Aliens among us

    I believe there are aliens among us.

    That is, I believe that there are non-human creatures deeply involved in our own existence. Of course, you believe in them too. You may call them things like schools, corporations, markets, religions, fads, or technologies. But they are very definitely creatures - and they have their own desires, impulses, and motivations.

    This idea isn't new. There's plenty of sci-fi precedent for it, and lots of people have imagined the internet “coming alive” in some kind of nightmarish scenario.

    The main difference is that I think the internet is already alive.

    Not that I picture it thinking. I imagine it is far more elemental than that, grasping and clawing and growling in the dark, like some kind of swamp beast. The same goes for schools, corporations, and governments.

    There are different species of these creatures. Decades ago, Richard Dawkins coined the term memes to identify creatures which exist as virulent ideas, spreading themselves from one brain to another, reproducing via our need to converse with other human beings. The birth of the internet meant that these creatures suddenly had an entire new world to colonize. And colonize it they did.

    Walter Wink has argued that it is best to view mobs, political systems, and institutions as “powers” which have possessed groups of people. The ancient world was ahead of us in this respect, intuitively naming and categorizing the varieties of different “powers” that existed. What we've dismissed as mythology was to them quite sober sociology.

    Kevin Kelly has even identified an entire “seventh kingdom of life”, whose genes are our ideas, and whose bodies are our tools. He calls this the “technium”, and includes in it the vast stretch of everything that humanity has created, from culture to science to technology to art.

    Cities too should be thought of as living beings. They inhale, they exhale, they consume energy and expel waste. They breath. They are self-sustaining, repairing themselves when things go wrong, sometimes suffering disease, sometimes suffering the effects of age. We might tend to attribute all of this to city government, but governments really have only a small role to play in the actual lives of such creatures.

    These city-creatures are largely immobile. They are a species which latch onto good water supplies or mineral reserves, and dig themselves in deep. They generally expand over time, but rarely migrate in any significant way.

    Religions might be thought of as city-creatures which developed the ability to move. They immediately began to spread out, finding new types of resources and strongholds. Their offspring, social movements, upped the pace even more, democracy in particular having a quite rapid spread across the globe.

    None of this should surprise us. Every other biological species on earth creates ecological niches, which other creatures rush in to fill. Why should we be any different? Our existence as the types of creatures we are has opened the door for all kinds of new beings, parasites, and multi-cellular organisms to arise.

    They are neither intrinsically for us or against us. They just are, and they are now an inescapable part of our life on this planet.