Collectives, Borgs and Hive Mind

Jon Dron and I have been writing a book chapter on our “Taxonomy of the Many” – groups. networks and collectives. In the process we’ve been thinking (again) about the challenge of the term collective to our individual sense of unique self. We continue to see applications evolve where data mining and aggregation of large numbers of Net activities, opinions, artifact organization and postings yields very interesting and useful results that can be used to guide decision making and increase effectiveness of Net activity for individual, group and network benefit.

But there is something inherently threatening about the loss of individuality associated with the hive mind and of course amplified when human choice to participate is eliminated as in “Resistance is Futile”. Searching further (using the hive optimized Google search tool ) I found a very interesting article Speculations on Hive Minds as a Posthuman State by Anders Sandberg. In the article Sandberg discusses various type of borg like entities including social insects, individual cells in an organism or component parts of a complex organ such as the human brain. Sandberg goes on to discuss the nature and psychology, weaknesses and strengths of these borganisms.

While interesting, Sandberg’s analysis assumes a coercive and all consuming state of borganism, where the benefits of borganism are available only to those who have given up their individualism. I see collective activity in a more tool like fashion where I exert my individual agency to exploit an affordance provided by collective tools. I realize that my activities on the Net are constantly being mined and aggregated. But I don’t think this is too much more loss of control than I give to a traffic engineer or a radio station traffic reporter counting the number of vehicles using an intersection at any given moment. Knowledge of the collective activity helps me make individual decisions.

Of course the collective may make mistakes and we see evidence of group think, erroneous meme proliferation and illegal extraction of individual and identifiable activity from collective activities, but misuse and inefficiencies accompany all forms of human organization. One must judge the value of the tool use, as compared to these costs.

Sandberg references a 1999 article Metasystem Transition by Turchin and Joslyn in which they describe the emergence of metasystems that coordinate and control lower level activities. They show that these higher control systems have developed from control of movement, through control of individual thinking to emergence of human culture. Again, I don’t like the coercive connotation of the work control, but I do acknowledge that as life has evolved to more complex entities, meta systems are necessary for survival.

But these are tools, not mindsets. even though, as Marshall McLuhan noted “We make our tools and then our tools make us“. We need practice and time to evolve tool use in ways that allow us to optimize our indiviudal selves in a complex and collective universe. Resistance may be futile, but in the resistance we recreate the technologies to meet our individual and social needs.

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