Should we be excited… or scared?

Thursday, July 28th, 2005

Excellent, if rather scary, piece on the past, present and future of the Net here on wired.com (found via Michael Hanscom). It starts off utopian, heralding the marvels of an internet where ordinary people have created the grandest knowledge base and network in history…

The scope of the Web today is hard to fathom. The total number of Web pages, including those that are dynamically created upon request and document files available through links, exceeds 600 billion. That's 100 pages per person alive.

How could we create so much, so fast, so well? In fewer than 4,000 days, we have encoded half a trillion versions of our collective story and put them in front of 1 billion people, or one-sixth of the world's population. That remarkable achievement was not in anyone's 10-year plan.

The accretion of tiny marvels can numb us to the arrival of the stupendous. Today, at any Net terminal, you can get: an amazing variety of music and video, an evolving encyclopedia, weather forecasts, help wanted ads, satellite images of anyplace on Earth, up-to-the-minute news from around the globe, tax forms, TV guides, road maps with driving directions, real-time stock quotes, telephone numbers, real estate listings with virtual walk-throughs, pictures of just about anything, sports scores, places to buy almost anything, records of political contributions, library catalogs, appliance manuals, live traffic reports, archives to major newspapers – all wrapped up in an interactive index that really works.

This view is spookily godlike. You can switch your gaze of a spot in the world from map to satellite to 3-D just by clicking. Recall the past? It's there. Or listen to the daily complaints and travails of almost anyone who blogs (and doesn't everyone?). I doubt angels have a better view of humanity.

But by the end, the vision has become positively apocalyptic, a blinding picture of a all-pervasive world-wide computer network straight out of a sci-fi nightmare – but a nightmare so dazzling in its possibilities that the writer is evangelical in his advocacy of it. Having celebrated the manner in which ordinary Net users have wrested power from the corporations that expected to control and filter the internet on their behalf, he fails to see that in his version of the future there's been another power shift – away from the user and to a machine with no 'off' switch.

Who will write the software that makes this contraption useful and productive? We will. In fact, we're already doing it, each of us, every day. When we post and then tag pictures on the community photo album Flickr, we are teaching the Machine to give names to images. The thickening links between caption and picture form a neural net that can learn. Think of the 100 billion times per day humans click on a Web page as a way of teaching the Machine what we think is important. Each time we forge a link between words, we teach it an idea. Wikipedia encourages its citizen authors to link each fact in an article to a reference citation. Over time, a Wikipedia article becomes totally underlined in blue as ideas are cross-referenced. That massive cross-referencing is how brains think and remember. It is how neural nets answer questions. It is how our global skin of neurons will adapt autonomously and acquire a higher level of knowledge.

The human brain has no department full of programming cells that configure the mind. Rather, brain cells program themselves simply by being used. Likewise, our questions program the Machine to answer questions. We think we are merely wasting time when we surf mindlessly or blog an item, but each time we click a link we strengthen a node somewhere in the Web OS, thereby programming the Machine by using it.

What will most surprise us is how dependent we will be on what the Machine knows – about us and about what we want to know. We already find it easier to Google something a second or third time rather than remember it ourselves. The more we teach this megacomputer, the more it will assume responsibility for our knowing. It will become our memory. Then it will become our identity. In 2015 many people, when divorced from the Machine, won't feel like themselves – as if they'd had a lobotomy.

Legend has it that Ted Nelson invented Xanadu as a remedy for his poor memory and attention deficit disorder. In this light, the Web as memory bank should be no surprise. Still, the birth of a machine that subsumes all other machines so that in effect there is only one Machine, which penetrates our lives to such a degree that it becomes essential to our identity – this will be full of surprises. Especially since it is only the beginning.

Brain-stretching stuff.

Comments are closed.

 
  • Stuff worth looking at

    How the Cube was found 2001 General Election diary

I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.