The Nobel Prize winner and former vice president talks global networks, Marshall McLuhan, and how computing is changing what it means to be human.
Technology and the "World Brain"
Writers have used the human nervous system to describe electronic communication since the invention of the telegraph. In 1851, only six years after Samuel Morse received the message "What hath God wrought?" Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "By means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time. The round globe is a vast brain, instinct with intelligence." Less than a century later, H. G. Wells modified Hawthorne's metaphor when he offered a proposal to develop a "world brain" -- which he described as a commonwealth of all the world's information, accessible to all the world's people as "a sort of mental clearinghouse for the mind: a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarized, digested, clarified and compared." In the way Wells used the phrase "world brain," what began as a metaphor is now a reality. You can look it up right now on Wikipedia or search the World Wide Web on Google for some of the estimated one trillion web pages.
Since the nervous system connects to the human brain and the brain gives rise to the mind, it was understandable that one of the twentieth century's greatest theologians, Teilhard de Chardin, would modify Hawthorne's metaphor yet again. In the 1950s, he envisioned the "planetization" of consciousness within a technologically enabled network of human thoughts that he termed the "Global Mind." And while the current reality may not yet match Teilhard's expansive meaning when he used that provocative image, some technologists believe that what is emerging may nevertheless mark the beginning of an entirely new era. To paraphrase Descartes, "It thinks; therefore it is."