Admittedly this is a rather philosophical post. Our editor, Rett, has a penchant for microbiology (motivated by a life as a biologist prior to finance) and this thought experiment has been rattling around his brain for quite some time. So without further ado, we present the concept of social sentience…
The origin of all complex life began with the first negotiation in history. Somewhere in the nascent planet earth, two simple bacterium struck an accidental pact when a larger bacteria engulfed a smaller one. The resulting symbiosis created a unit that was stronger than its individual parts and this advantage was passed down to subsequent generations through the process of natural selection.
Consider your own being; you are the collection of trillions of cells, each one is its own microscopic individual life-form. In modern society we tend to think of ourselves as individuals; in reality our actions are the result of a complex concert of microscopic actions. Moreover, the microorganisms that comprise our bodies undergo intense specialization for a specific task: consider our organs like the heart and lungs. Each organ is a further alignment of millions of individual cells working in unison to perform a specific function.
Economics has a similar concept at its foundation: the division of labor. Modern economies reward specialization and abhor generalists. The economics of specialization in the context of a global trading economy are hard to ignore: everybody wins by specializing in a task they are good at (thus earning the highest return) and trading their new-found wealth for everything else.
It is not hard to see the parallels between the structure of complex organisms and the structure of a society. Each one is the collection of a multitude of individual agents within a system. Each agent must balance the total resources of the system against its own needs, specializing in a task that is useful for the system as a whole.
Both systems can spawn unintended consequences. Individuals battle cancer like societies battle threats to stability like terrorism and other heretical philosophies. Some mutations make the system stronger, however. At some point in the past our ancestors randomly evolved the killer app of opposable thumbs. Their progeny went on to inherit the earth. In much the same way, societies are capable of amazing transformations: from barbarism to feudalism all the way to our current structure of nationalistic capitalism. Each positive mutation brings about an individual unit which is capable of out-competing the individuals that have come before it. The process of evolution eventually makes these individuals dominant.
If a synchronized collection of microorganisms can create beings capable of sentience, is a collection of macroogranisms capable of the same feat? Do our societies posses macro-consciousness akin to our our self-awareness? Can a society feel pain or otherwise be aware of its own existence?
Societies provide a level of specialization reminiscent of bodily organs. Governments and judiciary might be the nerve centers of society. Armies and navies could be arms and legs. The economy could then be considered the heart of societal physiology: it provides the driving force which pushes all other components into action. The flow of money is the pace-maker of modern society, providing a necessary synchronization between all individual components.
If societies are indeed aware of themselves, what are the consequences for individuals that make up the whole? Could it be that societal consciousness uses mechanisms like markets to communicate to the whole in the same way that our bodies use hormonal signals to broadcast signals across the system? If this is the case, in the same way that we can cause damage to our bodies through prolonged periods of mental stress or artificial drug abuse, might we be causing damage to our societies by persistent government repression of market functions? What are the unintended consequences of hijacking a fundamental system used for communicating a society’s wants and needs to the organisms that make up the collection?