Designing a Multiperson Planetary Consciousness

07/16/2010 05:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Humankind is not the only species with the power to change the global environment. The oxygen-filled atmosphere, the moderation of the greenhouse effect, mineral resources such as limestone and oil, entire green continents -- these are all created by living things. They are the result of the co-evolution of billions of living organisms on the earth. Humanity's degree of influence over the environment is not exceptional in the history of this planet. What we are remarkable for is our ability to comprehensively simulate the planet's overall condition and future evolution.

At the scale of the earth, humans are tiny things, like fleas on the back of an elephant. But these tiny creatures have begun quantifying and monitoring the subtle changes in the body temperature and the physical conditions of their host, seeking ways to mitigate, or adapt to, climatic changes. Indeed, the progression of global warming and the greenhouse effect have been tracked in this way thanks to the legendary scientific observations of one tiny "flea" named Roger Keeling at the top of a Hawaiian volcano.

One unique aspect of human intelligence is its ability to apprehend conditions beyond our physical scale and see the larger picture. Today such global self-awareness is not limited to the halls of academia. In Japan, for example, grass-roots weather forecasting is fast becoming a popular and effective social medium that helps avert and mitigate weather-related damage. The mobile phone site of Weathernews Inc. collects tens of thousands of weather reports daily, often with photos, by volunteer weather reporters transmitting from mobile phones.

Rapid microclimatic events such as sudden "guerrilla rain," an effect of urban heat islands, are difficult to observe and to forecast. But guided by these on-site reports (Japanese mobile phones have GPS and high resolution cameras by which to corroborate messages with transmission times), radars can effectively detect the development of guerrilla rain clouds in near real-time, and send alerts to hundreds of thousands of mobile phones in the affected area 30 to 60 minutes before the guerrilla torrents fall. The current success rate in pin-point predictions of guerrilla rain (previously impossible to forecast), is almost 80 percent, resulting in decreased damage by urbanization-related flooding.

When typhoons hit, real-time storm reports are uploaded throughout Japan. Thus citizens have self-organized into a national real-time typhoon monitoring system. By the time a storm hits Okinawa in the South, people in Tokyo 2000 kilometers away are in contact and report on wind and rain conditions in the capital.

These on-site reports are fully utilized by professionals to forecast the exact course of typhoons in order to mitigate the resulting disasters. This is a new expression of collective intelligence by "fleas" monitoring in real time the condition of the "elephant." While each flea has limited capacity for observation, when the local fragmentary information is aggregated, they create an overall picture, much like a jigsaw puzzle. (Because each individual post creates synergy with the others, I call this a "Syn-active" system.)

Mobile IT, jewels of modern science and technology, open new possibilities for these co-creative processes to become collective intelligence, working in situ and in real time. It is up to us to decide whether we fulfill or waste their potential. This is why it's so important that we engage our creative imagination and design "social-ware" to shape our world by each of us acting as a "global sensor," a functional part of the global neural network.

Creative social applications can repurpose automobiles to serve as nerve cells in the brains of our cities. Keio University's WIDE/LiveE! Project is using social network technologies to log cars as network devices. GPS information from hundreds of taxis not only provides real-time traffic monitoring and navigation aid to avoid traffic jams, but by mapping the condition of the cars' wipers, it works as an additional aspect of Tokyo's networked weather information infrastructure. Brakes, too, are part of the information flow; they indicate points of increased risk of accident. Smart grid technology in the field of power generation engages consumers in interactive demand and supply markets, making explicit each individual's consumption, as well as patterns of peak load in a community.

The evolution of automobiles and electricity into nodes in the nervous system of a participatory and attuned city can now be seen as a next step in the "intellectualization" of the global system. The image of syn-active "fleas" synchronizing with the dynamism of their social and global environment suggests a new relationship between humankind and the planet.

Tangible Earth, a digital globe that I have been developing since 2002, is a human interface to a sensory planetary consciousness. It was designed as a tool to empower the sensitive networking of "fleas" as elements in the planetary consciousness. It constantly downloads satellite data from the Internet and elsewhere and visualizes the real-time movement of weather systems, the footprint of the Sun day and night, oceanic flows and seismic activities, the global migration of birds and whales, atmospheric contaminants flowing across borders, the progress of global warming, and massive real time typhoon alerts. It's more than just a scientific data display device.

We are developing a portable version, as well, to be equipped with meteorological sensors, and to have the same information functions as GPS-enabled mobile phones. We anticipate a time when these devices will be installed in schools and ships all over the world. These tiny GlobalSensors will be constantly uploading real-time climate information from each location on land and sea, enabling the Tangible Earth network to become a syn-active global sensor-network.

We have the power to be a cancer in the body of the Earth, or to be co-creators of a reflexive, ever more comprehensive living system. It's time for us to imagine and to achieve our global brain as a concrete living system, time for us to co-create an evolution in which science and collective human consciousness embark on a common development.

An invited contribution to the Ervin Laszlo Forum on Science and Spirituality.