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> Metaman


Metaman is that part of humanity, its creations, and its activities that is interdependent—joined together by trade, communications, and travel. At the moment, the superorganism is primarily the world's industrialized countries and the urban areas in developing lands, but it is growing and spreading rapidly into the rural regions of the third world that are as yet peripheral to it.

That nice definition comes from the book Metaman, by Gregory Stock. I don't know any other name for the superorganism I referred to as “society as a whole”, so I'll adopt the name myself. I do have to point out, though, that since we're talking about a superorganism, it would be appropriate to call it “Superman”.

Early on, Stock makes an important distinction.

To avoid any confusion, I want to clarify at this point that the concept of society as a living entity, one in which humans play a part analogous to the cells in an animal's body, is very different from the idea that all life is part of a single living organism—Gaia.

Stock isn't interested in whether Gaia, as a superorganism, exists; but I am, and it seems to me that it does exist, that there's enough interdependence in nature to create a superorganism. So, that's another name I'll adopt.

I wouldn't, however, say that Gaia is an intelligent superorganism … a nice, stable one, certainly, but not an intelligent one.

Now, to head back toward the main topic, I'd like to say a few words about the book Metaman. On the one hand, I do like it. It's inspiring to be reading about a superorganism at all, and thought-provoking to see various aspects of the world described in terms of Metaman. On the other hand, it seems to me that it glosses over two fundamental questions.

First, how do we even know that Metaman exists? How can we tell there's a superorganism, and not just a bunch of organisms? I don't have a good answer to that question, myself, but I do have some thoughts.

The loaf-of-bread argument is a good place to start, but I won't pursue it here.

The analogous question is also a good place to start. How can we tell there's me, and not just a bunch of cells? Well, there are things I can do that my cells can't … for example, I can take pen and paper and write a letter. My cells, no doubt, would argue. “What's all this about letter-writing? All I see is some muscle cells expanding and contracting!”

So, the problem is one of levels of description. We need to expand our conceptual horizons and ask, “what is Metaman doing?” Frankly, I have no idea, unless Metaman is doing nothing but growing mindlessly … and I wouldn't rule that out. In fact, I think Agent Smith may have been on to something.

I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you're not actually mammals.

Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area.

There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague. And we … are the cure.

That brings me to the second fundamental question, namely, how do we know Metaman is intelligent? Or, rather, is Metaman intelligent? Stock seems quite confident that it is, but I am not so sure.

Global warming is one of Stock's favorite examples. I wanted to find a quote along the lines of “Metaman is thinking about global warming”, but it turns out that's not quite what he said, or meant.

Metaman, too, is aware of the crucial aspects of its environment and is responding to them in its own self-interest. This “awareness” does not require what we think of as consciousness, but merely a capacity to interpret sensory input. Countless nonbiological innovations from radio telescopes to X-ray machines have enormously extended human senses, and this is only a hint of the vast sensory capabilities of Metaman. It observes the growth of a country's population, watches the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rise, and traces the shape of an oil deposit miles beneath the ground.


As each of us responds individually to fragments of this huge stream of information, our responses couple and merge to create the large-scale adjustments that constitute Metaman's integrated response to information.


A good example of such a response is the increasing awareness of, and reaction to, environmental issues such as global warming and ozone depletion.

The point that bothers me, here, is that no distinction is made between the behavior of Metaman and the collective behavior of humans. The two are certainly not the same thing. Collective behavior, like the behavior of atoms in a gas, doesn't even require that a superorganism be present.

Once again, consider me and my cells. My cells are busy synthesizing proteins, regulating body temperature, and whatnot, but all I'm doing is sitting in front of the computer typing. I think it's the same way with Metaman. We, as its cells, are busy gathering information, worrying about global warming, and whatnot, but it has no idea about any of that. It's probably just having a nice nap after lunch.

If I wanted to look for signs of intelligence in Metaman, I think I'd start with the stock market. Maybe, for example, the collapse of the internet bubble was actually one of Metaman's neurons firing, making a decision … or maybe it was just another collective behavior.

The other thing that irritates me about the book is the dogmatic assertion that the formation of Metaman is inevitable and unstoppable. It may or may not be inevitable—Player Piano, which I just happened to finish reading, has an interesting perspective on that—but unstoppable? I think it won't be stopped, but I think it's certainly conceivable that it could be. In fact, I think that's what the terrorists were trying to do, although of course they wouldn't have put it that way.

Finally, did you know there's a movie about Metaman? Really! It's Koyaanisqatsi, one of my favorites. The movie was intended as criticism, but, except for a few unsubtle moments, can equally well be taken as a tribute to the beauty of the superorganism. I still see that beauty sometimes, when I'm flying over a city at night, or driving through one, or driving in traffic, or riding on a subway.

Speaking of driving, and of Koyaanisqatsi, have you ever listened to slow classical music while driving in traffic? It is a bit surreal.


  See Also

  Day in the Life, A
  On Walking
  References (Superorganisms)

@ February (2002)