This is part 5 in a 12 part series.
:: conscious awareness ::
A recent article in the New York Times, Building One Big Brain, prompted me to write up the next skill in this 12 part series. The piece quotes Nicholas Carr’s opinions about how the Internet is reducing the “capacity for concentration and contemplation,” scattering our attention and reducing our ability to focus.
It goes on to posit that “technology is weaving humans into electronic webs that resemble big brains.” (It’s nice to see this concept going mainstream… we talked about that idea here last November in the ‘Twitter’s Intelligent, Welcome to Web 3.0” post ). The next stage in the line of thinking is that this process is part of our species evolution:
Could it be that, in some sense, the point of evolution – both the biological evolution that created an intelligent species and the technological evolution that a sufficiently intelligent species is bound to unleash – has been to create these social brains, and maybe even to weave them into a giant, loosely organized planetary brain? Kind of in the way that the point of the maturation of an organism is to create an adult organism?
The article didn’t treat the evolution of technology as something that was going to happen outside of us, such as a machine intelligence that will outpace us, as the technological singularity implies. (which may also happen, though). Rather, it suggests something more akin to a process of evolutionary development, in which interconnectivity and cooperation will indicate a move towards higher intelligence. The ideas reminded me of the work being done by John Stewart and the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Research Group on intentional evolution. Check his Evolutionary Manifesto.
As someone who spends much of my time online, both of the premises of the article – decreased focused attention and increased potential for a distributed consciousness – do resonate. But, I do wonder if an intelligent planetary brain is going to emerge without some intention and conscious awareness on our part.
Call it Presence, the Buddhist concept of Mindfulness, or a version of meditation, but I see this increase in hyperconnectivity forcing us to adopt some type of mental practices in order to be highly functioning and effective humans. While the Web is a tool that does allow us to extend our minds, our identities, and our worldviews, it can also be a trap that sucks us in to compulsive behaviors that can be practically incapacitating. I experience it myself – trying to read every semi-interesting thing that is emailed to me, scouring Twitter for that must-read article that’s going to really matter, or chatting and ideating with friends nonstop. At some point you step back and realize you’re operating in a reactionary state most of the time, attempting the impossible task of “keeping up” with the information flow or chasing after every tangent.
Where is our practice that reminds us to reassess the situation, recontextualize, and be present and aware of our thoughts and actions?
A globally interconnected network of scattered thoughts doesn’t sound intelligent – it sounds chaotic. Both on and off the web, if we allow ourselves to be pulled around by every distracting force around us, do we really think we’re going to magically evolve? And what do we mean by evolution? Just being connected doesn’t guarantee growth. If we aspire to move up the ladder of consciousness to higher ideals like self-reflectivity, cooperation, compassion, and empathy, will it not require some intentional awareness?
We’ve seen the studies that meditation/mindfulness boosts attention span as well as mood and mental toughness. But it also makes us think a little bit about the role of the self and how that relates to the other – about what we are, why we think what we think, how our thoughts and behaviors are influenced by our minds and our environments, how to tap into deeper intuition and clarity, how to filter through the noise to get to what matters, and how to even decide what matters when our consciousness is expanded to be inclusive of the whole of humanity.
Sure, the world is fast and complex, but it seems that much of what distracts us is due to our own inability to ground ourselves and choose to turn our attention to what we truly value. The system is set up so that it’s all too easy to be on auto-pilot, going through motions without needing to be consciously aware. But we may not have that luxury for much longer. It’s interesting that was once considered an exclusively Eastern practice or a New Age fad may very well prove to be an essential skill for survival and sanity, thanks to the strain imposed by our technological advancements.
Saqib Ali said:
If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts.
William Deresiewicz wrote an excellent essay titled Solitude and Leadership on a similar topic.
Venessa Miemis said:
thanks, just tweeted that article. great find.
Saquib and Venessa,
I resonate with your comments and the “think for yourself” spirit of William Deresiewicz in the article you shared.
As a believer in (networked) individualism, I nonetheless find myself increasingly drawn to – and identifying with – the notion of emergent collectives.
The exaflood is overwhelming my ability to make sound choices on how to propagate memes (idea viruses) and lumenes (emotion viruses) that I cherish – unless I entrust others with unprecedented influence over where I focus my time and efforts.
To make this happen faster and better, I’ve intrigued by the concept of creating user profiles that let others see whom I trust — even to the point showing specific types of decisions that I’m ready to delegate to them.
Some of the early ideas on how such social network user profiles might evolve are here http://is.gd/dCR3O and here http://j.mp/cpJVgZ .
At a surface level, this approach may seem at odds with Deresiewicz’s message of thinking for one’s self.
Yet at a deeper level, I see the approach as consistent with networked individualism and free choices to enlarge boundaries of trust, whose result is to generate an ‘extended self.’ (Equally, from a collectivist perspective, one might view it as part of a holonic trend towards emergent, consensual collectivism.)
Either way, we seem to be heading into an era where self-organizing individuals come together to exercise the kind of independent vision, judgment, and risk-taking that Deresiewicz values. Do you see it along these lines, too?
Seb Paquet said:
I have very similar feelings to yours. I believe that so long as you take personal responsibility for the trust you put in those people you are delegating to, you are still thinking for yourself.
Cole Tucker said:
It’s funny, to me at least, how subtly the slide into reactive engagement online happens. Great points on creating the space to realign with values and intentions.
Venessa Miemis said:
Michael Josefowicz said:
It sure feels like it’s been a long and winding round since I first discovered your blog back sometime in the Fall/Winter. But here we are and the New York Times is taking the memes bubbling below their radar and taking them mainstream.
Just wanted to get one notion in the thread concerning education. It seems to me that writing – not in the sense of communicating- but in the sense of close argument is a plausible practice to get to the focus necessary to both get to mindful state and be forced to organize ones thoughts to describe that state of affairs.
I know it worked for me when I was blogging. I think I’m seeing it work even better since I left blogging for the world of 140 chrs, @, DM , lists, follows and followers.
In the edu world it’s all about what should we measure, what’s our goal. blablabla.
My take is that it’s not that complicated. The trick is to get everybody able to think with evidence at a good enuff level of competency. Good enuff is something like being able to write a cogent editorial about most of the civic issues every citizen has to think about.
Healthcare, the wars in Afghanistan, sustainable business and governments.
I would be very interested in any reactions from anyone out there in the VenessaMiemis tribe.
Venessa Miemis said:
i hear ya. blogging has been the best way i’ve found to organize my thoughts and get feedback to refine them. i don’t know how you make the value of this immediately obvious and enticing to people, especially kids. i’m at duke u right now teaching a group of 15 year olds.. none of them have blogs, a few use RSS, none use twitter; the meme is still not out for the younger generation that the web is super valuable (crucial?) for creating a foundation of connections for their lives
Michael Josefowicz said:
My two cents for the kids. Maybe tell em to set up blogs using blogster. or maybe get’em on twitter . My hunch is that twitter tennis could work pretty well.
What is the purpose of High School ?
Get’em to answer in 140 characters.
Then have at ’em with links and stuff.
In any case Good Luck with ’em. If you ever think you want some 2¢ from me, just @ or DM. I’ll be twittering around..
I’m a teacher from Canada and I find your blog very interesting, especially in reference to my own PLN, but my role in as a tech coach in elementary schools has me trying to move teachers towards using Web 2.0 tools with younger students.
A few thoughts from someone working with those students in high school (and younger) that you mention above:
What I tend to focus upon are the ways that students can become more aware of the world around them, communicate more effectively and more globally, acquire an authentic audience for their work, and hopefully take some action about issues that they are passionate about. Is this a good start? I certainly hope so.
What limits me and some of my colleagues is the content heavy curriculum that can be so irrelevant to our young people. It can be quite a challenge to engage students with some of the curriculum we are mandated to teach…although using social tools with very social youth can certainly help.
Also, teachers who are non-users of reflective tools such as blogs, need a lot of help in teaching students how to provide effective feedback to each other. For a small percentage of students (probably the ones much like ourselves who gravitate to reflective practice and mindfulness pretty naturally) this comes easily, for others…comments like ‘That sucks” and “good blog” are the norm. Not all teachers share my excitement for the opportunity that Web 2.0 platforms allow for a transparency of feedback the teacher gives to students, and an opportunity to distribute the expertise in the classroom. It’s a process that needs to start when a student enters school and continue throughout their learning life.
The final big stumbling block is the fact that many school districts lock down many web 2.0 tools. Fortunately, that’s not the case for me in my district and I look forward to continuing to share a new way of networked teaching and learning with students and teachers.
Thanks for your blog!
Scott Lewis said:
Great article! Slowing down will truly be one of the greatest advancements humanity will “discover” in the coming years. 🙂
Thanks for writing.
Venessa Miemis said:
Interesting to see how the notion of co-creating collective intelligence spreads. Or the repeated concerns about how the Internet is reducing the “capacity for concentration and contemplation,”.
How is this different from other weapons of mass distraction such as books, and more newsy media? Telephone, TV, anyone? Should we be concerned how the people and their demands IRL (in real life, to strain a weary acronym) are reducing the “capacity for concentration and contemplation” ?
I, for one, enjoy the dialog and the growing sense of awareness the exchange of ideas and knowledge brings. And I limit it to topics and people I find worthwhile, with a little tolerance for noise at the edges, to keep life (virtual as well as real life) interesting. For me, the Internet and especially blogging are subjectively enhancing focus and capacity for concentration and contemplation. Except if I allow myself to get distracted or idly surfing, usually when tired.
As Venessa posited in public earlier, these are all tools – we are the builders. Could it be that builders connecting and working intensely need time off to sharpen the axe and recharge the batteries?
Looking forward to part 6.
Thanks Vanessa for this insightful dialogue.
All potential distractions aside, and hoping for a unified commitment to focused attention on a topic of such true relevance to our future..
The “global-mind” that I sense emerging from the interactions between evolving humanity/technology will no doubt benefit enormously from the developed ability to meditate and contemplate, to intuit as well as ideate. There is an opportunity now for those of us who realise this and feel a calling to assist the process, to gather in focused intention, to develop methods/practices which can be shared and adapted, applied and refined in various situations online much as the various schools of Buddhism have adapted to the needs of different communities worldwide.
This line of thinking is emerging among a group of us already that I am aware of and it would be beneficial to all of us to ‘gather’ and brainstorm process/protocols for such an endeavor.
What do you think?
Venessa Miemis said:
why, funny you should mention that!
i have actually been thinking about that a lot….. wondering if there would be an interest in organizing an “EBD Unconference”… (ebd = emergent by design) :p there seems to be a really great group of change agents out there – people involved in organizational change, nonprofits, futurists, designers, artists… all on the same page about wanting to collaborate in some way to push these ideas forward.
we have access to this amazing 60+ acre property up in the catskills… not the easiest to get to from the airport, but worth it when you arrive. i keep fantasizing about bringing everyone together for a long weekend of sharing ideas and experiences, softball, campfires, and community building.
think people would come?
Physically gathering would be beneficial in many ways of course, however it would also be prohibitively expensive for those of us in Australia, Europe, Sri Lanka etc. I was more suggesting an online gathering where we can begin a process of attunement, alignment and developing focus capabilities as a group, ‘somewhere’ we can learn the skills necessary to participate in a coherent group mind regardless of physical location in relation to each other.
BTW, I do not subscribe to the theory of consciousness as an emergent phenomena with its basis in “physical matter”. Rather the opposite I would posit!
Venessa Miemis said:
oh yes, well, that was the idea behind junto.cc – ultimately an environment for the evolution of consciousness
Dean Pomerleau said:
As always I appreciate your perspective, and I share your concern about the internet’s tendency to distract and defocus individual human minds – I too am quite familiar with the phenomena.
But as a neuroscientist, let me play the devil’s advocate for the moment.
It seems obvious, but there is a fact of neuroscience that is sometimes overlooked when it comes to discussion of the Global Brain.
Higher level thought and consciousness emerges in real human brains from the interaction of extremely dumb components – neurons. With very few exceptions, individual neurons in mammalian brains convey very little information to their neighbors.
By analogy, if humans are the equivalent of neurons in some sort of emerging Global Consciousness, it isn’t obvious that we as individuals have a significant role to play, or that we must (or even can) fathom what’s happening at the higher level.
Just as human intelligence emerges from a dumb set of components (neurons) ‘mindlessly’ passing messages around (via synapses), perhaps global intelligence will one day emerge (or is already emerging!) as a result of the relatively mindless local exchange of information between individuals communicating on the internet.
This perspective may be disturbing for some people, particular we ‘Westerners’ who’ve grown up thinking:
a) we can figure it all out, and
b) we are (or at least strive to be) individually significant
I too long to know where Mankind is headed, and to play a meaningful role in the process. But maybe that’s too much to expect. Maybe, just like in the brain, its our role as individuals to be small, relatively mindless cogs in a big machine.
As I said, just call me the devil’s advocate 🙂
Venessa Miemis said:
hmm…. so are we talking about the noosphere? or something like the akashic records? do you think there is a non-local global consciousness that we may be able to “tap into” via opening mental channels, following intuition, and access the way some are able to do through meditation/prayer/etc? i have been practicing some techniques that sometimes have startling results that are not explainable by logic. i am also noticing that more and more people seem to be “waking up”….
some people do not believe that there is more than what can be scientifically explained…. it’s too esoteric or mystical… i’m beginning to wonder if those people will be left behind as others learn to do things as they expand their consciousness and build collective intelligence. do you think a new “class” of humans will emerge?
Dean Pomerleau said:
Sounds spooky. No, I wasn’t suggesting there was some other realm we can ‘tap in to’ via special mental techniques. Just the opposite in fact. I was floating the idea that there may be levels of reality that are beyond our mind’s ability to fathom, or at least influence, just like neurons don’t comprehend the consciousness that emerges from their interactions.
Venessa Miemis said:
but that is what i’m saying too. that just as neurons come together to form the emergent property of consciousness…. perhaps all the consciousnesses come together to form a high emergent property of a meta-consciousness or “global brain” or noosphere.
and then if you think of the mind-body connection, and how our conscious thoughts can have actual measurable impacts on the functioning of our bodies or on cellular changes… if you follow that up the chain, couldn’t this meta-consciousness feed back and augment our human minds?
via Matthew E. May
Ned Kumar said:
Great points Venessa. I was reminded of the statement made by Herbert Simon almost 40 years ago – “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”.
As you mention above, today we are drowning in an overabundance of all sorts of information and most of us really don’t know what to do with it or a structured way to go about utilizing it. The result is of course that our mind scatters in all different directions looking at this and that even though most of the things we look at might be not of much use to us.
I too think we are in a “prehistoric” stage as far as global consciousness and collective capital is concerned. If we can get even a small percent of the folks focused on one pivot, the results could be astounding. Knowledge acquisition is great, but it is when we can collectively apply our knowledge to something that we realize the true power of collective awareness.
Venessa Miemis said:
yes exactly. sure there is tons of info… but so what? what information really provides value? i’ve found that once i’ve looked at a subject area from as many angles as i can, a pattern emerges, a common theme that infuses all the angles. at that point, any new articles or information i read on that topic is fine, but it’s not necessarily enlightening anymore – it is simply a variation on the theme. the pattern remains the same.
and the more i do this, the more i seem to follow the path to the existential, which often leaves me depressed. when i step back and look at the firehose of info, i ask, what is this information? who is communicating it? what are their intentions? does it make a difference? we all have an opinion and a perspective, and that is terrific. we can’t keep up with all of them, and we shouldn’t feel like we have to. like you said, focusing on one pivot. but i feel frustrated, because are people interested in focusing on a pivot together, or on winning others over to their perspectives? i feel like i am seeing a lot of shouting at each other, with fingers plugged into ears.
Spiro Spiliadis said:
One of my favorite topics of discussion and perhaps the most difficult to explain.
Though i could spend all day on this topic and discussing it, i think the best approach to add my two cents is to quote where Buddhism says, “Enlightenment is the end of suffering”
This to me means detaching from the dysfunctional mechanism called the brain.
Detachment means moving from unconscious living through habitual tendencies towards an observant life and “being”
Eckart Tolle says, “you are the dance and life is the dancer”
The dancer is the brain, you are the essence surrounding it…
When we can detach, be consciously aware of this mechanism, then we don’t suffer because we are not attached to the mechanisms of “means to an end” “getting somewhere” external desires and factors that satisfy only momentary happiness…
In relation to information and twitter and the mass volume of distractions that come with this information, is evident because your living inside the realm of it, it’s a mental trap and it’s like being caught up in large amount of wires trying to untangle yourself….
If one can detach through transition, then the only thing will change is your no longer a victime of the mechanism, but an observer of it,
When you observe, you are conscious awareness, then things like intuition, serendipity, sync all become a part of the dancer orchestrated by the dance itself….
Conscious awareness brings back the vitality of “life” itself you watch the dancer move through life, you are no longer attached to time, to the need to get somewhere, and simple things like a hug, a conversattion with a friend, eating dinner are no longer time consumed mental images, but essence of being in those moments….
Information then becomes a process of aligning yourself to a harmonic life of being and doing what comes natural with no need to get anywhere and see in between the lines of life’s….
Conscious awareness is not a goal… it’s us!
Daniel W. Rasmus said:
Two things: First I think the issue of computer consciousness is a complete disconnect with reality. Computers don’t have the same architecture. The most we can hope for given current approaches is a human brain emulator running on a computer. Computers may become conscious one day, but it will be very different from our experience, given very different inputs and outputs. As I wrote in my book Rethinking Smart Objects, we limit computers by not allowing them to evolve into what they might evolve into. We limit them by imposing a biological constraint.
Second, I heard Carr on the radio the other day and he was talking about this topic, of course, this being his current platform. I liked what he implied at the end: computers may be allowing us to return to a more natural state of information consumption, which might not be all bad given the current amount of information and uncertainty. Animals constantly shift attention to stay out of danger. Perhaps we are supposed to do that as well. The last 2,500 years of human history, with its emphasis on long-transaction thinking, may well be an anomaly.
What you and I do today, trolling across the web for connections and constantly seeking relationship in data isn’t bad, it just is. I personally find it very effective.
As an aside, if you look at punctuated equilibrium in evolution, and the evolution of species in isolation, does the computer/web/Net create a sort of isolation that will allow some people to evolve in different ways that those who don’t have access. Will the digital divide become a biological divide over time?
Venessa Miemis said:
i wasn’t referring to computer consciousness, i was talking about a meta-consciousness that arises from all of the minds of the planet. as consciousness emerges from neurons, if each of our brains can be thought of as a neuron, what is the larger consciousness that comes from that? and what may be possible if we are able to better focus intentions on a global scale? (maybe the Global Consciousness Project out of Princeton is scratching the surface of this – http://noosphere.princeton.edu/).
re: biological divide – it seems probable. my mind has begun functioning differently since i started really applying systems thinking and adopting a network perspective and getting into SNA (social network analysis)…. now it all looks connected, and the “problems” don’t seem as monumental… it is a matter of coordinating the efforts of nested systems. i think my ability to conceptualize has expanded. i feel more tuned to creative energy. how that all gets applied i am still working on. will those who are connected have the ability to ideate and create solutions faster? maybe. perhaps the ability to build and leverage social networks will be a highly desired skillset in the very near future. and the underlying abilities that are associated with that skillset might be empathy, compassion, generosity, and facilitating trust. so, i would call that biological & spiritual evolution, for sure.
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Dennis Callahan said:
Vanassa – there are lots of interesting pieces within the post– thanks.
There might be more of a collective brain than we realize. If you and I are having the same thought, how can we claim them as our own?
I think that mindfulness is just as important offline. Being able to live and focus on the present moment is a valuable skill that most of us are unable to accomplish on a regular basis.
I use my personal space (body/mind/consciousness) as a social tool to educate.
I have been researching my “body” for quite some time and all forms of “one” draw my attention to it.
I have found that Ive developed a slight ‘allergy’ to the monetary system and I noticed you were going to be giving, potentially anyway, chats on what this NEO-monetary system looks like…
Since its all pretend anyway and really all we are doing is monopolizing on natural resources for the “sale” of other natural resource (ie; who cut down the damn trees and thought;), I would LOVE to be convinced otherwise, or I would really appreciate the speedy end to cyclic silly conversations with out putting all the facts on the table as all it does is perpetuate the insanity we have all been subject to for the duration of existence…
granted, for so long in fact that it has actually become who we are, which is why I say,…just make a bunch of pretend money and start living more childlike and creatively…
You wanna global brain?
Po’folks count too! We is Flippin Genius…’s…-sz…
oooooh, kay, any who
Like I was sayin,…natural resources…
Some one musta been like,…
“let’s cut doen these NATURAL TREE’s and turn it into green paper! An we can print it over and over with different faces of all our friends! Faces of other people who like to take NATURAL RESOURCES AND CLAIM OTHERS HAVE TO BUY IT. OH OH!! Let’s put numbers on them and we can use ’em to buy and sell trees”
I hear the word money and I am nauseated that there is chatting about it as if it were still some sort of viable source of bringing vitality, unless we just play with it.
There is nothing that justifies anymore energy on this silly manner with politics and religion and hierarchy, it’s all a sham, and anyone who is still working on trying to bring it to the forefront of conversation,
I am MORE than willing to add my 2 cents, provided I am able to be viewed as and spoken to as if i were a child. Compassionately, kindly, softly,…educate me…please some one…
(bowing with respect)
for reading me…
I want you to explain it to me how those who have still hunger for such falsity know little of those who suffer with the true hunger of privatization.
There absolutely can not and will not be a global mind if we think nothing of those who do not, if nothing less, have food, water, shelter and education…And when I say education, i mean the kind that brings one to the space of enlightenment where they may actually beable to get out of the welfare line and stop surviving, to show up to discussions like these and learn or contribute to the thriving.
We poor is broke! Not broken!
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