The Noosphere

Decentralization is a lot older and weirder than you think.

In today’s world, everyone is connected to everyone else in a single decentralized network.

Way back in 1922 just following WWI, French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin coined the phrase “noosphere” to describe an interconnected network of minds all across the globe. In 1926 he was joined by his friend Eduoard le Roy, a philosopher and mathematician, and Vladimir Vernadsky, a Russian geochemist, to work out some of the details.

an image I made with a portrait of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

In their writings, the noosphere (pronounced “Noah-sphere”) is described as a natural progression of the evolution of the planet from inert rock (the “geosphere”) to a web of ecosystems sustaining biological life (the “biosphere”) to the sum total of all conscious life and mental activity on Earth. (Noosphere comes from the Greek word “nous” which means “mind.”)

De Chardin wrote that the noosphere was a

“thinking layer… above and discontinuous with the biosphere.”

Elsewhere he described it as

“a network of links … more and more literally present, in the immensity of their organism, as the image of a nervous system…”

Of the three, Vernadsky was the most traditional scientist. He has been a central figure in developing the model of the biosphere, which is now a well-established idea among biologists and earth scientists. In his mind, the noosphere was something that emerged out of the biosphere and influenced and would soon exert a powerful influence on the ecosystems of the planet.

A perfect example of this dynamic is climate change.

Vernadsky’s ideas about the noosphere provide a useful way to map the systems of influence between the distributed networks of human thought and those of the environment. These ideas provide a foundation for much of our contemporary thinking about the Anthropocene, or the epoch in which humans exert a dominant influence over the planet's climatic and biochemical systems.

De Chardin on the other hand was more of a mystic.

But we shouldn’t be so dismissive of all noosphere enthusiasts. Sure, some devotees of de Chardin do sell healing crystals and lead dubious workshops about telekinesis. But the link between the hippie counterculture and the proponents of the early internet is established and well documented. Some of the people who were influenced by de Chardin’s writing in the 60s and 70s went on to build a kind of noosphere in real life. The physical communications networks that run on cable and electromagnetic frequencies are a literal “network of links,” which really does connect the thoughts of people all around the world.

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Amelia Winger-Bearskin

Banks Endowed Chair AI and the Arts, Digital Worlds Institute, University of Florida | USDAC: Honor Native Land | studioamelia.com | She/Her | Artist