Shared Perspectives

How on earth, you might ask, are the Internet and consciousness related?

There is the obvious fact that you have to be awake to use it. Equally obvious is that the Internet is another in a long list of media vying for our attention.

But there are more fundamental ways that consciousness is being affected by Internet use and some evidence to suggest that the Internet itself may become "conscious," or at least artificially intelligent. Several psychologists have theories related to this line of thinking.

Alternative realities

Psychologist Joan Preston, of Brock University, theorizes that exposure to virtual reality online--and, for that matter, offline--can affect our ability to become absorbed in alternative realities. She believes that we use the same representational systems to construct ourselves in the world, whether the system is physical, imagined or computer mediated.

As she sees it, our realities vary from the physical, including indoors and outdoors, to media and altered states, such as sleep and dreaming. Are such experiences of reconstructed realities simply amplifications of cognitive operations? Or is there genuine adaptation occurring? Research supports the latter as illustrated by the dizziness one can experience after an hour of playing a video game. Specifically, Preston points to the role of psychological absorption, called "telepresence" in the computer literature, as one mediating variable.

Artificial intelligence

A less obvious connection between the Internet and consciousness is the idea of the "global brain."

Computer scientist and ps Psychologist Ben Goertzel, of Intelligenesis Corp., theorizes that the Internet will evolve into a "full-fledged, largely autonomous, globally distributed intelligent system." And as this occurs, we will see this Internet artificial intelligence network wend itself further and further into human affairs, yielding a synergetic, symbiotic global intelligent system.

In fact, Goertzel sees the Internet as providing a kind of nervous system for the planet. Previous efforts to develop artificial intelligence have been limited by inadequate random-access memory. Goertzel believes that intelligence emerges in complex systems with self-organizing self-recognition.

Relatedly, Greg Guthrie, Jim Karpen, of Maharishi University of Management, and I theorize that as the Internet and connected technologies grow, the collective technological matrix will become more adept at reflecting, representing and extending our patterns of attention, and thus will become a more powerful tool. At its simplest, the Internet captures our attention. At its more complex, it develops our collective consciousness. Specifically, Internet-wrought changes in consciousness do not stop at the abstract verbal level but continue as a function of exposure to appropriate cultural amplifiers.

These changes are traditionally relegated to the realms of the transpersonal with practices such as meditation. Some outcomes of such practices--changes in spatial thinking, shifts in processing speed and integration of self and emotions with cognition--are also apparent in heavy users of video games and other forms of virtual reality (VR). In other words, experiencing VR, and especially immersive VR, can provide potential cultural amplifiers and thus impact the development of our consciousness.

In summary, we are at a juncture of wetware (human brains) and software (computer software) profoundly evidenced in the rapid emergence of the Internet. This interface will extend both human and machine intelligence and potentially our consciousness. With increased absorption in altered constructed realities, online humans' experience of "altered reality" will expand along with the expansion of silicon-based networked intelligence. One wonders if we are not at the threshold of some mixture of the movies "2001" and "The Matrix."

Further Reading

The material in this column is drawn from the book "Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Transpersonal Implications." (Academic Press, 1998), edited by Jayne Gackenbach.