Tag Archives: Internet

Gravity and the Noosphere

gravity-movie-trailer-hd-stills-clip-detached-sandra-bullock--150x150I loved see­ing Grav­i­ty. In my opin­ion, the Plan­et Earth should be nom­i­nat­ed for a sup­port­ing-play­er Oscar. I drank in the mas­sive, stun­ning views of the earth in the back­ground of so many scenes—completely con­vinc­ing, thanks to high-lev­el CGI effects. At those screen-fill­ing dis­tances, you could make out the thin, blue-white film of the atmos­phere, the del­i­cate out­er mem­brane that makes life on earth pos­si­ble. There they were: the bios­phere and the atmos­phere, as seen from space for real by just a few hun­dred peo­ple so far.

That soft shell of atmos­phere offers a visu­al ana­logue to oth­er, unseen lay­ers, both actu­al and imag­ined. There’s cyberspace—a zone of real­i­ty that’s tied to phys­i­cal things like com­put­ers, servers, satel­lites and fiber-optic cable, but can’t be seen or felt. We call this domain dig­i­tal, but what does that mean? It doesn’t seem far­fetched to think of this quick­ly fill­ing-in world­wide web as anoth­er, invis­i­ble shell sur­round­ing the earth’s sur­face.

And then there’s the noos­phere, an idea put for­ward by the the­olo­gian Pierre Teil­hard de Chardin about 90 years ago. He was inspired by Vladimir Ver­dan­sky, a Russ­ian sci­en­tist who him­self gets cred­it for com­ing up with the term “bios­phere.” With the noos­phere (the pre­fix comes from Greek nous, for mind) Teil­hard invites us into a kind of thought exper­i­ment: imag­ine that all of human thought sur­rounds the earth in an invis­i­ble shell. As our men­tal out­pour­ings grow and inten­si­fy, this “think­ing lay­er” fills in and comes into its own. Teil­hard sug­gest­ed that the noos­phere would emerge out of tech­nolo­gies “extend­ing a close­ly inter­de­pen­dent net­work” around the world. At that time he was refer­ring to radio, tele­type and television—but his descrip­tion seems to eeri­ly antic­i­pate the Inter­net and our cur­rent web of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

This promise of the noos­phere pulled me in when I first heard about it. It was there when I wrote in the libret­to for Vio­let Fire about Niko­la Tesla’s vision of the earth becom­ing “a sin­gle brain” through his planned World Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem. In Leav­ing Alexan­dria, the nov­el I’m work­ing on, it has helped me envi­sion the accu­mu­la­tion of knowl­edge, from ancient libraries to our expand­ing dig­i­tal cyber­sphere. We can’t see any of these the way we can see the translu­cent enve­lope of our atmos­phere, but that doesn’t stop us from expe­ri­enc­ing them around us.