The Hivemind Singularity

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In a near-future science fiction novel, human intelligence evolves into a hivemind that makes people the violent cells of a collective being.

slimemoldnetwork.jpg

Slime mold network formation (Science).

New Model Army, a 2010 novel by the English writer Adam Roberts, concerns itself with many things: the intimacy shared by soldiers at war, the motivating powers of memory and love, the rival merits of hierarchical and anarchic social structures, the legitimacy of the polity known as Great Britain, the question of European identity. Also giants. (Roberts has a history of interest in giants -- they feature prominently in his imaginative and highly excremental novel Swiftly -- and, more generally, in the scale of being: how very small, very large, and in-between-sized beings experience the world differently. This is also a theme in his recent digital-only story "Anticopernicus".) But New Model Army is perhaps above all an immensely stimulating inquiry into what we light-heartedly call the "hive mind." And it raises a set of discomfiting questions: Are our electronic technologies on the verge of enabling truly collective human intelligence? And if that happens, will we like the results?

The title New Model Army derives from the English Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century, when Oliver Cromwell led armies raised by Parliament against supporters of King Charles. The New Model Army that arose at that time was "new" especially in that its soldiers were full-time professionals, ready to be deployed anywhere they were needed, even in Scotland or Ireland, whereas previous English armies had been little more than local militias. These soldiers were also deeply devoted to fairly extreme forms of Protestantism and despised the established Church of England.

With this background in mind, Adam Roberts asks us to imagine a near future when electronic communications technologies enable groups of people to communicate with one another instantaneously, and on secure private networks invulnerable, or nearly so, to outside snooping. Imagine that such groups arise -- not created but self-organized and (at first) self-funding -- and are devoted not to radical Protestant Christianity but rather to radical democracy. And imagine one more thing: that such New Model Armies (NMAs) arm themselves and fight on behalf of those who pay them. In short, imagine groups arising that resemble Anonymous, whose extemporaneous self-organizing projects have recently been brilliantly chronicled by Quinn Norton, but with better communications and an interest, not in hacking websites, but in fighting and killing for money. It's noteworthy that New Model Army was written just as Anonymous arrived in the public consciousness: Roberts's story therefore now seems like it could happen tomorrow, rather than twenty-five years from now (which is when the book is set).

All this would be fascinating enough, but Roberts takes the implications of the NMAs a step further than the reader expects. Again, each NMA organizes itself and makes decisions collectively: no commander establishes strategy and gives orders, but instead all members of the NMA communicate with what amounts to an advanced audio form of the IRC protocol, debate their next step, and vote. Results of a vote are shared to all immediately and automatically, at which point the soldiers start doing what they voted to do. Those who cannot accept group decisions tend to drift out of the NMA, but Roberts shows convincingly how powerfully group identity links the soldiers to one another -- how readily they accept the absorption of individual consciousness into a far greater one. They are proud of their shared identity, and tend to smirk when officers of more traditional armies want to know who their "ringleaders" are. They have no ringleaders; they don't even have specialists: everyone tends the wounded, not just some designated medical corps, and when they need to negotiate, the negotiating team is chosen by army vote. Each soldier does what needs to be done, with need determined by the NMA which each has freely joined. They take pride in fighting freely, as opposed to the soldiers in the British Army, whom they see as slaves to a feudal system.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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