Collective consciousness

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In the society of mind, what happens when agents become aware of something? Can they become aware of themselves ? What we call conscious and self aware certainly exists in some form in a society, too.


Collective consciousness


Collective consciousness is based on collective cognition and perception. It is what the majority of agents is thinking or doing right now. It is also connected to shared beliefs and attitutes. According to the french sociologist Émile Durkheim, the term collective consciousness in societies refers to the shared beliefs and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society. In former times, Religion played an important role in uniting members through the creation of a common consciousness, just as the belief in the own self plays an important role in building a consistent single personality. The belief in a god is not that different from a belief in an own self.


In a normal society, the media play an important role in shaping the collective consciousness. The content of the major newspapers, journals and TV stations determine what the majority of people is aware of. In a sense, they produce and construct the common collective consciousness of the society. The shared consumption leads to shared beliefs and attitudes. If there are continuously reports in the media that someone is evil or that the society is in a crisis, then the members of the society will eventually believe that the person is evil and that they are in a crisis.

Twitter, Facebook and and Zeitgeist

Today, Twitter is like a global stream of consciousness. Google Zeitgiest, Twitter and Facebook capture what people are doing (and thinking) right now. Taken collectively, the stream of messages from these platforms provides insights into the digital mood, the collective consciousness, and the zeitgeist ("the spirit of the age").

Collective self-awareness

The spirit of China

If the population of a society is large and complex enough, it should be possible to represent and recognize itself. How? Steven Pinker asks in 'How the Mind Works' (p.146):

"What if we took [a brain simulation computer] program and trained a large number of people, say, the population of China, to hold in mind the data and act out the steps? Would there be one gigantic consciousness hovering over China, separate from the consciousness of the billion individuals? If they were implementing the brain state for agonizing pain, would there be some entity that really was in pain, even if every citizen was cheerful and light-hearted?"

Do we have a spirit of China "hovering over the room" in this case? A real life situation where a common consciousness arises is for example a national world cup game in stadium, or a divine service. The spirit of the group is in fact "hovering" over the place in both cases. The participants are confused by feedback illusions: if all participants act synchronously, then it is difficult to distinguish between the actions of the group and the actions of the individual. An individual thinks it has suddenly the power of the whole group.

How would a recognition or representation of itself look like? Maybe you can describe it like this: when agents become aware of themselves, suddenly a small group of agents (which represent the society somehow through a certain belief, attitude or action) gets into the focus of attention. They become very famous, and nearly everyone makes connections to them. In the above situation, these agents may be comparable to the team on the field, or the leaders of the religious group. A huge confusion arises in the population which agents should be activated: everyone since the agents represent everyone, and nobody since they are just one team among many others.

Collective self-awareness

Collective self-awareness happens when the majority of agents is thinking or discussing about themselves, which is possible during revolutions or revolutionary changes in a society, when the society is debating and changing itself. These revolutionary changes can be more or less peaceful. Collective self-awareness is a bit like a thunderstorm in the social network of the society of mind: items which represent the society become popular supernodes in the social network of the society (which may lead to sudden flashs of insight), but also lead to massive confusion (or thunderheads) afterwards.

In general, everything which represents the society can lead to some form of self-awareness in the society, for instance a sports team in a world cup or an army in a war which shows certain positive or desired attitudes. During the Cup in 2006, the Germans for example showed their patriotic spirit with flag waving. A kind of consciousness.

Any team, whether a sports team, an organization, or an army, can have a "team spirit" (in German "Teamgeist"). If the person which seems to embody this team spirit acts for the whole group in some form of competition or election, this can lead to some kind of self-awareness, if the actions are discussed or celebrated afterwards. If the people of a country start to discuss and dismiss their own president (see Egypt 2011), the society becomes aware of itself to a certain degree.

Insight in Confusion

Self-awareness is a bit like a controversial election after a revolution: an elation accompanied by obfuscation, a kind of entrancement which causes puzzlement. Or is it? Consciousness of the self or self-awareness is like a whirl or turbulence in the neural information flow: it is characterized by heavy discussions with few results among *all* agents. Self-consciousness is like the feeling of being strong because you have climbed a huge mountain, but it also like watching yourself from a distance standing on this mountain peak at the same time. It is to recognize yourself (that means every agent is affected) as a small part of the environment (that means only a few special agents are affected).

Moreover, the results of the "discussions" which characterize consciousness on the agent level often interfere with the emotion agents which act through reinforcement. The capacity to act is constrained. The agents are confused and the system eventually shows chaotic behavior. Consciousness is complex. It is the recognition of the familiar in the unfamiliar. Although it is based on the insight of the own existence, it leads to the recognition of the own death. Insight causes pleasure, death the strongest displeasure. So consciousness is related to pleasure in displeasure.

Because the topic concerns the whole system, all agents think it is important. But the insight of consciousness says in turn the system as a whole is only a part of a much larger system. Consciousness is a reconciliation of the whole with the part, similar to eternity in a moment (Goethe's Faust), or a lifetime in a day (James Joyce' Ullysses). A continuous merging (agreement) and splitting (disagreement) of agents. A self-conscious agent is able to see eternity in a moment and a lifetime in a day.


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