Society of Mind & the Network Society

in technology •  last year 

 Here at AGI Laboratory we explore the intersection of technology and  society, where AI, VR, and Big Data (among other things) come crashing  into our cultures, social traditions, economies and political  institutions. Looking at the world today, it is increasingly clear that  these changes can easily become destructive wherever society is divided  or unstable. In other words, technology is a tool that can be used for  good or ill, but it is almost impossible to use it for good if society  isn’t safe, stable, and unified around the sense of existing as a single  community (no matter how diverse the elements within that community).  Today I am going to briefly outline a few ideas which could help us  achieve those aims, and ensure that the 21st Century is remembered for prosperity and opportunity rather than strife. 

 In 1986 AI pioneer Marvin Minsky published “Society of Mind” (SoM); a  book in which he described human intelligence as being composed of  multiple agents cooperating and competing, as people do in a society.  Much like Plato’s “Republic”, SoM was primarily and explicitly about one  thing (mind), but it also alluded to something else (society; in  Plato’s case the explicit and implicit topics were the other way  around). The SoM idea appears to be assuming even greater importance  now, as AI develops ever more rapidly and pervades society, humans  increasingly “outsource” their mental and social processes via social  media, and socio-political debates become ever more acrimonious. The  importance and promise of the SoM idea lies in offering an alternative  to our increasingly tech-augmented, accelerating descent into  individualism, schism, and conflict. 

 The alternative is to understand that society and its agents thrive when  they work and live together as part of a greater whole, providing  complementary functions which are collectively necessary to the system’s  survival. Aside from helping with current economic and social  divisions, such an outlook will be necessary to make sense of a society  which is composed not only of humans and their social media “extended  selves”, but also increasingly intelligent and autonomous software  agents which will be harder and harder to distinguish from “people”,  despite (and perhaps because of) potentially having access to superhuman  capabilities. The political philosophy of integrating technology and  social responsibility is known as Social Futurism. 

 At the heart of Social Futurism is a simple concept which underlines the importance of social cohesion and stability: Networks. Thinking  in terms of interconnected, cooperating “nodes” or agents should come  naturally in this day and age, and it perfectly bridges our conception  of computing and social media technologies on the one hand, and the  needs of a cohesive, stable society on the other. Ideas in this vein are  explored and promoted by David Orban’s Network Society, which  strikes me as being well attuned to the needs and nature of our time.  For Social Futurists, the primary value of “network thinking” is that it  encourages people to think of themselves as autonomous individuals embedded in a wider network with certain rules, culture and expectations.  In exactly the same way, autonomous groups, organizations and nations  are also embedded in wider cooperative networks, which in turn have  their own shared laws, cultures, and expectations. 

 Understanding your place within such networks provides a sense of  autonomy balanced with connectedness. You have your own identity and  freedoms, but you also see the need for certain communal and cooperative  responsibilities. Understanding alone, however, is not enough. In  addition to the societal cohesion offered by network thinking, we also  need the stability that comes from active and reliable cooperation  between network nodes. Active cooperation requires a shared protocol,  a “common language” of action and expectations between partners, and  the most effective cooperative protocols yet developed by humanity are  economic mechanisms (i.e. money). Alternative mechanisms such as those  promoted by Resource Based Economy and other Post-Scarcity advocates may  meet our needs in time, but do not currently appear feasible (or at  least sufficiently developed to meet both ethical and logistical  requirements). 

 In the meantime we need an economic mechanism which suits decentralized,  network-based, cooperative governance, and the obvious candidate is  cryptocurrency (as opposed to centralized government-printed “fiat  currencies”). The critical challenge still to be faced lies in finding  ways for cryptocurrency to work as a viable economic mechanism – a stable currency, in other words  – rather than a wildy variable asset primarily attractive to  speculators, prone to boom/bust cycles and hyperdeflation. My next  article will follow up with the answers to these problems. 

 By Amon Twyman
Co-published on 

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