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In search of the super mind…

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The spirit of cities

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Can cities be conscious, as an organism? How can cities be aware of itself and its inhabitants and manifest itself as a sensible conscious being?

Miners - By Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Hive

The scope that cities have is huge in this respect, especially in the modern context where every piece of public object is networked. These public objects can be considered as the senses of the city, and a cities senses spread across a wider geographic area. ATMs, Parking meters, surveillance cameras, weather sensors, traffic lights and cameras, ticket vending, electric meters, telephone and OFC routers the list of the networked objects existing in the public space is quite long. These information exists in multiple layers, and while certain layers spread across a relatively smaller area of the city or the entire city while others span across different cities across continents. Most of these objects are designed and installed in place usually for singular purposes. Life span of a city is considerably longer compared to us and it would be interesting to know how these networked information could amass from such a large scope and be distilled.

Not just these public objects, the people themselves play roles. The swarm of bicyclists leaving for work every morning and teeming the streets, or pedestrians, buses, cars, delivery trucks, police cars, fire trucks, garbage trucks… There may be several reasons or authorities and rules behind how these seemingly single purposed swarms form in a city; nevertheless it would be quite interesting to investigate what emergent behaviour comes out of these different agents collectively.

The case of the Super-mind

Kevin Kelly in his book “Out of control” discusses different aspects of a collective consciousness, what he calls a hive-mind. While swarm intelligence is well inspired from, especially in fields like simulated intelligence, there are more intriguing behaviours these systems exhibit. In the second chapter of his book Kelly explains this with an ant colony as an example–

“Ants, too, have hive mind. A colony of ants on the move from one nest site to another exhibits the Kafkaesque underside of emergent control. As hordes of ants break camp and head west, hauling eggs, larva, pupae — the crown jewels — in their beaks, other ants of the same colony, patriotic workers, are hauling the trove east again just as fast, while still other workers, perhaps acknowledging conflicting messages, are running one direction and back again completely empty-handed. A typical day at the office. Yet, the ant colony moves. Without any visible decision-making at a higher level, it chooses a new nest site, signals workers to begin building, and governs itself.

The marvel of “hive mind” is that no one is in control, and yet an invisible hand governs, a hand that emerges from very dumb members. The marvel is that more is different. To generate a colony organism from a bug organism requires only that the bugs be multiplied so that there are many, many more of them, and that they communicate with each other. At some stage the level of complexity reaches a point where new categories like “colony” can emerge from simple categories of “bug.” Colony is inherent in bugness, implies this marvel. Thus, there is nothing to be found in a beehive that is not submerged in a bee. And yet you can search a bee forever with cyclotron and fluoroscope, and you will never find the hive.”

Us, human beings are a very social species. In fact we are still searching for our own socialness and the ever more urgent need to interconnect with each other through every mode of communication that exists, using almost every piece of technology that we know of. yet it is quite uncertain that if we posses a hive mind; we definitely do colonise, we have networked systems for communication, but still we trust in hierarchical models for making decisions and foreseeing the future of our hives.

“Wheeler claimed that an insect colony was not merely the analog of an organism, it is indeed an organism, in every important and scientific sense of the word. He wrote: “Like a cell or the person, it behaves as a unitary whole, maintaining its identity in space, resisting dissolution…neither a thing nor a concept, but a continual flux or process.””

The search for our bugness within

Is the consciousness of the city the hive mind? Do we posses such a hive mind? Are we too complex as an organism to have such an effective super-mind for our own good?! What advantages do we have? What inherent within us might work against such a system? What continual flux or process do human colonies –cities have? examples? If such mindless creatures can do so much collectively, have a collective mind for the entire colony, what can we accomplish if we human beings had such a collective super mind?

While exploring these questions in a more general fashion, may be it is a good idea to focus on one city, one hive at a time. Copenhagen.


Written by Hari

October 4, 2011 at 2:20 pm