Massively parallel societies

On June 24, 1996, I published the first issue of this opinion piece. I’m republishing it today. I hope you enjoy it.

Language is the invention of a co-operative society, and we wouldn’t be where we are today if we hadn’t co-operated.

These past centuries many of us have been led to believe that it was great individuals who did great things. Yes, great people do great things, but they could do very little without societies, past and present.

Long ago, people knew that the choice between co-operation and non-co-operation was the choice between life and death. It was as simple as that. Hunting and sheltering from being hunted required co-operation.

People co-operated and gradually massively parallel societies evolved. Societies where everyone contributed, and where every contribution was a cell in a larger, highly efficient organism.

People fashioned the pyramids with masterful co-operation. People crafted and put in place the giant idols on Easter Island with masterful co-operation. People built Newgrange and erected dolmens with masterful co-operation.

Faced with giant stones, people knew when to pull, at which angle to pull, what tension to pull with, in exact symmetry to their neighbors in front and behind.

Tools helped (wheel, steam engine, electricity). Then tools began to get in the way. Not in the way of progress. In the way of people’s instinctive knowledge that co-operation was an ancient key.

Tools made people feel powerful. Tools made some people forget themselves and think that they were only individuals.

Gradually, tools began to remove people from the flow. Tools began to box people. The factory machine, the car, the television, the computer. Today, many people know more about Bill Clinton than they do about their next-door neighbor.

Change is afoot. There are new tools about.

Today, with the advent of multimedia and the Internet, could it be possible that we are returning to ourselves? That we are gathering around the fire again to sing songs, swap stories, to fashion skill and wisdom, to solve problems, to go out in tangents so as to find the centre? That we are gathering in the village square again to deal in sound, images and text?

On the Internet a good idea can be a seed finding wonderful root in the minds of many. A bad idea goes out and finds sharp minds who root it out and expose its fallacies.

Could the Internet be like the fire on the Hill of Tara, that called the Irish tribes for the gathering, to do business, make and throw out laws, act wild, share out and renew common things? The ancient Irish cherished individuality, loved argument and yet understood that they were part of a clan, a tribe, a larger whole.

Or perhaps the new tools are fooling us as they draw us into technological wombs; as we learn to store our memory on hard disks, as we calculate with calculators, and reach out with hands of wire to a cold space without touch.

Maybe, but we can’t but give birth to the future.

I would hope that these new tools will help us realize again that we are nothing, absolutely nothing, without each other. That they will enrich our minds and our prosperity by allowing us to thrive on communication and co-operation.