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Nov 22, 2022

Rethinking the World Brain

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Esmé L. K. Partridge

Esmé L. K. Partridge is a writer on Islamic philosophy, theology, and the dynamics between tradition and modernity in a secular age.

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Rethinking the World Brain

Can We Preserve Traditional Forms of Knowledge in the Digital Age?

Emotions And Mind 22

In 1938, the English science fiction writer H. G. Wells envisioned the coming of a “world brain.” It was to be a universal encyclopedia of human knowledge; a codification of all history and culture into one technologically enhanced body of information accessible to anyone, anywhere. Raring to resume the “infinite march of progress” halted by the First World War,1 Wells called for the creation of a radically new kind of encyclopedia fit for a globalized, rationalized humanity. “Such an encyclopedia,” he said, “would play the role of an undogmatic Bible to a world culture.”2

Wells’s world brain may have first appeared an outlandish utopian concept—coated with the metallic sheen of the sci-fi imagination—but it was simply a continuation of ideas about human knowledge that had become prevalent since the European Enlightenment. In the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant had synthesized empiricism and rationalism into a universalized schema of experience that applied, in theory, to all people in all places. This was part of his mission against the perceived dogmatism of traditional institutions that hindered individuals’ use of reason. Then came the secularist French Encyclopédistes, who—in the mirror of Kantian philosophy—sought to bind all human knowledge into one comprehensive index of world history. It was not only Wells who plugged these approaches to knowledge into the emerging technologies of his time, but also Arthur C. Clarke who, in the 1960s, picked up the mantle of a world brain and predicted that individuals would become connected worldwide through a device that a man would carry “in his vest pocket.” These ideas came to fruition through the innovation that defines our lives today: the internet. 

The internet can be seen as the culmination of the Enlightenment project. Besides being a legacy of the Kantian aspiration for a universal and “undogmatic” space for human autonomy—allowing each of us as rational subjects to freely encounter objects of knowledge—it also echoes the egalitarianism of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who saw the world as comprised of “self-contained, self-moving and self-oriented beings,”3 rendering us all, in an ontological sense, equal. The internet actualizes this with its uniform “users,” each with the same means of accessing a worldwide web of knowledge. As with the Age of Enlightenment, it was hoped that the internet age would bring about world peace. It was to be the digital alarm clock that finally awoke us from our “dogmatic slumbers,”4 simultaneously creating a universalized humanity and empowering individuals to discover things for themselves.

What motivated this ambition to unite all of humanity under a banner of shared knowledge? Perhaps counterintuitively, we may find its origins in traditional religious ideas. The impulse to seek knowledge, fundamentally a spiritual impulse, arises from a primordial curiosity about the world and our place within it. Teachings across different religions extol that pursuit, from the biblical proverb “the heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge” (Proverbs 15:14) to the Prophet Muĥammad’s saying that “seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim.” The idea of making knowledge accessible to all human beings—especially knowledge that improves the conditions of human life and therefore our ability to perform good deeds and acts of worship—is harmonious with a theistic worldview in which God has created us with the potential to discover creation and the Divine.

Yet the universalizing or perhaps totalizing approach to knowledge that we see in Enlightenment Encyclopedism and the “world brain” redirects this spiritual impulse. These innovations arrived at a time when epistemology had already been profaned; Kant had (if gently) pulled the pursuit of truth-seeking down to a worldly plane.5 As scholar Lee Braver describes, Kant’s theory of knowledge was transcendental but not transcendent,6 attempting to account for all of human experience but within a philosophical framework that legitimized only that experience which was immanent; a kind of epistemic flattening, we might say, evoking René Guénon’s critique of how “horizontal knowledge” (quantitative knowledge of things of this world) has replaced “vertical knowledge” (qualitative knowledge that looks beyond this world) owing to the gravitational pull of modern materialism.7 In effect, the contents of an encyclopedic world brain represent only a flat topography of human existence rather than the means of attaining transcendent truths. On this basis alone, it desanctifies the search for knowledge.

The Limits of Knowledge

The ideology behind the world brain defies an important precept of traditional philosophies: the necessity of limits in the apprehension of knowledge. The internet represents not just a technological revolution but also an epistemological one, as it liberates subjects from their immediate physical contexts and from pedagogical institutions that had previously determined what, how, and when they were to learn. In other words, the internet helped overcome all limits. Like all other revolutions—characterized by a shift “from the reign of necessity to the reign of freedom”8—it placed the keys to all knowledge in the hands of each individual. For revolutionaries—be they Enlightenment thinkers, critical theorists, or anarchists—this removal of epistemic restrictions could only be a positive move. After all, they viewed institutions that upheld the restrictions as oppressive power structures embroiled in programs of what Michel Foucault called “knowledge production.”9

Despite being framed as a benevolent gesture toward inclusion and equality, the idea that all human beings should “dare to know” (Kant’s sapere aude) through their own reasoning ability has come with an unprecedented degree of epistemic hubris; an anthropocentric arrogance that insists that human beings, unmoored from teaching and tradition, are capable of acquiring and producing knowledge by and for themselves. We are warned against this kind of hubris in such lessons as Proverbs 1:7: that fools despise instruction. Throughout scripture, we find that the imperative to seek knowledge is tempered by awareness of the natural limits of our humanity and the need for guidance in the pursuit of wisdom. Subjective knowledge, after all, tends to be distorted by the fallibility of our senses and corrupted by our base desires. To assert that we can know things wholly independently and without instruction or guidance is, in one interpretation of the Qur’anic verse, to transgress our limits (2:190). 

The consequences of this transgression are glaringly apparent. Far from fulfilling its promise of a united humanity, the internet’s epistemological revolution has wrought hyper-individualism, severe polarization, and the utter fragmentation of knowledge. Instead of enabling us to attain universal truths, the internet has given us only a universal right to forge our own truths. With social media sophistry and the dissemination of information outside of pedagogical institutions, anyone can claim expertise on any given subject at the touch of a podcast, a video clip, or a colorful infographic. “Content creators” are now the promulgators of knowledge, albeit more preoccupied with “hot takes” than any sincere attempt to increase human understanding. The cacophonic and contrarian character of digital discourse endangers humanity as a whole and hinders our acquisition of wisdom as individuals. In despising instruction and seeking knowledge by and for ourselves, we are too often left overwhelmed, bereft of any real insight.

Philosophies that flourished before the modern era of the world brain had a different approach to knowledge: one that valued limits and recognized the dangers of transgressing them. The notion of placing certain restrictions on information was not seen as a tool of oppression, but rather served to initiate us into knowledge so we could come to understand the world through the guidance of those more learned than ourselves and through means that speak to us as human beings in the world. When knowledge is reduced to instantaneously accessible data, as is pervasive in the digital arena, we lose the human agency that determines what is Good or True, and are instead left susceptible to corrupting influences that seek to manipulate rather than to inspire real knowledge. 

Traditional forms of authority—the teacher, the sage, the priest, or the philosopher king—were considered essential to the pursuit of knowledge for this very reason. After all, the proverbial concept of instruction implies the need for an instructor. But contrary to the modern and postmodern critique, the kind of authority that these archetypes embodied sought not to produce knowledge but rather to enable its discovery. As per the maieutic method of Socrates, the pedagogue should act as a midwife helping give birth to the student’s own understanding.10 Knowledge is a matter of drawing out more than putting in,11 a nuance that the likes of Foucault dismissed, being committed to the view that “truth is a thing of this world” and not something latent within the soul.12 When we open our minds to this aspect of traditional authority, we come to realize its ability to actualize human potential—and the need to revive it in a disordered digital age.

Indeed, the very etymology of the word “authority”—from the Latin augere, “to make grow”—reveals its inherent purpose to nurture intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth and therefore human flourishing.13 It may determine the direction of growth for the same reason that heliotropic plants must be oriented toward the sun to receive light. Likewise, authority may regulate the educational environment in which a person learns—for example, as in Plato, prohibiting that which misdirects the soul’s inclination toward the Good—as photosynthesis can only occur within a specific set of conditions. Authority should not suppress the variations in individuals’ thoughts or beliefs but rather preserve the one invariability that allows them to grow, naturally, into their best selves. 

In practice, this model of authority determined the ordering of curriculums within classical institutions. In liberal arts education, for example, students must first be taught the preparatory disciplines of the trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—before they learn those of the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The pedagogical process placed limits on learning to initiate students into knowledge. Teachers embodied the notion of authority as that which encourages growth, setting certain boundaries to ensure that students are equipped to encounter complex concepts or, put another way, that they do not “get ahead of themselves.” Looking beyond the cynical dichotomy of master and slave, we find this relationship to be crucial; without the guidance of those more learned than us, we become intellectually adrift and anchorless, susceptible to being lured away from the pursuit of truth.

This traditional pedagogical structure may still underpin some of our schools and universities, but the internet ultimately destabilizes it with its unfiltered mass of data, information, and opinion. By “liberating” knowledge from the guardianship of authorities, we lose not only their rhetorical and allegorical devices that lead us to insight but also their protection from that which corrupts our souls. We allow ourselves—and our children—to become exposed to harmful images and ideologies, all in the name of a negative liberty concerned more with opposing any form of censorship than aligning humanity with the Good. And ironically, in these circumstances we are not really free at all. Despite its apparent gnosticism, the world brain is not without its worldly overlords; every synapse is an algorithm controlled by a new class of guardians who have no concern for our intellectual or moral growth and seek instead to divert and fixate our attention toward that which serves their own interests. 

Essentially, the boundaries imposed by traditional pedagogical authorities secure the conditions needed for our personal growth. The freedom that they promote is of a positive kind: freedom to flourish rather than freedom from limitation. Thus we come to realize the benevolence of limits. To counter the subversion of knowledge in the digital age, we must revive this understanding of authority—not necessarily to replace technology but rather to help us navigate it. But we must also look to revive another kind of epistemic boundary: that of place.

Knowledge from Nowhere

Not only does the internet render traditional authority irrelevant, it also attempts to do away with the particularities of place and our own rootedness within communities. Taking Kant’s notion of the universalization of human experience to new heights, it uploads all knowledge into a “cloud” that floats above geography. Inevitably, this does away with the unique means through which different cultures have traditionally—and successfully—accessed knowledge. As a practical matter, the internet elevates one particularity above all others: the linguistic and cultural hegemony of English (which, in another of his eerily accurate predictions, Wells proposed should be the universal language of the world brain). Thus the cloud is not one of unknowing but of epistemic hubris, implicitly promoting access to knowledge through one means only and undermining others. Today, one could even go so far as to say that entry into cyberspace—as branded by the utopia-minded tech pioneers—is conditional to the abandonment of physical space and the rooted episteme. 

Knowledge, especially of abstract concepts, becomes comprehensible when presented in a language that we can understand—language not only in the literal sense but also in terms of the aesthetic and didactic traditions that shape our wider cultural discourses, including art, music, myth, and legend. In his works on political philosophy, Abū Naśr al-Fārābī asserts that it is essential for universal truths to be conveyed through these cultural mediums, with poets and preachers fulfilling the pedagogical function of iqtiśāś, or “storytelling.”14 Al-Fārābī was not a cultural relativist but rather believed that universal truth must be relativized in a way that embraces the uniqueness of human societies and serves to draw out the knowledge within rather than to impose it on people as a foreign entity, as knowledge from nowhere. When we lose the particularities of place, we lose the means through which we can be authentically guided to knowledge, once again becoming more susceptible to deception and corruption.

The importance of place to the acquisition of knowledge—and more generally, the need for roots—was not lost on twentieth-century French philosopher Simone Weil. In her book of the same title, she attributes the “uprootedness” of modern learning to the cosmopolitan contempt for the “provincial,” which led small towns and villages to renounce their homegrown pedagogies in favor of rationalized, decontextualized ones.15 As human beings, we are naturally married to our environments and learn most meaningfully through that which is familiar to us; the modern divorce from our sense of place has thus caused us to become alienated from knowledge. Weil believed that pedagogical institutions must blend the curriculum—from the sciences to religious studies—with the surrounding environment, so students learn in a way that brings knowledge to life and therefore, in a sense, translates it into their lived experiences.16

With the transgression of cultural limits, we cease to learn from our natural environments, community teachers, and the sayings of our elders. Instead, we outsource our knowledge to a commercialized world brain, which—in its propagation of mass media and fragmented information—has neither stake nor interest in our intellectual growth. It deracinates us from the place where we were born and bred and from that which is part of our very being. Thus we experience that which French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guttari called deterritorialization: the destruction of organic social relations, inflicted both by capitalism’s severing of traditional ties to allow for free market economics and Hobbesian individualism, which denies the link between people and places. Allured by the gnostic urge to be liberated from terrestrial reality, we soon come to neglect what it has to offer. As Zygmunt Bauman put it: “Technologies which effectively do away with time and space need little time to denude and impoverish space.”17

But is technology always destined to do away with time and space? On its current trajectory, it would seem so. The ideology of the world brain is now assuming a realm of its own—the metaverse—which dissolves the last worldly necessities loathed by the reign of freedom. In the metaverse, the link between people and places is finally severed along with the social relations that root us (or “tie us down” as per the modern dysphemism). We may become ontologically equal, but we also become ontologically holographic, losing that which differentiates us and enables our authentic understanding of the world. There are neither authorities nor students nor inhabitants of any particular place. There are only faux human beings and faux settings; all that exist are simulacra.

We may see the metaverse as the climactic summation of the “world brain.” From its inception, modern technology has been hardwired to arrive at a synthetic “singularity” that transgresses all limits, alluring us with a deceptive quasi-transcendence. Advocates of the world brain would often speak in this language, from Wells’s call for a “unified, if not centralized world organ”18 to Google’s Singularity Summit in the early 2000s. But it is a singularity that tries to forge a one from the many; an inversion of traditional metaphysics in which the many emanate from the One. Trapped within the Kantian paradigm, the knowledge that the world brain attempts to universalize remains immanent, accounting for all the world but only once it has been epistemically flattened. Thus, developments in modern technology can themselves be thought of as transcendental but not transcendent.

Managing Our Relationship with the Internet

Given the ubiquitous nature of the internet and its outsize influence on our daily lives, perhaps the challenge for us is our relationship with it: How might we manage it rather than simply submit to it? The original project of compiling knowledge for the benefit of mankind remains a well-intentioned one, needed now more than ever in a world threatened by pandemics and environmental devastation. Arguably, we also require technology to ensure the preservation of this knowledge, with the internet perhaps now being our primary means of doing so since traditional chains of oral and written transmission have severely diminished. But the internet must be put in its proper place, as a resource that serves to assist humanity rather than to radically reform it. Moreover, we must do away with technology’s utopian pretenses, recognizing that the world brain—being an inherently rationalistic enterprise—can never account for universal truth. Instead, technology ought to be reserved for purely practical affairs, avoiding the deception of a false transcendence that we are all too easily allured by in a disenchanted age. 

To recalibrate our relationship with technology, we must also reintroduce mediation. Truth can only be extracted from bodies of information through the guidance of pedagogical authority and its translation into local culture, both of which respond to the human need for particularity. These mediums are essential for conveying knowledge in a way that draws it out from within rather than from outside, in turn restoring the premodern conception of Truth. As al-Ghazālī said, “It is easier to draw water from the surface of the earth by digging canals than it is to bring it from a distant place.”19 The kind of authority that enables this drawing out is a benevolent one. It does not claim to embody or represent all knowledge—for this would see its mutation into authoritarianism—but rather maintains humility. Traditional authorities do not aim to achieve yet another “pyrrhic victory over nature” but to work with the limitations of our own nature.

Ultimately, we must disentangle technology from the premises of the Enlightenment and the aims of its algorithmically inclined administrators. Moving beyond the universalist pretenses of the neo-Kantian world brain, we must look toward true universals, seeking knowledge not only of the world but of that which lies beyond it. We must overcome our hubris, which despises instruction, and instead revive the concept of authority as that which enables growth. We must reterritorialize, embracing the particularities of culture instead of attempting to remove them. And we must stop trying to be spaceless and timeless. Paradoxically, it is through accepting our limits that we can truly increase our knowledge and come closer to the Divine. In the words of Saint Augustine, “Humility is what makes men angels.”