The Internet as a Collective Consciousness 11-06-2011

The Internet is truly remarkable. Never before has humanity had a tool to enable instantaneous global communication. But the Internet is more than a mere tool: it is a fascinating amalgamation of concepts and technologies. So much engineering complexity has gone into its creation and continued development that it boggles the mind. It empowers people across the globe to make an impact, spread their ideas and play a role in their communities of choice. Whole industries, governments, corporations, organizations and individuals have been built up and broken down by the sheer force of its influence. And yet, it is entirely driven by individual users. It is wholly and completely decentralized and thus takes on all qualities of all of its users. It is equal parts productive and time-wasting, entertaining and monotonous, original and played out, lively and vapid. And from this crazy, swirling torrent of pure humanity emerges a number of phenomena and qualities heretofore unseen by mankind.

It is my belief that foremost among these is that the Internet is evolving into humanity's very own collective consciousness, supplementing, being shaped by and ultimately co-evolving with the innate consciousness of each individual Internet user.

The Medium

The Internet as a medium is fundamentally different from any media which preceded it. Previous media suffered from communicative limitations and drawbacks. Most if not all non-Internet media feature one-to-one or one-to-many communication. The telephone is, by and large, one-to-one. Television, film, radio and almost every form of print media are one-to-many. With these media, the flow of information to and from individual users is strangled: bandwidth is tiny. The rate at which knowledge, insight and raw data can be distributed and transmitted is so slow as to impede real progress. The Internet, however, is many-to-many: many individuals can collaborate upon information, in both directions, and the same piece of information can be distributed by many to many via hyperlinking. Information thus spreads at an exponential rate, leading to phenomena such as the viral effect. Just as importantly, artificial barriers are removed. A problem with many other forms of media is that the average citizen has little to no voice to reach his/her fellow Man. Making a television broadcast or writing an article in a newspaper has a huge barrier of entry, be it financial or otherwise. Thus, large vestiges of power have the concentrated ability to create, publish and distribute information. With the Internet, everyone has the ability to make their voice heard. It is basically equal [1].

It is not just the many-to-many quality of Internet communication which makes it easier to disseminate information: it is also the quantitative boost in speed. Unlike newspapers, "snail mail", letters, books, magazines and other print media, the Internet is virtually instantaneous. In the days of yore, it would take days, weeks and even months for conflicts to cease even after wars had ended just because it took so long for the information to make it to the front lines. With the Internet, citizens in the West knew of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other nations within minutes; the only barrier to that information was the individual actually uploading the requisite information to the Internet: after that it was available for anyone anywhere. With "snail mail", tangible items must be packaged and physically distributed from a single source to a single recipient; writing and sending a letter is a several day process. With the Internet, one can write an email, an instant message, a forum or message board post, a (micro-) blog post or whatever else one desires and have it delivered to the intended recipient, or recipients, in a fraction of a second. The transmission of data is just plain fast. Unencumbered by the physical. Purely electric.

Television, film, radio and their ilk are similarly fast. They are, after all, transmitted via electromagnetic radiation or electricity, just as the Internet is. However, these media suffer from a fundamental lack of capability relative to the Internet. With broadcast media, namely television, film and radio, the flow of information is stuck in one direction. One cannot send information through a television, a movie screen or a radio receiver; one can only receive. There is no interaction. With the Internet, communication goes in both directions. And with the telephone, ham radio and the like, communication may flow in both directions but it is also limited solely to audio transmission. It is a major hinderance on the communicative potential of the medium to only exploit one sense. The Internet not only exploits both the video and audio, but it is also capable of encompassing all other media. Print media, broadcast media, news media and virtually anything else that one can conceive of is actively distributed across the Internet. The Internet has also allowed for the creation of newer media forms, such as social media, which would be impossible anywhere else. It has revolutionized basic services found in other media, from finance and personal banking to news reporting, simply by offering previously unseen capabilities.

In short, the Internet is a medium of instantaneous global communication. It is faster, more robust, more capable and more flexible than any other medium previously seen. It allows for anyone with access to rapidly and easily obtain or distribute information of any sort.

The Platform

The purpose of a medium is communication: the storage and distribution of data, information and knowledge. Without a means by which a medium can be transmitted to the masses, the medium is devoid of any meaning or value and withers away. As such, a given medium is entirely useless without a platform of delivery. Print media would be nothing without its canvas, namely paper. Televised media would serve no purpose without television sets pervading their way into the living rooms of the world. And it is a wide-reaching, stable platform which can propel media to new heights by providing a reliable information source which provides value to its users.

Televised media, via the numerous large cable and satellite providers and the relative ubiquity and low cost of the television set, has become a dominant method by which people are informed, entertained and "kept in the loop". Some 98% of households in the United States have television access [2] and the average household has more TV sets than people. There are similar rates in Europe, and even Middle Eastern and African nations are expected to have digital television penetration rates approaching 81% by 2016 [3]. As television became more pervasive, networks and channels offering broadcast programming also increased (due to the steadily increasing profit motive), in turn providing even greater incentive for hold-outs to hop onto the television bandwagon. As the medium grew, users flocked; as users flocked, the medium grew. Positive feedback spun out of control until we reached where we are today, where TV is quite literally everywhere. Steady state universality.

The Internet, and specifically the World Wide Web, is quickly approaching the same model of growth. At present, roughly 28.7% of the world's population (1.9 billion out of 6.8 billion) are Internet users [4]. In the "West", the rates are considerably higher: for instance, 77.4% of the North American population is on the Web. Some have postulated that the geographical areas with the largest adoption rates have started to level out and flatline in terms of Internet usage. Whether or not this is true, a fact is that many of the places with the lowest adoption rates also have the highest populations: once the infrastructure necessary to support higher Internet access in these nations arises, it could be a veritable explosion. New users, new content, new information and knowledge to share. It will enhance the medium for everyone. And even if Internet penetration has flatlined in its most widely used areas (which is arguable), the amount of content being distributed across the Internet is increasing. The rise of movements in the past decade, such as Internet-based social media, collaborative content creation and curation (a la Wikipedia) and media streaming (particularly of broadcast television through services such as Hulu and of music through services such as Grooveshark and Spotify) have lead to people spending arbitrarily more time using their favorite services, surfing their favorite websites and consuming information and content from their favorite sources [5]. As the innovation and value presented to users rises, the incentive to stay hooked in goes with it, in turn fueling further growth. Positive feedback akin to that of television. We could, and should, see the very same ubiquity with the Internet that is seen with television.

But it is not just a matter of usage rates and sheer volume. The far more important issue at play is that the ways in which the Internet is being accessed and utilized are revolutionizing the medium itself, transforming it into something far greater than originally conceived. The early days of civilian use of the World Wide Web saw all Internet access being made through the clunky beige box, tethered and handcuffed to the wall by the humble phone line. Progress was made over time, though slowly. The rise of wireless Internet access and notebook computers meant Internet access in the coffee shops and college campuses of the world. And sure, increased access through wireless data plans (namely on cellular phones) and the continued dominance of WiFi helped to improve the state of the platform. But it is the breakneck pace of innovation that we are seeing in the mobile realm that offers the greatest promise.

Smartphones, tablets, netbooks and the like are keeping people logged on at all times and from all locations. Smartphone usage is up 60% from last year in the United States to some 62.3 million people [6]. Roughly 85% of mobile handsets are now Internet-capable, and nearly one billion people (and climbing, fast) have 3G data subscriptions [7]. Everyone remembers the netbook craze of 2008 and everyone is experiencing the tablet craze of now (until forever, if Apple is to be believed). Ultra-mobile devices are enabling a new generation of tech-savvy users to stay tapped into their online lives and personas. Twitter and Facebook on the go, content consumption via RSS, Instapaper, et al., mobile-friendly everything. Native applications bring everything to the device in optimized formats. And with the incredible ease of use, mobile devices have become the tool to look up absolutely anything while out and about. Navigation, traffic and news, trivia recall and quick research, social updates, music, reading and other media. Everything. The point is: mobile devices are enabling people to essentially "stay online" all the time, something not before seen with any other media platform in the history of Man. These trends will only grow as the years pass.

Collective Consciousness

So the Internet is a medium which delivers virtually any data, information or knowledge that one could conceivably desire. It is a medium which allows for remarkable, unheard of communication and collaboration; it is the realization of pure, unbounded human connection. And it is buoyed by a monolithic, pervasive, stable platform that enables anyone with access to quickly retrieve and input information or data from or to anywhere on the globe at any time. The platform and the medium are constantly growing and evolving to meet the demands of an increasingly insatiable population eager to turn over more and more of their reliance. Everyone can have a voice and everyone has the ability to dive in and make contributions. Blogs, social networking, peer-to-peer file sharing, user-generated and user-curated content: the tools of the trade for the common Man to become a part of something greater than himself. So what does it all mean?

Collective consciousness. Or perhaps, if you like, collective unconsciousness. Maybe hive mind. No matter the term, the fact is that the Internet is becoming (or has become) a massive consciousness that each and every user is linked into and increasingly inseparable from. The individual mind is conscious: it provides a sense of awareness of self and surrounding, allows for the subjective sensation of feeling and of experience and allows for the recall of information and knowledge via memory [8]. It is the foundation of the intrinsic Man. The ability to truly experience an event or sensation or to feel an emotion provide the inputs into the system, the ability to remember drives the continuing stability of the system and awareness allows the system to remain in context throughout operation (this is the quintessential difference between animate and inanimate: the inanimate can output perfectly fine, but it has no context of what it outputs and provides what is equivalent to pure regurgitation). The Internet augments individual consciousness by tying together the awareness, subjectivity and memory of each individual consciousness into a new consciousness which provides as-of-yet unseen experience, knowledge and, yes, awareness that hooks into and stays with the individual indefinitely.

Memory is easy to explain: anyone can find anything and toss it right into their own memory. Search, retrieve, remember. Easy. But it also goes beyond this: as we become more and more dependent upon the Internet for our information, we become less and less dependent upon our own memory and knowledge. Instead of wracking the mind to remember some fragment or piece of information, we just hop online. Google it. Wiki it. It's all there. The mindset is becoming more attuned and accustomed to search outward than inward. The Internet is the knowledge base and the individual only needs to find the item in question, use it for his/her immediate purpose and continue on about his/her day. The Internet is the new memory.

Sensation and subjectivity are there too, as it turns out. No, the Internet does not feel on behalf of the individual. It does not experience and feel and sense on one's behalf, nor does it directly tell one how or what to feel. It is not one's subjectivity. But, sensation is essentially processing: one senses the immense heat from her hand touching a hot stove top or feels nervousness before an important exam or recalls the feelings of a life-changing event in the past, but none of these serves a purpose or has a meaning or context without first being processed by the subjective mind. And processing these subjective sensations and feelings is dependent upon symbols and archetypes found within the mind. Carl Jung remarks about the collective unconscious [9]:

There exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.

And that is truly the thing about sensation: to function, it requires symbols to relate the input information to the feelings and experiences that the mind "senses". A clean slate, a completely blank and empty mind devoid of archetypes, feels nothing. Sure, it senses in the raw sense that it can accept input information from a nervous system. But it does not process, it does not understand, it does not mean anything. The Internet is providing this secondary set of symbols that "give definite form to certain psychic contents". It is inherited continuously each and every day.

Yes, the Internet is grown and developed by the people. But the evolution of Internet culture, society, norms and memes takes off from there, on its own. It is meta and it is collective: no one individual creates a new symbol within the collective consciousness by sheer contribution. No, the symbols come from the collective interaction of all parties, from the continuous distribution, evaluation, modification and recycling of material, information and even other symbols. The collective consciousness is constantly mutating, and each mutation inherits and alters the symbols and archetypes from the previous iteration. Each mutation contains entirely new sets of interactions and materials which are processed and interpreted by the individuals. Yes, interpretation is still subjective on an individual basis. But the key point of the matter is that new symbols and archetypes emerge from the moment-to-moment evolution of the Internet and are consumed individually. As individual persons engross their selves within the Internet and grow ever more tied into its cultures, sub-cultures, norms and so on, they constantly input and output symbols and alter their own thinking patterns. Essentially, the Internet augments the information that is used by the individual consciousness to interpret and process its own sensations and experiences through the use of its own innate set of collectively grown symbols.

The awareness of the Internet is not awareness in the common sense. The Internet is not animate or alive, biologically speaking [10]. Thus, it is not aware in such a sense. However, the Internet is more than a global network of connected, electronically-powered systems. It is a culture, a community, a mass of information and of sentiment. Its life is abstract, much like that of a living document: the constant reference and affirmation of the Internet as a singular entity by its users and the perpetual growth of the Internet as a medium through which this information flows instantiates it as a collective, interpretive, growing, non-static form of life. As individuals reference and meta-reference the Internet as such an entity, they essentially make it so. The Internet, as a community and a collective, is alive because its primary components (the users) are alive and are constantly reflecting their lives into the collective. And in this same sense, the Internet as a collective consciousness has awareness: it is aware of its immediate external surroundings because each individual is aware of other individuals in the collective and it is aware of itself as a collective because of these reflections and affirmations of life by said individuals. The users who are aware of their role in the collective, of their information given to and received from the collective consciousness, make the collective self-aware. It is a give and take. The individuals make the collective aware and the collective in turn gives a new abstraction of awareness to the individuals.

The Internet is a collective consciousness because it provides a new sense of awareness for each individual and is provided its own collectivized awareness by that of each individual, because it contains, evolves and provides new symbols and archetypes for sensation and subjective experience and because it is established upon a massive memory of knowledge and information through which all individuals have equivalent [11] and virtually instantaneous access. Yes, the Internet would cease to be such an entity if every contributing individual suddenly ceased to exist. But this is trivial: of course a collective cannot exist without individual members. But there is a massive, constantly growing amount of individuals who are woven into the collective. Each and every one of these individuals is tapped into a monumental collective consciousness through which the entirety of human knowledge and information may be potentially distributed and shared. It grows every day and will continue to do so for an indefinite amount of time. Where it takes humanity as a civilization is impossible to predict.


[1] This is not meant to ignore the impoverished or suppressed or geographically constrained populations who do not have Internet access. The simple fact is that those who do have Internet access do have the ability to communicate at an equal rate as fellow Internet users.




[5] From 2004-2007, the average amount of time spent on the Internet by American Internet users increased massively; but, this has begun to stabilize in recent years (source: The point, however, is that users are spending increasing amounts of time on the "hot" services, such as social networking, which offer potentially the greatest quantity of information sharing and distribution.



[8] I understand that there is no definitive, objective, completely agreed upon definition of consciousness. For the sake of this hypothesis, I posit that the mentioned definition of consciousness is a general one which a) serves the purposes of this conversation and b) can be considered generally acceptable by combining requirements of awareness, sensation and memory.

[9] C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (London 1996) p. 43

[10] One could conceivably build an argument for the Internet as being almost biologically alive, as strange as it seems. The requirements for biological life include homeostasis, organization, metabolism, growth, adaptation, responsiveness and reproduction. The Internet seemingly undoubtedly meets the requirements for homeostasis, organization, growth, adaptation and responsiveness. Metabolism and reproduction are a bit harder to explain, however.

[11] Equivalent in terms of content (people certainly do not have equivalent access in terms of performance). And though people from certain geographic areas may have certain materials restricted from them, there is always a route around such restrictions. It is not completely blocked off: only hidden, however elaborately. The connections remain.