"The Internet is self-organising into a global meta-computer"

Joël de Rosnay “The more the world becomes global, the more it is becoming tribal. This is both positive and negative.”
Joël de Rosnay “The more the world becomes global, the more it is becoming tribal. This is both positive and negative.”

Over the past 30 years Joël de Rosnay has been drawing on his expertise in biologyand advanced technologies to investigate what is in store for the digital civilisation. We met him in Crans Montana, Switzerland on the occasion of the 2008 World Knowledge Dialogue Symposium, an interdisciplinary, future-focused meeting attended by some of the big names in global thinking.

What trends do you see emerging in the global interconnectivity of humans and computers?

First of all I would like to stress that there is more to the digital civilisation that we are now entering than the Internet alone. It also covers telecommunications (telephone, television), satellites and intelligent environments, for example. It is true, however, that the Internet of the future, with its blogs, emails, videos, messages, and mobile systems, will favour an even greater interaction between users. The Internet has developed like a Darwinian system, sprouting offshoots like the evolutionary tree of life. There is little overall planning in the development of the World Wide Web, but rather a myriad of initiatives by individuals or small groups. We are witnessing the genuine self-organisation of a ‘cooperative' or ‘connective' intelligence - terms I prefer to call ‘collective'.

You sometimes speak of a ‘global super organism' to describe what we are witnessing...

I have used several metaphors to try and make people aware of what is happening, which is difficult to explain because it is a new paradigm. In The Symbiotic Man, published in 1995, I spoke of ‘cybionte', a term comprised of the prefix ‘cyb' from cybernetic and the root ‘bio' that refers to life, to the living world. This term therefore describes a living organism that is a global meta-organism. To date, the major global organisms that we have known, have been cities, nations, major international organisations... but with the cybionte we arrive at a new level of complexity - a global super organism of which we are in a sense the neurons.

This metaphor is used by other scientists, such as E.O. Wilson, in his latest book. It echoes the Gaïa theory, developed by James Lovelock, according to which the Earth is a living being.

As I explain in The Symbiotic Man, I see the merging of two elements: on one hand Gaïa, which is the planet's metabolism, with its flows of energy and of matter (carbon, nitrogen, water cycles), and on the other hand cybionte that is the nervous system in the process of organising itself.

Who programs this global supercomputer?

The Internauts themselves! Those I refer to as the ‘pronetaire', a term designating those who are for and on the Internet. Of course there is a nod to Marx here and his call for the proletariat of the world to unite. The pronetaire - apart from the fact that they are already united - are also different to the proletariat in that they have their own means of production.

With a simple laptop, by uploading onto the Internet photographs, articles, links, tags, comments, every one of us is reprogramming the global meta-computer from within. And most astonishing of all is that this gigantic machine in which we are the living elements has been functioning uninterruptedly for almost 20 years now. In a few decades this system will no doubt include its own immune system, like that of a living creature, able to combat viruses and spam in the common interest.

Is the emergence of this cooperative intelligence a good thing for human societies?

I make no judgments but simply attempt to analyse the potentials and the dangers. The potential is excellent: for example, by rethinking the relationships between politicians and cybercitizens - which needs to be done in any event - we could invent a genuine cyberdemocracy, a much more participatory democracy that would complement the traditional representative democracy. This of course implies working to ensure that this emerging intelligence leads to what James Surowiecki calls "The Wisdom of Crowds". But there is no guarantee that this wisdom will always manifest itself in the right direction. Crowds can also become crazy, amplify reductive effects, react out of hate or turn against those who ask questions.

Do you see other risks inherent in the development of the digital civilisation, such as increased control by governments?

The curtailing of individual liberties is a risk that has existed for a very long time.

Governments have always tried to use telephone tapping, surveillance, files... in a word, intelligence. It is just that now this is possible on a different scale given the technical possibilities offered by satellites, mobile phones, credit cards, RFID, information storage, etc But I see the principal risk as being the creation of a dual society with both an excessive individualism (as often witnessed among youth) and a growing tribalism - an increasingly strong withdrawal into a community identity, which makes me fear gregarious movements leading people in directions to which they have not given sufficient thought.

I have already written that the more the world becomes global the more it is also becoming tribal. This is both positive and negative.

People have an affinity with their country, their culture, their language, their roots and their territory, and all that is a plus. But when taken to the extreme, it leads to an excessive nationalism that becomes dangerous.

Are we not also seeing the development of a scientific tribalism as researchers become isolated within their discipline?

I thought this 20 years ago: disciplines were becoming increasingly narrow and there was an apparent difficulty in communicating with other scientists. But this is no longer entirely the case as there is a convergence of complex sciences, of the systemic approach and through the theory of chaos in particular. We are now seeing analogous laws in very different fields: cybernetics, ecology, economics and physiology, for example. So it is possible to return to an era of specialists who have a detailed knowledge of a given field but at the same time transcend this through a systemic approach. These specialists both understand and are inspired by other disciplines and are therefore also generalists.

We are now seeing the arrival of young, more generalist researchers who talk to the media - sometimes sparking clashes with older and more discipline-rooted scientists who accuse them of talking about subjects outside their field.

Is it to support this desire for interdisciplinarity that you chose to participate in the WKDS?

I am participating because it is a forum, a place and an organisation that is incomparable at international level in bringing together the ideas of scientists, philosophers, sociologists, industrialists and politicians on the way the world is developing and the major challenges of the future. The debates are open and the expression is tolerant, respecting the opinions of all concerned. This creates a calm and peaceful atmosphere that is conducive to collective creation.

Interview by Yves Sciama


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Joël de Rosnay

Abiologist by training, Joel de Rosnay is president of Biotics International and scientific adviser to the Director-General of the Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie, France's preeminent science museum. A former researcher and lecturer at MIT - Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) - he was Director of Research Appli - cations at the Institut Pasteur. Known for his commitment to popularising science, he is the author of about 15 books, most notably Le macroscope (1975), L'homme symbiotique (1995), La révolte du pronétariat (2006) and 2020: Les scénarios du futur (2007), many of which have been translated into English.


Knowledge in dialogue

World Knowledge Dialogue, launched two years ago, seeks to combat the compartmentalisation of knowledge into disciplines by encouraging dialogue of a nature to restore "the human, if not humanist, dimension to knowledge". The 2008 meeting, held in September in Crans Montana, Switzerland, was attended by many leading figures such as astrophysicist Hubert Reeves, biologist Edward Wilson, primatologist Frans de Waal and Nobel prize-winners John Sulston and Christiane Nusslein-Volhard - as well as many participants from the human and social sciences.