The nomadic life of an information gatherer

For most of human existence a nomadic way of life was life itself. Moving with the seasons alongside migrating animals while establishing temporary lodging lasted hundreds of thousands of years. The simple non-industrial hunter-gatherer style of life produced no garbage; everything used was natural and returned to the earth naturally.

Most of the confines of the hunter-gatherer life have been left behind for 10,000 years, but traces of it remain. Shopping is the usual example, the search for the perfect shirt, car, chair, home and so forth. So powerful is the human urge to gather that our entire world economy hinges on shopping, what we call consumerism. Bringing both the pleasure of the hunt and the satisfaction of gathering, shopping’s greatest harm is that we are consuming Earth’s resources beyond all imagining and producing a Mt. Everest of toxic garbage. Eventually, all this consumption must come to an end; either the financial system will collapse or the resources will give out. The last vestiges of material-based hunter-gatherer society will dissolve.

We can see the next iteration, however, in how we now relate to information. Our society has become a tribe of information hunter-gatherers. The reach of our senses has been extended globally and even cosmically, and the miniaturization of computer memory now permits the collected knowledge of an entire culture within a chip the size of a postage stamp. Thus not only has our organic sensory apparatus been enlarged, but memory itself and the natural process of recall have also been artificially and electronically extended. Some futurists like Ray Kurzweil foresee the time when the barrier between electronic and organic is entirely removed, what he calls the “singularity.” If that comes to pass, the nature of being human will undergo a major transformation; we can already see it happening, albeit not fully.

In one sense, our experience as human beings is returning to one more akin to that of 50,000 years ago – tribal instead of individualistic. Our individualistic inclinations are derived from literate culture. The arising of moveable type and easily reproduced books placed heretofore inaccessible wisdom into the hands of “everyman” and exploded tribal society previously dependent upon an oral tradition. That typographic phase of human culture is passing, however, and instantaneous information gathering and processing on a global scale has come into favor. Like the jungle drums of long ago, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and newer, even more powerful communications modes give each of us a constant connection to streaming global information, even global consciousness. Ideas are no longer limited to confined space, time or region but spread easily and affect events at nearly the speed of light. The rigid system wherein information was restricted based on social position is dissolving; the average person today can learn nearly as much as yesterday’s specialized expert, and locate facts and correlate information on virtually any subject.

Such power was unthinkable only a few generations ago and our present societal structures are increasingly inadequate to keep up with these changes. World governance is mired in outdated hierarchical mechanisms no longer well-suited to decision-making in an age of instantaneous global communication. Accordingly, the continuing social realignment will bring unprecedented disruptions and confusion while the obsolete current systems fail and collapse. Perhaps the “singularity” will arrive, but as to what finally emerges from the ensuing chaos is anyone’s guess.

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