After the Web, can a ‘worldwide mind’ be far behind?

(Centennial Fellow) Something like the noosphere of a vast, interconnected human consciousness may soon be with us, or maybe not, but watch out as amazing things come our way, mind–over–matter things that will make some of the Internet and Google surprises of today seem as outdated as my old, dusty Underwood typewriter.

I used to bang that clickety–clack instrument for a living. I loved the sound, loved the speed of it and pitied reporters of yore who tried to make deadline writing longhand. Now I keep it around as an antique to show off to grandchildren who may at some juncture find themselves explaining to younger generations how the Internet worked before you could just think yourself to its information.

Are we getting there? Back in 2004, The Washington Post ran a story about a New York State man who sometimes donned a cap of sensors. Incredibly, it enabled him transmit brainwaves nudging a computer cursor wherever he wanted it to go. Others were accomplishing the same feat in other experiments, and in 2006, The New York Times told us about Matthew Nagle.

Paralyzed below the neck, he had one sensor placed inside his brain to help compensate. With it, we’re told, he mentally “moved a cursor, opened e–mail, played a simple video game called Pong and drew a crude circle on the screen. He could change the channel or volume on a television set, move a robot arm somewhat, and open and close a prosthetic hand.”

Let’s move to 2011 and The New York Review of Books.

In that magazine, Sue Halpern recounts similar stories as she reviews three books, one of them “World Wide Mind” by Michael Chorost. A decade ago, he had what’s known as a BCI—“brain–computer interface”—stuck in each of his inner ears. They ridded him of deafness, and because of that and his research, he’s convinced most of us will someday before long have the Internet implanted in our brains.

Just by giving it some thought, we’ll be able to view in our minds anything we want from the Web. We’ll all be really, really connected and very, very smart.

Halpern, a noted author, raises interesting questions. She posits that facts and information are not equivalent to intelligence and knowledge, points to some of the overwhelming complications of a brain chip doing this job and notes a long–ago work predicting much the same thing right away. Briefly, she considers the ethical conundrum of using medical devices to enhance human capacities as opposed to fixing incapacity.

Before she ends, though, she writes about English scientists enabling people to exchange simple mental signals with sensor headgear and tells how a U.S. defense agency is working on helmets allowing soldiers to communicate with nothing but thoughts. Though I am minus such a helmet, here are two of my own thoughts, the first of which is that the Internet itself is so incredible that it emboldens the imagination in considering further possibilities.

Again and again, literally hundreds of times, I discover on my computer in minutes what it could take a day, weeks or months—if ever—to discover any other way. The Web contains almost 14 billion pages of virtually endless material of all kinds. It is immediately accessible, although, yes, it requires discernment. So does the material outside the Internet.

The second thought is about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit who mixed paleontology, philosophy and theology and theorized before his death in 1955 about what he and some others called the noosphere (from Greek meaning something like “mind globe”) …

It is in his speculating a final evolutionary stage described as a universal human network of unified and integrated awareness and communication, and as you read about this online and in books you cannot help thinking of e–mails, Facebook, blogs, Wikipedia, Twitter and texting. All have changed the world dramatically to something a little like the noosphere idea.

You then think about the sensor experiments and scientific assurance of how computers will get ever smaller as content gets ever larger, and you realize that whether or not it is exactly a complete Chardin–style noosphere that’s coming, it is going to be an astounding sphere.


Jay Ambrose, was formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver. He is now a columnist living in Colorado and a Centennial Institute Fellow.

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