Socio-technological evolution and the emergence of multiconsciousness

A curious analogy arises when comparing the communication mechanisms employed by cells in multicellular organisms, and communication mechanisms developed by the human civilization. Of the main conclusions is that an open and transparent communication system might be critical for existence of a large multi[cellular] system.. What follows is based on some approximations, so has to be perceived with caution 😉

Generally speaking there are four communication (signaling) mechanisms in a multicellular organism:

1) Juxtacrine signaling (through direct contact), is facilitated by direct physical interaction between adjacent cells through membrane-anchored receptor molecules. Such receptors are the most essential tool for cellular communication. Together with membrane channels they facilitate environment sensitivity in all life forms and act as the fundamental building block within all inter-cellular communication systems.

2) Paracrine signaling (through chemical diffusion), is mediated by molecules secreted into the extracellular medium, which are sensed by the cells in vicinity of the emitting source. This enables information transfer beyond the cells in direct contact with one another. This signaling model is employed even by single-cell life forms and is considered to be an important step in emergence of multicellularity.

3) Circulatory–Endocrine signaling (through chemical circulation), is also mediated by molecules expressed into the intercellular medium, however in this case the range of signal transduction is considerably extended because of the signaling molecules being transported by the global circulatory system. This enables efficient intercellular communication on the scale of the whole organism.

In the present discussion “endocrine signaling” does not simply refer to animal endocrine systems modulated by specialized endocrine organs. It rather designates a general principle of information transfer when [any] cell in the organism is capable of sending signals to other cells via global circulatory system (e.g. including immune systems of animals and xylem/phloem systems of vascular plants).

Apparently, only the most primitive multicellular life forms lack circulatory endocrine systems – sponges, cnidaria (hydras, jellyfish, anemones, corals), comb jellies, flat and roundworms, “lower” plants (algae, moss, liverwort) and fungi.

4) Neurocrine signaling (rapid electrochemical signaling). An organism-wide communication system which, in addition to the chemoreceptive signal transduction, employs electrical polarization of neuron membranes as a mean of rapid signal transfer on the long distances. Besides of the fast reaction times, advanced nervous systems of higher animals provide learning and memorizing capacities, enabling rapid execution of complex responses crucial for survival in rapidly changing environmental conditions. Neurocrine signaling is an exclusive characteristic of the animal kingdom, and except sponges all multicellular animals have some sort of a nervous system.

Communication mechanisms

Communication mechanisms

graphics by Egor at whitelabdesign.com

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Going back to the promised analogy, in the context of human society multicellular communication mechanisms can be paralleled to Speech, Writing, Web and Government:

1) Speech. Analogously to the juxtacrine signaling, spoken language facilitates communication between individuals upon direct contact with one another. Emerging approximately ~400-500k years ago, spoken language provided the key component for establishment of the human society, and facilitated increase in the organizational complexity of social holons from individual families to tribes. One can find some clear parallels between increased specialization of individuals in human tribes and of cells in multicellular colonies.

2) Writing and Printing. The emergence of writing enabled humans to communicate on a much larger distances and provided a robust mechanism for knowledge preservation. This advancement occurred approximately ~4 000 B.C. and is considered the central event in the emergence of human civilization. Admittedly, [Paracrine <> Writing] pair gives somewhat less striking correlation than [Juxtacrine <> Speech] in terms of the transportation method and stability of the “signal”. Nevertheless, from the communication perspective, writing indeed increased the efficiency of information transfer (both through space and through time), allowing more pronounced specialization of individuals and leading to establishment of increasingly complex social institutions. Telecommunication technologies of the 20th century increased the efficiency of information transfer even further, but those still remained within one-to-one (telegraph, phone) or one-to-many (radio and television) communication paradigms. And only after the advent of the World Wide Web a notable transition towards accessible many-to-many communication has started to evolve.

3) Internet & WWW. Having emerged 20 years ago, WWW not only delivers a global repository of human knowledge, but as well enables the most efficient world-wide communication mechanism. Similarly to the [circulatory+endocrine] systems in multicellular life forms, [internet+WWW] pair provides [infrastructure+standard language] for information transfer within a network of individuals. Current usability of this communication system is limited due to the information overflow problem, which emerges when one tries to perceive all the “signals” sent through the Web. However this is a technological rather than a conceptual problem, and modern social communication tools have already started to transform organizational and governance systems.

4) Government. In the communication context, government provides rapid coordination of extended groups of individuals when collective tribal meetings stop being practical. From this perspective it is very similar to animal nervous system – since it enables prompt reactions to rapidly changing environment conditions without necessity of gathering opinions from every individual in the group. During several thousands of years, much like the natural selection works, human society has sampled a substantial amount of governance systems. By trial and error excluding the unstable “phenotypes”, now society is slowly converging on a seemingly stable – democratic – architecture. In democratic arrangement all individuals {cells} are equally contributing to the coordination of the whole society {organism}, by sending relevant signals through their elected representatives {neighboring neurons of peripheral nervous system} to the government {central nervous system}. At least theoretically, in most democratic societies individuals indeed have an opportunity to contribute to the decision making process. However, even democratic form of governance does not seem to scale up properly in the absence of transparent and accessible communication channels.

Anyway, the fun part is not the analogy itself, but the knowledge which can be inferred through making these parallels.

Openness vs Control

Although providing an exceptional gain in the organism adaptability, nervous system is not the key component required for the emergence of a stable multicellularity. As exemplified by the prosperity of vascular plants (most of the plants one sees in everyday life belong to this group), information exchange through common circulatory+endocrine system must be sufficient to maintain a complex multicellular organism.

One could argue that success of plants stems from their autotrophic nature, which enables the condition of “resource abundance”. However, already at the current state of science and technology (e.g. WorldChanging) coupled to networked resource production and distribution, the alleged issue of resource scarcity appears perfectly solvable.

The importance of circulatory+endocrine system means that Internet+WWW are not simply advancing the technology, but opening a path for interconnecting society into one “multiconscious” organism. Envisioned as cells in this organism, we are still lacking a flexible repertoire of “receptor molecules” and signal integration mechanisms to mitigate the information overflow. The necessary toolset is expected to come with the advent of semantic web in the form of intelligent information-management tools. Crucially, these tools are likely to emerge only if the Web remains (becomes?) truly open and transparent, allowing each and every individual to connect with the rest of the community without technological or legal barriers. The information flow within this circulatory system shall not be controlled by any [authoritarian] group of people. Leaning on experience provided by several billion years of natural selection – there are no organs/cells in multicellular organisms which guide information flow and manage information accessibility to individual cell types. Instead, each cell expresses own set of receptors to perceive the signals relevant to its particular function and current context.

Centralized hierarchy vs distributed network

Another hint from the natural selection – there are no multicellular organisms which rely on “master cells” to manage all their resources and make all the decisions. Instead there are networks of cells, each specializing on a particular function – such distributed architecture makes the organism virtually invincible. Within distributed peer-to-peer network failure of any individual cell, or even part of community, does not lead to collapse of the whole system.

Multicellularity is highly dependent on interconnectedness, openness and trust, which allow individual cells to become specialized and relay certain functions to their peers. This enhances a multicellular organism abilities far beyond of what a simple cell colony can possess. It also makes the system exceptionally stable for external perturbations.

In this perspective, the issues which advocates of the Open Culture are addressing today, are not simply about intellectual property vs human rights, and self-assertive resource control vs integrative compassion. In the long term these issues might relate to our survival as a species. Shall we continue as colonies of egocentric individuals balancing at a brink of extinction, or rather learn from the nature to become an open and evolutionary stable “multiconscious” society?

Give a try – it is quite a moving experience to perceive all the people around you as bits of the very same organism, ultimately sharing the very same goal! 😉

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Knowledge production pipeline

There is an emerging problem within the scientific community – its rapid growth together with advancement of technology increases information flow to unbearable levels. In these conditions existing system for research evaluation is becoming more and more obsolete, creating a bottleneck in the “knowledge production pipeline”, which results in the loss of considerable amount of data. To illustrate this point “knowledge production” can be formalized as following:

Knowledge production pipeline

1) Science is a Machine operating the “knowledge production pipeline”. It extracts, filters and refines the information from the Universe.
2) The end product of the pipeline is structured Knowledge ready to be “consumed” by society, industry or by the Science Machine itself (knowledge reuse creates positive feedback).
3) Pipeline consists of four operational segments, represented by the corresponding sets of tools: extraction of information, documentation, evaluation and knowledge dissemination.

The main bottleneck is created in the segment of research evaluation. Scientists (operators of the pipeline) are still performing this process manually. Increased automation of the preceding “extraction machinery” and the shift to electronic “documentation machinery” results in disproportion between the amount of operators and amount of information to be handled. In other words, while we are perfecting tools for knowledge extraction (thus increasing the information flow), the machinery required for knowledge evaluation is worn out, loosing ability to handle this flow.

Another problem refers to inefficiency of the existing documentation tools – paper laboratory journals and local electronic data storages provide very limited access. In fact, this problem also points to the obsoleteness of the science evaluation practices: since no credit is given for the knowledge bypassing the peer-reviewed publishing process, scientists lack incentive to make negative results and «raw» data publicly available.

So essentially everything boils down to the necessity of delivering new metrics for research activities and partially automating the evaluation process. This does not mean elimination of the peer-review, but increase in its efficiency.

And, beyond everything else, academia has to start giving credit to researchers performing peer-review and make its results publicly available, thereby encouraging this type of scientific activity and removing bias and injustice from the process.

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Mitigation of the crisis in science

In perspective of the topic discussed here:

The Real Science Crisis: Bleak Prospects for Young Researchers
Tight budgets, scarce jobs, and stalled reforms push students away from scientific careers.

It might sound presumptuous, but in my opinion policy makers are looking for solutions in the wrong places.

Departments and students must recognize that the majority of science doctorate recipients no longer become professors, and that realization should cause a shift in the culture and practice of graduate education. “There’s a mismatch between the opportunities available to students as they complete their work and their expectations and the nature of their training along the way.”

Indeed, as a rule, tenured professor is the only stable academic position, and amount of those is strictly limited. But instead of blaming the educational system for producing too many PhDs and inventing programs to prepare graduates for the job market outside of academia, one could simply devise a new type of a “tenure” academic position. A stable intermediate between a PostDoc and a Professor – with small budgets and limited responsibility, but stable! This would secure a person who is willing to stay in academia, but did not acquire enough luck to reach Professor level. In modern world of rapidly evolving methodology and extensive interdisciplinary research, those people will be of much higher value than one might expect. In fact, given higher efficiency of knowledge dissemination within small research groups, this could also resolve the problem with quality of postgraduate education.

The second problem is harder to spot and uneasy to accept. The source of it lies within the existing “peer-based” evaluation system for science and research, which forms the core of publishing and funding mechanisms. Quotation marks show up for the reason of “peer-based” in many cases functioning in celebrity-based and celebrity-biased manner.
This evaluation system worked fairly well with limited number of scientists, when global awareness of ongoing research was possible in most of the scientific disciplines. However, once electronic media accelerated the rate of scientific discovery, diversifying research world and increasing information flow to unbearable levels, the existing “peer-based” methods became obsolete and destructive. And while policy makers are trying to solve problems by scaling up the funding, the system cracks:

…Congress doubled the NIH budget from $13.6-billion to $27.3-billion between 1998 and 2003. Since then, the agency’s appropriations have not kept pace with inflation, which has eroded the actual amount available for research.

Beyond inflation, immense amount of those resources vanishes in the redundancy of our efforts. Existing evaluation system discourages sharing of knowledge and expertise, leading to unhealthy competition, secrecy, data falsification, and as a result – redundancy of research. One really has to restructure the whole system and ideology behind it, focusing on elimination of pyramidal hierarchy, giving more power to young scientists, introducing new methods for efficient knowledge dissemination and encouraging sharing of research artifacts. This restructuring in turn will release a lot of resources, which can be rerouted back to increase the amount of stable research positions available within academy.

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There is also a bit of discussion on this topic going at friendfeed.

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a must-read novel about scientists

Monday Begins on Saturday” is the name of the Russian (Soviet) Sci-fi novel written in 1964 by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (the “fathers” of Russian Sci-fi). It is a very light, humorous and intelligent story portraying the life of truly inspired scientists, devoted to their research in such a way that their Mondays start (metaphorically) on Saturdays.

It is also a bit of a fantasy style, since the action takes place at the Scientific Research Institute of Sorcery and Magic (SRISM), where researchers are pursuing science with respect to magic objects, creatures from fairy tales and other elements of the supernatural.

“Monday…” could be somewhat more appealing to [bio]informaticians – although the story is not about computers, but the main hero is a geek, possessing rare (at the time) skill of operating one of the first punch-card computers.

A number of people, including myself, would say this novel is one of the most original and enchanting Sci-fi stories ever written. I would even vote to include it into official scientific education programs, at least for PhDs =). Of course human perceptions do differ, but if you happened to be a scientist – I bet you’ll love it!

Actually, the point is that the spirit of the people who are now advancing the concept of Open Science is very much alike the spirit of the SRISM scientists. Reflected in the title, one of the ideas behind this blog is to follow the advancement of the New (Open) Science…

generalization of the web 2.0 concept

In attempt to generalize the key concepts of Web 2.0 trend… Everything sums up to “information managed by communities”.. Things like service-oriented architecture, grids, clouds, etc. remain within the “web 2.0 tools” entity. Hope analogy with the prism is not too odd…

Constructive critics are welcomed! 😉

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