The power of the hive mind: how and why society makes the decisions it does


Imagine, if you will, that you’ve entered the realm of science non-fiction. Imagine a world in which you’re literally connected to everyone else’s brain—as easily as today’s cellphone connects to the internet.

Before we get into that let’s step away from the frontier and take a look at where we’re at and how we got here.   

Each of us already has a hive mind, technically speaking. According to recent neurological research, when it comes to decision-making, the human brain behaves very much like a hive of bees—as Jason Castro explains in a 2012 piece in Scientific American. “Every decision you make is essentially a committee act.” The committee, he tells us “is the densely knit society of neurons in your head.” So far so good. He keeps going: “[Committee] members chime in, options are weighed, and eventually a single proposal for action is approved by consensus… Our brains seem to work by representing many possibilities in parallel [all at once, not one after the other], and suppressing all but one.”

It turns out that this is exactly what bees do in real life. When ‘deciding’ to swarm to a new hive, scouts go out to collect information, and come back to ‘discuss’ their findings with the rest of the colony. Through gestures, wing buzzing and head butting, the scouts present their cases—all at once. The  decision to swarm is actually made by the head butting, the strength of which puts a stop to endless discussion and forces a group decision.

So we’re already living inside a personal hive model. But what about a human collective hive model? Does such a thing exist? Nietzsche thought so. ““Madness,” he wrote, “is rare in individuals—but in groups, political parties, nations, and eras it’s the rule.” This harkens back to William Foster Lloyd’s Tragedy of the Commons in which he theorizes that humans behave rationally and morally on the local level, but that same behaviour on a global scale transforms into irrationality and immorality. As in, how fencing of pastureland can turn into zealous protectionism, nationalism and war.

But it’s not quite that simple. Humans are a complicated species. University of San Diego professor Dipak K. Gupta identified 12 steps leading to mass insanity, a.k.a. war. In his 2001 Path to Collective Madness he broke these into four groups: greed, ideology, social cost (as in the high price of leaving the larger social group), and facilitating factors (such as social acceptance of violence).

To reframe that, take greed, add ideology, then social pressure, and normalize the whole process, and presto!, you have a pressure tank of collective madness ready to blow. There is plenty of historical evidence to support this, from barbarians invading Rome to the current, ongoing wars in the Middle East. And the pressure is mounting on the streets closer to home—down in Trumpland.

I just read an opinion piece on how the Big Six media corporations are losing control of their ‘hive mind’ audiences. OK, fair enough. Mainstream media is losing its grip on the public. But the article misses the power of the new media mega-corporations, that don’t just control the hive mind, but are the hive mind. Amazon, Google and Facebook, along with Microsoft and Apple, and the US government cyber security agencies form the most seamless hive mind the world has ever known. Everything we do and share becomes a data point for hive knowledge. This is more than just the end of privacy. This is the end of the individual.

Which brings me back to a science non-fictional world in which everyone’s brain is connected to everyone else’s. According to George Dvorsky, a Canadian bioethicist and futurist, the technology needed to wirelessly—and effortlessly—connect human brains together into a single hive mind is already here. In an interview with Kevin Warren, a British professor of cybernetics, Warren tells us that “the technologies required to build an early version of the telepathic noosphere are largely in place.” All that’s required, he says, “is ‘money on the table’ and the proper ethical approval.” He goes on to say, “I also think this communication will be far richer when compared to the present pathetic way in which humans communicate.”

Two questions immediately come to mind: who will ultimately control the flow of information, what gets implanted, shared or edited out? And what how does this super-organism behave on a global scale? The mind boggles, truly.

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