A CAT-Scan of the Global Brain

10/29/2007 03:59 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Someone e-mailed me a link to a 6-minute video that summarizes where the world is heading. Like any snapshot, it gives a limited view of a moment in time. Even so, these emerging trends are global and yet mostly overlooked by the average person in the U.S.

The title of the video is "Shift Happens."

As it rattles off one trend after another, the video makes some startling points, such as the fact that there are more school kids with high IQs in China than there are school kids in the United States. Or that a single week of the New York Times contains more information than the average person absorbed in a lifetime in the 18th century. The overall message is that the world is changing exponentially. Information doubles every couple of years while the price of computers gets cut in half. If such trends continue, the market will produce a $1,000 computer in our lifetime with more capacity than the human brain.

I was reminded of a concept popularized thirty years ago known as the global brain. The global brain is more than the sum of all individual brains. It's a web of collective intelligence, a single entity that each of us is plugged into. It would seem that the global brain is taking an evolutionary leap at this very minute. The reason, as the video shows, is that a vast array of underused brains in India and China has suddenly become plugged into the network. In essence, the cortex of the global brain is growing new neural connections by the billions.

This is analogous, perhaps, to a baby's brain. In the weeks just prior to birth, and continuing apparently after a baby emerges from the womb, the infant brain's connections explode exponentially. It's been estimated that as many as a million new connections are formed per minute during this phase. If something like that is happening on a global scale, two massive trends are colliding.

One trend is downward. It consists of everything calamitous that one reads about in the newspaper: global warming, epidemic disease, political upheaval, warring religions, and a tide of refugees extending beyond old national boundaries. These problems are the end-product of underused intelligence. If the downward trend dominates, the widespread pessimism about the future of the planet is justified. The other trend, which goes much less publicized, is upward, and it comes down to the exponential expansion of intelligence.

At a time when globalization is thought about in terms of money, trade, and terrorism, we may be blinding ourselves to a vast opportunity. To put it simply, the solution to the world's problems is to bring in more problem-solvers. No one can predict what twenty million extra geniuses will produce in China, or what will fascinate a generation of American children raised from birth on the Internet. But while this country has mostly languished for six years in a malaise of fear, military adventurism, hostility to illegal immigrants, and a slavish dependency on Arab oil, the global brain has been growing and growing. The prospect of $100 a barrel oil causes consternation in the media, but forward-looking economists point to a world suddenly becoming much richer in places like India and China where poverty has been the historical norm. Some economists predict that what will save the U.S. from imminent recession is expanded trade with newly rich nations and the attractiveness of buying American property, goods, and stocks. The number of buyers for such things has vastly increased compared to twenty years ago.

There's a lot more to say about the global brain and where it's heading. But even from this snapshot, one gains new hope. The best American brains haven't been in charge recently, yet that hasn't stopped the exponential growth of intelligence elsewhere.

(To be continued)