The digital and the superorganic

Roof ladder CC BY 2.0 image from Flickr user Georgios Karamanis

Climbing the ladder of complexity

OK, OK… I may have wandered a bit far afield in trying to say the digital realm had more in common with the faerie realm than you might think, but my reasoning and analogizing began rationally enough, and I’ll try to reconstruct it for my sake and yours. I do appreciate all the folks who are starting work on their “digital faerie realm strategies” though. I look forward to reading them!

We tend to try to yoke the digital realm to the physical world as though the two are equal and opposing and discrete; a yin and a yang. “The Digital” as its often bandied about, is an amorphous entity whose geography is imposible to fathom. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a geography, though, nor that its not an entity with its own borders. I think we just make the mistake of trying to describe in terms that aren’t suited to its level of complexity. To understand the dimensions of the digital realm and our attempts to define its bounds, we have climb the ladder of complexity and figure out what to do when it bifurcates while you’re climbing it.

The Superorganic

That last paragraph was a little dense, so let me invoke the early 20th century American anthropoloigst Afred Kroeber and his concept of the superorganic to hopefully explain what I’m trying to grasp. The superorganic is another way of describing –– and understanding –– culture or the socio-cultural system.

Afred Kroeber, 1876-1960.  In addition to everything he accomplished in a long career, he was also Ursula K. Le Guin's father, which might explain something about her ability to write about cultures so fluidly and believably. Image from Couldn’t find any license info...
Afred Kroeber, 1876-1960.   Image from Couldn’t find any license info…

The reason I think Kroeber has something to add to this conversation is that he was attempting to convince his peers that they couldn’t understand culture just by studying human behavior, because culture operated at a level of complexity beyond that of the constituent elements, namely us.

To explain this, he used the image of a ladder of complexity. At the bottom you have the inorganic, the physical universe, and all the atoms of everything. At the next level you have the organic, which comprises all living things. All plants and animals are built out of inorganic elements like carbon. But the organic is more than just the sum of all its inorganic parts. You can’t combine the exact same quantity of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and other elements that comprise a wombat and get a wombat. And if you separate that wombat into it’s constituent molecules, it will not longer be organic. And no amount of knowledge of the chemistry and physics of how atoms and molecules interact will explain how a wombat behaves, how it powers itself, and reproduces. The organic, seen as a system, operates at a higher level of complexity than the inorganic elements which comprise it. It transcends the inorganic.

At the next level beyond the organic you have what Kroeber called “The Superorganic”, which comprises human culture and society.  Human beings are organic systems. You can study wombats and rats and ameboae and learn things about humans. But humans have developed ways to communicate with each other that are so complex and sophisticated that we have evolved communities and societies which are held together by symbols and behaviors, not biology or genetics. No amount of biological knowledge will explain why societies operates the way they do. Things like trends in fashion just cannot be understood by looking at the people who make and consume fashion. It operates at the superorganic level.

The superorganic is the sea we swim in, and therefore difficult for us to see from our vantage point, since it is everywhere and nowhere in our default frame of reference. It manifests as what Émile Durkheim called “social facts” and defined as any way of acting that could exert influence over an individual, or act as an external constraint on them. Social facts like fashion apply generally over the whole of a given society while having independent existences of their own. Culture itself is akin to a living thing, comprised of human beings, but operating at a higher level of complexity than the organic. There are strong parallels, therefore, between the ways that the inorganic and organic relate, and the ways the organic and the superorganic relate.

Fractal Blues CC BY-NC_ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Fábio Pinheiro

The superorganic and the digital

What both Kroeber and Durkheim warn us against doing is anthropomorphizing human culture, because while it may have a life of its own, that life does not resemble a human life as much as it does an amoeba’s. And in describing the digital realm, I find that all too ofteen we fall back on analogies that operate on a level of complexity below the digital’s, and that’s why so many of these analogies get tired quickly. The digital realm on Earth now comprises not only most of the cultures of the planet, which are themselves constantly at odds with one another in the physical world, but increasingly, machines. There are more things on the Internet than there are people, and these things are constantly talking to one another and acting on each other. And us.

I recognize that you could take the view that the digital realm as it pertains to our experience of it might be described as just another human society, one that is geographically dispersed and embodied differently, via devices. The way most people experience the digital realm may not be that different from the way indigenous peoples exist in both their birth culture and the majority culture of their locality. But it feels different to me. There is something that makes that analogy feel as unhelpful as the digital/physical dialectic.

This digital realm, like the superorganic, operates at a higher level of complexity than the organic. This begs the question of whether the digital is a higher level of complexity than even the superorganic. I’m not sure. At this point, I feel that the digital is at least on a different branch of the ladder of complexity than the superorganic. What the Venn diagram looks like that includes both is beyond me.

NB: I am all too aware that I spent the whole previous post trying to problematize our use of the noun phrase “the digital” as a descriptor, and then spent most of this post using “the superorganic” as a way of understanding how we might more fruitfully look at the digital realm. In my defense, I can only offer up this trivia. Though Kroeber’s famous essay is titled “The Superorganic”, nowhere in the actual text does he use those words. I must assume that he felt as I do and couldn’t bring himself to do it more than once.

BONUS TRIVIA! In addition to everything he accomplished in a long career, Kroeber was also author Ursula K. Le Guin’s father, which might explain something about her ability to write about cultures so fluidly and believably. You’re welcome.