The Hivemind

on January 8, 2011

When I began working on the previous entry, I intended to discuss a number of ways in which the holism vision is overturning the old concept of the autonomous individual. But I wound up focusing entirely on recent developments in biology — and that tells only half the story. The other half has to do with the emerging concept of a global community of mind in which every one of us participates — what is coming to be known as the hivemind.

The idea of the hivemind is not new. It has been associated with the holism vision since the 1920’s, when the South African writer Eugene Marais theorized that every termite nest functions essentially as a single organism. Marais’ ideas were plagiarized by the prominent Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck in his enormously influential The Life of the White Ant (1926), and from there they quickly passed into science fiction.

Initially, any speculation that human beings might have hiveminds of their own was treated as a grounds for almost Lovecraftian horror. David H. Keller’s trail-blazing The Human Termites (1929), for example, begins by hypothesizing that wars occur because nation-states are “really collections of human beings organized as the termites are, each under the control of a Supreme Intelligence” — but it soon veers off into nightmarish fantasies about human-termite crossbreeds and giant insects destroying New York City.

Even 25 years later, J.R.R. Tolkien could use a grotesque image drawn directly from Maeterlinck to describe the effect on the armies of Mordor of the destruction of Sauron’s Ring: “As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless.”

The more rationally-inclined science fiction of the 1940’s and 50’s was not as given to this kind of overt horror, but it still tended to equate any suggestion of a group mind with the obliteration of individual personality. With only rare exceptions, that remained the prevailing approach to the hivemind as late as the Borg of Star Trek in the 1980’s.

But now the old attitudes are changing — with people not only believing in the hivemind but cheering it on — and that signifies a fundamental philosophical shift in our culture.

Throughout the 20th century, the dominant values were intensely leveling: Every atom is equal to every other atom. Every citizen is as good as every other citizen — and justifiably suspicious of would-be bosses. Every personal opinion demands to be treated as seriously as every other opinion.

Holism was born out of a rejection of that kind of extreme leveling in favor of a belief that there is an upward gradient to existence — that complex systems can display properties which were not apparent in their components and that wholes are equal to more than the sum of their parts.

Those beliefs were already present in the proto-holism of 80 years ago, but they were still tangled up with remnants of the old hierarchical vision of society that the democracy vision was in the process of sweeping aside. As a result, proto-holism often had a distinctly elitist quality, which made it seem natural to interpret the hivemind in terms of subordination to a despotic force like Keller’s Supreme Intelligences or Tolkien’s “one ring to rule them all.”

It was only in the late 30’s that holism managed to get beyond its residual attachment to notions of superiority and domination, thanks in large part to the newly-emergent multiculturalism vision. Multiculturalism, with its image of society as a network of intersecting communities, was conceptually very close to holism — but it was also radically egalitarian, and that egalitarianism fed back into holism as well.

The first major explorations of the nexus between holism and multiculturalism — as least in science fiction — took place in the middle 40’s, when wartime disenchantment with the science-and-democracy partnership had sparked a longing for alternative possibilities. I’ve previously mentioned Clifford Simak’s “City” series as one example, but Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore’s “Baldy” stories were perhaps even more significant.

The premise of these stories, four of which were published in 1945, is that in the wake of a nuclear war America has become a completely decentralized society, consisting of “thousands upon thousands of little towns.” In this anarchist utopia, deliberately designed to make future wars impossible, there is no central government but only a network of small communities. Each town specializes in art, science, or a particular product or service and barters with the others to meet its needs.

In contrast with this nearly-idyllic backdrop, the story-line proper is driven by a bitter conflict among the telepathic “Baldies,” who are the other chief by-product of the war. Most of the telepaths wish only to be peacefully integrated into the larger society, and they do their best to overlook the suspicion they encounter from ordinary humans. But there are also “paranoids” among them who see themselves as homo superior and believe it is their destiny to rule the world.

This unsettled situation can plausibly be read as a metaphor of the three social visions in play at the time of writing: The democracy vision, whose high aspirations had proven unable to cope with prejudice and violence. Multiculturalism, which offered the promise of a freer and more tolerant future. And the old hierarchical vision, never quite dispelled and waiting for a chance to return if multiculturalism faltered.

So apt is this metaphor that it has become one of the central mythic themes of the last 50 years, endlessly repeated in Marvel’s X-Men and other superhero comics and movies. But Kuttner and Moore were not content to simply play the conflict out indefinitely. They wanted to resolve it — and their greatest trump card was the holism vision, particularly in the form of the telepaths’ ability to participate in what the authors call the “vast, intricate webwork” of a planet-wide communal rapport.

This telepathic rapport, described as an “ecstasy of complete common awareness,” is presented as both mystical and almost-but-not-quite sexual:

The sixth sense is tuned to its highest pitch, and it intermingles with and draws from the other senses. Each Baldy contributes. At first the troubles and disturbances, the emotional unbalances and problems, are cast into the pool, examined, and dissolved in the crystal water of the rapport. Then, cleansed and strengthened, the Baldies approach the center, where the minds blend into a single symphony. Nuances of color one member has appreciated, shadings of sound and light and feeling, each one is a grace note in orchestration. And each note is three-dimensional, for it carries with it the Baldy’s personal, individual reaction to the stimulus.

Here is the hivemind finally coming into its own, perceived for the first time not as a totalitarian suppression of individuality but as a freeing of the individual consciousness from trivial concerns, allowing it to become truly aware as it participates in the great collective harmony of minds.

This description provided the emotional high point of the original set of stories — but the central problems had not yet been resolved. So in 1953, the authors added one final story in which the telepaths figure out how to induce telepathy artificially in ordinary humans. And with that, a truly universal rapport becomes possible, supplying the ultimate answer not only to the telepaths’ own conflicts but also to the lingering threat of nuclear war.

It must be admitted that this concluding story feels somewhat contrived and superficial. The visionary idealism of 1945 had faded, the artificial telepathy is achieved mechanically rather than holistically, and there is a certain sentimentality used to paper over the gaps. But taking the series as a whole, the dream it presents of a completely open communication network in a multicultural world is startlingly close to the ideals that are now flowering as holism comes into its own.

At the present moment, the partnership of democracy-and-chaos that has dominated our culture for over 30 years is collapsing about us, and the 20th century obsession with the autonomous individual is fading along with it. The time is ripe for a new counterculture that will draw its deepest values from a potent fusion of holism and multiculturalism.

Holism is already beginning to take over the position of moral arbiter that was held by the democracy vision from the 1910’s to the 1960’s and more recently by the chaos vision, with its central ideal of personhood. And the current WikiLeaks saga is playing a catalytic role in that transformation — though not so much in the person of Julian Assange, that oddly ambiguous figure who appears almost to be playing the role of both the normal and the paranoid Baldies simultaneously.

Rather, the strongest moral aspect can be seen in the fate of the unfortunate whistleblower Bradley Manning, which is provoking a realization that solitary confinement is the ultimate torture because it deprives its victims of all meaningful human contact.

For the book version of the Baldy stories, Kuttner and Moore supplied a surrounding narrative involving a member of the global telepathic culture who has been cut off by a plane crash that destroys his telepathy device. “There is something in the constant communication of minds that keeps a man alive,” he observes. “I was dying for lack of … there’s never been any word to express what it is that makes all telepaths one. But without it, a man is alone, and men do not live long, alone.”

Even without telepathy, we are learning that we are all one and that we live only through the “constant communication of minds” — and that knowledge is what will determine our morality, our aspirations, and our image of ourselves for the next century.


A listing of all my posts on the emerging counterculture can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

Read the Previous Entry: We Are All Wholes, We Are All Parts
Read the Next Entry: A Lost World

One Response to “The Hivemind”

  1. allynh says:

    The Baldy stories are in:

    Mutant (collection)

    Available in mass market as:

    Mutant by Henry Kuttner

    “The Piper’s Son”
    “Three Blind Mice”
    “The Lion and the Unicorn”
    “Beggars in Velvet”
    “Humpty Dumpty”

    The Human Termites by David H. Keller

    Exactly what I was looking for.


Leave a Reply