Global Brain, by Howard Bloom

Amazon link

This book was recommended to me by Dav after he read my post on social networks and rejection. So I tossed it in my Amazon shopping cart, but didn’t end up ordering from Amazon until December, and didn’t read it until last week.

Howard Bloom takes on the entire sweep of history (it’s subtitled “The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century”) in an attempt to tie together such disparate phenomena as quarks, genes, ants, and cultures into one overarching framework of an interconnected global brain. While I admire his chutzpah, I can’t say that he entirely succeeds at making a convincing case for how these phenomena inter-relate. However, it is still a fascinating book, because he mentions many interesting phenomena and results in passing. If I were motivated, I would go track down several of the papers that he refers to (he’s got a DFW-esque 65 pages of endnotes for a 223 page book, except that unlike DFW, his endnotes are mostly citations rather than commentary).

The concept that most resonated with me in this book was his observation of five essential elements that contribute to a “collective learning machine” (pp. 42-43):

  1. Conformity enforcers stamp enough cookie-cutter similarities into the members of a group to give it an identity…”
  2. Diversity generators spawn variety. Each individual represents a hypothesis in the communal mind…”
  3. Inner-judges are biological built-ins which continually take our measure, rewarding us when our contribution seems to be of value and punishing us when our guesswork proves unwelcome or way off the mark…”
  4. Resource shifters shunt riches, admiration, and influence to learning-machine members who cruise through challenges and give folks what they want. Meanwhile, resource shifters cast individuals who can’t get a handle on what’s going on into some equivalent of pennilessness and unpopularity…”
  5. Intergroup tournaments…force each collective intelligence, each group brain, to churn out innovations for the fun of winning or for sheer survival’s sake.”

This is a really concise analysis of the elements necessary for collective learning. Most of the rest of the book delves into specific examples of how each of these elements shows up in biology (e.g. the immune system), zoology (in insect societies, particularly in E.O. Wilson’s work studying ants), and in human society (e.g. the city states of Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece or the paradigmatic nature of the scientific establishment). You can see why Dav thought I’d be interested in this book, given that my post essentially was discussing the roles of Conformity Enforcers and Diversity Generators in social groups.

I don’t think that any of these ideas are new, by any means. While reading the book, I was reminded of Pirsig’s analysis in Lila, where he discusses Dynamic and Static Quality, where Dynamic Quality drove us ahead to try new things (Diversity Generators), and Static Quality was what latched new concepts that worked into a stable form (Conformity Enforcers). Or how even a community as anarchic as Burning Man requires some structure for it to function. But I thought Bloom did a good job of using a lot of varied examples to see how these principles are at work at many different scales, from the microscopic to the global.

I also liked many of the digressions. The chapter called “Reality is a Shared Hallucination” was a great summary of several studies I’d seen referred to, demonstrating that our senses are completely unreliable, because we are heavily influenced by what we “know”. The power of suggestion in combination with our yearning for conformity leads to ridiculous results where a few studies showed people claiming they saw things that were not even there after being prompted by somebody else. Some of the historical stuff was fascinating as well, as he traced out why he thought certain societies were more adaptable (they “learned” faster), thus eventually winning out.

I do take issue with some of his more lyrical flights. I’m not sure I buy the concept that a Global Brain has already emerged. This is a case where I think he’s stretching the metaphor too thin. I think it’s clear that society is growing ever more interconnected, with innovations being able to be spread worldwide almost instantaneously, but does that make it a brain? By Bloom’s definition of the five elements of a “collective learning machine”, it does. I’m not so sure. Same for his assertion that bacteria form a Global Brain of their own.

Overall, I thought Bloom has a good overall model that explains a lot. The book got bogged down occasionally (where by bogged down, I mean it spent time on stuff that didn’t interest me 🙂 ). But I liked his analysis of how individual elements can create something greater than themselves. I may even play around a bit in code to see if I can do something with the ideas. Maybe generate some virtual ants. Anyway.

He had some great quotes scattered throughout the book. I’ll share a couple here:

  • From the “Reality is a Shared Hallucination” chapter: “We are accustomed to use our eyes only with the memory of what other people before have thought about the object we are looking at.” – Guy du Maupassant. Oh so true. When we leave the movie theater, what’s the first thing anyone says? “What did you think?” We want to make sure our impressions are shared before we expose ourselves to public ridicule.
  • “Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are not sure that we are doubly sure. Fundamentalism is, therefore, inevitable in an age which has destroyed so many certainties by which faith once expressed itself and upon which it relied.” – Reinhold Niebuhr. Which reminded me of Carse’s quip that “The believer can’t believe without the non-believer.”