it is clearly possible. And given the potential downsides of failing to address such issues, experimentation in an attempt to identify a better overall system is warranted. So while technically, we have met the rudimentary definition of global coordination by operating some authoritative international organizations, there is plenty of room for improvement. There is little doubt that this will happen, and plenty of reason to advocate for great caution in our experimental progression toward such ends.
As humanity progresses along the various axes, we may expect our understanding and definition of collective consciousness to transform with ourselves and the universe we inhabit. At times the changes may be quicker or slower, yet change is ever present. Let’s imagine the changes possible now and how they lead us toward a vision of collective consciousness more or less like the one I presented earlier.
Unlike the way that handheld computers became commonplace over the course of a generation, Living a collectively conscious lifestyle will have a much longer adoption period. While the benefits of sharing the world’s raw knowledge are immediate and one-sided, the benefit of sharing life experiences, trust in our neighbors and even use of our bodies only works when the group members have some level of alignment. There are potential drawbacks; it’s not a obvious, mutually beneficial transformation. At the same time, it is clearly a gain in specific contexts. For example, if you could play a team game and have the ability to take over for other players at opportune moments based on your knowledge and their position, you’d have an advantage over the opposing team if they cannot do the same. While we assume that at a high level of play, teams already work together quite seamlessly, one would still expect a more collectively consciousness style of play to outperform the traditional group of individuals, given a comparable level of skill. Thankfully, the technology allowing that sort of advanced behavior of collective consciousness will itself be potentially slow to arrive.
More quickly, we can build and advocate for some of the previously mentioned features of a rudimentary collective consciousness: ubiquitous internet, universal access to smartphones, a consensus function and a meaningful open forum for prioritizing human goals. Furthermore, it’s possible and probably recommended that we implement collective consciousness first locally, rather than globally. This gives us the ability to experiment on the implementation of our technologies and perfect their ability to improve and augment our current systems’ means of providing coordination and insight. So finally, let’s start designing an implementation of a consensus function. We can build the forum and the consensus function today. What do I want it to be? What do we want it to be? I have my guesses. What do you want it to be? Do I even know you?
I want everyone to be able to express themselves openly, should they so choose, to share who they are and what they want, and for all of that to be taken into account in a known and well defined manner during the policy implementation process. I want to make politicians obsolete because everyone is a politician by default when we want to be. I want to be able to know what everyone else thinks is important, not just the people on television; I want it in aggregate and in specific. I want to vote directly on everything, should I so choose. I want more of the influence that direct democracy promises and that technology will provide. I want to know when the system is broken because humans say it is. Where’s the poll for that?
This new system looks like a ballot box that’s always open, on steroids. It starts with who we are, as individuals and as groups, organizations, collectives, communities, etc. In the governmental sense, the city needs to know who its residents are without those residents living in fear of the government. This goes outside of the technology implementation and requires additional legislative safeguards that protect individuals from prosecution as any result of participating in their own governance. The technology obviously needs to be secure and protect privacy, yet the government must be forced to respect that privacy if and when it’s technologically impossible to implement safeguards. Next, citizens need to be able to share whatever opinions they have about anything, openly. Finally, the technology must be constantly updated to use the opinions provided to directly influence any and all governmental decision making processes.
Let’s say an existing or upstart political party decided to implement a rudimentary system for identity, opinion sharing and consensus-style decision making via a well defined algorithm. What might the implications for an imaginary city of today look like where that party controls the entire legislative process? Picture Quasitopia, a mythical experiment in the early days of consensus function experimentation. For the most part, Quasitopia, which everyone calls Pia, looks like any other city in the region. The first major difference is that Pia’s residents receive notifications, tailored to their individual interests, when the government is working on a project. The second major difference is that all of the projects the government works on come from an analysis of what residents concerns are. These concerns set goals for the city, like “eliminate homelessness, provide clean water, establish clean transportation infrastructure or alter the wealth distribution.” Analysis of the resident’s desires prioritizes the goals. The budget determines the amount of goals that can be addressed. This is all quite similar to how things work now, except that consensus between competing interests is resolved strictly by the public debate rather than by the quasi-public debate of other cities’ representatives. In fact, while Pia still has representatives, they talk to each other in the same forums as the residents talk to each other. They are virtually indistinguishable, except that their votes count for a bit more, as they are the fallback for people without another established means of voting.
If the resulting city is so similar to the way we already do things, is it really worth implementing? The only way to know is to test it out.