The superorganism: a totalitarian collective?
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The superorganism: a totalitarian collective?

The emerging global super-organism will neither lead to a totalitarian political system, nor to a "Borg-like" collective that suppresses individual freedom and diversity.

The most common objection to the super-organism view of societyis that people tend to interpret it as a thinly disguised way of promoting a totalitarian, collectivist system. Especially the use of words such as "control" and "collective" evokes immediate associations with stalinism, and the brutal oppression of individual liberties. These negative associations may be understandable, but they are wholly misdirected. The evolution towards a superorganism is mostly an extrapolation of existing trends, and these show an on-going increase in freedom, individualism, democracy and decentralization rather than a decrease. These trends can be explained straightforwardly by the mechanism of differentiation, which opens ever more possibilites for an individual to choose an education or occupation, and of reduced friction, which increases the general freedom of movement, of expression and of consumption.

The complementary mechanism of integration could be seen as a source of new constraints or limitations, but these are likely to restrict the freedom of powerful individuals--such as a Stalin-like dictator or a robber baron--and organizations to abuse the system for their own ends, rather than the freedom of ordinary people to realize their individual ambitions. Global integration means an increasing mutual dependency of various organizations, and therefore an increasing difficulty for any one organization to dominate the others. This is understandably resented by those who have most power to lose, but should be welcomed by the less powerful. (This may explain the general distrust of global institutions, such as the United Nations, in the presently most powerful nation, the USA.)

Totalitarian systems

Historically, totalitarian regimes, such as Hitler's Germany, Saddam Hussain's Iraq, or Stalin's Soviet Union, were the result of an individual or select group's desire to gain and maintain power and privileges at the expense of the larger population, by suppressing their freedom to question those privileges. The underlying mechanism is simply individual selfishness augmented by social power structures. There is nothing particularly modern about such social systems: apart from more sophisticated methods for propaganda and control, the same type of ruthless, centralized organization can be found in the kingdoms and empires of Antiquity and the period before the French revolution.

Insofar that totalitarian societies were based on an ideology or political system, such as Soviet communism, this system was very different from the self-organizing, cybernetic, "organism-like" system that this paper proposes. The Soviet system lacked the most crucial component of cybernetic control: feedback. Instead of a distributed feedback loop, constantly adapting to the changing circumstances, the Soviet economy was based on a rigid, mechanical, top-down command structure, with little regard for the effect of those commands in the real world. This led to the well-known "calculation problem", where the central planning agency would find it impossible to determine exactly how many left shoes would need to be produced to satisfy the needs of a given population. The resulting economic inefficiency contributed to the eventual collapse of the Soviet system.

Collectivism and the Borg

The absence of centralization is at the base of another nightmare vision associated with the super-organism model: the true "collective", where everybody thinks the same and does the same, and where there is no room for individual initiative or decision-making. This vision is more inspired by insect societies, such as beehives or ant nests, than by existing political systems. Its most popular recent instantiation is the "Borg", the race of cyborgs imagined by the creators of the science fiction series "Star Trek". Again, from a cybernetic point of view a Borg-like organization would be most inefficient. Ashby's law of requisite variety implies that 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.

Even for ants, it can be shown that the colony will be most efficient in finding food if individual ants do not merely follow the paths laid down by their fellow ants, but regularly deviate and create a path of their own. If people understandably dislike the analogy between human societies and insect societies, it is not so much because insect societies are organized in an intrinsically more totalitarian or collectivistic manner, but because insects are simply very dumb, characterless creatures compared to individual humans. An isolated insect, whose behavior is governed by a few simple and rigid rules, is not intrinsically more free or more creative than an insect living in a colony. If you would have to choose, would you rather be a (social) termite, or its individually living cousin, a cockroach? Would you rather be a "collectivist" bee, or an "individualist" fly? Neither of these alternatives seems particularly attractive.

Copyright© 2000 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Mar 3, 2000


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