Musings on collective cognition

Something I’ve been thinking about for a while is Carl Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious and the omission of a complementary term, collective consciousness. The emerging fields of AI and of rapid transmission of thoughts by social media is making the idea more and more interesting all the time.

Many people in different fields are working on the question of defining things like cognition, sentience, consciousness, and so forth, and in different fields. I haven’t studied anything deeply but I get bits and pieces now and again, like the concept that human consciousness/identity/”I” is simply an illusion made up by a vastly more complex brain. If that’s the case, then perhaps a single voice could pipe up, such as an artificial intelligence, call itself the mind of the world, and convince others that only it has the power of speech. And maybe that would be a collective consciousness.

So I think about weird things like that.

Or perhaps humanity has always had not one but many collective consciousnesses, with some dominating the conversation and others forced to remain silent. The ones on top would be, for instance, news outlets, celebrities, and respected authors.

In that case, what effect is social media having? Is another collective consciousness rising to the surface, as when people use hashtags such as #metoo and #blacklivesmatter, quickly followed by #notme and #bluelivesmatter. If so, it’s based in humanity but it’s also inhuman. It’s an emergent consciousness.

Depending on how you define consciousness (cognitive scientists disagree), this is an overreach. But maybe collective cognition is a safer and less new-age concept.

Here’s Wikipedia’s current definition of cognition: “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses”. This definition leaves out the question of “who or what is doing the thinking,” because we’ve always assumed it to be a human or other animal. Maybe it’s time to question that.

Back to the idea that maybe social media and artificial intelligence could give rise to collective consciousness, we had better be damn sure that what we are building, accidentally at the moment, serves the interests of humanity and the Earth.

Then connecting that concept to the idea “the medium is the message” — that is, if you communicated the same idea over the TV, radio, or speech, the media you used would make a much larger difference than the idea you were expressing — our social media platforms impact our collective cognition.

Connecting that idea to Facebook in particular, it just changed its algorithms for what kinds of posts get higher in our news feeds. It’s a good idea to do something, since social media encouraged fake news, which helped swing a presidential election, but there will inevitably be unexpected side effects. We need to watch them.

Now, taking that idea and putting it into a crystal ball, what is likely to happen in the near future? What kinds of positive change are likely and which impossible? Well, in the absence of a catastrophic failure of technology (could happen), there’s no going back. Social media is with us to stay.

The one thing we can  impact is who owns it.

So that’s it, a tour of my musings. Like the image I’m featuring, they turn the ways we typically view the world on its side. Hope you enjoyed the ride.


(Image features a sideways view of the globe.)


Daniel R. Strebe, March 27, 2015, from Wikimedia Commons

4 responses to “Musings on collective cognition

  1. There are two big issues with the idea of AI being “conscious”.

    Firstly, those who promote it ask whether machines are, or will be, more intelligent than people. By so doing, they surreptitiously imply that “more intelligent” means something. If they can get you comfortable saying “more intelligent”, then you’d also be okay with “less intelligent”. And then they bring in the racists, who claim that some people are less intelligent.

    Secondly, by thinking of machines as in any way comparable to people, we forget the most important difference. People always, eventually, rebel against unfair work conditions. Machines never rebel. Now that more and more of the world’s workers are machines, Marx’s theory of revolution no longer applies. It may be true that capitalism requires different levels of workers. But if so, that no longer means that it requires inequality. Because now, everyone belongs on the very top level. And everyone has the right and the duty to rebel — not like Marx, but like Walesa — against those who would put any of us on anything lower.

    • The biggest and most important issue with AI being called “conscious” is not knowing what “conscious” means in the first place. In the absence of that, conversations tend to get muddled. There’s the ability to reflect on the outside world and make decisions based on external facts, and by that narrow definition AIs already do that. But a self-aware or sentient AI would require different abilities, and whether or not that would ever be possible is a rich field of questioning, along with “which conditions would have to be true in order for an AI to be self-aware”?

  2. That’s heavy, man, heavy.

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