domenica 17 febbraio 2013

The Economy of Thought

By: Gideon Tolkowsky

‘Mankind, born on this planet and spread over its entire surface, is coming gradually to form around its earthly matrix a single, major organic unity, enclosed upon itself; a simple, hyper-complex, hyper-centered, hyper-conscious arch-molecule. Is it not what is happening at the present time – the closing of this spherical, thinking circuit?’

Are these the words of a thick-glassed Internet guru, sounded from behind his flickering computer screen in a cubicle in some university computer lab? Or, do these words come from a defiant Internet entrepreneur, uttering them in the midst of his fledging venture’s Icarusian dive? Not quite. These prophetic words were written in 1945 by a French Jesuit priest. His name was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Teilhard de Chardin’s philosophical intuition, which was untrained by modern computer and communications technology, anticipated the birth of the Internet. His vision was spiritual. It was not technological, nor economic. But history has its strange ways with ideas. Teilhard de Chardin’s abstract notion was eventually transformed into a very tangible one, the Internet. The spiritual and the material blended and gave birth to a global web that has the capacity to serve not just as an information highway – a role commonly attributed to it, but, far more importantly – as a highway for thought; a highway for ideas. This, precisely, is the gargantuan economic promise of information technology.

Teilhard de Chardin was born in France in 1881. In parallel to qualifying for priesthood he developed keen interest in the natural sciences. After serving as stretcher-bearer in World War I’s infamous Verdun front, he was nominated Professor of Geology at the Catholic University in Paris. The future looked bright for this extremely talented disciple of Church and science. But his parallel pursuit of those two glorious revelations of heavenly inspiration spelled trouble for him.

In 1924 Teilhard de Chardin wrote a short essay in which he attempted to reconcile the Biblical account of creation and evolution with that of paleontology, the science of fossils. It was in the tales told by ancient fossils of Man and beast that he tried to identify a heavenly purpose, a master plan for the evolution of life on Earth. Just like Albert Einstein who refused to believe that God plays dice with the world, Teilhard de Chardin refused to accept that evolution is a random Darwinian play of mutations and natural selection. Evolution, so he deeply sensed, was a revelation of a purposeful grand plan.

Rome, however, was not impressed. Teilhard de Chardin was forced to leave Paris, which was considered much too pivotal a hub from where to allow a fountain of untraditional religious thought to irrigate Europe’s turbulent ideological soil. He was sent to exile, in China.

In China Teilhard de Chardin established himself as a prominent paleontologist. But it was also in the awe inspiring, Martian landscape of the Gobi Desert in which he excavated fossils, and in the enchanting, bustling alleys of Peking, that Teilhard de Chardin further pursued conciliation between science and Church. He was a paleontologist, a student of evolution of life on Earth. He sought insight into the future of humankind through extrapolation of past evolution – from the elementary building blocks of matter, to primitive life, all the way to intelligent life. He then posed the big question – what is next? What is the next evolutionary stage for an organism that has acquired the astonishing capability of thought? What is the cosmic meaning of thought? What role in the grand master plan does it play?

It was then that Teilhard de Chardin coined the term ‘noosphere’, which is derived from the Greek word for ‘thought’. He wrote: ‘All around us, tangibly and materially, the thinking envelope of the Earth – the noosphere – is adding to its internal fibers and tightening its network’. Creation, so he contemplated, had been unfolding in stages. First, from the abyss of nothingness Earth emerged. Then a gaseous atmosphere, the air we breathe, enveloped it. Next, a second envelope, that of rich and diverse life forms, encapsulated the Blue Planet. Now, said Teilhard de Chardin, it was time for a third layer, a layer of thought, of intelligence, to engulf Earth. The noosphere was the next evolutionary phase of Homo Sapiens. It would turn humanity from an eclectic collection of thinking cells into an integrative network of intelligent consciousness. But, insisted Teilhard de Chardin, not at the expense of individuality and self. It was all to be based on ‘sustenance and necessary reassurance for our power of will’.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin died in New York City in 1955. Like many other heroic attempts to bridge deeply rooted ideological chasms, his own attempt – to eliminate the dichotomy between Judeo-Christian views of creation and evolution and those of science – failed. The Church continued to discredit his ideas, as did the scientific establishment. Evidently, both these intellectual traditions often share the joy of classifying new ideas as heretic. But, some forty years later, in the mid-1990s, the noosphere materialized. It was called the World Wide Web.

Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘hyper-complex, hyper-centered, arch-molecule’ became a hyper-linked cyberspace. His ‘thinking envelope of the Earth’ with its ‘internal fibers’ became a dense communication network spread across the globe. And, at its very heart there stands the notion of the mobility of ideas.

Ideas are a most powerful force that shapes our world, second only to the raw forces of nature. It is the free flow of ideas, this virtual wind that blows within the noosphere, that constantly shapes the face of our planet. It is this very same free flow of ideas that also constitutes the greatest economic opportunity since the discovery of the Americas. The ability of new, diverse ideas to be born within different cultures, often after very short pregnancy periods, and their ability to spread faster than wind, to cross-pollinate and to breed new ideas – ever more colorful, ingenious, and intriguing – this precisely is the real revolution of our age. It is the fast differentiation of ideas that is being enabled by technology that represents, among other social shifts, a major economic revolution. New ideas create new markets, and new markets call for new products.

Teilhard de Chardin’s spiritual heritage, his vision of Homo Sapiens’ next evolutionary stage, is materializing in front of our eyes. It is abstract just as much as it is tangible. Among its many social implications is that which represents a new paradigm for capitalism – the economy of thought.

                                                                                                  April 2001

The author is Founding Partner of Veritas Venture Partners, a venture capital firm with offices in Atlanta and in Israel.

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