Mankind Unified, Transcended
review by Hans Moravec

Metaman: The Merging of Humans and Machines into a Global Superorganism
by Gregory Stock
Simon&Schuster, September 15, 1993

A half-billion years ago, a few species of single-celled protozoa stumbled irreversibly from loose social interaction into a tight, specialized interdependence. They became multi-celled metazoa, and human beings are one sort. Metazoa greatly transcend their constituent cells in lifetime, abilities, experiences and even materials (like bone). New kind of beings emerged out of the interactions of the old.

Stock argues that analogously, in the last century, worldwide human activities have become sufficiently specialized, linked and coordinated through advances in transportation and communication to warrant interpreting them as an unprecedentedly potent collective organism he calls "Metaman." Metaman acts through individual market, political and technical decisions, but its large-scale behavior massively transcends them. Materials and energy flow in awesome quantities through its body, from specific sources to specific destinations, via water, road, rail, pipe and cable. Its collective memory is stored in minds, libraries and increasingly electronic data banks. Its nervous system is built of flows of human passengers, physical mail and electronic messages and originating and terminating in human institutions and electronic machinery. It makes decisions on the basis of stored information and collective thought, mostly in a subliminal, distributed manner. Its consciousness might be identified with the mass media, which can quickly focus world attention on a particular issues. It is rapidly spreading from its core in the developed nations to the rest of the planet. As it does, its great control of nearly everything improves conditions for its constituents, who could not imagine going back. Though a single, potentially immortal, entity, Metaman evolves rapidly through internal competition. New devices and methods are created by conscious design, simulation or chance, and sorted out by market decisions. Successful innovations spread rapidly through the whole organism, in active use, and as memories in the libraries. Much of its evolution, for instance improvements in information handling, acts to accelerate the evolution, already perhaps a million times as fast as life's pure Darwinian ways.

Metaman is absorbing and displacing Gaia, the superorganism some see in the global biological ecology. Wilderness areas now exist at the whim of the collective mind, which values the past, but is so pervasive and energetic its every twitch causes change. Metaman's growing capabilities diminish its dependence on Gaia's inflexible supplies, as materials, medicines and food are increasingly devised in laboratories through design or systematic search rather then found in the wild. It is absorbing human cultural diversity, as its material and information flows raise populations to an increasingly high, but relatively homogeneous, state. It is beginning to redesign humans themselves, through artificial parts and genetic manipulations. Metaman anticipates and acts on the future, as national rules on food, water and reproduction, international reactions to disaster, disease, weapons and environmental effects, and even studies on diverting asteroid collisions show. Already it routinely manages events of a scale that might have extinguished prior forms of life.

All this is just the beginning. The processes and institutions that make up Metaman are growing more potent exponentially. Metaman is on the verge of reproducing into outer space, probably in tailored artificial forms that leave biological humans behind.

The book backs up this view of human global civilization with a host of examples, all perfectly sound, drawn mostly from recent science, business and political news, referenced in end notes. Having come to most of the same conclusions myself, I found the presentation convincing. In its light, many losses, biological and cultural, that cause hand-wringing in those focused on the way things were, become merely the birth pangs of something much grander. While a third of present species (a majority of them beetles adapted to tiny tropical niches) and a greater fraction of human languages may become extinct, greater diversity, in the form of machinery, engineered organisms and ways to express more complex thoughts, will grow in their place. Gaia may have been resourceful, but Metaman is more so, as its forays into space witness. An immensely robust, growing organism, Metaman is essentially unstoppable, but our individual choices influence the details of its growth, even as we enjoy its benefits.

Stock concentrates on the robustness of Metaman, able to survive continent-wide plagues, wars, droughts, floods, famines and more subtle dangers. I think he ought to have mentioned the "eggs in one basket" drawback of being a single organism. The most obvious pathology, the threat of world-wide nuclear holocaust, seems to be ebbing, but other systemic catastrophes, hinted at by global depressions, speculative bubbles and nationwide utility breakdowns, may lurk in the internal dynamics, whose totality no one, not even Metaman itself, fully understands. My own confidence in Metaman will be enhanced when there are several of them, across the solar system, or around nearby stars.

Though he hints at many future possibilities, Stock is timid about making long-term predictions. He suggests early on that human beings are likely to be a part of Metaman indefinitely, but later notes there are technologies that will probably totally reshape or replace humans. In my opinion, he greatly overstates the long-term importance of the human form. Metaman evolves so quickly that essentially everything we know, including ourselves, is in the process of becoming history. Old-style humans will not long remain competitive components of the global organism: already we are being squeezed out of productive work by advancing automation. We can hope for a comfortable retirement, or help in restructuring ourselves into something more useful, but our current bodies and minds will increasingly be anachronisms.

Metaman is a well-written book whose point of view, if more widespread, would reduce the number of frightened people angrily tilting at the windmills of a rapidly changing world.


Hans Moravec is a Principal Research Scientist with the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University. He has been developing spatial perception for mobile robots for two decades, and promises practical results by the end of the third. He is author of Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Harvard 1988) and the forthcoming Mind Age: Transcendence through Robots (Bantam 1994), which explore the future non-biological components of the Metaman mind.