II. Noosphere concept gaining ground in recent decades
The spread of the noosphere concept from the 1920s to the 1990s was well-documented in the impressive wide-ranging collection by Paul Samson & David Pitt (eds.), The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader: Global Environment, Society and Change (1998). As the editors state, “The noosphere concept captures a number of key contemporary issues — social evolution, global ecology, Gaia, deep ecology and global environmental change — contributing to ongoing debates concerning the implications of emerging technologies such as human-created biospheres and the Internet.” Their book’s excerpts provide “the central ideas and key writings of many prominent thinkers”, including Teilhard, Vernadsky, and Le Roy — the original coiners of the term — along with admirers and interpreters Henri Bergson, Julian Huxley, Arnold Toynbee, James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, Rafal Serafin, Marshall McLuhan, Theodosius Dobhzansky, Dorion Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Kenneth Boulding, and Nikita Moiseev, among others. Plus Mikhail Gorbachev, who wrote the book’s Foreword.
When we first published about noopolitik in 1999, the noosphere idea was attracting evermore interest and adherents. Marshall McLuhan’s notion of the “global village” and James Lovelock’s & Lynn Margulis’s “Gaia thesis” were derived partly from Teilhard’s ideas. Cyberspace and Wired magazine guru John Perry Barlow was claiming that “The point of all evolution to this stage is to create a collective organism of mind. With cyberspace, we are essentially hardwiring the noosphere.” And scholar-activist Elise Boulding was foreseeing a “many-layered map of the world” à la Teilhard, consisting of the geosphere, biosphere, and a “sociosphere” (families, communities, nation-states, international organizations, and “the peoples’ layer” of NGOs), and atop all that the noosphere. In her view the noosphere consisted of “the sum total of all the thoughts generated in the sociosphere.” Indeed, “[t]he more we can involve ourselves in the networks that give us access to that envelope, the more we can contribute to the emergence of that [global civic] culture.” (Sources: see our 1999 study.)
Boulding’s writings in particular showed that the noosphere concept was gaining resonance and credibility among transnational civil-society actors, more than among government and commercial actors. We still believe it is time for the latter to begin moving in this direction, too, particularly since power in the information age stems, more than ever, from the ability of government and market actors to work conjointly with networked civil-society actors.
Later, when we wrote our update in 2007, we found we were not alone in predicting that the information age would affect grand strategy and diplomacy so thoroughly that a new concept was going to emerge. David Rothkopf urged that “the realpolitik of the new era is cyberpolitik, in which the actors are no longer just states, and raw power can be countered or fortified by information power.” David Bollier favored Netpolitik to name “a new style of diplomacy that seeks to exploit the powerful capabilities of the Internet to shape politics, culture, values, and personal identity.” Europeans prefered infopolitik as the term for a new era of public diplomacy based on “proactive international communication” and “the projection of free and unbiased information.” None of these alternative terms has taken hold; but at the very least they have helped advance the sense that something new was in the making. (Sources: see our 2007 article.)
Today, in 2018, the noosphere concept has still not gone mainstream, but recognition and validation have kept growing. One significant supportive venue is the website Edge, which consults a rich variety of leading thinkers around the world in order to compile answers to Edge’s Annual Question. Regarding the 2010 Annual Question “How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?” psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi replied:
“The development of cooperative sites ranging from Wikipedia to open-source software (and including Edge?) makes the thought process more public, more interactive, more transpersonal, resulting in something similar to what Teilhard de Chardin anticipated over half a century ago as the "Noosphere", or a global consciousness that he saw as the next step in human evolution.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2010)And, to the 2017 Annual Question “What Scientific Term or Concept Ought to Be Better Known?” historian David Christian replied that
“The idea of the “Noösphere,” or “the sphere of mind,” emerged early in the 20th century. It flourished for a while, then vanished. It deserves a second chance. … Freed of the taint of vitalism, the idea of a Noösphere can help us get a better grip on the Anthropocene world of today.” (Christian, 2017)Scientists who are clustered around The Evolution Institute, though mostly interested in analyzing social issues and social evolution from a Darwinian perspective, occasionally show an interest in examining the relationships between science and spirituality. One conference in particular (see Wilson et al., 2015) led to scattered positive remarks about Teilhard’s noosphere idea. Accordingly, this idea is “why the current intersection of science and spirituality explored in this roundtable is so exciting and qualifies as a genuinely new synthesis.” The conference included an unusual mix of evolutionary scientists and spiritual visionaries, a few holding New-Age beliefs about “conscious evolution” — a rather Teilhardian notion.
Meanwhile, former New York Times blogger, environmentalist Andrew Revkin (2012) cleverly called attention to the concept by referring to it as the “knowosphere” (and “no(w)osphere”). Moreover, pro-commons P2P theorist and Kosmos contributor James Quilligan (2010) included the noosphere, along with the biosphere and physiosphere, in his layout of “the global commons” — criticizing “the Market State” for creating contradictions and then proposing that
“Today’s global superbubble is the result of deep structural imbalances between economic ideology and policy (noosphere), and environment and labor (biosphere) and physical resources (physiosphere). The challenge is to assemble international representatives from all regions and sectors to discuss global commons issues in a negotiating format which integrates these three streams of evolution.”Elsewhere, psychologist Roger Nelson led the unusual, controversial, and inconclusive “Global Consciousness Project” (GCP; 1998-2015) at Princeton University, as “an international collaboration of researchers interested in the possibility that we can detect faint glimmerings of a coalescing layer of intelligence for the earth, what Teilhard de Chardin called the Noosphere” (Nelson, 2002). Mostly a parapsychology experiment, it deployed engineering devices around the world to try to detect whether a collective consciousness might be forming in response to major world events (e.g., 9/11). According to Nelson (2002), “Suggestions like those made in many intellectual and cultural traditions, that there is an Earth consciousness, appear to have a modicum of scientific support in the GCP results … and that we may be interconnected on a grand scale by consciousness fields.” Not exactly the kind of validation we are looking for, but it does provide another recent piece evincing interest in a “realm of the mind.” (See noosphere.princeton.edu and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Consciousness_Project)
Lately, DARPA (2017) has shown interest in discussing the matter, having organized an event whose objectives included the following agenda item: “Noosphere: Create, measure, and model foundational questions regarding humans, human-machine interactions, and society: For example, are there new approaches to ‘computation’ based on human or animal social or cognitive processes and how might we understand them? We are also discussing how human perception might be a tool in modern conflict resolution.”
Far away, as a result of Vladimir Vernadsky’s early work on the biosphere and noosphere (as well as “noocracy”), plus Alexey Eryomin’s later work on noogenesis and Nikita Moiseev’s work on the noosphere, not to mention Mikhail Gorbachev’s interest in these matters, noos-related concepts have grown in stature in Russia more than has been recognized. They continue to flourish in sub-groups within the Russian Academy of Sciences, notably the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry, and the Institute for the Scientific Research and Investigation of Cosmic Anthropoecology. Russians also lead the Noosphere Spiritual Ecological World Assembly (NSEWA), which holds periodic conferences that attract New-Age believers from around the world, notably Jose Arguelles, author of Manifesto for the Noosphere: The Next Stage in the Evolution of Human Consciousness (2011). Other spin-offs from Vernadsky’s thinking include the Galactic Research Institute (GRI) and its Foundation for the Law of Time (GRI-FLT), along with an online activity it organized in 2012, the First Noosphere World Forum. These (and other) New-Age activities may not matter for thinking about American information strategy and diplomacy, but they do indicate the influences that Vernadsky and his Russian scientist colleagues have had not only in Russia but also in odd circuits around the world. (See lawoftime.org and noosphereforum.org).
Lately, extending Vernadsky’s influence and recalling the Global Consciousness Project at Princeton, Russian eclectic Anton Vaino co-invented and touted the “nooscope” during 2011-2012 as “a device that records changes in the noosphere” — and as “the first device of its kind that allows for the study of humanity’s collective mind” (Stanley, 2016; Hartshorn, 2016). If fully operationalized, it would deploy a complex system of “sensory networks” around the world to collect data and scan activities in seven areas: the business sphere, market conscience, the infrastructure of human life support systems, technogeneous catastrophes, natural disasters, special-purpose layers, and collective consciousness. Vaino’s influence and the nooscope idea’s purpose and status are unclear. But, curiously, Vladimir Putin appointed him Chief of Staff in 2016, a position he holds today in 2018. This has aroused speculations about whether Putin’s ideas for a “Third Way” and “managed democracy” may now mean imposing a “noocracy” — Plato’s term for “rule of the wise” that Vernadsky reiterated, but applied in mind-manipulating authoritarian Russian ways. (Elsewhere, see the “noomap” start-up at noomap.info)
Actually, throughout history every expansion in interpersonal communications and connectivity has led to new notions that a collective, even global consciousness might be taking shape. The noosphere is but one of many concepts for grasping this. Significant 19th C. precursors were Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s “objective Spirit,” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Over–Soul,” and Emile Durkheim’s “collective consciousness”. The early 20th C. brought Henri Bergson’s “creative evolution,” Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious,” and H. G. Well’s “world brain.” In the late 20th C., ideas multiplied that collective intelligence, global consciousness, a global brain, and/or a global mind may awaken from the growth of cyberspace and the Internet. These ideas included, as noted earlier, Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” and James Lovelock’s & Lynn Margulis’s “Gaia”. These developments also enlarged the possibilities for Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” to form in new ways, apart from physical territory and nation — sometimes taking dark shape, as in the Islamist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s notion of the “virtual caliphate” (Lia, 2009). A recent manifestation is the concept of the Anthropocene epoch. Making matters more nebulous and mysterious, philosophers interested in consciousness and quantum dynamics have lately proposed “panpsychism” and “cosmopsychism”, implying a collective consciousness that goes well beyond Durkheim’s original formulation (Goff, 2017, 2018).
These alternatives aside, we favor the noosphere concept — it provides the best grounding for thinking about policy and strategy in the information age. Indeed, what Samson and Pitt wrote in their Epilogue in The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader (1998) two decades ago still makes timely sense for public policy dialogue,:
“Once again, we are faced with two questions: in what direction does public opinion want the noosphere to go and in which directions is the noosphere capable of going? Practically speaking, and in today’s world, this translates into asking how the noosphere can be applied to help to solve problems in such areas as environment, health, poverty, violence and inequality.” (Samson & Pitt, p. 181)With a few word substitutions, their two questions may make sense to pose about noopolitik as well: In what directions do/will international security strategists want noopolitik to go? And in what directions is noopolitik capable of going? To those and other questions we turn next.