Your Passport to the Metabrain

Last week, I came across a fascinating talk by Donna Haraway titled Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble. In the talk she introduces and unpacks the idea of the Cthulhucene: a construct that combines the legend of Cthulhu, a view of humans based on the Ood aliens in Doctor Who, the legend of Medusa, and Ursula LeGuin's Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, into a fascinatingly weird view of the emerging human condition and the human mind. Combined with Tiago Forte's idea of Evernote as a technological second brain, which is as mundane and practical (in the best possible sense) as Haraway's vision is weird and speculative, you have the ingredients for a very fertile way of thinking about humans in the emerging computational condition.

I don't entirely agree with how Haraway constructs the whole picture (the potential richness of her view is, in my view significantly compromised by being too steeped in academic feminist-Marxist traditions and too-narrow environmental concerns), but I do really think she's on to something with the specific building blocks she's chosen. So with due apologies, here is my own attempt at taking the same building blocks and constructing a vision of the emerging metabrain, which I view as a sort of alternative to both Haraway's compassion-based triadic narrative  (Anthropocene. Capitalocene, Cthuluhucene) and the Singularity-AGI view of the future favored by "rationalist" techies. I have also made heavy use of building blocks stolen (and overloaded) from Tiago Forte, and ideas on human social dynamics stolen from my co-blogger on ribbonfarm, Sarah Perry, and used in ways she would probably consider perverse. So here we go, your guide and passport to the metabrain.

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The Reverse-Ood human condition and the metabrain.

1/ We think about digital social technology with a connection metaphor: the social graph. In this metaphor other people form a space we enter via connections.

2/ I want to introduce you to the alternative non-exclusive mutual containment metaphor: the social hind-brain. In this metaphor, each of us has a second brain which other people inhabit.

3/ In the past, including other people in your second brain meant enslaving them and limiting their agency. Containment meant collection. Literally in the case of serfs, slaves, or PoWs “collected” into land holdings and forced-labor camps.

4/ I wrote about connection versus collection in my blog post, The Exercise of Authoritah (not a misspelling, a reference to Eric Cartman's 'Respect my Authoritah' line in South Park)

5/ In the non-exclusive mutual containment metaphor, however, each of us exists as both a living conscious being, and as an evolving digital ghost presence that others can include in their second brains.

6/ For concreteness, consider this email list of 4500 odd. Only a small minority of you also have your own email lists. But what if ALL did and we were all on each other’s lists.

7/ Imagine that participation inequality — the 90:9:1 rule — applied. For each of us, 1% of subscribers (450) would be active conversation partners, 9% (405) would be casual commenters, and 90% (4050) would be lurkers.

8/ This is very different from the idea of a single shared hive mind. There are 4500 different hive minds here, each with a different 90:9:1 "neural" structure and interconnections within them.

9/ The themes of the 4500 email lists, the writing style, collaborative thinking style, Q&A style, socialization style, all would make each second brain very unique.

10/ And this is just email and text mediated semi-public relationships. Once you take into account for the media mix, content types, and access structure each of uses, you get serious uniqueness.

11/ In fact, each of us maintains an entire city-like social space, with a variety of formal and tacit rules, gatekeeping processes, conversations flows, memory structures (Evernote, blogs) and so on. Our second brains are complete societies of other minds.

12/ How these societies get “filled up” over time as we age and non-coercively “collect” other people is non-trivial. I recommend Sarah Perry’s excellent post The Essence of Peopling for insight.

13/ If you couple this concept of a second brain with the idea of fingers of mind, or Fingerspitzengehful, which we talked about last season, you get a very different sense of your species nature.

14/ Even with hardware hacking of the human brain and body, we are already a very different species than the one that inhabits our default self-perceptions.

15/ We are like the reverse of the Ood species in Doctor Who. We use technological prosthetics to create a universe of hive minds, to which we’re connected via a sub-linguistic digital tissue.

16/ In Dr Who, the Ood were a peaceful, telepathic hive mind species enslaved by future humans, who sever the connections to the collective turning them into individual beings.

17/ The connection is replaced by a prosthetic that enables them to speak language and exist as individuals, but estranged from their essentially collective nature.

18/ This of course not particularly opaque (or novel) commentary on how humans have historically enslaved other humans by destroying community and using estranged humans as machine cogs.

19/ But humans are neither as collective and hive-mind-like as the Ood, nor as individualistic as many earth species. We just use ideology to wishfully mark where we think we are on the spectrum.

20/ Leftists place us more towards the global collective end. Libertarians place us towards the individualist end. Conservatives focus on connection structures rather than degree.

21/ There is truth to all three ideological views of our species nature. Technology today allows each of these abstract ideologies to be concretely realized via actual connection modalities.

22/ As you might expect, the old “containment as exclusive collection" ethos is not dead. Many would like to see social media turn into new serfdoms defined by unified collectives. No opting out (did you know you can't block Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook? 😂)

23/ But the idea that each of us has a unique, individual, social hindbrain is much more powerful and generative. Why enslave each other when we can put partial digital copies of ourselves in each other’s second brains?

24/ This newsletter itself is an example of second-brain work: I have used the living ideas/work of several people, whom I know to varying degrees, for my own ends, without "enslaving" them on my manorial estate.

25/ The second brain, or social hindbrain (I use the terms interchangeably) would be useless without a corresponding evolution in the structure of our agency.

26/ Today, 12,000-15,000 years after the Neolithic revolution, we have evolved far beyond being dependent on our muscles and opposable thumbs, guided primarily by our eyes and ears.

27/ Our sensory-tactile loop, through which our two-brained minds acts in the world, is now much more a metaphoric tactile structure of tentacles, emanating from our face like the Ood: the fingers of our mind.

28/ We are neither in an  new Age of Enlightenment as rationalists hope, nor in an age of Dark Enlightenment as reactionaries hope. Instead, we’ve turned into hypertactile creatures.

29/ Anything we can do with the visual-aural-tactile loop, machines can already do better, or soon will. What we are getting better at is things that require the “fingers of the mind.”

30/ Programming is the classic example. You grope your way in the dark, so to speak, through complex, ever-changing toolchains and stacks far beyond our sensory capacities.

31/ These tools are based on advanced mathematics (such as category theory for functional programming) far beyond the 3d visualizable geometries we can intuitively navigate with eyes.

32/ Unlike our ancestors, who threw spears at mammoths using the eye-ear-arm-hand loop, programmers act on the world through feedback structures like REPL (read-eval-print loop)

33/ More and more things that humans do will involve feedback structures like the REPL loop that interface with entire armies of bots and machines spanning the datacenter-to-Internet-of-things gap at planet scale.

34/ As we are each developing a unique second brain, a social hindbrain, with which to think, we are also collectively developing a planet-scale shared body through which to act.

35/ Conflicts over use of the body — two programmers fighting to control the smart traffic grid of a city full of driverless cars for instance — will be mediated by conflicts between two extended minds.

36/ I covered the nature of this larger-scale human/machine coordination in last Season's newsletter, Premature Synchronization is the Root of All Evil.

37/ Our individual second brains — theoretically 7 billion of them — are only the lowest layer of a much more complex emerging meta-brain containing brains of all scales.

38/ This metabrain is neither individualist nor collective. Neither a stifling, claustrophobic condition of forced "belonging" and Borg-like "assimilation", nor a terrifying one of isolation.

39/ Instead, it's a higher-dimensional version of our current one-dimensional individual-to-collective notion of social possibilities. It includes ways of being for which we have no words.

40/ In this emerging metabrain, questions like "are you an introvert or extrovert" behave as weirdly as matter at near-speed-of-light velocities.

41/ Today's metabrain is a clumsy and wobbly structure of industrial age institutions — marriages, families, cities, nations, corporations.

42/ This industrial metabrain works by applying mutually-exclusive-collectively-exhaustive (MECE) territorial “collection” logic to minds and fingers. I discussed it in The Zemblanity of Containers. 

43/ Within a couple of centuries, we will probably have a meta-brain based on non-MECE contaiment logic. Each human will flexibly move around within a much vaster space than today.

44/ Yes, science-fictional, but there are no essential scientific or technological roadblocks preventing this future, and a variety of signs already point in this direction.

45/ Today, we use vague, abstract concepts like egregores to think about ideologies, nations, communities, and Arendtian publics, to understand the human condition.

46/ We are entering an age where all such abstractions can take concrete, literal form through technologies as far beyond Twitter as Twitter is beyond a campfire or traditional public square.

47/ Future generations might think of our clumsy social groping on twitter and primitive “IoT hacks” and “troll mobs” the way we think of cavewomen gathering berries in baskets and cavemen fumbling with fire and spears.

48/ They will laugh at our impoverished and primitive imagination, evident in ideas like the Singularity, Gaia, or a single Borg-like hive mind, the way astronomers laugh at astrologers today.

49/ But even the limited form of the emerging future that exists today is an enormous challenge for our psyches, evolved for speech-and-text based collectivism and muscle power agency.

50/ So what can you do, today in 2017, to start living in even the limited form of this future that exists?

51/ You can consciously learn to use your second brain and extended body: your extended phenotype as Richard Dawkins called it.

52/ The key to using your second brain well is to switch from the connection metaphor to the non-exclusive containment metaphor, and consciously design how other humans “people” it. Your brain has a public square attached now.

53/ First, as a friend of mine once said, “if you keep an open mind, other people will throw trash in it.” The alternative is not a closed mind, but a managed, consciously peopled second brain, evolved as carefully as a beehive (you’re the queen).

54/ Second, you must learn to be a good citizen of other people’s second brains, to the extent you’re an active participant in them. If you are like me, almost everything you do involves being a neuron in others’ second brains.

55/ Remember, every link you pass along, every action you suggest, is a neuron firing in the second brain of somebody who is struggling as hard as you are to get comfy in their new digitally extended skins.

56/ Third, think of your ways of acting as technological tentacles emerging from where your mouth is. Your actions are always “programming” the live behavior of complex technological systems.

57/ Stop thinking of typing a tweet, for example, as 140 characters worth of hand-eye coordination. You are sending a quiver down a planet-scale tentacle that causes movement in tens of thousands of devices.

58/ Thinking with your second brain does not feel like either work or play, nor does it feel like either individual or collective modes of being. The first, biological brain is simple not used to the feel of the second brain.

59/ To the first brain, an active second brain feels like somewhat tiring, exhausting, futile, dissipative, yet oddly addictive “wasting time on social media” or “idle browsing” or “Evernote cut-and-paste going nowhere”

60/ Compared to the delightful feel of working on a clean math problem, writing a poem, solving a puzzle, or "shipping" a product, second-brain thinking feels like long periods of pointless messiness interspersed with short bursts of weird-fun play.

61/ Similarly, compared to the harmonious, positive feels of say cooking a leisurely meal or playing a musical instrument alone, working through your technological tentacles via fingers-of-mind feels ugly and awkward.

62/ Recognize both feelings and states for what they are, and get used to managing them. If you reject them as “unnatural” you will never learn to tell the good and bad apart within this emerging experiential space.

63/ Inhabiting modernity with a second social hindbrain and planet-scale tentacular hypertactile form of agency is, as Sarah Perry puts it, a messy condition. Whether it's a good or bad mess is up to you.

64/ Instead of yearning romantically, as Hannah Arendt did, for the lost Greek polis as the ideal of a "public," you have to situate your Arendtian action in a roll-your-own community within the metabrain.

65/ And if you’re ever inclined to doubt that you can indeed use a social second brain and your tentacles in leveraged ways that lead to great power, just think of Donald Trump.

66/ Trump comes across as a sort of chaosbot/ubertroll who operates by very simple button-pushing. This has made him one of the first truly powerful inhabitants of the metabrain.

67/ His rise is in a way a revenge of every person who has ever been dismissed with the programmer’s insult, “I will replace you with a very small shell script.”

68/ Obama suavely mocking Trump in 2011 for his Birtherism was that kind of (well-deserved) insult. You can sense Trump’s rage in the this video. The bot has had its revenge now.

69/ But the fact that he’s one of the first true reverse-Oods does not mean he’s the best or the last. Anymore than the fact that porn is usually an early adopter of technology makes the economy porn-based.

70/ The rest of us are slower in moving into this metabrain condition because we are, to our credit, being more thoughtful about it. We are not as willing to hurt and abuse along the way.

71/ This is a good thing. If the entry condition for entering the metabrain is to be a small, abusive script, and leaving the better side of human nature behind, then the passport is not worth having.

72/ Figure out how to enter the metabrain on your own terms, and take what’s good and worthwhile about you. But don’t be too quick to judge good/bad as you pack your baggage.

73/ I’ll leave you with this fascinating essay, Ursula LeGuin’s Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction, which is perhaps one of the best ways of understanding the narrative we are merging into.

74/ From the point-of-view of industrial age politics, LeGuin's model is a feminist alternative to masculine theories of narrative based on breakaway heroic individual Arendtian action.

75/ But from the point of view digital age mental models, the "carrier bag" is simply a good way of thinking about the continuities of the human condition, beyond categories like male/female.

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Check out the 20 Breaking Smart Season 1 essays for the deeper context behind this newsletter. If you're interested in bringing the Season 1 workshop to your organization, get in touch. You can follow me on Twitter @vgr

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