Star Trek: The Next Generation featured a civilization of hostile alien cyborgs, known by the Federation as “the Borg”. The crew of the Starship Enterprise had many treacherous encounters with them, and faced great difficulty overcoming the formidable obstacle they presented. The Borg, unlike humans and other sentient life-forms like Vulcans and Klingons, did not exist as individuals, but instead functioned as one singular collective, or “Hive-Mind”. Their goal behind this was to attain perfection through the pooling of information, by way of assimilating beings of different cultures and species into the collective. Effectively, no one Borg mind was capable of independent thought, but the unified consciousness of the Hive contained a wealth of knowledge (accessible to all members of the collective) that spanned hundreds of centuries and across many thousands of planets. More wisdom than any one human could ever hope to attain.
When I was a kid watching the show in the 90s, this was entirely science-fiction. Everything about the Borg, from their monolithic cube spacecraft; to their cybernetic implants; and the concept of the Hive-Mind, was utterly surreal. There was never the vaguest reason to believe that anything about the show could be some kind of prophecy concerning the real world. Fast-forward to the year 2016, and the idea has begun to present itself a little closer to home for me. The cube; the implants; and the pale, hairless bodies may still seem like fantasy, but the Hive-Mind, in its infant stage, exists here on Earth.
Written language has existed in some form or another since around 3200 BCE, and has always been used as a means of sharing information. A way to relate thoughts and opinions to our fellow humans. The Internet, born as a means of communication between universities, saw rapid expansion in the 1990s with file sharing and public domain ownership, and now, with over two billion smartphone users worldwide in 2016, we humans have begun to evolve in a way not at all dissimilar from the Borg.
When engaged in casual conversation, I have lately experienced a decrease in the recollection of personal knowledge and wisdom in favor of fact-checking on the Internet (this does not exlude myself). The scenario is familiar to everyone in my generation:
“What’s the name of that guy who plays Matt Murdock in Netflix’ Daredevil”?
“I don’t remember, here, I’ll pull it up”…
*brief moment of silence as a screen is poked, stroked, and scrutinized*
“Ah, Charlie Cox”.
“Yeah! What else was he in? I know I recognize him from somewhere”
*more silence, stroking, and staring*
“Stardust! That one with Claire Danes and Robert De Niro”
This is not, by any extent, meant to be taken as a condemnation of the use of technology in the pursuit of information: that’s what it’s meant for, and I’d be a liar to say I didn’t spend at least an hour surfing the web, checking my facts about Star Trek and Daredevil. The “Hive-Mind” isn’t necessarily bad: it unifies us as humans of Earth, instead of Americans and Chinese, whites and blacks, Christians and Muslims, men and women. Each year, thanks to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the advent of online newspapers, is experienced increasingly similarly by a person in Indonesia and a person in Indiana. Of course it would be inaccurate to say that cultural diversity is disappearing: we haven’t become the Borg completely! But there is a constantly expanding singularity that exists at the heart of humanity, and the Internet is its brain. I expect this to become more prevalent in the years to come, and it’s exciting to imagine what we will accomplish as a species through the sharing of experience and wisdom with one another.
However much there is to be gained by the pooling of information and the further evolution of the collective mind, I can’t help but wonder: what is there to be lost? The ability to create, or even the concept of self? Is it possible that we could become just like the Borg, with no sense of inividuality, a race of drones seeking the betterment of society as one collective organism? Imagine what the state of affairs will be in the year 3016 (assuming that civilization remains on its current trajectory), and certain aspects of Star Trek don’t seem completely out of the left-field.
The one who thinks and acts independently has historically been the one to break through the noise and take civilization leaps beyond where it stood: Einstein with his Theory of Relativity; Mandela’s political and social revolution and battle against predjudice; Wendy Carlos’ embrace of modern electronics technology for use in the fields of art and music. These people have shaken the very groundwork for how we percieve existence, and they accomplished that not through the easy access of common knowledge, but through independent, original thought and creativity. If we continue along the path of trading in our personal experience for collective wisdom, will we lose the ability to innovate?
Again: my aim is not to shame the use of technology; simply to provoke creative thought and imagination. While it may perhaps be overtly dramatic to say that the Internet will drain humankind of its ability to innovate, it may not be completely unreasonable to examine the effects it has had on the individual mind, or where it is taking us as a race. The Internet, like rock music, is here to stay; and so it may be beneficial to take two steps backward and look inwardly at ourselves; to identify ourselves as individuals and reach out to personal experience and wisdom instead of gravitating automatically to one’s pocket for an answer. Sometimes the mere act of wondering can spark an original idea, where an immediate answer would only have stopped the train of thought in its tracks.