Response to: Response to “Superorganism Considered Harmful”
I liked Rafe’s responses to my questions. It revealed the heart of the matter. From the perspective of an interdisciplinarian such as myself, I believe the concept of a “superorganism” is purely a matter of terminology.
There are three terms of interest to me on this topic: “superorganism”, “awareness”, and “autonomy”. I think Rafe, and disciples of emergence in general, use them in ways that evoke misunderstanding from lay people. As he notes, they are somewhat anthropomorphic. By casting the situation in a first person perspective, they thus provoke a visceral reaction.
The term superorganism comes from biology, meaning a species with an essentially hive-like social structure (the precise term is “eusocial“). Emergent behaviorists have overloaded the term to mean the next level of agency above organisms. Obviously, this is accurate in terms of the etymology, but I feel the inevitable linkage to a hive-like social structure is counterproductive.
I contend that, conceptually, “superorganism” = “ecology” + “economy” + “society”. I don’t think any of these constituent terms evoke any negative connotations. But saying we’re all part of an “organism” naturally causes people to feel that you’re relegating them to a cog in the machine, which is not actualkly what you’re trying to convey. I think the term “supercommunity” might be better.
In any case, I feel that using an inherently singular term like “superorganism” has mis-directed Rafe’s thinking on whether there will be one or more instances of this higher level agency. He appeals to network theory, which thankfully is something I know more than a little bit about. If you’ve ever done any network modelling, you find that you can always turn the world into one big network. Everything is already interconnected.
If you draw a multi-level network diagram of a prehistoric tribe, it’s easy to say that there’s just one big network. It’s actually the same for all particles in the universe under the most advanced current conceptions of physics. There’s nothing new about the amount of interconnectedness in the world today, it just occurs on a higher order (which is the point of emergence, of course).
That doesn’t mean that there won’t be distinct subnetworks that one could call “individuals” at this new level of agency. If a fundamental precept of the emergent model is that you can’t fully comprehend the higher level of agency, how can you assert with any confidence whether or not there will be multiple individuals?
As Rafe and I have discussed in the past, it’s all a matter of how you want to construct your model. Reality simply is what it is. All I’m saying is that, down here on this level of agency, our models of the higher level will probably work better if we assume there will be distinguishable subnetworks–it allows us to more easily account for higher level competition and cooperation, for instance.
Now for “awareness” and “autonomy”. Unlike “superorganism”, which is at least etymologically accurate, these terms are just plain bad. As Rafe agrees, the superfoo or superfoos won’t have anything like our awareness. So let’s not use that term. When combined with “autonomy”, it sounds like the superfoo or superfoos will be stealing or subsuming our awareness. This is where I think the technological singularity is a necessary condition. For there to be a higher level agent with something similar to our awareness, you need the singularity.
Which brings us to autonomy, the worst term of the three. As used in normal speech, emergence won’t decrease our autonomy. Our autonomy, in this sense, has in fact been increasing over time as the next level of organization emerges. I’m talking about autonomy in terms of executive function–deciding what it is you’re going to do. When you’re out on the plains living hand to mouth, your possible alternatives are very constrained: hunt or die.
Emergence has resulted in an ever increasing number of alternatives on average. What has happened is that our interdependence has increased. We rely on the rest of society for the support necessary to have a lot of alternatives from which to choose. But don’t confuse depednence with a lack of alternatives. In this sense, the emergence of a superfoo or superfoos is good. Our lives will be better.