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The Networked Species
J√łnathan Lyons   Dec 22, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Humankind is frequently referred to as a tool-using/-making species. What is becoming clear is that we are also a species with a real talent and drive for greater integration with our tools and with one another. Humankind is an increasingly networked species. And while this is a teleological essay, I am not prepared to make an argument that what we are witnessing is necessarily either a good or bad thing.

In a very real way, we have become steadily more networked at least since the emergence of language; language allowed our species to communicate specific information more efficiently than we'd ever previously been able to. Aboriginal human societies created and utilized paths through their local terrain to connect themselves to important locations that they visited frequently; eventually, our species developed networks of roads, increasing our connectivity with one another. Increasing the number of connections we created between cities and outposts allowed our cultures to communicate more, engage in a greater variety of commerce, and integrate with one another.

When the government of the United States began planning to populate the West, it realized that the country would need to become more interconnected; they subsidized the construction of railroad, allowing railroad companies to claim land for these new networks of railways Ñ a significant financial incentive to promote the networking of this young country.

Networks of railroad were lain, allowing human beings to travel relatively quickly to far-flung portions of the continent, suddenly bringing them within reach.

From there, some companies, such as GTE, began to realize that the networks they had created via the right-of-way granted them by the U.S. government were of growing value for another industry Ñ telecommunications

Southern Pacific Communications Company (SPC), a unit of the Southern Pacific Railroad, began providing long-distance telephone service after the Execunet II decision late in 1978. SPC was headquartered on Adrian Court in Burlingame, California, where Sprint still maintains a technology laboratory.

Southern Pacific maintained an extensive microwave communications system along its rights-of-way that the railroad used for internal communications. After the Execunet II decision, Southern Pacific expanded its internal communications network by laying fiber optic cables along the same rights-of-way. In 1972, Southern Pacific Communications began selling surplus system capacity to corporations for use as private lines, circumventing AT&T's then-monopoly on public telephony. Prior attempts at offering long distance voice services had not been approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), although a fax service (called SpeedFAX) was permitted.

SPC was only permitted to provide private lines, not switched services. When MCI Communications releasedExecunet, SPC took the FCC to court to get the right to offer switched services, and succeeded (the "Execunet II" decision). They decided they needed a new name to differentiate the switched voice service from SpeedFAX, and ran an internal contest to select one. The winning entry was "Sprint", an acronym for Southern Pacific Railroad Intercontinental Network of Telecommunications.

Thus did a railroad network become a wired and wireless telecommunications network.

The Internet has likewise gone from its early days as scattered, separate networks to the indispensible tool that is utilized by billions of human beings that we have today.

The origins of the Internet reach back to research of the 1960s, commissioned by the United States government to build robust, fault-tolerant, and distributed computer networks. The funding of a new U.S. backbone by the National Science Foundation in the 1980s, as well as private funding for other commercial backbones, led to worldwide participation in the development of new networking technologies, and the merger of many networks. The commercialization of what was by the 1990s an international network resulted in its popularization and incorporation into virtually every aspect of modern human life. As of 2011 more than 2.2 billion people—nearly a third of Earth's Human population—used the services of the Internet. …

Research into packet switching started in the early 1960s and packet switched networks such as Mark I at NPL in the UK,[6]ARPANET, CYCLADES,[7][8] Merit Network,[9] Tymnet, and Telenet, were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s using a variety of protocols. The ARPANET in particular led to the development of protocols for internetworking, where multiple separate networks could be joined together into a network of networks …

We're naturals at this; we network with one another, groups of us network with other groups, nations with other nations, organizations and corporations and nonprofits network with other organizations and corporations and nonprofits, and so on. In fact, we are already so tightly integrated with our technologies that they extend our sensory connections and abilities to communicate with the world around us, and when cut off from those technologies, we can experience the sensation of losing entire senses. A case in point: One night a few years ago, I was at home when a spring thunderstorm blew through. It knocked out our power for a few minutes, and when the power came back on, I noticed that our cable TV was out. I checked the phone Ñ our landline, as we didn't have cellphones yet Ñ and, as we subscribed for our phone service from our cable provider, it was also down. Same story with our Internet connection, which was also part of the cable package. I couldn't watch TV, get information or entertainment from online, send or receive e-mail, or even make a phone call. I felt as though I'd been blinded.

Likewise, how we are remembering some sorts of information is changing, thanks to our technology. Why bother memorizing contact information when you can store it, error free, on your cell phone? We are beginning to outsource certain of our mental tasks.

In "Don't Fear the Cybermind," Harvard psychology Professor Daniel M. Wenger writes:

THE line that separates my mind from the Internet is getting blurry. This has been happening ever since I realized how often it feels as though I know something just because I can find it with Google. Technically, of course, I don’t know it. But when there’s a smartphone or iPad in reach, I know everything the Internet knows. Or at least, that’s how it feels.

This curious feeling of knowing has settled over most of us. In a group, someone always seems to be “checking” something in the conversation, piping up with handy facts culled from a rapid consultation with the Great and Powerful Man Behind the Curtain. I’ve attended more than one nerdy party where everyone had a link open and we were all talking about things we didn’t know until we were prompted by our conversation to look them up.

This can be problematic; numerous fatalities have occurred because of people texting while driving. And the story of the woman who walked into a shopping-mall fountain while texting has become legendary.

She joins the person who walked off a cliff while texting, among the growing list of examples of just how immersed we can become in our technology.

Wenger also notes that by embracing our integration with our technology, we would appear to be self-directing our evolution toward becoming an even more networked species:

We have all become a great cybermind. As long as we are connected to our machines through talk and keystrokes, we can all be part of the biggest, smartest mind ever. It is only when we are trapped for a moment without our Internet link that we return to our own humble little personal minds, tumbling back to earth from our flotation devices in the cloud.

I've also experienced frustration at places where our networking is lacking; if I scan a document to make a PDF for my students, I want that document to be searchable, but at the moment, the resulting PDFs are not; the scan-to-PDF process I use stores the pages as image data, not text. To play YouTube on our home entertainment system, I have to dock my iPod in our entertainment system, then find the video I want on YouTube. Still other Internet TV services are out there, but they cannot make the leap to my entertainment system unless I go out and buy a Roku or some other streaming-video box.

I even find it frustrating not to have access to all of my files wherever I go, which means that I've become impatient with the world not being even more networked. I want Augmented Reality overlaying my world Ñ at least, I want it available and accessible. I want WiFi access wherever I go, not just within a small radius of a WiFi router.

When I'm on the campus of our small university, I've become accustomed to students texting and interacting on their phones so fervently that they are entirely tuned out of our real world.

All of this is evidence that we, as a species, are entering the fifth of Ray Kurzweil's Six Epochs, as described in The Singularity is Near, which Jason Silva describes in the video above. Kurzweil's fifth epoch, "Merger of Technology and Human Intelligence," would appear to be underway.

Some of us are indeed ready to participate in our more networked future, a cybermind made up of collaborating human minds, databases, the Internet, and more. As a networked species, we're already on our way.


Jønathan Lyons is an affiliate scholar for the IEET. He is also a transhumanist parent, an essayist, and an author of experimental fiction both long and short. He lives in central Pennsylvania and teaches at Bucknell University. His fiction publications include Minnows: A Shattered Novel.


One step further in a more political direction:
“Knowledge and praxis of networks as a political project,” 21st Century Society, Volume 4, Issue 3, November 2009,

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