One White Bit INCOMPLETE WORK IN PROGRESS - please contact: john@newschool futures


(see shamanism and other keywords)
Milky Way

A range of meanings

  • The term consciousness covers a range of possible meanings that apply to machines, human societies and individual humans.
  • We use it for pragmatic purposes, rather than for philosophical or psychological revelation. (See Wikiwand overview).
  • Unfortunately, we lack a word in English that perfectly summarises what we need for our purposes.
  • In ancient Greece, the word for truth (αλήθεια) was opposite to a state of oblivion.
  • It was associated with being awake, rather than asleep, therefore we can associate it with 'awareness'.
  • But 'consciousness' is more than one state of awareness: we might see it as a coherent set of awarenesses.

Beyond the individual

  • In the 19th century, the sociologist Emile Durkheim 7 described what he called ‘collective consciousness’ as a shared system of beliefs and understandings.
  • The idea of a ‘global consciousness’ as described by Vernadsky and Teilhard de Chardin is interesting, as it describes a kind of ‘total’ intelligence that permeates everywhere.
  • Margulis and Lovelock’s concept of ‘Gaia’ theory is helpful, too, as it points to more systemic ways to think about the environment.

The elusive nature of consciousness

  • We might define the ‘consciousness’ of a system as its quality of self-awareness.
  • However, if we apply this to the consciousness of an individual person or organisation we might also need to include their interactively responsible awareness of worlds beyond itself.
  • Importantly, where ‘awareness’ describes local fields of self-regulating micro-sensations and experiences, ‘consciousness’ emerges at a higher level that coordinates them, albeit using similar principles.
  • It is, therefore, safer to think of consciousness as the coordination of numerous states of local consciousness.

Different models

1. Local Consciousness:

Semir Zeki regards individual consciousness as consisting of many separate 'micro-consciousnesses' that coexist at different levels in the brain. This corresponds with Gazzaniga's and Libet's work in which they speak of 'confabulation' in the way that sub-agencies of the brain account for contradictory evidence appearing at the conscious level from different routes.

2. Collective Consciousness:

Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) saw collective consciousness as the shared beliefs and moral attitudes that bring unity to social behaviour. Later on, (1959) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin popularised the idea of a ‘global consciousness’. Several thousand years before this, Anaxagoras spoke of a 'Universal Mind', which he imagined as tiny ‘seeds’ of reality that permeated everywhere.

3. Network Consciousness:

Today's global digital network is one part of these much bigger ideas of 'consciousness'. Marvin Minsky (a key thinker in the development of digital computers) refuted the idea that humans are highly conscious, declaring that consciousness is merely a ‘low-grade system for keeping records’ (cf. Minsky, 1994). However, although computers do make frequent 'inquiries' about their own state, this habit comes from (allopoietic) algorithms, rather than from a living (i.e. autopoietic) sense of curiosity.

4. Organisational Consciousness:

In practical organisational terms, increasing the number of participants in a group, organisation, or community usually leads to the emergence of a hierarchy. This inevitably reduces the number and/or quality of face-to-face meetings. Another way to say this, is that governance became 'dumbed-down' when we scaled-up communities to a size that became alienating. Here, we use the term alienation as diametrically opposite to what we mean by consciousness.

5. Embodied Consciousness:

For our purposes we regard all knowledge as tacit knowledge (Polanyi, 1969) in the sense that it emerges from mind and body working together. One aspect of this is the apparent split between 'fast thinking' and 'slow thinking' (Kahneman, 2011). This is also similar to differences between what Heidegger calls (Western/alphabetical?) 'thinking' and 'design thinking' described by Schon as 'reflection-in-action'.

6. Alienation: (antithesis)

Karl Marx's use of the term alienation is interesting as a kind of political and organisational antithesis to consciousness.
He identified four types of alienation (i.e. disconnection) between workers and aspects of their environment - i.e.:

    • Alienation of the worker from their product
    • Alienation of the worker from the act of production
    • Alienation of the worker from their Gattungswesen (German: species-essence)
    • Alienation of the worker from other workers
  • If we map these ideas into the whole social and technological system they can be seen as a lack of consciousness in specific regions.