Towards a global society as a superorganism

Ruben Baart and Britta de Vries
May 12th 2020

Today we hold the ability to gather a lot of knowledge, thanks to science. We are able to watch, analyze, manipulate and change matter to the nano-level. This makes it tempting to think that we are the dominant species on the Earth. And while this is something that most people would agree with, on some level, we don't seem to dominate the Earth now.

Right now, a microorganism is talking back to us. It is telling us to stop, take it easy, reflect and learn from it. This in turn shows that all living entities are part of a larger environment, in which they have to relate to other living creatures. We are living creatures as well, made of living organisms that need living cells in order to survive. But now these cells are being separated by a virus, people are dying, and the events have turned dramatic.

If anything the virus shows us that we are connected. It also shows us that nature is not static but dynamic and that evolution goes on. It is Next Nature Network’s goal to find a path in-between. We believe that the Next Nature philosophy could guide us in approaching thinking about the virus from a different perspective, in order for it to go into history as a forward-looking turn of events. How will we shape such an event? We reorganize ourselves as a superorganism.

A superorganism?

That’s right. A superorganism. There are different ways to describe this concept. Merriam Webster simply defines it as “an organized society (as of a social insect) that functions as an organic whole”. And though we may agree with this description, we believe there are deeper layers to be explored in order for the superorganism to thrive as an organic whole. 

On the first level, we are the superorganism. Humans are built from millions of cells that all collaborate, a colony of cells, turning us into machines for survival. The superorganism is inside of us. It colonizes the body and has autonomy.

We are the superorganism.

Humans then inhabit a larger structure on the planet, and share this structure with all other living organisms. This structure is known as the biosphere. Here, the biosphere is regarded as an organism in its own right. It has its own dynamics and has to conserve itself.

Upon the biosphere a new sphere has evolved: the technosphere. This sphere includes all living organisms on the planet’s surface and considers the influence of all techno diversity as part of the biosphere. It’s important to note here that the biosphere builds upon the technosphere, rather than replaces it. Evolution goes on.

Looking at it from this perspective, AI and robots are taking on their own natural momentum. And as a result, they are introduced as new organisms to inhabit this planet. “Will AI become superorganisms, will they replace us?” You may ask. “Are we going to be living inside the robots?” But think of it like this: Aren’t we already living inside the robots? We are dependent on a certain infrastructure, thus perhaps this robot has already surrounded us.

Another example of such an infrastructure would be a country or state. This organism is a structure in which we are living today. And what about companies or corporations? Aren’t we all living in our iPhones today? 

The superorganism existed long before we recognized it.

It’s an interesting experiment to ask yourself which entity holds more power; a country or a company. Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook are just a few among the companies that have bigger economic powers than most countries.

This shows us that the superorganism existed long before we recognized it. Accepted it. The virus challenges us to radically reorganize. It lays bare the need for creativity in order to imagine the world differently. 

In order to envision such a world, we organized ourselves in the mediasphere and aligned with our very own superorganism, our Next Nature fellows, with the aim to tackle some of the most pressing questions around the pandemic and discuss alternative strategies for a brighter tomorrow. 

In this text we will outline the different aspects that surround the various superorganisms that we have encountered and are now embedded in, and provide insights to how these superorganisms are now transforming, and its effects on life on our planet.

How a superorganism caused the virus

The viral pandemic is understood as a human creation, which has much to do with our current cultures and lifestyles. As of early March 2020, a new coronavirus, called COVID-19, is in more than 70 countries and has killed more than 3.100 people, the vast majority in China. That's where the virus emerged back in December 2019. 

This isn't a new phenomenon for China; in 2003, the SARS virus also emerged there, and under similar circumstances, before spreading around the world and killing nearly 800. Both SARS and COVID-19 are in the "coronavirus" family, and both appear to have emerged from animals in China's notorious wildlife markets.

The virus has a zoonotic origine, just like 75 percent of new diseases in the last 30 years. Experts had long predicted that these markets, known to be potential sources of disease, would enable another outbreak. 

Gaia Vince, environmental journalist, argues that this is because “humans do not operate within their ecosystems in the same way as other species [do]”. Vince writes that humans dominate and alter the local—which has now turned into a global—ecosystem to suit our lifestyles and improve our survival. Some of the things that are part of this are habitat loss, introduction of invasive species, climate change, industrial-scale hunting, burning, planting, infrastructure replacement, and countless other modifications.

Humans dominate the planet and no part of the planet is longer untouched by human activity.

While other species do not naturally cause extinctions (except in rare circumstances) humans are said to currently threaten 1 million of the world’s 8 million species. Humans dominate the planet and no part of the planet is longer untouched by human activity. 

‘We were here’ is certainly written all over.

Vince argues that “Earth’s biosphere operates systemically: The cycling of chemicals (such as carbon, oxygen, and water), of energy, and of biology all interact to produce a living synergy. We humans are part of this. Our bodies and all the resources we use and move are part of this interaction, from the air we breathe to the protein we consume, to the carbon dioxide we emit.”

And continues that much of our activities with the ecosystem are culturally driven: “Human culture operates its own system. The numbers of us, how we are networked, our position in this network of humanity as individuals and societies, all produce their own effects. This is important because human interactions with their ecosystems are culturally driven. We attach subjective values to things of no or little survival value, such as gold, mahogany, and diamonds. And we spread these invented values through our networks, just as we spread our resources, genes, and germs.”

Just as one cultural choice can spread throughout the network of human beings from a single point, so too can one solution.

Individualism vs the common good

Current initiatives to limit the spread of the virus have sparked debates over how far a government can go to control the pandemic. On the one hand, people want to keep their privacy (and with that, their individuality), but on the other hand, focusing on the common good could help countries move through this crisis faster.

A few Asian countries have had the opportunity to open school and universities up again by implementing tracking technologies. While this seems to provide them with an advancement, such a solution inherently deals with the loss of privacy for the individuals living in these countries.

Some Western countries might be more averse to using such technologies, this has much to do with their democratic approach and keeping privacy rights endorsed. This is just one of the dilemmas presented to us during this crisis.

Is becoming a superorganism equal to losing individuality? It's not.

When letting go of privacy and individualism, a potential outlook could be the idea of a collective common good, or, that which benefits society as a whole, in contrast to the private good of individuals and sections of society. Is becoming a superorganism then merely equal to losing individuality?

No. Focusing on the common good has to arise from the individuals themselves and can go hand-in-hand with individuality. After all, if the common goals also benefit your individual goals, there is no need to seperate them. Therefore, it is important to provide the right information to the individuals, to make them want to participate collectively for the common good. The right information allows citizens to take more educated decisions which will allow them to choose for the common good.

So should we be giving up our privacy for the common good? Yuval Noah Harari, historian and professor, warns us that while the coronavirus shock may pass, the choices we make at this moment in time will stay with us for years to come. Therefore, we must think of the role technology can play during this crisis, but also the risks this may entail. 

Some may argue that a focus on the common good equals that the government decides what the society should be fighting for. But during this crisis it is also important to show resistance against new policies or actions that are imposed upon us and that we do not agree with (such as monitoring apps).

Governmental control vs self-control

There are hopes that the current crises will cause a positive change to society. Yet crises are argued to be the perfect conditions for governments and the global elite to implement their political agendas onto. While normally these political agendas would have been met with great oppositions, during a crisis, this is different.

So far, only negative changes have happened because of so-called “shock crises”. Naomi Klein, author and social activist, argues that there is a blueprint that politicians and governments follow, called the “shock doctrine”.

This is a political strategy of using large-scale crises to push through policies that systematically deepen inequality, enricht elites, and undercut everyone else. These shocks originate from wars, natural disasters and economic crises and cause people to become blind-sided by the daily emergencies. Therefore, citizens put too much trust in those in power. The aftermath of these crises is therefore characterized by “disaster capitalism”. In Klein’s words: “calculated, free-market ‘solutions’ to crises that exploit and exacerbate existing inequalities”.

The use of biometric monitoring would make Cambridge Analytica’s data hacking tactics look like something from the Stone Age.

For instance, governments could implement monitoring technologies as a way to limit the spread of the virus. But accepting such emergency policies could cause citizens all over the world to live in a constant state of surveillance. After all, the decisions and policies made during these “shock crises” may never become reversed after the crisis has ceased and may cause citizens to live in this ‘new normal’. 

The implementation of large scale surveillance measures in other countries might normalize the deployment of mass surveillance tools in countries which have rejected them so far. Additionally, new technologies—such as biometrics—may even be used to transform the age of surveillance from ‘over the skin’ to ‘under the skin’, where governments would know more about ourselves than we do. 

According to Harari, this usage of biometric monitoring would “make Cambridge Analytica’s data hacking tactics look like something from the Stone Age.” He adds as an example, “imagine North Korea in 2030, when every citizen must wear a biometric bracelet 24 hours a day. If you listen to a speech by the Great Leader and the bracelet picks up the tell-tale signs of anger, you are done for.”

Privacy vs health

The root problem of this, it seems, is to ask people to choose between privacy and health. Harari says that having to choose between these two should not be made mandatory. He notes that, by controlling ourselves with the augmentation of our bodies (using for instance biometric devices), we are able to make better informed decisions. 

Namely by monitoring body temperature and blood pressure, we could take more informed personal choices about whether or not we are infected by the virus—and whether we should go outside. Such technologies allow us to focus on the common good through knowledge. 

A self-motivated and well-informed population is far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population.

When people are told the scientific facts, and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, Harari argues that citizens will be able to do the right thing without having Big Brother watching over them. 

Eventually, a self-motivated and well-informed population is far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population.

Towards a global society as a superorganism

So far we have established that the virus is not only attacking humans, but also the larger infrastructure around us. It causes our structures to be tested for resilience, but also provides us with opportunities to imagine the world differently. 

We’ve seen that we are already living inside a superorganism today; we live our lives in various (invisible) systems and structures that nations have created for us. And it’s important for us to address these critically as collective.

The threats that we are currently facing are global; we are all in this together. From the climate, to rising sea levels, to pandemics; these all appear to ignore existing borders. These threats ask for an international approach by reorganizing ourselves—as a superorganism–on a global scale. 

The superorganism is made of considerable different connected networks, and you are part of it.

Rather than focussing on geographical borders, we need a larger structure with an alternative central global decision level. Decisions are made by humans (instead of organizations), for humans. We therefore need agency in gaining the possibility to take action and make decisions. The superorganism should not be based on money and power, but must be based on the global collective. 

The superorganism is made of considerable different connected networks, and you are part of it. As an individual, it may seem impossible to take a step back from this system today. Hence by reorganizing ourselves as yet a new superorganism, we believe together we can ensure a liveable existence for the people who come after us by charting a path for the future that’s desirable for humanity and for the post-pandemic world as a whole.

Join the conversation!

With great pleasure we announce that Next Nature Network will be exploring how to dream, build and live within the superorganism in the upcoming four years. Members of the network are invited to join the debate. We are also accepting artistic practices that link to the concept of superorganisms. Interested? Good! Drop us a line via magazine[at]nextnature.net.

This story is a recollection of various conversations regarding some of the most pressing questions around the pandemic and its relation to the superorganism. We thank all participants for their contribution: Hidde Boersma, Lisanne Buik, Pauline van Dongen, Teresa van Dongen, Peter van Eijndhoven, Govert Flint, Lonneke Gordijn, John Klaasman, Emma van der Leest, Mathilde Nakken, Theo Ploeg, Jasna Rok, Chloé Rutzerveld and Maria Verstappen.

Thoughts? Share your perspectives on the superorganism with us!public: 1

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