On our Fear of the Hive Mind

I posted a couple of days ago, tongue-somewhat-in-cheek, about the prospect of our subsumption into a single consciousness of which we would be merely parts – what I’ll here call a ‘hive mind’.

I was broadly optimistic about this possibility, but most fictional representations of such an thing are very negative. So I thought it worthwhile to consider why.

I should note that I’m not an expert on neurology, computing, or science fiction, and there are probably numerous positive portrayals of hive minds that I’ve not come across. But all the ones I’ve seen – among which the most prominent are the Borg and the Zerg, and possibly the antagonists of ‘Starship Troopers’ and ‘Alien’ – have been negative, and I take the fact of their relative prominence to be a cultural fact deserving explanation.

Why is the hive mind as an archetype so threatening? Obviously it can’t be because of actual negative experience with hive minds because we’ve not encountered any.

(The possible exception is eusocial insects, like ants and bees, but our main interaction with them, bee-keeping, is beneficial to us).

But we have had experiences with human society, which often draws on the language of collective agency, collective personality, etc. Here, it seems to me, is the most likely origin of our fear of fictional hive minds: totalitarian societies, in which ‘the individual is reduced to a mere part of the whole’ – the sort of society aimed at by Nazism or the Stalinist USSR, and of which Orwell’s 1984 offers a more completed vision.

(It might be wondered, in passing, if this extreme and overt version of the endeavour might not actually be evidence of its weakness and failure – if successful, it could be made to appear natural, peaceful, and invisible…)

But is human totalitarianism a reasonable guide to what a hive mind might be like? I’m going to suggest not. Observe some things about totalitarian societies:

Firstly, there’s a huge amount of repression – actions taken by organs of the state against individuals who act in undesired ways. No human society operates without repression – at the very minimum, indiscriminate violence by members has to be prevented. But we tend to think of totalitarianism as involving an obnoxiously high level.

Now, this seems unlikely to be true of hive minds: constant harming of individual parts is a big design flaw. A functioning hive mind would need to be such that its parts did what benefitted the whole by their own inclinations – after all, it is nothing but the structure of those inclinations.

But maybe that’s the wrong comparison, because one might say that totalitarian societies don’t want to use repression: their aim is to substitute indoctrination and propaganda so that obedience comes naturally. But is this really different from repression?

After all, there’s a big gap between me doing something that benefits someone else because I can clearly see how it benefits us both, and forcing myself to do the same thing from a sense of duty or fear of guilt. That is, there can be internal(ised) repression, and this seems to be exactly what propaganda and indoctrination serve to impose.

Something even more important follows from this. When an individual represses their own thoughts or inclinations, they do it ‘in the name of’ something (Freud’s superego, for instance, is supposed to be very much ‘in the name of the father’). And what’s characteristic of human totalitarianism is internalised repression in the name of the collective.

That I think is the heart of the difference. A hive mind has no need for each individual part to have a positive idea of the whole, and to then repress its own inclinations by means of this idea. But in human totalitarianism, this is the central phenomenon. A hive mind (and, perhaps, a good society?) is a concrete collective – each part has real relations to specific other parts, and these relations allow all the parts together to be one thing. A totalitarian society, conversely, is an abstract collective – each part entertains an idea abstracted from their real relations to others, and disciplines themselves in its name.

If we consider some of the consequences of this internal repression, we see that they exactly match the usual fictional representation of hive minds.

1) It makes individuals uniform – everyone who is ‘orthodox’ spouts the same lines, affirms and denies the same things, embraces the same symbols, etc. because they are all performing the same internal repression.

This matches exactly: each zergling or xenomorph is largely indistinguishable from the others. But it doesn’t match what an actual hive mind would require, namely enormous specialisation and flexibility, and hence diversity.

2) It makes individuals seem ‘numb’ – because they’re blocking off some ways of thinking, filtering everything, they’re less in contact with their experience. Their range of emotional expression is restricted. This relates to…

3) It isolates individuals – it makes them less able to share with, and repond to, what’s specific to each other. In 1984, for instance, party members had to distrust each other for fear of being turned in by them.

The result of these two things is that individuals appear largely miserable and bored. Do borg drones ever look like they’re having fun? Like they’re happy? Not that I can see.

But, as I suggested in my last post, the striking fact is that we humans seem to enjoy staring at computers, taking in and sending out information. In particular, we love playing games, which is largely a matter of organising information- and even more, we love relating to others in doing so. Hence it seems likely that a well-designed hive mind would be made of ‘drones’ who are excited, friendly, and passionate about what they’re doing, and who display a range of largely positive emotions.

4) But most of all, it makes the parts stupid. This is a howler – why on earth would you want the individual parts of your brain to be any less intelligent than they can possibly be? But the individual members of hive minds in fiction generally appear to be sub-human in their intelligence, often lacking the degree of flexibility, awareness, and cunning displayed by the average goat.

What does this mean about the hive mind itself? Two possibilities appear. One is that it inherits the stupidity of its parts – while it may be very technically competent, it is crushingly single-minded and unreflective. This is often how it’s presented, and it completely contradicts the supposed point of a hive mind, namely to produce a level of intelligence far above what individual organisms are capable of.

(Consider, for instance, that the borg initiate every fight with a ‘robotic’, unchanging, mantra: ‘we are the borg. you will be assimilated. resistance is futile’. The cubes never seem to display sarcasm, or eloquence, or to engage in witty repartee while blasting their opponents)

The other possibility is that above all the stupid drones sits an intelligent individual, the ‘queen’ or the ‘overmind’. Of course there is – ‘Mother Russia’ is no real entity, but a cover for the rule of the heads of the party. ‘Big Brother’ is dead, but a handful of individuals sit behind his image and make use of it.

In conclusion: if and when a real hive mind arises it, it won’t be the ravenous, miserable, unreflective monster that we’re used to imagining – that monster is, like most, merely a six-limbed version of familiar human systems.

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One Response to On our Fear of the Hive Mind

  1. Lel.... says:

    You are a skilled writer. I looked up ‘fear the hive mind’ as I had a nightmare in which I rode an office chair down a long bridge in my hometown. Everyone was in their cars- staring, aghast, laughing. A chair is for sitting!

    And I just couldn’t let go of how alienated they made me feel. I am socially apt, but at the cost of creativity and zest for life- I think this dream was trying to remind me of this. This is probably irrelevant to your post, but here I am expressing something I wouldn’t bother to in real-life.

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