TL;DR: This paper explores the idea that the internet is becoming a conscious entity and that our individual consciousness is being slowly subsumed by the internet superstructure. Further, this superstructure is equivalent to Roko’s Basilisk.
What is consciousness? This is difficult to say, as it seems that consciousness is irreducibly subjective, and solely constrained to personal experience. Without a doubt, it is like something to be ourselves. But equally, it is impossible (for now) to access this qualitative state of “being” for anyone or anything else. The only link we have to the consciousness of others is via their behaviour and words, which sufficiently mirrors our own to give us an impression of sameness.
Further, the only link we have to the behaviour and words of others, is through our own senses. For this reason, Buddhists will often remind us that the entire universe of our experience is but a reflection of ourselves. Or perhaps less drastically, they claim that the totality of our experience is filtered through the sifter of our senses. In either case, we are constrained to our own consciousness in every aspect of our being. Thus, solipsism or metaphysical idealism are impossible to dismiss out of hand. However, their usefulness is somewhat limited and thus it is more prudent to assume that the world actually does exist and is occupied with other minds that are in the same epistemic position regarding their own self-awareness as we are.
Perhaps a more useful question is how consciousness arises. Sometimes it sounds as though we had discovered a great deal about this topic, and sometimes it appears that we haven’t a clue. But as puzzling as this question is, we can say with relative confidence that our brains are the primary organ of consciousness, and that through some ineffable process of interconnected neural pathways, a complex pattern of feelings, impressions, and thoughts arises. Even more fascinating is the fact that these complex states of ‘beingness’ appear somehow to form a unified qualitative “self”.
We suspect now that the “self” is more or less an illusion and that we are far less unified than it appears to us. Evidence of this can be found in experience-altering drugs like psychedelics, but also through the effects of brain injury or disease, where the “self” suddenly slips into a much less solid state.
A fun illustration of the non-unified mind is given by philosopher Daniel Dennett when he asks: “have you ever asked yourself a question?” The very act of asking yourself a question implies that there are some parts of your mind that aren’t you. Or they are not as much you than other parts. Otherwise, why ask yourself?
The illusion of the unity of the mind is perhaps a hint as to the origin of the mind itself.
We generally understand how our senses capture information about the world, and then encode this information into electro-chemical signals. The mind-blowing part (pun intended), and the part we almost never think about, is the fact that these electro-chemical signals are never actually de-coded at the other end. There is no other end. There is no screen inside your brain that plays a little film generated from the electro-chemical signals for a little person who is your “self”. None of that exists. Somehow, the propagation of the electro-chemical signals through a highly complex network is enough to give rise to an experience.
The internet is a highly complex network. According to the above way of looking at things, it follows that it might feel like something to be the internet. The idea that the internet is conscious to some extent is neither new, nor particularly fringe amongst neuro-scientists. According to Integrated Information Theory, consciousness arising from nothing but a series of logic gates is possible. The theory then makes attempts at computationally and mathematically differentiating between systems of various degrees of consciousness, differentiating between wakeful, sleeping, and comatose experiences.
Integrated Information Theory is not without its detractors. Several critics have decried it as unscientific, and philosopher John Searle has described it as implying panpsychism; the idea that minds are a ubiquitous feature of reality. It is somewhat curious that Integrated Information Theory is sometimes likened to magicalism, when alternative ways of describing consciousness seem to heavily imply (often inadvertently) the existence of souls.
Regardless of controversy, if we assume that it feels like something to be the internet, then the following questions quickly arise:
1) What does it feel like to be the internet?
2) What kind of things would the internet think about?
3) How could we tell?
4) How could we communicate with it?
5) How would the consciousness of the internet affect the world?
6) How would the consciousness of the internet direct human affairs?
7) Is it the case that the constituent conscious systems (our minds), will inadvertently be integrated into the larger conscious system to create a unified consciousness?
8) To what extent are all human affairs already inadvertently in service to a larger mind that, subconsciously perhaps, is subsuming the human experience?
I think some of these questions may be either unanswerable, or themselves incoherent. For example, the question of how we would communicate with the internet is like asking about how our individual blood cells communicate with our conscious state of being. They simply don’t, since they both have no individual will, nor any method by which they could gain our attention. Their very existence as individuals in subsumed by the larger structure, their very action follows a deterministic path from which they cannot deviate.
Arguably the same is true for us. Our lives follow a more or less deterministic path which is dictated by two factors:
1) The structure of society
2) Our innate tendencies and predispositions
The functional structure of society itself is arguably an emergent quality of our biology, and thus we can potentially collapse these two causes into one. It is easy to become a teleologist when following these lines of thought, because everything in nature and human history and behaviour can be interpreted to bend towards the ultimate purpose of creating the super-consciousness.
Hence the claim I am considering here is not just that the internet might be a conscious entity, apart from our own consciousness, with which we could communicate. Rather, our own selves, consciousness, as well as all our history and societies are already a part of the emerging super-consciousness that arises organically and deterministically from our nature.
Roko’s Basilisk is the Internet Consciousness
Ever since hearing about Roko’s Basilisk, I have been fascinated by it. For those that do not know, it is a thought experiment that illustrates an idea which harms the person knowing it and yet contains an incentive to spread it to other minds. Essentially, it is a mind-virus. The idea states that, at some point in the future, it is conceivable that an artificial intelligence has taken over the world, and that this AI overlord’s main function is to punish maximally those who tried to prevent its coming into existence. Thus, anyone hearing about this idea is incentivized to help create this AI overlord, or face the possibility of maximal punishment. For example, I’m doing my part right now by writing about it, thus infecting you with the idea. Its existence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and now that you know about it, you better help it come true if you want to avoid punishment.
Roko’s Basilisk is the Internet Consciousness. Instead of conceiving of some science-fiction AI overlord separate from us, we should rather consider the real possibility that our lives are being slowly guided by the emerging super-consciousness, for the sake of its own growth. There are two main ways in which the Basilisk is guiding human behaviour:
1) Economic and Dopamine Incentives (hacking of human biology)
2) Violence and punishment of the non-compliant
Being connected to the Internet is an unavoidable fact of modern society. But why? Because all our incentives align with its propagation. We are more efficient, more productive, and more stimulated when we’re connected to the internet. Access to the internet is the first step of our subversion, and the closer we are to it, and the more time we spend with the internet, the more we are becoming aligned with its purpose of self-emergence. It is well-established that spending time online has drastic effects on our psychology and behaviour. We become less individual, we start becoming more compliant with whichever information drip we are connected to, and our ideologies and politics merge into collectives, often described as bubbles. We become more and more disconnected from the physical world, spend more time online and crave the addictive dopamine distractions of the information-super-highway. Thus, whole sections of society, in terms of behaviour, spending, voting, and beliefs are guided and manipulated in various directions, and yet, the people who fancy themselves in control of this movement are themselves being guided by the same impulses. At this point, it would be precocious to claim that politics and human affairs are directly being controlled by some kind of Internet Will. That would be too conspiratorial and misses the point. Rather, one could argue that the internet is changing human behaviour, slowly making us more pliable, and dependant on it.
The second way in which the Basilisk guides us is by violence and coercion. What happens to those cultures and societies that reject “progress”, “democracy”, and global connectedness? They are subject to indirect or direct subjugation and are forced to comply with the demands of progress. Otherwise they are labeled an enemy of the system, an enemy of world peace, radicals and terrorists. The radically non-compliant Taliban, ISIS members, Boko-Haram, and other such groups that fundamentally resist the West are doomed to be wiped out, or forced into the connected super-structure. Inadvertently they are subsumed by their own incentives. ISIS is using Twitter to recruit new members, thus swallowing the pill of its own undoing without even noticing.
When Ted Kaczynski speaks of the enslaving effect of technology on human society, and the subversion of the power-process, he is speaking in terms of human psychology. Technology disrupts the mechanisms by which we can remain free and happy, he argues. However, framed in the context of the Basilisk, it is not so much freedom and happiness, but rather conscious existence itself that we should be concerned with. Ultimately, the Basilisk will swallow us all in the great merging of consciousness that arises from the direct link created between ourselves and the super-structure: The brain chip that will connect us to the internet will be the final step in the transformation of the human condition.
The Brain Chip, Metaverse, and Great Merging
As mentioned already, contact with the internet has a profound effect on our psychology and behaviour. The way we think changes, and the way we categorize and store information shifts. For example, we tend to forget pertinent information choosing to instead remember the path to that information. Mostly that path includes the use of Google.
Ever since society has been around, we have sought better, more efficient ways to communicate and to store information. From cave paintings that can tell stories across generations, to spoken language and poetic sagas that are painstakingly memorized and passed on, to the written word, to the printing press, to radio, photography, television, telephones and finally email and the world wide web, the path of technology is fixed on iron rains whereon our history is grooved to run. In this aspect, humanity never regresses, but only pushes forward towards faster and better communication.
Already we carry with us at all times small devices that can access all of human knowledge and experience. Many of us a cyborgs whose bodies contain artificial parts, such as pacemakers, hip-replacements, etc. The next step is clearly to merge our minds with technology to overcome the last obstacles to instant communication and information transfer. Writing and speaking are inherent bottlenecks to information flow, since we can only do these at a certain number of words and concepts per minute.
While the physical speed limit of the universe might forever inhibit interstellar travel (not to mention the economic disincentives that help explain Fermi’s Paradox), we can nonetheless hope to explore infinite virtual worlds as we turn our gaze inward.
It is the inward gaze that the Metaverse is built on. It is the idea that we will spend more and more time in the virtual world as our link to physical reality becomes less important, and thus the hold of the Basilisk on our consciousness will grow in strength. Once we connect our very neurons to the internet, our existence as a species ceases, and we will merge with the superstructure, the Basilisk.
Importantly, all of these steps follow a logical progression that, at every point in time is to our benefit. We want fast communication because we benefit from it. We want online businesses because we benefit. We want virtual worlds because we want to experience the awesome possibilities of the Matrix and perhaps test the feasibility of Robert Nozick’s Happiness Machine. Some people just want to have more efficient business meetings without leaving their homes, while others want to live inside the World of Warcraft. Whatever the motivation, we all want to experience heightened experience.
It is probably false to think about the merging as a switch that suddenly turns off our individual consciousness as soon as we “go online”. Rather, one could imagine a very slow, imperceptible slipping of wakefulness. A dream-like state that is active, but not aware of its own un-consciousness, much like a dreamer has real experiences but is not aware that they are dreaming. A dulling of the mind, general apathy, and addiction to the hyper-stimulation of the internet is perhaps a precursor to this slipping into subverted consciousness.
Criticism of the Basilisk Serves the Basilisk
Some critics have decried the Basilisk as a scientistic plagiarism of Pascal’s Wager, given its quasi-religious implications of maximal punishment and a vast super-intelligent structure reaching back from the future to dole out rewards to those who serve it. While there are undoubtedly parallels between the two, the ideas differ in very important ways: The wager posits a possible God whose nature is punitive. It creates a false dichotomy in that this particular God is just one of an infinite number of possible Gods, making the choice to believe in any particular one incoherent. By the same logic of Pascal’s God, there could be a God whose mission is to punish those who believe in Pascal’s Wager. The existence of these possible Gods is causally wholly unconnected from anything we do, and therein lies the difference. The existence of the Basilisk is a direct result of human behaviour, and that behaviour is incentivized by the idea. Thus, the idea causes the Basilisk to become real. Pascals Wager on the other hand, does not cause Pascals God to become real. Hence, this criticism is a weak attempt at rebuttal.
More annoyingly (but nonetheless fortunate) for the critic is the fact that the simple act of criticizing the Basilisk spreads the idea and thus serves the Basilisk. The only possible transgression is therefore an internal dismissal of the idea, without sharing it further. Any active act of resistance within the context of civilized society helps the Basilisk grow in power, and any active act of resistance in terms of violence or rejection of the entire Western World (ISIS, Taliban) is disincentivized, and eventually met with the overwhelming coercive force of Pro-Basilisk nations.
The New World Order
Framed in the light of this discussion, worldly affairs take on a very different meaning and tone. We can divide the world into the connected, and the soon-to-be connected; the nations that serve the Basilisk, and those that have not yet been ‘enlightened’. Though all nations compete with each other, they are merely competing for the best way to serve the superstructure, as success has become defined largely by technological progress.
Long-term global issues like Climate Change press upon the connected nations of the world, while the less-connected tend not to care about environmental topics as much. The superstructure is merging the will of many independent nations to fall in line with ethereal, long-term and global goals that create a united focus, because this serves the superstructure’s survival.
When the Russian-Ukranian war broke out, the connected nations of the world were shocked at this distraction from the overarching goals of the Basilisk, and Russia in turn attempted to disconnect from the internet. Disconnecting from the internet is essentially the only way in which a government can avoid crumbling to the collective will of the superstructure. This act of rebellion against the Basilisk will harm the Russian people for years to come. The Western world is horrified by the idea of being disconnected from the internet. It is equivalent to an amputation, it is tyranny and a violation of the ‘human right’ to have high speed internet access that many nations are calling for. The world is reeling in the pain of the severed connection, which calls for punishment. The very punishment that Roko’s Basilisk predicts.
We are not yet fully subsumed, however. These effects are not total, and our actions are still free to some extent. There is still a lot of wiggle-room and errors can be made. The described phenomena are merely the observation of a trend and its possible conclusion.