Let's begin today with a backwards glance. We're just over halfway through the 23 part series; so far we've covered quite bit of ground. Here's a quick graphic review:
Today's topic is a fun one, but before I start, here's BLATANT SCREAMING DISCLAIMER: (The title of today's post is intended to provoke thought and debate. I am well aware of the fact that this topic is often treated with starry-eyed breathlessness and a lack of scientific rigor. My intent is to simply to conduct a thought experiment, not to invite you to join the Borg)
First things first, let me explain what may otherwise feel like a jarring segue from Ponzi Schemes and the Financial System to a discussion of the internet as a brain. In developing this series, I've looked at how societies have developed, how technology has affected how we think about the future and the effect of these technical innovations on media and commerce. Once I reached yesterday's topic, I was surprised that how fuzzy the line was between a Ponzi or Pyramid scheme and the international financial system. I'm not yet sure where I come out with respect to the rage of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, but something generationally defining is happening and about a broken economic system with a message spreading at net speed.
At a fundamental level (jump in here economists), both Ponzi Schemes or Health Finanacial Markets only work insofar as participants trust in the system and have faith that debts will be honored. (I covered this in detail in "The Future of Money") . I remember in 2008 during the Financial Collapse watching the headlines in the WSJ grow daily to larger and larger typeface. Running a startup at the time, each days headline made me queasier and queasier so I wrote a short piece for AdAge called "In Shaky Times, Relax". Looking back on it 3 years later, it seems both naively hopeful and creepily accurate:
"Financial institutions are repositories of trust, which they accumulate, hold and invest in the form of investors and depositors' money. As soon as the trust placed in them erodes, the funds quickly follow. The phenomenon we're witnessing right now is the result panic-amplifying feedback loops that happen in our highly networked world.This is the the societal equivalent of a healthy person who knows he will drop dead if his heart rate exceeds 160 beats per minute. Everything is good unless he starts thinking about it. And his heart-rate rises. Which worries him. And his heart rate rises and rises and then . . .pow.. . . . .The reality is that nobody will escape unscathed because we are all so fundamentally interconnected. "
No discussion of the web's evolution towards sentience would be complete without Kevin Kelly's epic talk at the 2007 TED Conference entitled "The Next 5000 Days of the Internet". In it he masterfully chronicles the first 15 years of the web and compares it's quantitative elements to the circuitry and memory of a brain. I recommend watching the whole thing, but for me the pull quote comes 5 minutes in - despite it's immensity, the Internet (in 2007) was roughly the size of 1 human brain.
I may have an elegant side-step to the problems that usually bedevils these discussions. Either an argument emerges over the Turing Test or someone gets philosophical about what "thinking" means or whether computers can have souls. I think it's all interesting but I don't really care about it today. What I'm aiming at is a belief that, like in the human brain, none of the individual components (cells, nodes, people) make it a brain. Nor can anyone see a thought. I
t is fairly understood that the cortex handles most higher level functioning - it's what makes you "you". My point is that the details today don't matter. I know a brain when I see it and the internet is (or soon will be) a brain. Will it be smart? Now that's an interesting question, kind of like asking whether a new Ferrari will be fast. The answer is undoubtedly yes. Will it get faster? Probably. Will it win? Depends whose driving it and why. Will it feel good when it wins? Now that's another story. . .
This means that the Giant Future Brain (ALLCAPS will be the convention going forward) will have several attributes. Some of them are ambitious and scary (like the ability to make its own choices. NOTE: my internet already does this). Most are not scrary, but its really a question of how you define "Brain". A brain is much more powerful than a computer at the moment, but to be fair, the gap is shrinking. And the real point is that the Internet has been misdefined until recently, thought of simply as the protocols, wires, routers, modems switches and computers that make it up. The true internet now includes us, it's operators and all the information about each of us and our connections to others.
The Terminator Myth of evil sentient machines is overstated - the reality is that we work well with machines and they've been built, theoretically to play nicely with us as well. And the Global Brain will likely be the composite of all connected people sharing what we want, when we want. The superset, the interenet and the data about us it carries, for good or ill, will be One Giant Brian. But it will be OUR brian, kind of like a time-share.
The high wire act society must undertake as we move towards something like the what Kurtzweil calls the Singularity reminds me of the fear the US must have felt leaving the Gold Standard. In both cases, we society feels comforting and stable in it's ability to connect, communicate, compete and transact business. In 1972, Nixon simply dumped the Gold standard, replacing it with a Fiat currency back by nothing more than one's full faith in the United States Government". All others followed. And here we are 40 years later, fiat currencies scare us because they're not backed by hard assets like gold. Yet turning back is unlikely and moving beyond fiat to reputational or virtual currencies plausible and already happening to the tune of ~$5B annually.
I'd argue in fact that something much more revolutionary is likely to happen: something that will unite law-adibing citizens through a global network larger and faster than our current one. Most importantly, I think there will be radical changes occuring in the realms of how we view money and value and how we share that wealth. Speed of information, both transmission and retrieval will increase. When overlaid on top of social context,and reputational systems like Klout or PeerIndex, decisions will become easier and trust networks and micro-funding projects like Kickstarter with flourish.
A more recent look at the idea that Internet is a Global Brain comes from legendary Russian technology investor Yuri Milner. Milner owns significant stakes in Facebook, Zynga and Groupon and gave the following talk given in September 2011 at a mini-Davos event in Yalta. What I like best about Milner is that he apparently appreciates both free-market capitalism and the Marxist egalitarianism of social networks, virtual currencies and emerging forms of capital creation and shared resources.
In it he predicts that the number of people online will more than double to 4 billion. He also is bullish on “the Internet of Things” or connective tissue between the network and physical objects - five billion devices are connected today and by 2020 more than 20 billion will be. His most important points for me involve the accelerating speed of information creation. As Milner points out, more data was created every 48 hours in 2010 than between the dawn of time and 2003. By 2020, that same volume of information will be generated every 60 minutes. 140 million items were shared on Facebook in 2009 which rose to four billion in 2011.
The So the Internet's big and getting bigger. Shocker. And it'll be a Brain. Also, unsurprising. I think it's one today in the sense that the collective made up of the humans, their devices and technologies connecting them are having experiences radically more productive, efficient and frightening that at any time prior. Non-trivial things like the Euro banking system or the State of California are on the edge of collapse, and the Internet continues to grow.
Amazingly, we seem to believe what we see is not really happening. I come across perfectly normal people, reading about Occupy Wall Street and the Election Campaign of Herman Cain (or variously the Arab Spring Protests or attacks by Anonymous) and I wonder. Have we all gone mad. It's not that these events are unpredictable or surprising - in fact the opposite. What shocks me is how surprising the types of conclusions I'm touching on in these essays seem to people who are wielding the very tools of the revolution, glued to the cell phone, checking into Twitter, buying Gold at $1500/ounce and hoping they can buy Facebook shares at the $100B valuation.
For some reason I've struggled with tonight's post (tomorrow I delve into the Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity - much easier stuff for me). It's the hard ones that get you through, where you ask your audience for help.
I'm left with a film to share; something of a non-sequitor but one that's been knocking about as I write about Ponzi schemes, giant brains and the underlining trust and faith that binds us as humans, regardless of the technologies or political systems swirling around. I give you Jimmy Stewart, yes, a little early in the Season, but still, It's a Wonderful Life. What we can rely on is not the technology or the gold the money's based upon or anything else. It's the most basic things, commitment to and trust of family, colleagues and family.
Till Tomorrow, be wonderful