We need to put flesh and bones on the planet-wide central nervous system

An 1867 map shows the telegraph lines in operation, under contract, and contemplated, to complete the circuit of the globe.

Marshall McLuhan — the great assessor of the impact of mass media on our lives — wrote an essay in 1963 called “The Agenbite of Outwit.”

He said that, when humankind implemented the telegraph in 1844, it radically altered the state of human consciousness because it had projected its central nervous system out onto the world. Every conscious neuron was thence connected by immediate-information-giving utilities to every other.

McLuhan was aware that human inventions involved extensions of the body into space: the wheel an extension of the foot; the hoe, the arm; clothing, the skin; and the book an extension of the eye.

But with humankind’s global connection through its nerves, the axis of reality shifted radically; it created benefits of course but it also created a new set of obligations because no neuron could deny the presence of every other.

The late great contemporary composer John Cage took a liking to these ideas. It was not that they flipped reality on end but more that they presented opportunities for living more sanely. They redefined the concept of sharing so that it now includes sharing not only the benefits but also the burdens of others — fully supportive of the axiom: People are happier when dog no longer eat dog.

In his classic, “A Year From Monday,” Cage says (and I paraphrase, you can see the original on Page ix): it is now incumbent upon humankind to implement globally the disciplines people traditionally practiced to be at peace, at one with themselves — meditation, yoga, psychoanalysis, and every related modality.

When such disciplines are practiced globally people recognize that others are not threatening and greedy by nature. They are better able to see the needs of others (people are more inclined to speak of them) and moved to take steps to meet those needs without resentment or derision. Such is how an effectively working planet-wide central nervous system operates.

For a long time, Cage was interested in producing a list of utilities that connect us to each other (e.g., the telephone, radio, Internet) whereby we come face to face with every language, custom, and ritual situated along the spectrum of humanity.

In “Agenbite,” McLuhan said that, since the world contracted to the size of a tribe or village where everyone knows what’s going on everywhere, the human community feels compelled to participate. Participation is the democratization of happiness.

Understandably McLuhan has long been thought of as one of the inventors of “global village” but a village free of zenophobia. Zenophobes fear diversity, it contradicts assumptions about self and other that thrive on a divide-and-conquer ethic.

Anyone interested in anthropology knows that people living in pristine tribal cultures — there are a million studies on it — find it impossible to think of themselves as an “individual” or “independent” operator.

Of course “primitives” recognize differences — some folks are faster, smarter, stronger, and more efficient in amassing prized money-shells — but the faster do not tax the slower to enhance their prestige. A consciousness wired to every other induces genuine humility and compassion.

For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church tried to promote global connectedness through the concept of a “mystical body” asserting that through Jesus all Christians share a mystical, spiritual bond that cannot be broken.

And Alexander the Great proposed a similar idea in his “homonoia,” a universal union of hearts, a “brotherhood of man” but, in his brotherhood, brother does not share the burden of brother.

Though we continue to reap the benefits of a fully-operative global nervous system, the human community still has not faced up to the task of putting flesh and bone on those nerves, that is, of creating a political economy designed to meet the needs of all, one that fits the complex of nerves.

And needs-based means providing not only full health care for everyone, from the day we’re born to the day we die, but also housing, daily sustenance, old age care, the works — the opposite of a deserts-based, dog-eat-dog, tribal mind.

Thus the potential for achieved well being is no longer limited to Christians or Macedonians or any other sect but extends to every physical, neurological, consciousness in our global home.

Disbelievers in this connectedness are at least willing to acknowledge that what happens in China (and Mexico, Vietnam, and Japan) affects the quality of our lives in the United States. They acknowledge globalization but only in so far as it relates to money, trade, power, and deserts-based benefits.

Otherwise their battle cry is for walling off the self and nation from what exists on the other side of the synapse and for siphoning off “differences” among populations into “ghettos.”

This is nervous-breakdown thinking and explains why at any moment some group somewhere can rise up and terrorize the world, claiming their dreams were shattered through demonizing, exclusionary, needs-denying practices.

Quite astoundingly, two of the 2016 presidential candidates in the United States are calling for revolution: one for “political revolution,” the other for a guilt-free battering-of-the-weak-without-reprisal revolution based in an ideology that stigmatizes difference.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard predicted this would occur when his “The Concept of Dread” appeared the same year the telegraph was born. He was addressing the dread of connectedness, the dread of facing up to a needs-based political economy that being linked neurologically requires.

Pope Francis recently said that people who wall themselves off from others, who classify and divide, are destroyers of the mystical body and cannot call themselves Christians. They tear away at the limbs of a universal needs-meeting body.

Which brings us to the true function of the computer. People might use the machine to Google cheap flights to Spain or find a good house at the shore but the computer exists primarily: (1) to inventory the needs of every neuron in the cosmic system; (2) to inventory every available worldwide resource (every kind everywhere); and (3) to find the best way of getting what’s needed to those in need without charge or delay.

We do know of course that in every Eden people steal, cheat, rob, and raid your cache — sin is a given — but in the meantime, in this era of our neurologically-connected needs-based revolution, every person on the planet is treated like the richest person on earth.

Now that’s a revolution of dread.