Heylighen F. (2002): “The Global Brain as a New Utopia”, in: R. Maresch & F. Rötzer (eds.)
Zukunftsfiguren (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt)
The Global Brain as a New Utopia
Center “Leo Apostel”, Free University of Brussels
The role of utopias
Utopias seem to be out of fashion these days. The old ideologies, such as communism,
have shown their inadequacies, and the “laissez-faire” liberalism that has replaced them
is coming under more and more criticism. Instead, the intellectual climate has turned to
either gloom and doom, or an “anything goes” postmodernist relativism. This general
pessimism and apathy is fed by an increasing amount of bad news about wars,
terrorism, ecological catastrophes, global warming, rising xenophobia and inequalities.
Yet, objective statistics show that humanity is doing rather well on a global scale:
life expectancy, wealth, education level, democracy, safety, and even average IQ have
been consistently rising for the world as a whole, and this for at least the past century
[Heylighen & Bernheim, 2000a; Simon, 1995]. Still, it cannot be denied that accelerating
changes in all segments of science, technology and society and growing complexity
produce a lot of stress and uncertainty. While, on average, developments seem to be for
the better, overall social evolution has become much more unstable, unpredictable, and
uncontrollable [Heylighen, submitted], raising the risks of major catastrophes. The
anxiety, distrust and hopelessnes that this engenders is made worse by the lack of a
shared world view [Apostel et al. 1994, Heylighen & Bernheim, 2000b]. Such an
encompassing philosophy would provide clear goals and values, and a positive vision of
the future, motivating people to work towards a common project, and giving a meaning
to their life.
The role of a utopia is to create such a vision. Past utopias have been discredited
mainly because their views were unrealistic: they failed to take into account the
complexity of social systems and the tensions and contradictions inherent in human
nature. As a result, their application to real societies have all too often produced
spectacular failures. Yet, recent developments such as evolutionary psychology and the
theory of complex adaptive systems [Heylighen, 2002], are providing fundamental
insights in these complexities, opening up the perspective of a utopia that takes them
duely into account. While a realistic model of a future society will necessarily be
complex, abstract and with many shades of grey, a utopia must in the first place
provide a simple and appealing picture, that people can easily visualize. These two
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requirements—of realistic complexity and of intuitive appeal—are inherently at odds,
and therefore an acceptable utopia will have to be a compromise. In my own reflections
on this issue [Heylighen, 2002], I have settled on the metaphor of the “global brain”
as the for me most satisfactory vision of a positive, yet realistic future for humanity.
The global brain vision
The "global brain" is the name given to the emerging intelligent network that is formed
by all people on this planet together with the computers, knowledge bases and
communication links that connect them together. Like a human brain, this network is an
immensely complex, self-organizing system, that processes information, makes
decisions, solves problems, learns new connections and discovers new ideas. It plays
the role of a nervous system for the whole of humanity. No single person, organization
or computer is in control of this system: its "thought" processes are distributed over all
its components. This concept of a cognitive system at the planetary level has been
proposed by many different authors under different names: planetary brain, world
brain, global mind, noosphere, social brain, Metaman [Stock, 1993], super-organism
[Heylighen, 2002], super-being [Turchin, 1977], and collective consciousness are some
of the roughly equivalent synonyms.
The history of this idea goes back quite a while. As the variety of names indicates,
many people have independently developed the idea of society as an organism-like
system with its own nervous system [Stock, 1993], each adding their own insights to
our present understanding. The evolutionary theologist Teilhard de Chardin  was
probably the first to focus on the mental organization of this social organism, which he
called the "noosphere". Around the same time, the science fiction writer H. G. Wells
proposed the concept of a "world brain" as a unified system of knowledge, accessible to
all. The term "global brain" seems to have been first used by Russell . The first
people to have made the connection between this concept and the emerging Internet
may well be Mayer-Kress  and de Rosnay . Heylighen and Bollen ,
and Goertzel  appear to be the first researchers to have proposed concrete
technologies that might turn the Internet into an intelligent, brain-like network.
The global brain can be conceived most fundamentally as a higher level of evolution,
the way humans form a higher level of organization that evolved out of the animals.
Although the analogy between an organism and a society can be applied even to
primitive societies, it becomes clearly more applicable as technology develops. As
transport and communication become more efficient, different parts of global society
become more interdependent. At the same time, the variety of ideas, specializations,
and subcultures increases. This simultaneous integration and differentiation creates an
increasingly coherent system, functioning at a much higher level of complexity
[Heylighen, 2002]. The emergence of such a higher order system has been called a
"metasystem transition" [Turchin, 1977]. Examples of metasystem transitions include
the origin of life and the development of multicellular organisms out of single celled
ones. The appearance of a global brain, functioning at a much higher level of intelligence
than its human components, seems a prime example of such a metasystem transition.
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The global brain vision draws part of its inspiration from a number of related
approaches. Collective intelligence [Lévy, 1997] is the idea that a group can be more
intelligent than its members. The best known examples are social insects, such as ants,
termites or bees, which are individually dumb, but capable of surprisingly intelligent
behavior when functioning as a group. The intelligence of the global brain will be
collective, as it arises from the interactions between millions of individuals. Symbiotic
intelligence is the idea that intelligence can also emerge from the interactions between
essentially different components, such as people and computers. As de Rosnay 
proposes, people will live in symbiosis with this surrounding network of technological
systems, and out of this symbiosis, a higher level intelligence will emerge.
Gaia (the Greek goddess of the Earth) is the name given to the hypothesis that the
planet Earth itself is a living organism. This organism would be able to regulate its own
essential variables, such as temperature and composition of the atmosphere. Compared
to the global brain as we have defined it, this "Gaian" organism seems very primitive,
with a level of intelligence comparable perhaps to the one of a bacterium. At present,
Gaia and the global brain are still largely independent, and the impact of society on the
global ecosystem appears unsustainable. However, several authors have argued that
Gaia and the superorganism will evolve to a state of symbiosis, that may eventually
lead to a merging of the two. Thus, the global brain would not only form a brain for
humanity, but for the whole of Planet Earth.
Although most researchers have addressed the global brain idea from a scientific or
technological point of view, authors like Teilhard de Chardin  and Russell 
have explored some of its spiritual aspects. Similar to many mystical traditions, the
global brain idea holds the promise of a much enhanced level of consciousness and a
state of deep synergy or union that encompasses humanity as a whole. Theists might
view this state of holistic consciousness as a union with God. Humanists might see it as
the creation, by humanity itself, of an entity with God-like powers. Followers of the
Gaia hypothesis have suggested that the "living Earth" of which we are all part deserves
awe and worship; it therefore could form the basis of a secular, ecologically inspired
religion. The Global Brain vision may offer a similar sense of belonging to a larger whole
and of an encompassing purpose.
Technologies for a Global Brain
In principle, it is possible to imagine a global brain even in the absence of information
technology. As ideas ("memes") are communicated from person to person, they evolve,
assimilating the contributions and points of views of myriad individuals. Thus, society
already has a kind of a collective mind, constantly developing new thoughts that cannot
be traced back to any individual contribution. However, in the absence of modern
technology, this "collective thought" required decades to develop any new insights.
Electronic media have made this process much more efficient, allowing ideas to spread
and evolve in hours rather than decades. This turns the global brain from an interesting
analogy into a phenomenon that can now be concretely experienced. Let me sketch how
existing technologies can be further enhanced to produce a truly intelligent system.
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The web is the hypermedia interface to the information residing on the Internet. It
makes it possible to seamlessly integrate documents that are distributed over the entire
planet, and created by people who may not even be aware of each others' existence.
What holds these documents together is not their geographic location, but their
associations: links connecting mutually relevant pages. This hypermedia architecture is
analogous to the one of our brain, where concepts are connected by associations, and
the corresponding assemblies of neurons by synapses. The web thus functions like a
huge associative memory for society.
However, the brain is more than a static memory: it can learn and think. Learning
takes place by the strengthening of associations that are used often, and the weakening
of rarely used associations. Through learning, the brain constantly enhances its
organization and increases its store of knowledge. Thinking happens by the activation
of concepts and the "spreading" of this activation to related concepts, in proportion to
the strength of association. Thinking allows the brain to solve problems, to make
decisions, and to be creative, that is, discover combinations of concepts never
encountered before. By making simple changes to its static architecture, we can
implement similar processes on the web.
In the brain, learning follows the rule of Hebb: if two neurons are activated in close
succession, the strength of their connection is increased. A similar procedure has been
applied to the web by Heylighen and Bollen : if two web pages are consulted by
the same user within a short interval, either the existing hyperlink between the pages
gets a higher weight, or a new link is created. On any given page, only the links with a
minimum weight are shown. Thus, links that are not sufficiently reinforced may
eventually disappear. The result is that such a learning web constantly adapts to the
way it is used, reorganizing its pattern of links to best reflect the preferences of its
users. In practice, this creates direct links between the pages that are most strongly
related, bypassing less interesting detours, and clustering pages together according to
their mutual relevance. As such, the web becomes much more efficient to use, by
assimilating the collective knowledge and desires of its users.
The simplest way to implement web "thinking" is to create a specialized software
agent. This is a program that works as a "delegate" of its user, autonomously collecting
information that is likely to be interesting to its user. The agent can learn the user's
preferences simply by observing which pages the user actively uses, or it can receive
specific instructions (e.g. keywords) from the user. Given that preference profile, the
agent can locate pages that satisfy the profile, and then use "spreading activation" to
find further, related documents. It does this by "activating" pages in proportion to their
degree of interestingness, and then propagating that activation according to the
hyperlinks and their weights as learned from other users. Thus, it can discover new
documents, that may not contain any of the initially given keywords, but that are still
highly relevant to the query. This is especially useful when the user cannot clearly
formulate the query, but only has an intuitive feel for it.
With such technologies, the web would become a giant, collective brain, which you
could consult at any moment to get an answer to your questions, however unusual or
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vaguely formulated they may be. Its thought processes would always be ready to
enhance and extend your own thinking. To fully harness the power of this global brain,
it should be constantly available. The rapid spread of mobile communication already
offers universal access to the web, wherever you are. Further miniaturization will lead
to wearable computers, incorporated in your clothing, with images projected on your
glasses. Automatic recognition of speech, gestures and even emotions will make
communication with the web much easier and more intuitive. In the longer term, we can
foresee direct connections between computer and brain, through neural interfaces. This
would allow you to communicate with the global brain simply by thinking, having your
thoughts immediately sensed, understood, and enhanced. Your thoughts could also be
directly turned into actions, as when you use the global brain to order a pizza, get a taxi,
or switch on the heating, so that it would be nice and warm by the time you come home.
All these technologies already exist, either as prototypes or as applications
working in a more limited environment. What remains to be done is further streamlining,
and above all integration into a single, coordinated whole.
Some illustrative applications
To make the myriad potential benefits of such a system more concrete, let us try to
imagine how a global brain-like network could help tackle the problems of congestion,
pollution and delay that hamper present-day transport.
Since Spring 2001, the Brussels company for public transport (www.mivb.be) has
been offering the beginnings of an intelligent support system on the web. It allows you
to enter your precise location and destination. The system then calculates the quickest
combined connection, taking into account the time schedules of all forms of public
transport available (tram, bus, subway) and the time you would need to walk to and
from the different stopping places. Moreover, it provides you with detailed guidelines,
such as: “take the second side street on the left, ..., take the subway at the station Delta,
get off at, ..., until you reach the museum at 12.19”.
By adding a few recently developed technologies, we could take this several steps
further. First, the system becomes truly useful only when it can be consulted in real
time, i.e. while you are on the journey. This is already possible using a palmtop
computer with a wireless Internet connection. It might further include a Global
Positioning System, so that the system would know where you are, without need for
you to enter an address. In this case, the guidelines could be constantly updated, so that
if by error you walk down the wrong street, the system would recompute the optimal
route and guide you interactively to your destination.
Second, instead of you having to buy tickets, payment could be done
automatically, by transferring the correct amount of digital cash from your account to
the one of the transport company the moment you finish each leg of the journey. This
would imply the additional option of choosing the least expensive route rather than the
quickest. This becomes especially interesting if the system would include different
companies or forms of transport (e.g. taxis vs. buses) with different prices and different
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transport offers. Depending on the route and the time of day, overall cost, comfort and
duration would vary, but your personal agent would know your preferences, and
negotiate with the transport system to find the option that best suits your situation and
Such a system optimizes travelling for the individual, but this can be extended to
the collective level. Imagine that all individuals would communicate with the transport
system the way we sketched it. In that case the system would know precisely how
many people travel between any two destinations at any time of the day. This would
allow it to determine the most efficient way to organize the transport network. A truly
interactive system would moreover be able to adapt routes in real time, depending on
the demand. Roaming vans or buses would be directed by the system to the place where
travellers are waiting, using the most efficient route that combines their various
locations and destinations. Price and waiting time can be negotiated between the
traveller’s agent and the system. In that way, the “invisible hand” of the market (albeit
electronically supported) can adjust supply and demand of transportation in the most
At this level of flexibility, the distinction between public and private transport
becomes moot: such a system can also accommodate individual drivers, who may be
willing to share their car with passengers for part of their trip, in return for a fee
negotiated between the respective agents. This is a more flexible version of car-pooling
or hitchhiking. The proposed supply-and-demand driven merger of public and private
transport does not imply that market forces should reign supreme, though. A truly
public transport can reduce pollution, noise, energy consumption and congestion in a
way that benefits society in the long term, without therefore having direct benefit to the
traveller here and now.
Such collective benefits determine additional variables that should be taken into the
equation when calculating the recommended route. They can be expressed as constraints
that prohibit certain routes, e.g. a noisy bus passing near to a hospital. Others can be
expressed as additional weights that bias the overall decision to the one that is optimal
for society rather than for the individual traveller or transport firm. For example, the
government can subsidize certain instances of transport and tax others, depending on
their relative advantages and disadvantages. These corrections to the market price would
be automatically taken into account when calculating the cost of the different options
for the traveller. For example, the system may offer the train as cheapest option
because it is less polluting, even though the immediate cost of a bus journey might be
Such corrections should be able to adapt in real time, e.g. increasing the cost of
more polluting options in proportion to the amount of air pollution that is registered by
sensors. In that way, the present level of pollution can be regulated cybernetically.
Moreover, the system would be able to react immediately to sudden perturbations, e.g.
by redirecting traffic around the obstruction created by an accident. Thus, it would be
able to prevent the self-reinforcing processes that lead to the build-up of a traffic jam,
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and that in a sufficiently dense traffic can be triggered by a mere local slowdown
involving one or two cars.
This transport example can be easily generalized to other problem domains. The
generalization from transport of people to transport of goods is straightforward: it
suffices to replace the location, destination and preferences of the traveller by those of
the supplier and client of the good.
The generalization from transport to production requires a somewhat higher level
of abstraction: every production process can be represented as a trajectory in state
space, moving from the “raw” state of materials or components to the “finished” state
via a number of intermediate states. This trajectory can be optimized taking into
account the moment-to-moment supply of raw material and demand for finished goods.
For example, when the electronic payment systems of booksellers register a higher
demand for a particular novel, printing presses can be adjusted to immediately start
producing more copies, while increasing the standing order for paper from the suppliers.
Effects at the collective level (e.g. some processes are more polluting or consume more
scarce resources than others) can be taken into account by imposing additional
constraints or preferences.
Services, such as medical treatment, too can be conceptualized as a trajectory from
an initial state (e.g. the patient being ill) to a desired state (e.g. the patient being cured).
Again, an intelligent system can try to find the “shortest” route from the one state to
the other, taking into account various constraints (e.g. avoiding risk to the patient’s life)
and optimization criteria (e.g. minimizing cost, pain, and side-effects), at both the
individual and collective level, while being guided by the collective experience of other
patients with similar ailments as stored in the shared memory.
General benefits to be expected
Now that we have a better grasp of how a global brain-like system would function in
practice, let us try to summarize its great advantages for society.
A first problem that it would tackle is information overload [Heylighen,
submitted]. As more and more documents, services, and people move to the Internet,
retrieving, sending and receiving information becomes in practice effortless and free.
This means that ever larger amounts of potentially interesting messages, documents and
announcements will clamor for our attention. However, attention, unlike information,
will remain scarce: our brain is simply unable to attend to more than a few dozen
messages a day. Therefore, we increasingly need support from a system that is capable
to sort through billions of information items and select those that are most relevant to
our particular situation and interests.
Let us then summarize its effects on the economy. The market is the collective
system of transactions that helps supply to match demand, and thus to fulfill the need
of the collective customer for products and services. A traditional market is rather
inefficient, requiring a huge infrastructure of middlemen, specialized organizations such
as stock exchanges and auctions, and communication channels. The Internet already
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allows such transactions to take place much more quickly and transparently, with less
cost and effort. This strongly reduces "friction", making the economy more efficient so
that demand can be satisfied more rapidly, more accurately, and at a lower cost
[Heylighen, 2002]. The global brain will not only facilitate direct communication
between buyers and sellers, but help buyers to find the best value (e.g. through
shopping agents to compare prices), and help sellers to get the best price (e.g. through
automatic auctioning systems). The net effect is that growth increases, while inflation
and economic instability decrease. Moreover, there will be less waste because of unsold
items or goods shipped far away when there is demand around the corner. The direct
incorporation of collective effects (“externalities”) in the decision-making process, as
illustrated in the transport example, will moreover allow a more efficient governance
over the economy, thus protecting employees and consumers while reducing inequalities
and pollution, without the added complexity, bureaucracy and rigidity that tend to
accompany such interventions in a traditional political system.
The global brain will moreover help eliminate conflicts. It in principle provides a
universal channel through which people from all countries, languages and cultures of this
world can communicate. This will make it easier to reduce mutual ignorance and
misunderstandings, or discuss and resolve differences of opinion. The greater ease with
which good ideas can spread over the whole planet will make it easier to reach global
consensus about issues that concern everybody. The free flow of information will make
it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to plan suppression or war. The growing
interdependence will stimulate collaboration, while making war more difficult. The more
efficient economy will indirectly reduce the threat of conflict, since there will be less
competition for scarce resources.
Of course, technology alone will not solve all the problems that threaten our planet:
in the end, people will have to agree about concrete policies to tackle e.g. global warming
or poverty. Yet, the global brain can support not only the process of reaching
consensus on a plan of action, but also its practical implementation. For example,
combating infectious diseases or pollution will require extensive monitoring of the
number of infections or concentration of polluting gases in different regions. Information
collected by local observers or by electronic sensors can directly enter the global brain,
be processed to reveal underlying trends, and be forwarded to the people or institutions
responsible for taking direct action.
The ultimate test of a utopia is whether it will make people happy. Statistics about
life satisfaction in different countries have shown that people are more happy when
their society provides them with greater health, wealth, safety, knowledge, freedom and
equality [Heylighen & Bernheim, 2000a]. The global brain will greatly contribute to
each of these fundamental values. The global brain itself will provide universal access to
all of humanity's knowledge, and thus indirectly increase people's freedom to choose
their own path, while providing them with more equal opportunities. Its effect on the
economy will directly create more wealth, and indirectly resources to invest in medical
care, education, safety measures, etc. Its support for the creation of new knowledge will
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boost science and technology, and thus help them to solve the most pressing medical,
social and ecological problems in a much shorter time span.
Utopia or distopia: should we be afraid of the global brain?
Before concluding we must address a number of recurrent worries and
misunderstandings about the global brain ideal [Heylighen, 2002]. The use of terms like
"collective intelligence" or "superorganism" tends to invite the comparison of the global
brain with a "hive mind", that is, a collective in which the members all think and behave
the same, lacking any autonomy or personal identity. This frightening prospect is most
vividly illustrated by the "Borg", the race of cyborgs imagined by the creators of the
science fiction series "Star Trek". The global brain, on the contrary, derives its
intelligence precisely from the diversity and autonomy of the people that take part in it.
If everybody would make the same choices, then the global brain would not be smarter
than a single individual. It is because different people have different points of view and
different experiences that together they can tackle more complex problems.
Another recurrent worry is privacy, and the fear the the global brain might become
a high-tech version of "Big Brother". Since the global brain becomes more effective by
monitoring user behavior, it may seem that it will get to know everything an individual
has done on the net, including actions that this user would rather keep private, such as
visiting a pornographic site. However, web learning algorithms do not need to know
individual activities. They only need to know the collective frequencies of certain
actions, e.g. that most users who visited the "Playboy" site also visited the "Penthouse"
site, independently of who these users are. In spite of this anonymity of web learning,
the algorithms can still provide personalized recommendations based on the user's
preference profile, but this profile is kept strictly on the user's own computer, far from
the prying eyes of others.
Another common fear is that belonging to an encompassing, collective system, such
as the global brain, will limit individual freedom. It is true that for a global brain to be
effective, the people participating in it will need to agree about a minimum set of
common standards or rules to facilititate communication and cooperation. However,
well-chosen rules will increase rather than decrease freedom. This can be explained by
an analogy with the traffic code. Without such traffic rules as the obligation to drive on
the right hand side of the road (or left, in Great Britain), traffic would be much more
dangerous and more easily obstructed, effectively decreasing your freedom to jump into
your car and drive wherever the roads may lead you. Since the same rules will
democratically apply to everyone, the net result will be that dominant organizations,
governments, or corporations will have less power to censor or impose their rules on
the people who use the net. This loss of power will understandably be resented by
these organizations, but should be welcomed by individuals as it will increase their
freedom and autonomy.
Since Frankenstein and the Golem, many publications have warned us that the
artificial creatures we are creating may escape our control and eventually take over. The
global brain, however, is not intended to replace humanity, but to complement or
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augment it. The global brain is controlled by all the people that are part of it. It is not
an autonomous system that could suddenly decide no longer to obey commands. The
global brain's intelligence, indeed its "mind" or "personality", emerges from the actions
of all people collectively. If the people would decide no longer to use the network, then
the global brain would simply stop to exist.
A final worry is that advanced information technology may increase the gap
between haves and have-nots, and more particularly between those that have access to
information and those that haven't. Although global brain technologies will be adopted
most quickly by the wealthiest and best educated part of the population, this won't
stop the underdogs from joining a little later. Internet technologies are quite inexpensive
to install, compared to e.g. roads, electricity or running water. Moreover, as the global
brain becomes more intelligent, it will become ever easier to use, requiring an ever lower
education level for entry. Speech technologies will soon make the web available even for
illiterates, and may teach them to read and write in the process. Thus, the global brain is
a cheap and efficient way to increase the education level, access to information, and
economic competitiveness in all regions of the world, helping Third World countries to
bridge the gap with the wealthiest countries.
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