An analysis of the evolution of complex, networked systems points to the general trends of increasing efficiency, differentiation, and integration. In society these trends are realized as increasing productivity, decreasing friction, increasing division of labor and outsourcing, and increasing cooperativity, transnational mergers, and global institutions. This is accompanied by increasing functional autonomy of individuals and organizations and the decline of hierarchies. The increasing complexity of interactions and instability of certain processes caused by reduced friction necessitate a strengthening of society’s capacity for information processing and control, i.e. its nervous system. This is realized by the creation of an intelligent global computer network, capable of sensing, interpreting, learning, thinking, deciding, and initiating actions: the “global brain.” Individuals are being integrated ever more tightly into this collective intelligence.
New scientific developments have done away with rigid, mechanistic views of organisms. When studying living systems, biologists no longer focus on the static structures of their anatomy, but on the multitude of interacting processes that allow the organism to adapt to an ever changing environment.
Organisms are self-organizing, adaptive systems. Most processes in such systems are decentralized, indeterministic, and in constant flux. They thrive on “noise,” chaos, and creativity. Their collective intelligence emerges out of the free interactions between individually autonomous components.
Global society can be understood as a superorganism, and that it becomes more like a superorganism as technology and globalization advance.
Both societies and biological organisms can be seen as special cases of a more general category of “living” or “autopoietic” systems.
The physical components of society can be defined as all its human members together with their artifacts (buildings, cars, roads, computers, books, etc.). Each of these components is produced by a combination of other components in the system. People, with the help of artifacts, produce other people, and artifacts, with the help of people, produce other artifacts. Together, they constantly recreate the fabric of society. (To the non-human components of society we may in fact add all domesticated plants and animals, that is to say, that part of the global ecosystem whose reproduction is under human control. As human control expands, this may come to include the complete biosphere of the Earth, so that the social superorganism may eventually encompass Gaia, the “living Earth” superorganism postulated by some theorists).
It could be argued that when Britain created colonies in regions like North America and Australia, these colonies, once they became independent, should be seen as offspring of British society. Like all children, these colonies inherited many characteristics (such as language, customs, and technologies) from their parent, but still developed their own personality. This form of reproduction is most similar to the type of vegetative reproduction used by many plants, such as vines and grasses, where a parent plant produces offshoots.
The growth of society is more like that of plants than like that of the higher animals that we are most familiar with: there is no a priori, clear separation between parent and offspring.
In the present globalized world geographical separation is no longer sufficient to create independence.
Any boundary we could draw around a social system will be porous or fuzzy. The only way to fulfill the requirement of organizational closure is to consider global society as a whole as an autopoietic system.
The evolution of society will typically lead to more autonomy and a greater capacity to internally produce organization with a minimum of external input.
To understand how society achieves autopoiesis, we must look in more detail at how the network of production processes can produce a stable organization, in spite of a variable input of resources and various perturbations in the environment. This mechanism can be functionally decomposed into different tasks to be performed by different subsystems. The most important decomposition is the one distinguishing metabolism (responsible for the processing of matter and energy) and nervous system (responsible for the processing of information). The purpose of both subsystems is to maintain a stable identity by compensating or buffering the effect of perturbations.
An organism’s knowledge should not be seen as an objective reflection of outside reality, but as a subjective construction, intended to help find a way to reconcile the system’s overall goal of maintaining its organization with the different outside perturbations that may endanger that goal.
Small increases in price (perception) will lead producers to immediately invest more effort in production (action) thus increasing the supply. This will in turn decrease the price, thus reducing the deviation. Similarly, reductions in price will trigger decreased production and therefore decreased supply and increased price. Thus, the market functions to regulate the availability of commodities that the system needs. In spite of this unambiguous control function, no single agent or group of agents is “in control.” The demand variable, which directs the process, emerges from the collective desire of all consumers, while the supply variable is the aggregate result of all actions by all producers. The control function is not centralized, but distributed over the entire economic system.
The mechanism as a whole is cyclic: the information that exits the system in the form of actions affects the environment, which in turn determines the information that comes in through perception.
A social system is generally accompanied by an extension of cooperativity, and thus of “organismic cohesion.”
This is a metasystem transition: the evolutionary emergence of a higher level of cybernetic organization This overall dynamic is at the base of both the evolution of multicellular organisms out of similar cells and of societies out of individuals. It is in a number of respects similar to the phase transitions (such as crystallization, magnetization, or condensation) that characterize self-organizing systems in physics.
Ephemeralization is at the basis of all evolutionary progress. The increasing productivity means that less resources and labor are needed to produce the same amount of goods or services. It leads to a steadily decreasing importance of physical production factors, such as matter, energy, space, and time, and a concomitantly increasing importance of cybernetical factors, such as information, communication, intelligence, knowledge, and organization, which are necessary to efficiently regulate the processes.
The essence of economic globalization is that distance nowadays contributes very little to cost, and therefore competition becomes global.
Society increasingly resembles a complex organism, with its specialized cells, organs, and tissues, that are functionally autonomous but tightly integrated in a global self-organizing network of mutually feeding processes.
The automatization of information-processing is leading to a globalization of humanity’s cognitive and decision-making mechanisms.
The Internet’s main strength is its overall flexibility and the fact that it has very quickly become a standard. This made it attractive to integrate competing methods of information exchange into the Internet so as to make them all accessible through a single interface. As a result, the historical accidents which created particular standards for particular types of communication are becoming less and less important in shaping the overall organization of the global nervous system.
Metabolically, most individuals are already strongly integrated into the superorganism: they are wholly dependent on society for shelter, energy, food, water, health, and waste disposal. Even the birth of a new human being nowadays is difficult to imagine without a complicated socio-technical infrastructure of hospitals, doctors, nurses, and machinery. Intellectually, too, individuals get most of their information, knowledge, and values from the surrounding social system.
The global organism, in order to maximize its own control over its environment and its chances for survival, should maximize the capacity for autonomous decision-making among its components. Moreover, it should maximize the diversity or variety of the strategies used by its components. This can only be achieved by stimulating individuals to develop themselves freely, and as much as possible choose their own path, rather than merely conform to the collective point of view.
The benefits of belonging to society (such as security, comfort, companionship, knowledge, medical support, et cetera) are so great that it will be very difficult to resist their lure. These benefits are likely only to increase as the superorganism further develops.
The common idea that what you lose in comfort by dropping out, you gain in freedom, is based on a misunderstanding of what “freedom” means. Without technology and social support systems, life is basically a struggle for survival, where most energy and time must be directed towards finding the necessary food and shelter. By removing these requirements, society has given us the real freedom of doing what we want, where we want it, and (most of the time) when we want it, without having to worry whether we will be able to survive. Especially technology, such as the transport and communication systems, has enormously expanded our freedom of movement and of communication. The more the superorganism increases its differentiation and integration, the more options we will have to choose our occupation, or go wherever we want whenever we want.
Without these seeming restrictions on your freedom to drive on the side of the road that you prefer, driving would become much more difficult and dangerous, effectively limiting your freedom of movement. The freedom lost by following the rules is more than compensated by the freedom gained because of a fluid and safe flow of vehicles.
Global integration entails an eventual harmonization of rules.
Complex systems composed of a variety of interacting subsystems (such as chemical networks, ecosystems, or societies) tend to evolve towards more coherence and interdependence as the subsystems mutually adapt.
Since society is an organismic system consisting of organisms (individual people), it can be viewed as a “superorganism.”
Distributed control can be exemplified by the “invisible hand” that mutually adjusts supply and demand. Its effectiveness is boosted by the emerging global computer network. The increasing reach, capacity, and intelligence of this network allow it to automate more and more functions of the superorganism’s nervous system. This will transform the World Wide Web into a “global brain,” capable of sensing, interpreting, learning, thinking, deciding, and initiating actions. Individuals are likely to become more and more intimately connected to this intelligent network through ubiquitous, intuitive interfaces, and eventually a direct brain-to-web connection.