21 May 2014

Is the Web Conscious?

Systems have characteristics that their parts do not. This emergent phenomenon defines them. Your car got you to work today. None of its parts could do that. Not the engine. Not the wheels. Not the drive train. Systems are defined by the interactions of their parts rather than the action of their parts.

Which brings me to global consciousness.

James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, wrote an interesting piece in the New Yorker titled "The Collective Intelligence of the Web." The first example he uses of collective intelligence is of a project NASA began in 2000 to map Mars.

"There were two very interesting things about the results. First, although there was no financial incentive to participate, more than a hundred thousand people took part in the study, generating more than 2.4 million clicks. Second, and even more striking, the collective product of all those amateur clickers was very good—as a report put it, their 'automatically computed consensus” was “virtually indistinguishable from the inputs of a geologist with years of experience in identifying Mars craters.'"

He goes on to write about how Google ranks pages based on the actions of millions of users, and cites other examples. This isn't just about judgment. This is about creating. At one level this is not new. For centuries humans have been walking down trails that have been defined by the steps of thousands of people who have come before. But this capability of the Internet to knit together individual consciousness into something collective is something newly emergent, it seems to me.

Collectively, civilization can do what individuals can't. On our own, we really are just intelligent apes. But with one other person we can create a new human. With one million other people we can create a new community or set of institutions. And with billions of people online, maybe we can create a new sort of understanding that would be impossible for the individual or even any community within it.

It might just be that the web is enabling a new kind of consciousness to emerge, awareness and problem solving and project execution that would never be possible at the level of individuals or even teams traditionally managed. If so, it raises a fascinating question. Has the web developed consciousness yet? And if it was self-aware, would we be aware of it?

5 comments:

Thomas said...

If it is gaining consciousness, then- like a baby- it only knows the part of the world it has been exposed to.

We have created an emerging consciousness consisting of porn, memes, and pictures of cats.

To quote Pogo, "What hath got wrought?"

Lifehiker said...

I agree with Thomas. "Consciousness" would indicate some ability to discriminate, thereby causing the internet to trash a large percentage of its own content. Since this has not happened, I posit a dumb internet.

Ron Davison said...

Thomas and Frank - but if there is some emergent consciousness at the level of the Web, would we know about it anymore than brain cells know about the mind? Brain cells began to be controlled by something larger than themselves, operating as part of a web of neurons as consciousness emerges. Maybe our growing tendency to respond to stimuli from the Internet is similar. Maybe we are being directed by some larger, invisible to us goals.

Thomas said...

So just like an individual brain cell doesn't really know where the flood of endorphins comes from- he's just happy they're there- we don't really know where all these LOL Catz are coming from.

We're just blindly playing our little parts…

Ron Davison said...

Thomas - exactly!