Towards Healthy Virtual Selves for Collective Groups

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Nova Spivack, on how to build the global mind.


These excerpts make a good case for the need of collective intersubjective maturation and how we can facilitate its emergence.


1. Individual Selves and their insufficient levels of integration

“The global superorganism is already conscious, in my opinion, but it has not achieved very high resolution or unity. This is because most humans, and most human groups and organizations, have only been able to achive the most basic levels of consciousness themselves. Since humans, and groups of humans, comprise the consciousness of the global superorganism, our individual and collective conscious evolution is directly related to the conscious evolution of the superorganism as a whole. This is why it is important for individuals and groups to work on their own consciousnesses. Consciousness is “there” as a basic property of the physical substrate, but like mass or energy, it can be channelled and accumulated and shaped. Currently the consciousness that is present in us as individuals, and in groups of us, is at best, nascent and underdeveloped.

In our young, dualistic, materialistic, and externally-obsessed civilization, we have made very little progress on working with consciousness. Instead we have focused most or all of our energy on working with certain other more material-seeming aspects of the substrate — space, time and energy. In my opinion a civilization becomes fully mature when it spends equal if not more time on the concsiousness dimension of the substrate. That is something we are just beginning to work on, thanks to the strangeness of quantum mechanics breaking our classical physical paradims and forcing us to admit that consciousness might play a role in our reality.

But there are ways to speed up the evolution of individual and collective consciousness, and in doing so we can advance our civilization as a whole. I have lately been writing and speaking about this in more detail.

On an individual level one way to rapidly develop our own consciousness is the path of meditation and spirituality — this is most important and effective. There may also be technological improvements, such as augmented reality, or sensory augmentation, that can improve how we perceive, and what we perceive. In the not too distant future we will probably have the opportunity to dramatically improve the range and resolution of our sense organs using computers or biological means. We may even develop new senses that we cannot imagine yet. In addition, using the Internet for example, we will be able to be aware of more things at once than ever before. But ultimately, the scope of our individual consciousness has to develop on an internal level in order to truly reach higher levels of resolution and unity. Machine augmentation can help perhaps, but it is not a substitute for actually increasing the capacity of our consciousnesses. For example, if we use machines to get access to vastly more data, but our consciousnesses remain at a relatively low-capacity level, we may not be able to integrate or make use of all that new data anyway.”

2. Providing collectives with healthy virtual selves

“On a collective level, there are also things we can do to make groups, organizations and communities more conscious. In particular, we can build systems that do for groups what the “self construct” does for individuals.

The self is an illusion. And that’s good news. If it wasn’t an illusion we could never see through it and so for one thing spiritual enlightenment would not be possible to achieve. Furthermore, if it wasn’t an illusion we could never hope to synthesize it for machines, or for large collectives. The fact that “self” is an illusion is something that Buddhist, neuroscientists, and cognitive scientists all seem to agree on. The self is an illusion, a mere mental construct. But it’s a very useful one, when applied in the right way. Without some concept of self we humans would find it difficult to communicate or even navigate down the street. Similarly, without some concept of self groups, organizations and communities also cannot function very productively.

The self construct provides an entity with a model of itself, and its environment. This model includes what is taking place “inside” and what is taking place “outside” what is considered to be self or “me.” By creating this artificial boundary, and modelling what is taking place on both sides of the boundary, the self construct is able to measure and plan behavior, and to enable a system to adjust and adapt to “itself” and the external environment. Entities that have a self construct are able to behave far more intelligently than those which do not. For example, consider the difference between the intelligence of a dog and that of a human. Much of this is really a difference in the sophistication of the self-constructs of these two different species. Human selves are far more self-aware, introspective, and sophisticated than that of dogs. They are equally conscious, but humans have more developed self-constructs. This applies to simple AI programs as well, and to collective intelligences such as workgroups, enterprises, and online communities. The more sophisticated the self-construct, the smarter the system can be.

The key to appropriate and effective application of the self-construct is to develop a healthy self, rather than to eliminate the self entirely. Eradication of the self is form of nihilism that leads to an inability to function in the world. That is not something that Buddhist or neuroscientists advocate. So what is a healthy self? In an individual, a healthy self is a construct that accurately represents past, present and projected future internal and external state, and that is highly self-aware, rational but not overly so, adaptable, respectful of external systems and other beings, and open to learning and changing to fit new situations. The same is true for a healthy collective self. However, most individuals today do not have healthy selves — they have highly delluded, unhealthy self-constructs. This in turn is reflected in the higher-order self-constructs of the groups, organizations and communities we build.

One of the most important things we can work on now is creating systems that provide collectives — groups, organizations and communities — with sophisticated, healthy, virtual selves. These virtual selves provide collectives with a mirror of themselves. Having a mirror enables the members of those systems to see the whole, and how they fit in. Once they can see this they can then begin to adjust their own behavior to fit what the whole is trying to do. This simple mirroring function can catalyze dramatic new levels of self-organization and synchrony in what would otherwise be a totally chaotic “crowd” of individual entities.”

3. Three levels in the creation of healthy collective selves

“I think that collectives move through three levels of development:

  • Level 1: Crowds.

Crowds are collectives in which the individuals are not aware of the whole and in which there is no unified sense of identity or purpose. Nevertheless crowds do intelligent things. Consider for example, schools of fish, or flocks of birds. There is no single leader, yet the individuals, by adapting to what their nearby neighbors are doing, behave collectively as a single entity of sorts. Crowds are amoebic entities that ooze around in a bloblike fashion. They are not that different from physical models of gasses.

  • Level 2: Groups.

Groups are the next step up from crowds. Groups have some form of structure, which usually includes a system for command and control. They are more organized. Groups are capable of much more directed and intelligent behaviors. Families, cities, workgroups, sports teams, armies, universities, corporations, and nations are examples of groups. Most groups have intelligences that are roughly similar to that of simple animals. They may have a primitive sense of identity and self, and on the basis of that, they are capable of planning and acting in a more coordinated fashion.

  • Level 3: Meta-Individuals.

The highest level of collective intelligence is the meta-individual. This emerges when what was once a crowd of separate individuals, evolves to become a new individual in its own right, and is faciliated by the formation of a sophisticated meta-level self-construct for the collective. This evolutionary leap is called a metasystem transition — the parts join together to form a new higher-order whole that is made of the parts themselves. This new whole resembles the parts, but transcends their abilities. To evolve a collective to the level of being a true individual, it has to have a well-designed nervous system, it has to have a collective brain and mind, and most importantly it has to achieve a high-level of collective consciousness. High level collective consciousness requires a sophisticated collective self construct to serve as a catalyst. Fortunately, this is something we can actually build, because as has been asserted previously, self is an illusion, a consturct, and therefore selves can be built, even for large collectives comprised of millions or billions of members.” (