Ghost in the machine

I am currently traveling across France, from its westernmost region to the easternmost counterpart. For historical reasons, most long distance travel in France passes through the capital. In my case this also makes sense.

When travelling at work hours with people sharing the same objectives, you take part in a flow with an identity. The people around you are tired, often wearing some kind of civilian uniform, and with various black bags and satchels.

If you look closer however, you will notice the habits of individual people. At 6:30, everyone has their way of catching up on sleep. I had to nudge a man in a light grey suit wearing a sleep mask. The woman in front of him wears sunglasses and while she’s holding a phone, she also seems to be only partially conscious.

Arriving at Paris, after those three or four ear popping tunnels, the most remarkable part of this process starts. These people who have been almost sedated for the past two hours line up for a rehearsed race through the circulatory system which irrigates the city with people.

In a small city like Rennes, this is much less noticeable, but the denser the city, the more patterns emerge. People flow along hallways, up and down escalators, and climb stairs with purpose, like ants imbued with fashion sense in a maze of publicity which ironically encourages individuality and self indulgence.

Every wall displays portals to what life could be, towards the obtainable, and promise escape from the humdrum. Do these places and people even exist? In most dystopian media these lures are almost omnipresent, scattered everywhere rules aren’t displayed. They keep the people flowing forward in the right directions.

The omnipresent sounds of this system accompany us through this underground overground process: punctual noises of people being checked, doors opening to filter them through, hundreds of feet walking in unison to their individual rhythms… and the continuous background heartbeat of trains and ventilation. A vast machine is breathing.

We use the expression ghost in the machine when talking about the intelligence which might emerge from computer systems when a certain critical mass of logic is reached. I prefer the Adams like idea that people eventually become an essential component in systems so gigantic we have yet to invent expressions like cloud to consider them.

It doesn’t take much to accept the idea: we talk about the psychology of markets, therefore making economies living entities with health and moods. Cities are much older physical embodiments of emergent intelligence. Individually, people are difficult to model, but crowds have predictable behaviour.

All this considered, I can’t help but wonder about the nature of these intelligences which are growing in our cities. What are their ineffable objectives? Do they have personalities? Do they talk to each other? Do they rob us of our individuality, or do they instead give us a shared purpose?

This could be the ultimate expression of humanity. We crowdsource an immense work of art by sculpting the world around us to survive and grow, and if one day other life discovered earth, all that might remain is the shell we grew in our own likeness. Will they then think of us as a species of billions of individuals or a single complex entity living distributed across a planet?