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The Global Brain
"It is not guilty pride but the ceaselessly reawakened instinct of the game which calls forth new worlds." (Heraclitus Reloaded)
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    Information Please! The advent of the infomation age
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    Take a look at this short movie “They’re made out of meat”, (aprox 8min) based on a short SF story by Terry Bisson. It’s a fun thought provoking film and an excellent starting point. There are those inter galactic super intelligent aliens, meeting over a diner table to reflect their recent findings in this corner of the universe. Their indisputable conclusion is that we humans are made of meat, and as they say who wants to meet meat? Indeed so, I could not agree more, but still I was left more than a bit puzzled as to shallowness of their particular investigation, after all they are supposed to be super intelligent aliens… So how come they did not ask themselves something like: What is this meat made from? Or, how does meat think being just meat?

    Well, there is not a simple answer to this riddle, but fact is that meat thinks, and much more than that as well, and though we humans seem to be made of meat, actually this is not what we are made of, for meat itself is made of information, and information computes itself into being, into living, and into thinking and much more as well. So, contrary to what it seems, we are not made of meat, not at all, we are made of information, and for that matter not only us, but pretty much of everything else.


    This is not an easy idea to grasp; probably it is much more difficult than admitting our “meat” nature. One example of trying to do just that is the Wachowski brothers’ film The Matrix. The Matrix depicts a virtual universe full of life and activity, full of sensations and thoughts, of hopes and desperation, of mystery and love, of the unknown and the exploration of the unknown, in short, full of everything a real world, a real humane world should be full with, and yet… underlying this colorful totally immersive universe there are actually vast quantities of raw digital information streaming in endless rivers into vast oceans of computation giving rise to that very colorful world, the world of the Matrix. The message is that cold impersonal ones and zeros stand at the basis of it all. Everyone but very special few, live in the Matrix totally subject to its all encompassing immersive nature, a perfect illusion. Only those few chosen ones, those uncompromising minds daring to penetrate the veil of what meets the eye, discover that it is all a vast illusion made of an endless stream of information, green characters on the background of a black terminal screens, a vast impersonal computation. They, of course escaped the Matrix into a so called real world, a world of flesh and emotion in contra distinction to the digital illusion. It is much less colorful and cozy, yet what a small price to pay for reality, for freedom from the digital illusion? (Well, not everyone was thinking it is a small price). And there is our hero Neo, not only that he can go into and out of the Matrix like the others who escaped, but he is somehow capable to manipulate the Matrix from within at its basic computational level rendering in his hands virtually infinite powers in the world of the Matrix. Neo masters the Matrix, and is capable to bend its physical laws as well as any other law according to wish. Information gives him virtually godly powers. The story of the Matrix, apart of its particular superficial narrative stages the new drama of the information age: We, human beings, are greatly terrified to discover that all, including us, is made of information, and simultaneously not a bit less powerful is our desire for the godly powers this very discovery bestows, and simultaneously we are terrified from the very prospect of gaining such immense powers.

    The Matrix is an excellent metaphor to the way we start to understand the universe around us for the last few decades. But let us not fall into the shallowness of our eccentric aliens from “Close encounters of the meat kind”, let us try to better understand this metaphor and what it stands for. The Matrix is operated by powerful machines for the purpose of imprisoning humans, but what were the machines made of? And for that matter what were the humans, the real humans fighting the machines, made of? And the green characters flowing over black screens, being at the basis of the Matrix universe, what are they made of? One might conveniently answer any of the conventional answers: Machines are made from machine stuff that is cogs, and pistons, electronic circuits, and such. People are made of living stuff, that is, well… meat of different kinds. All of this, both living stuff and machine stuff is made of molecules and atoms etc, and the green Matrix characters streaming on the screen (machine stuff) are electronic impulses which are made of energy etc. Every school boy nowadays knows (or should know) that these electronic impulses are bits of information, software being run on computers. What are computers? These are machines specially made by meat stuff from machine stuff to operate and process information. Is that so? It is intuitive and compelling to think that everything is made of something else, but how deep are we willing to penetrate with our intuitions?

    As long as information is associated with books and magazines, with computers and the internet, we are quite comfortable with it. As long as information is something we can acquire or communicate to others, all is well. As long as we understand information as something that facilitates our existence, such as where can we find things we need, or how to solve problems we encounter, we are fine. As long as information is an instrument helping us to make sense of the world around us and perhaps of ourselves, we may like it or dislike it but we live with it and we live well. Some say better, others beg to differ on that, but that is not the point of this article.

    As long as we believe we understand something we feel comfortable with it, so we may believe we have enough understanding of what information is so we can be comfortable with it. There are however aspects of information we are not comfortable with, aspects that we do not understand and we tend to disregard them as long as we can. We keep on believing we understand information, but we do not. Not because we cannot, but rather because understanding information to the fullest invites an inner change, most probably a radical and profound one. We usually are not comfortable with changes, so we delay understanding as much as we can. Perhaps it is the property of meat that thinks… Is that so?

    What I aim at here, is to catalyze understanding. Understanding is a kind of computation, a way by which information moves, unfolds, and evolves. In fact, understanding is a kind of computation that catalyzes itself, it is the way by which information evolves in ways which are truly wondrous almost inconceivable. But we will return to that later. I believe that as much as it may feel disconcerting, it is becoming absolutely necessary for us to get to understand information much deeper than our contemporary understanding. It is necessary that we will become conscious actors in the drama of the information age taking place on the stage of our lives, for actors we already are whether we like it or not. Let me present some information about information that will make the case.

    In our more or less conventional thinking, we describe our immediate world in terms of configurations of matter and energy within a space-time continuum. Matter, energy, space and time interact in (presumably) lawful manner which we generally call physics. I will not get here into the vast amount of details that have been discovered about our physical world, and even the vaster amount that is yet to be discovered, I would just remark that there is very little awareness and even less general acceptance to the fact that all our cutting edge physical theories point consistently towards one fundamental insight; that all matter energy and space-time dimensions are but informational states, that all physical laws and dynamics at the most fundamental levels are computations. Our universe seems to be made of information computing itself into existence. Not only matter, energy and the fundamental forces that hold everything together are relentless computations of dynamic information states, but space time continuum itself is a kind of computation. Some theories, like string theory postulate extra spatial dimensions as many as eleven or more, and at that level space-time and matter-energy as we believe we know them are computationally interchangeable, for all of them are related informational states within a computation.

    We may dismiss all these as the wild dreams of eccentric professors who spend too much of their time in their closed offices and laboratories. But their dreams if they are indeed dreams are penetrating almost any aspect of our immediate reality. Our cellular phones, the computers we read and write these lines from, are just two immediate and undeniable examples of how effective are information based theories in describing and manipulating matter and energy from the very small scale of electronic devices to the very large scales of reliably transmitting information over large distances. All this is already happening here and now, but it is only a modest prelude to the revolution of nanotechnology that will soon allow the manipulation of more and more information within ever diminishing scales of space and time to a point where the very fabric of the universe will become directly accessible as our informational playground. Are we all to become “Neos” of the new information age?

    In fact, the nanotechnology revolution has already happened long ago, actually very long ago about 4.5 billion years on this planet, long before humans evolved. We call this revolution Life. At that point, out of mere chemical compounds which in themselves are lawful information configurations and computations, a new phenomenon emerged: the first autonomous living cell, capable of replication and self preservation. That living cell manifesting in a vast quantity and variety of configurations is in fact a tiny molecular information machine manipulating and exchanging information with its immediate environment in an inexhaustible process of computation we call life. Just a few decades ago we have discovered this wonder, and no matter how much knowledge and information was gained about this phenomenon called life, we still are far from digesting the full implications of this discovery. We discovered that underlying the complexity of all life processes, life’s variety, and the immense complexity of relations and interactions between life forms, is one single computing machine called the living cell. Amoebas are made of it, dinosaurs were made of it. Plants and worms, insects and mammals, and of course humans are all vast organized congregations of living cells. We deciphered the mystery of meat: Meat is made of tiny microscopic autonomous computing machines capable to manipulate information, replicate and sustain themselves as distinct and dynamic organizations of information. Meat indeed is made of information. Not only this, life is a computational process, and its basic computing unit is the living cell. At the core of each and every living cell there is an informational blueprint governing its complex dynamics, its genetic code encoded in the DNA.

    Again we may dismiss all these as the wild dreams of eccentric professors who spend too much of their time in their closed offices and laboratories. But again, our understanding of biological processes, the genetic code and its operation, are rapidly changing us and our world. Beginning in medical care, genetically engineered materials, plants and animals, and converging into genetic enhancement of humans to degrees we find hard even to imagine.

    Moreover, we have discovered that these autonomous computing machines we call living cells are engaging, within their environment, in myriad ways and fashions directed to gaining advantages towards their own persistence. We have discovered that this directed engagement is a universal computational process. We have discovered it is inherent in all life forms and is in fact the source of life’s diversity. We have come to know this general process as biological evolution. Evolution is a spontaneous meta-process inexhaustibly spawning new ways for life to persist. Evolution is the dynamics of information in the context of interacting autonomous (autopoietic) living systems. We have discovered that in the course of evolution, living cells have spontaneously coevolved into meta-cellular autonomous life forms. We humans are just one such life form. Our bodies are made of trillions of living cells cooperating and coordinating in a profoundly organized manner. Not only each of our trillions of cell is an independent computing machine, the whole of our body is a huge parallel computing machine still unparalleled by any product of technology. Its dynamical computation is our life at least in the biological sense. Everything our body does or capable of doing is a result of a computation. Once this computation’s coherence is disturbed, our body becomes sick. Disturbance beyond certain thresholds spells losing the autonomous persistence of the computation which means death. From an informational point of view however, sickness and death are a matter of scale and context. At no point a computation stops it just changes. Rogue living cells, for example, carry out computations which are not coherent with the overall informational organization of the whole organism. We call these cells cancer. We may overlook and dismiss this kind of description, but the concept of information is proving itself increasingly critical not only in understanding life but also in understanding sickness and death.

    At this point perhaps it becomes more apparent why information makes us uneasy. As long as it is safely organized in books or electronic memory banks, as long it is confined to various machines and communication networks, we are capable to keep a safe distance of sorts. But as we seem to start understanding the world at this point, not only all matter and energy and even space and time are information, life itself, evolution, and in particular our bodies and our lives and even our well being can be described as dynamic informational processes. Immediately, almost reflexively a question comes to mind: So what is left? As if we need to differentiate ourselves, to put a clear-cut line: Okay, till here it is all information, we can live with that somehow, but from here it is us, the real us that is. Is there a “real us”, or the Matrix metaphor is taking over and becomes an inescapable reality, a Matrix without an “outside”? What is this need to escape anyway, and from what exactly are we trying to escape? There is nothing to escape from would be my answer, yet one cannot overlook the complex ambiguity here. It needs a deeper discussion. Will we dare to tackle it and follow it to its logical end? And what would be that if we will?

    When we get to the question of what makes us humans unique living creatures, we can immediately point to one significant difference, which is language. We are the talking animal, and we are the cultural animal, and we are the technological animal, and we are the spiritual animal, we have minds unlike any other animals (so it seems at least). Of course, all these we can proclaim because we possess linguistic capabilities which allow us to describe ourselves and the world, and of course these very capabilities have allowed culture, technology and spirituality (I may be rebuked on that) in the first place. In us humans, yet another informational realm has emerged. It is the realm of descriptions, of symbols and gestures, of patterns and ideas that can be communicated and manipulated independently of our biological self. In this realm ideas have gained an autonomous persistence. We carry them in our minds, but they are in principle independent from any single carrier. Like genes which carry genetic information that facilitates all life processes and life forms, we came to recognize memes, informational entities capable of persistence, replication and evolution, which facilitate all cultural processes. Memes are the substrate of cultural engagement and interaction.

    We are in a process of discovering that our minds are informational spaces governed by dynamic computation. This process of discovery is at least two folded. One aspect of it is neuroscience, a branch in biology focusing on nervous systems of living organisms.
    Neuroscience is succeeding with increasing success to map mind processes into neural activities of the brain. It has become quite established that our mind is an informational process facilitated by the brain. Without entering into the details, more and more of our mental and emotional capabilities are being described and understood as neural processes, which are basically computational processes. Of course the popular analogy of brain being hardware while mind is the software is too simplistic; however it is indisputable that the brain is a complex biological computer. Through the constant flow of sense data, and culturally significant cues carried and communicated by gesture and language, minds are interactive and interconnected. They form a distributed computational network. This is why a single individual mind cannot be fully associated with a single brain. It operates and defines itself within a networked computational environment.

    The second aspect by which we recognize the mind as an informational space has to do with understanding the mind itself as a computational process over and above its neural platform. For this we have to consider two fundamental properties of mind. The first is self description, the second is reflective consciousness.

    We can understand mind as a computational process that persists by dynamically describing itself to itself. This self-describing dynamics is interactive with other informational spheres such as the biological and the physical, but not only. The degree and depth of this interactive engagement is an emergent property of the process of self description itself. These kinds of interactions give rise to experiences, as the mind reflects itself, in the course of self description, as being strongly immersed within the informational spheres it engages. This is more easily understood when relating to the biological (embodiment) and the physical (environment) spheres.

    Let me further clarify this point: The mind, being an autonomous computational realm, is the very informational substrate upon which emerges the virtual world it is immersed in. In other words, it computationally creates the very (virtual) reality within which it reflects itself to exist. This is why a mind is capable to create whole virtual universes. Here comes the interesting point of reflective consciousness: Reflectivity in the mind is a direct consequence of understanding mind as a computational process describing itself to itself. When I relate to a certain state of affairs as describing me or being identified as me, I am engaged in reflection. Reflective consciousness however is not necessarily present in the course of self description, though it is an inherent viable option. Again without entering into too many details, in the scheme presented above, reflective consciousness is a computational meta-process where a mind reflects not only the virtual universe it is immersed in, but the very computational process that brings this virtual universe forth. In more simple terms reflective consciousness is that state of mind when both what I think and how/why I think what I think are simultaneously present in the course of self description.

    Why is reflective consciousness important? Not only it is important, but I would claim it is the most critical aspect of the human phenomenon. Probably it could not exist without language, but I would not speculate on it here. Reflective consciousness is the hard kernel of what allows the human mind to understand, to discover, and describe the principles governing its virtual happening, and the patterns that connect and cohere the various aspects of the reality it is immersed in. When the mind reflects itself as being immersed in the physical information sphere, reflective consciousness allows us to form physical theories and principles, and by that to understand the physical world. It then allows us to build and devise tools based on these principles, and create technology. But this is only one relatively simple example. Reflective consciousness allows the mind to understand itself within any situation of self description, and this understanding is the key to freedom. For a conscious reflective mind can never become imprisoned or fixated within a single immersive situation. There is of course much more to it.

    We have come a long way from the simplistic Matrix metaphor. The mind as an informational entity is its own Matrix, and as such it is all encompassing. There is no point, for example, to relate to a physical universe as separate from the mind, and there is no point to relate to mind as separate from the physical universe. If we add to this analogy the extra ingredient of reflective consciousness, we can say that not only the mind is its own Matrix, it can play within itself as Neo was playing in the Matrix; Playing the game yet altogether out of the game. With reflective consciousness, we can “See” the matrix while being immersed in it.

    One additional point is to be emphasized here; the mind as an informational dynamics is an evolutionary entity. This basically means that the mind gives rise to a spontaneous meta-process that inexhaustibly spawns new ways for mind to describe itself to itself. Since mind persists as an autonomous computational entity by describing itself to itself, and since what persist better are those descriptions most interesting, it naturally follows that in the context of mind, evolution has the direction of gaining the advantage of interest.

    Most interesting of course is how the advantage of interest is gained, that is how the mind becomes interested, and how it becomes immersed in that which has gained the advantage of interest. It is my understanding that what selects for the highest advantage of interest is reflective consciousness. Therefore, the evolutionary potential of a mind is highly correlated to the degree and quality of reflective consciousness present in that mind. Reflective consciousness is for the informational sphere of mind, what natural selection is for the informational sphere of life; it facilitates the evolutionary process, giving it direction.

    The sense I am trying to convey here is that the information age everybody is talking about, does not start and does not end in the mere extended availability of information and the means to manipulate it. Indeed information becomes ubiquitous in every plane of our lives. Its availability is increasing with an immense speed which in itself is accelerating. But this is not what the information age is all about. The information age is a new evolutionary stage reaching swiftly its fruition. It is the age when we come to realize that the universe is information in a dynamic process of evolution. We come to realize that life is information in a dynamic process of evolution, and we humans are again information in a dynamic process of evolution. And though I spell those realms the universe, life and the human realm as distinct, this is only for the sake of emphasize, for indeed these realms are all one unified interconnected reality, made of information. It is an intelligent dynamic and evolving reality endowed with the possibility of reflective consciousness, and thus capable not only to observe itself, but to understand itself as well. To accept this reality and understand it is to my mind the true significance of the information age.

    So what is there to understand? First, that information is universal, and as such is has an evolutionary dynamics as I tried to sketch above. Second, that information in the course of this dynamics evolves into autonomous configurations of increasing complexity and by that it becomes intelligent. Third, that information in the course of its evolutionary dynamics, pushes towards reflective consciousness and understanding, understanding of itself while it evolves. Following this line of thought, the universe as a dynamic computation evolved towards sentiency and consciousness.

    The actual motion of the human mind towards accelerating its own evolution by means of understanding driven by reflective consciousness is becoming more and more apparent lately. This motion is predicted to culminate in what is contemporarily called The Singularity. Singularity is a state of affairs related to humanity where the evolution of intelligence and knowledge available to humans accelerates to such a speed that any prediction as to its future form or dynamics will become impossible. There are many contemporary ideas and theories concerning the Singularity. Already today, the rate of change introduced mostly by technological advancements into our lives is so fast, that it becomes very difficult to follow, and even more difficult to project even into relatively near future scenarios. The singularity is already happening upon us, and in a manner of speaking it is a natural process in the light of what we start to understand about information. As such, the Singularity is not something that suddenly has appeared in our horizon, though it may seem to be so. Singularity appears in our horizon as a consequence of understanding, and understanding is a fundamental nature of our mind as an informational dynamically evolving process.

    Let me return for a moment to that old almost instinctive question: So, if all is information, what is left? Nothing is left, and nothing needs to be left out. Stating the universality of information is not a reductive statement, aiming to deprive anything, and in particular human existence, from its unique distinctive essentiality. It is not a statement we need to distance ourselves from. Understanding the universe, life, and the human mind as evolving informational dynamics, is pointing towards a fundamental and essential reality, out of which, all complexity arises, and out of which, human existence, and in particular human’s inevitable evolution gains its proper perspective. When we come to understand something new about the universe or about ourselves, our knowledge is increased, and our informational state is enhanced. It is often believed and feared however that understanding something or explaining something automatically devalues it, as if the meaning associated with something is diminished once we understand it. It is my view that this fear from understanding is rooted, as I hinted above, in the fear from the change prompted by understanding. When our informational state is enhanced by understanding its dynamics naturally accelerate. This acceleration spells an increase in the pressure to change.

    What about human spirituality if so? As promised I am returning to this difficult to accommodate point. I hear rebuking voices: “We absolutely cannot accept a conceptual reality where the human soul and God himself are being encoded into ones and zeros!” It is not my aim here to argue for or against the existence of either souls or gods. Yet this kind of argument is often used against progressive ideas on the grounds of them being this or that version of reductionism and thus by definition diminishing or altogether eliminating essential values and moral responsibility, believed by some to be the exclusive territory of irreducible god fearing souls. There is no greater abuse of human reason and of human spirit than over simplification, expressing a complex idea, in short catch phrases aiming as if to distill a profound truth while in fact distorting ad absurdum the very idea being expressed. The whole point of writing this article is suggesting that information, as we only begin to understand, is a far more complex and profound concept than being described as merely something that is encoded into ones and zeros. Such a description is terribly partial and does not reflect at all the profundity of the concept if only for the reason that every instance of encoded information be it ones and zeros, or words and phrases, always exists in relation to a wider informational process that renders it meaningful in the course of its dynamics.

    To further clarify the point; let us look into a similarly absurd proposition: All poetry that was ever spoken or written, that will ever be spoken or written, are mere sequences of alphabetical characters. Does it render poetry less inspiring? Less emotionally invoking? Less beautiful? I think not. For poetry is not only its encoding, it is a complex product of a reflective process, and cannot be disassociated from it. Another example: All life (as we know it) can be rendered to mere DNA molecular sequences which are basically ones and zeros representation. Does our knowledge of the informational dynamics underlying all life processes make life less in any fashion? Less surprising? Less interesting? Less intelligent? I think not, for life being a dynamic informational process does not come to mean that it is deterministic, or complete. Life is not merely its encoding. DNA cannot be disassociated from the complex context of its expression.

    On the very same token, information is never just a sequence of ones and zeros. Though being quantified, whatever quantities and qualities are encoded, they cannot be disassociated from the context of the mind describing and being described by them. As such information is open ended, the reflected intelligent pattern that connects; A direct expression and mark of a universe emerging into conscious awareness.

    I do not know about the existence of souls and gods, and am not particularly biased towards the belief in their existence or non existence. However if souls and gods do exist at all, they exist as dynamic informational entities.

    I have reached this point without directly providing any definition to information. According to Wikipedia (in itself a monument of the early information age), the earliest historical meaning of the word information in English was derived from the act of informing, or giving form or shape to the mind. I find this meaning poetically appropriate though it is not a proper definition. At the advent of the information age, the accelerating increase in the availability of information and the means to process it is but a side effect, commonly and mistakenly accepted as the most significant aspect of this age. Information is first and foremost an extremely influential concept. It is not only giving shape to mind, but is becoming the shape of mind, and by that, as I briefly tried to show, it reflects on every single aspect of human existence. Moreover, information as a concept is a powerful transformative agent likely to change our most basic understandings of what being a human means, and as it seems it is likely to bring about such profound changes pretty soon as its dynamics are inherently accelerating.

    Wed, Dec 19, 2007  Permanent link
    Categories: Information, Information age, Evolution
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