Hyperintelligence

I

What happens after we’re all connected? This is a question that we never thought to ask as we wired the planet up with telegraph and telephone and radio and television and Internet. It’s a question we never think to ask as we unwire the planet with mobile telephones and wireless broadband. So, without even understanding our goals, we have seven hundred million individuals using the Internet, and somewhere over a billion carrying mobile phones.

But this is not a story of numbers. Such stories belong to an earlier time, when we all moved as one, a singular mass mind synchronized in common purpose through a singular message, a singular voice, delivered through the singular medium of broadcasting – radio or television, it matters not – which allowed one person to reach everyone, everywhere, with a single message.

This is not that story.

The lines which bind us, one to another, flow in all directions. The center can not hold, for there is no longer any center, no point from which emanates the message for the mass mind. Instead, we have conversations, arguments, expressions, presentations, stories, movies, voices and songs – “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” – a communion; a community of communication.

This is the story I wish to tell.

We believed that when we connected ourselves together, there would be certain benefits. We believed we knew what these benefits were, and that they were sufficient in themselves to justify all the investment of money and time. We knew we would be able to reach each other, anywhere in the world, using electronic mail; that we would all be able to participate in the creation of the Web. These two were seductive enough to entice us to lay the wires down, and then to free ourselves of these same wires. We expected that a free flow of communication would improve relations, increase productivity, make us more effective – socially and economically – but even as we plotted and planned and built the network, we overlooked the power of numbers.

Connecting ten people together in a network is one thing, and we can perhaps predict what might happen. Connecting a billion is something else altogether – and this we did not recognize, because we had no precedent, no way to understand what was about to transpire.

Individuals in a network coordinate their efforts; in short order we see the emergence of new forms of organization. With a small group of people these effects become pronounced in hours and days. With vast numbers of people this process takes months and years – so many years, in fact, that only now are we able to perceive what has begun to emerge…

Let us call it “hyperconnectivity.”

Each of us are connected, not just to a few others, but to a billion. We need not be aware of this hyperconnectivity for it to have its full effect. Hyperconnectivity is not a tsunami which overwhelms by sheer force of numbers; rather, it is like a vast sea wherein we all float, supported gently by the efforts of all.

And this sea is full of wonders never dreamt of.

Australia, my home, is also the home of the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living organism on Earth. It is built up from the efforts of billions of animals and plants, which, over countless thousands of years, have created their own environment, literally changing the ocean’s currents as they built themselves up. The Reef has become a uniquely rich environment, a rainforest of the seas. No one creature is responsible for it – rather, it is the emergent result of many billions of creatures pursuing their own aims over vast stretches of time. None of these willed the Reef into being, yet all benefit from it.

Such is the situation we find ourselves in now.

II

Coral build themselves up on the skeletons of their ancestors, each generation, when it passes, becoming a layer of rock to support their children, and children’s children. Each coral does what they naturally do, and out of that activity an order emerges which benefits all. So we, in our desire to make sense of the world, seek to learn about it, and seek to pass that knowledge along to subsequent generations. This knowledge comes in pieces, as it has since greatest antiquity, and is collected carefully, maintained for the benefit of posterity. That’s what we do, the great human project which started when we came into being on the savannas of Africa. But it was difficult; there is only so much any one person can know, only so many tales they can pass along to the their children, and only so much time to tell those tales. Knowledge once gained could easily be lost – and was, over and again, through the rise and fall of the civilizations before history, through Egypt and Rome, through Dark Ages and Renaissance, through Reformation and Enlightenment. Though it all we learned to code that information into characters, and put these characters into scrolls and books; but scrolls decay, and books can be burnt. Knowledge has always been a delicate thing, subject to fashion and fad, to politics and prejudice. And no one man could ever know all – even before the Alexandrian Library submitted to the flames, a philosopher could only hope to specialize in some form of learning. Some studied rhetoric, others, history, others, science, and others, theology.

We know little of what the ancients knew; most of that has been lost. It is as if the Earth swallowed up the written works of Greece and Rome, and left us only with the ruins of their buildings. Those intellectual foundations, so carefully laid, disappeared without a trace. The few works that remained – Aristotle, Euclid and Plato – became the root stock from which our own civilization grew. Virgil, rediscovered, became the muse for Dante, who would, in his turn, serve as muse to Boccacio, who would, in turn, would serve as muse to Chaucer. Thus, in fits and starts, did the tottering enterprise of humanity reboot after a lost millennium. Thus did we begin again to lay the foundations of knowledge for posterity.

And what a foundation. This time the works did not disappear, but multiplied with such bewildering rapidity that, by the eighteenth century, vast libraries could hardly contain all we knew. One could build upon the researches of another – using the information stored in cheap, mass-produced books – and add their own brick to the edifice of human knowledge. The British Library, the largest in the world, holds 150 million publications, adding three million a year. The Vatican Library, tiny only in comparison, contains over a million volumes, with some precious few surviving from the prelapsarian days, before the Fall of Rome, but many, many more from the time since the invention of the printing press. For all its antiquity, the Vatican Library was among the first to embrace the era of hyperconnectivity, placing vast portions of its collection online. The import of this act can not be understated; it sensitized an entire global community to the importance of the Web as a resource; that it could, and eventually would become the global repository for all human knowledge. That seemed an incredible and worthy goal – one which portrayed, even for all its ambition, only the tiniest glimmer of what would actually happen.

It is wonderful that the Vatican Library is online; but it is not significant. Nor that Google intends to scan, index and make available the libraries at Stanford University, Harvard University, or even – should they wish – the Library of Congress. It’s nice, but not necessary. The one thing we have learned about hyperconnectivity – perhaps the only thing we have yet learned about it – is that people are more vital and meaningful repositories of information than any book. It only required that people be connected – that is, hyperconnected – for this quality to emerge.

We are each masters of our own domain; each of us knows something that others do not: specific, peculiar and unquestionably important – to someone. One man’s trivia is another’s vital fact. Only now can we see the truth of this, now that when we can, like so many billions of corals, build up our own little cells of knowledge, individually, yet in unconscious concert with millions of others who have the same desire to share what they know. Individually the actions are innocent, and without direction; collectively they result in the biggest transformation in human knowledge since the birth of language a hundred thousand years ago. This is the emergence of “hyperintelligence”, the collective creation of a billion individuals, amplifying the intelligence of each one of us. To achieve hyperintelligence we need only contribute from our capabilities, but the sum of a billion capabilities, multiplied across a billion minds, is mighty indeed. Anything known to the best of us can now be used by the least of us.

This is what we had not planned upon, although, in retrospect, it seems perfectly obvious.

Consider Wikipedia. Wikipedia was originally born as Nupedia, a Web-based encyclopedia created by experts, but freely available to everyone. It seems like a wonderful idea – but it failed as a business. Nupedia hired academics to write the tens of thousands of articles any encyclopedia must contain. But the time Nupedia had grown to just 15,000 articles, it collapsed, a victim of the 2000 economic downturn of the Web. Nupedia passed away, but in dying, it became something far greater. It became the seed for Wikipedia.

The founders of Nupedia took those 15,000 articles – which they owned outright – and put them into the public domain. As before, anyone could access these articles freely, but now the public could also edit these same articles, using a simple web technology known as “wiki”. Rechristened “Wikipedia,” it launched on the 15th of January in 2001.

People came to Wikipedia because they wanted facts; but as it became clear that people could also add their own facts to Wikipedia – creating their own encyclopedia entries on any subject they might desire – Wikipedia caught fire. There are many things that you won’t find in an encyclopedia – any encyclopedia – which are nevertheless vitally important to some small community of people. Within Wikipedia, these communities – whether mathematicians, hard-core video gamers, or avid fans of football – had a place where they could share the depths of their knowledge, placing it into a common repository, to benefit everyone. This sharing of expertise encouraged others to share their own expertise, everyone digging into their own stores of knowledge, creating a “virtuous cycle” of contributions, corrections, amendments and refinements which gradually improved the overall quality of Wikipedia. As Wikipedia grew bigger, people found it more useful. Once people found Wikipedia useful, they became likely to contribute their own articles. So Wikipedia grew even larger, became even more useful, until – in just five years – Wikipedia grew from 15,000 articles to well over two million, in several dozen languages. Wikipedia is now the 15th most visited site on the entire Internet, and has become an indispensable primary reference for anyone who wants to know something about almost anything. And if, by some chance, what you’re looking for isn’t among its articles, Wikipedia will invite you to create your own article on the subject.

Wikipedia is something new; it’s not just a dry directory of facts, like its nearest competitor, Encyclopedia Britannica. Because it has been created by all of us, for all of us, its interests range as broadly as our own; Wikipedia has become the Codex of Culture, the place where all things of interest to humanity – sacred, secular, vital and trivial – have been gathered together. Wikipedia is the first artifact of the age of hyperintelligence. It’s not just a scan of the books from the world’s biggest libraries. It’s far more than that. It’s the living embodiment of the human world inside our own heads – something that could never fit into the pages of any book. And Wikipedia is still evolving. Thousands of articles are added every day; the speed at which articles are being added to Wikipedia is accelerating. It seems as though we will not be satisfied with Wikipedia until we have plucked every bit of knowledge from the inside of every head on Earth, and placed it all within its bounds. What is the whole extent of human knowledge? No one knows. But it seems, with Wikipedia, we’re about to find out. We’re going get a look at just what treasures lay inside of a billion human minds. Wikipedia is the Great Barrier Reef of human knowledge, built up from the actions of millions of individuals into something so large it can be seen from space.

III

What does it mean to be a billion times smarter? No one really knows. It’s still too early, and this is all too new to make any realistic statements about hyperintelligence. It’s not as though all of this knowledge has been dumped into our brains; they’d explode from the pressure. Rather, it’s that the information is immediately available, and always at hand. It’s there when you need it, for as long as you need it, then it vanishes again, like fog on a sunny day. We aren’t used to the fact that we can know nearly anything we might want to know. It’s not yet part of our understanding of how the world works. Our children will grow up believing that hyperintelligence is a natural part of the environment, much as our grandparents, who grew up in a world of pervasive electricity, took that for granted. (We don’t even notice electricity anymore, except in its absence.) But over the next several years, as we adjust to the gentle and pervasive invasion of hyperintelligence, we’ll be learning what it means to be, if not omniscient, at least a lot more capable.

Much of what we’ll be learning will concern how to deal with this unprecedented surplus of knowledge. Knowledge is everywhere, freely available, but hyperintelligence doesn’t confer any great wisdom: this is the paradox, and the danger of hyperintelligence: it amplifies capability without a consequent increase in understanding. Understanding is distinct from knowledge, because understanding is knowledge embodied – it is knowledge plus experience. Understanding can’t be stored on a computer, or even found in the pages of a book. Understanding is uniquely human.

If we had hyperintelligence without hyperconnectivity, the result could only be disaster; each of us would harness hyperintelligence with no sense of the wisdom of our actions. Hyperconnectivity allows us to check ourselves against our peers – our family, our friends, our co-workers – so that we can grow into an understanding of our knowledge. In an age of hyperconnectivity we can reach out to someone who has understanding, who can guide us into understanding. We are all teachers, we are all mentors, just as we are all students and apprentices. Hyperintelligence and hyperconnectivity are the twin forces which are shaping the world of the 21st century; hyperintelligence creates opportunity, while hyperconnectivity transforms opportunity into reality.

We will see hyperconnectivity become increasingly important; we rely on it already to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground, but we will use our ever-expanding networks of connections to amplify our own personal capacities. The individual can do much; the individual in an organization or institution can do even more, but the individuals in a hyperconnected community, those individuals can change the world. When you multiply hyperintelligence with the understanding gathered in a hyperconnected community, you have the real force of the 21st century; not bombs, not ideology, but hyperpeople.

Hyperpeople pool their understanding freely, each seeking only to improve the effectiveness of their peers; they experience has shown them that the more they can share their own understanding, the more valuable it becomes, because the community gains in proportion to its understanding. Hyperpeople are the businessmen, the politicians, and – yes – the revolutionaries of the 21st century. Hyperpeople harness hyperintelligence in ways which will make them far more effective, in every situation, than individuals. Hyperpeople will cooperate – must cooperate – but they will also compete, and they will out-compete any except those who adopt the same techniques. In a brief flurry of human cultural evolution – perhaps a generation or two – we’ll see all of homo sapiens drawn into collections of hyperpeople. Just as the transformation from hunter-gatherer to farmer, and farmer to factory worker transformed the entire world, so this transition will sweep up the mass of humanity, and leave us deposited on another shore, in a different culture.

What this culture will be like, we can not say. We do not live in that world, though a few of the artifacts of that world are already among us. The seeds of the future surround us in the present. We can see the engines of civilization firing up, we can feel the push of acceleration, and we can sense that we are headed off somewhere entirely new. But we aren’t leaving our humanity behind; this transition will only make us more human. Hyperpeople are compelled toward authenticity, because the authentic is the only ground for understanding. Any deceit, any guile will only fetter the progress of this new human endeavor. We will lose our ignorance – that will come as a shock to some, and as a welcome release to others.

The vast, civilization-wide battles simmering today – between Right and Left, Christian and Muslim, White and Black – all have their roots in this transition. We are being asked to surrender our beliefs, in favor of hyperconnectivity and hyperintelligence. Should we choose to hold fast to the comfortable and seemingly angelic in a reaction to the threat of new and seemingly demonic, we will simply be left behind, hunter-gatherers in a world which holds no place for our kind. Nietzsche wrote that the new culture always appears demonic to the old. But we must confront our demons – both the old ones and the new – and learn to discern which is the appropriate path for humanity, for our children, for ourselves. It will be difficult – because so much is being asked of us. But we have the tools already at hand, and we are learning to use them; that alone is transforming us out of all recognition. We are already well on the way to becoming hyperpeople.

7 thoughts on “Hyperintelligence

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