Notes on the noosphere

It’s about nine months since I went from being a somewhat begrudging blogger to an active and enthusiastic one. Thanks to the persuasive powers of Rima Staines, and not a little competitiveness with my Mrs, I decided to give it a proper go. I made a commitment to myself to post every week and while I haven’t always been able to keep to that, my erratic lifestyle being what it is, I’ve enjoyed the challenge of thinking ahead, of planning what I might say.

I like the pithy form, that blog comment has necessarily to be brief and to the point. I like the fact that blogs give you a voice and, increasingly, an audience (to whom I’d like to say a belated and cheery ‘hello’ – thanks for swinging by). But most of all I like the sense of community the blogosphere provides. Facebook is increasingly trivial and superficial, the online equivalent of a gossip down the Student Union. The connections made through blogging are more substantial and real – more like participating in a motivated tutorial group, to continue the analogy. I check my reading list every morning and relish reading your posts.

Increasingly, everyone from super-cool cultural theorists to psychedelic dreamers are referring to the internet and these kinds of connections as the noosphere. The exact origins of the term are disputed but its popularity is due to the Jesuit Palaeontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who defined it in The Phenomenon of Man as ‘the sphere of human thought’ (nous is Greek for ‘mind’). Just as we have a lithosphere, a hydrosphere, an atmosphere and a biosphere, so, now, we have the noosphere.

What people using the term tend to forget is that it formed a central concept in de Chardin’s attempt to marry Christian theology with evolutionary theory. The emergence of the noosphere, he thought, was just the latest stage in our teleological progression towards the world’s culmination – the Omega Point or Christosphere, at which physical existence would cease – an idea that has found somewhat less purchase in the modern world (though its eschatology appealed to Terence McKenna, who wove it into his Timewave theory and consequent predictions for 2012 - once a Catholic, eh?).

But putting de Chardin’s peculiar theology aside, I still find myself struggling with the image of the noosphere. The whole idea of hard, disconnected spheres is too static, mechanical and Platonic, too reminiscent of medieval cosmology. The online world is, rather, dynamic, responsive, always in flux.

I think a better metaphor is to be found in biology, specifically in the mycelium, the branching, self-organising network of hyphae that constitute the ‘body’ of a fungus. (Indeed I can’t help wondering if the branching network, found everywhere from the structure of trees to the dendritic connections of the human brain, is somehow the fingerprint of life itself – though that’s another story). Just as a mycelium thickens and multiplies and grows towards resources, so a popular site or blog draws hits and connections to itself. A mycelium responds to changing circumstances, just like the emerging connections of the net. And far from being a disconnected, free-floating sphere, a mycelium is rooted in substrate. The same is true of the internet, which, however much it appears otherwise, is necessarily rooted in the world through the humans that use it and the physical resources from which it is made and sustained.

So I prefer to think of it as a noocelium instead, a mycelium of the mind. Yes, the internet is something revolutionary and new, the pinnacle perhaps of human artifice and ingenuity (perhaps more realistically a symptom of our rampant narcissism), but it’s something that rests on and is rooted in the world. Re-imagining it with such an obviously biological metaphor might just remind us that reconnecting with each other, and the world, is about the most important thing we can do right now.


  1. You've enriched my blog list with your thoughtful and informative posts... and I'm somewhat obsessed with branching systems. Some folks have commented that my tree drawings remind them of mycelium. In fact, a handful have admitted that the tree drawings kind of creep them out.... I wonder about that, but this is a tad off the subject. I wanted to pipe in and say I'm glad you took up blogging and are enjoying it!

  2. I must have been half-asleep when I wrote this entry, this morning. Major blunders now edited out! But thanks all for the kind words x

  3. Thanks for the brainfood, Andy. Another aspect of the 'net that has bioligical similarities is memetics - a "meme" being an idea that behaves similarly to a gene.

    It's encouraging that even our digital "fingerprints" are bursting with the stuff of life.

  4. Nice. This reminds me of Deleuze and Guattari's theory of rhizomatics.

  5. Oh yes, and I think the Gaia theology put forward by Otter Zell (which predated Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis) was in part inspired by Teilhard de Chardin. As was the science fiction writer Julian May with her idea of metapsychic union.



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