Is social media making us into a group mind?
Wasn't expecting a Teilhard appearance!
My interest was especially piqued by this concluding comment: "those feelings of outrage...could not be yours at all. Rather, they might just be a glimpse of something larger and darker passing like a giant out of sight."
To push this in an altogether mystical and non-scientific direction, it reminds me of way religions understand evil influence from spirits. It's hard not to think this way when you see otherwise reasonable people (self-professed pacifists for instance) get on twitter and start frothing at the mouth for the blood of their enemies. Twitter feels like the Pandæmonium in Paradise Lost--all the devils gather for a council in their instantaneous city, built under an hour, and now crowded with voices all clamoring for violence, all taken in by powerful rhetoric and the unleashing of passions.
I feel like this article is kind of hinting at this by using "egregore." When faced with such madness we spiritual language feels like the only way we can describe it adequately, even when pursuing a scientific investigation.
Great work as always.
That "humans were never rational to begin with, and for most of human history social mobs ruled and individuals cowered before them."....is the reality here.
The rage you're talking about from ideology and social media sounds like what Christians and other religious folk tend to call demons.
Girard has discussed this topic at length. One of the reasons religions are so important is that they tend to give good role models, or mimetic focuses, for large groups of people to simultaneously work towards positive states together.
Nice post and lots of points worth further contemplation. My take is that if we have an issue with the existence of a "group mind," or a Jungian "collective subconscious," or that thoughts may come also from outside the brain, it is only because we strongly believe in a physicalist mind-brain identity. Something that isn't as obvious as most believe (see my article here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1150605/full) Would it not be for this still too unquestioned metaphysical premise, an egregore-like concept of our mental dimension would have become a topic of research already long ago. Because subliminally, we know that there must be something true in this idea.
I love this essay!
I often wonder if ritual and repetition are necessary to affect change by bringing us together into a wider mind. I know that’s not describing what you’re talking about exactly. But I’ve noticed that social media and mass media have become very repetitive.
What if scrolling is a form of ritualistic meditation, but on content that is less prescriptive and more a product of this group mind? A recursive loop of madness rather than a directed message, honed over time?
I’ve also noticed anecdotally that conversations feel more scripted. I’ve had conversations where we essentially just traded talking points from that day’s internet. Maybe we were chanting the liturgy of the hive mind?
I’ve also felt in a monastery what is called “the presence” which feels like perhaps the whisper of the singular mind created by the synchronization of dozens of monks chanting 7 times a day for years in that space. It’s fun to contemplate.
I really appreciate how you approach the mystical with a scientific approach. It’s very thought provoking.
Reminds me of this great Alan Jacobs essay from a few years ago:
I have no idea whether this is coincidence or if there is some meaningful provenance to it, but literally the only two substacks I'm subscribed to are yours and Justin Smith-Ruiu’s Hinternet. His most recent piece from just days ago (https://www.the-hinternet.com/p/notes-on-dance) also centres on both Gregory Bateson and Balinese dance to make divergent but perhaps in some ways similar (orthogonal, say?) points.
I find this "synchronicity" almost a bit *too* on-the-nose, bordering on absurd, given the overarching theme of your piece and how it has immediately become a manifestation of its own point. Can you confirm or deny any collusion here? If not between authors, then perhaps a recent re-invigoration of obscure Bateson and Bali scholarship that has emerged from some cabal of literati you would both be tapped into?
(Either way this is a great piece all the way through, just had to express my astonishment)
I don't know what to think about this subject, but all theories ought to be considered until proved false. I can see your argument, Eric. In addition to ideology, what would cause Germans to self-righteously kill six million Jews? In addition to religion, what would cause spontaneous demonstrations around the world denouncing Jews after Hamas's attack on Israel? While negative examples, these two examples share what appears to be an emotion that transcends the individual, giving rise to the suspicion of an agency beyond the individual. So, the question is: "Are you otta your mind!"
Perfect post for Halloween :)
We could already be group minds! Microorganisms can have very complex behavior on their own, and it may well be reasonable to call them (simple) minds. And smaller collections of a few thousand microorganisms surely could be if organized properly.
An interesting note on that subject:
The Decoy Effect/Asymmetric Dominance/Strictly Better Bias is when people irrationally perceive a choice that is "strictly better" (i.e. better under all metrics) than another choice as more desirable than a third choice that is better overall but worse in some small way.
This bias is displayed not just by humans but also by other organisms, including ones as simple as slime molds. Turns out, this effect in slime molds can be explained as an artifact of the fact that the slime mold has to aggregate the preferences of each of the single-celled organisms that constitute it and make a single "decision" based on those preferences. A mathematical finding called Arrow's Impossibility Theorem makes this "bias" a requirement of the aggregation method under certain constraints.
How do we know we don't have this bias for the same reason?
I would add to this the observation that the 90's were the last decade as we know it, in terms of fashion, pop-culture, culture and zeitgeist. Before the 90's, someone in 1968 would definitely be recognized as being a 60's person, and someone in 1973 would definitely be a 70's person. Decades existed and were obvious. Starting with the 2000s everyone dresses the same and everything is "simplified", in lack of a better word. There was a very good video, with examples, on this topic, but I can't seem to find it anymore.
What a fascinating read! I think that we definitely copy each other more due to social media, we tend to follow the same norms, conform to ideas based on their popularity and the reactions they get from the group feedback. More of the same gets attention on social media, and what is different tends to be ignored, marginalized. Originality is not rewarded. Are all these symptoms of a group mind?
This theory of yours goes against the perceived individualism of our modern world. And at the same time it makes so much sense. And it makes me wonder what monster we’re feeding every time we swipe, like, comment , post.
Great essay! Having been raised in a Roman Catholic household by parents born in the 20s, I would imagine the ritual and repetitiveness accomplished a strong group think for sure. While not for me, it seems absurd that a somewhat illiterate locked-in audience being preached in a dead language (Latin) which few even knew WTH was being said would check the boxes for group conscious (absent critical thinking) -- not unlike the SM model to like and even forward before consideration is not so different. Thus it is so applies to our bubbles as much as it applies to preaching from the pulpit Finally fun to read a Teilhard reference which made frequent appearances in the Jesuit tradition :)
Is there an intuitive argument for the idea that consciousness would be subsumed rather than modular? It seems a little convenient (for lack of a better word).
The standard answer to group minds in IIT is that the group is almost certain to have lower integrated information than any individual in the group, since the neurons of a brain are more tightly interconnected than any group of humans could be. By the postulate of exclusion, this means that the individuals are conscious while the group is not. However, there are two ways that this conclusion can be broken, corresponding to the two halves of your essay. First, the interconnection among members of the group can be increased. This may happen when a group are packed tightly together in person, or it may happen when people can broadcast messages to many other people online. And second, the consciousness of the individuals may be reduced. A human brain has low integrated information when asleep; what if there is a threshold, like a trance state, where an individual is awake and yet their integrated information is still lower than the group as a whole? An ecstatic ritual and an angry mob may have this quality in common, with the individuals subsumed into the group as their emotional connection overrides their distinctive awareness.
There was an article on applause in Science about twenty years ago. Not just applause, that was the human example of what this group termed spontaneous resonance. I’ve experienced the insect version with cicadas too. The first play I ever attended was Annie back in the eighties. Daddy Warbucks was stuck by a pin in his costume right before we were about to applaud. As his castmates took care of him I looked around wondering what the protocol was for clapping, and so saw everyone, young and old, fit and unwell, start at different times to clap their hands at the same time. I did the same without thinking. Isn’t that a group mind? Showing that it is so? For a moment anyway. Social but not social media. There is no audio or visual cue that explains the synchrony. Entanglement handles that time frame though. The strength and resonance of applause would indicate correlation. What’s spontaneous about applause anyway? What are you thinking about when you applaud? That it took the group you just watched weeks or months of practice to get their timing right, but it took you once, with people you mostly don’t know, to achieve the same thing? Maybe you just enjoyed the show, and didn’t notice the magic. There is an element of group timing involved not provided by or in social media. Would you even try to hold an online rave? Shared emotion is what is common to both, but locality makes the group mind experience. To me most social media is an ongoing assessment of the lowest common denominator of human behavior at the time, whether that’s good, bad, or ugly. Not Substack though. There was a hash of ideas a while back in blogs, about our current state of understanding of our own nature, and Substack is the federated business model rehash. Same result so far, which is society and scientific endeavor are both stalled by lack of understanding. We re-examine in light of new ideas. Substack is the place that will fairly catalogue the change that breaks the impasse. Thank you Dr. Hoel.