2010 : HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?

Evolutionary Biologist; Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford; Co-Author, with Yan Wong, The Ancestor’s Tale (Second Edition); Author, The Selfish Gene; The God Delusion; An Appetite For Wonder
NET GAIN

If, forty years ago, the Brockman Question had been “What do you anticipate will most radically change the way you think during the next forty years?” my mind would have flown instantly to a then recent article in Scientific American (September 1966) about ‘Project MAC’. Nothing to do with the Apple Mac, which it long pre-dated, Project MAC was an MIT-based cooperative enterprise in pioneering computer science. It included the circle of AI innovators surrounding Marvin Minsky but, oddly, that was not the part that captured my imagination. What really excited me, as a user of the large mainframe computers that were all you could get in those days, was something that nowadays would seem utterly commonplace: the then astonishing fact that up to 30 people simultaneously, from all around the MIT campus and even from their homes, could simultaneously log in to the same computer: simultaneously communicate with it and with each other. Mirabile dictu, the co-authors of a paper could work on it simultaneously, drawing upon a shared database in the computer, even though they might be miles apart. In principle, they could be on opposite sides of the globe.

Today that sounds absurdly modest. It's hard to recapture how futuristic it was at the time. The post-Berners-Lee world of 2009, if we could have imagined it forty years ago, would have seemed shattering. Anybody with a cheap laptop computer, and an averagely fast WiFi connection, can enjoy the illusion of bouncing dizzily around the world in full colour, from a beach webcam in Portugal to a chess match in Vladivostok, and Google Earth actually lets you fly the full length of the intervening landscape as if on a magic carpet. You can drop in for a chat at a virtual pub, in a virtual town whose geographical location is so irrelevant as to be literally non-existent (and the content of whose LOL-punctuated conversation, alas, is likely to be of a drivelling fatuity that insults the technology that mediates it).

‘Pearls before swine’ over-estimates the average chat-room conversation, but it is the pearls of hardware and software that inspire me: the Internet itself and the World Wide Web, succinctly defined by Wikipedia as “a system of interlinked hypertext documents contained on the Internet.” The Web is a work of genius, one of the highest achievements of the human species, whose most remarkable quality is that it was not constructed by one individual genius like Tim Berners-Lee or Steve Wozniak or Alan Kay, nor by a top-down company like Sony or IBM, but by an anarchistic confederation of largely anonymous units located (irrelevantly) all over the world. It is Project MAC writ large. Suprahumanly large. Moreover, there is not one massive central computer with lots of satellites, as in Project MAC, but a distributed network of computers of different sizes, speeds and manufacturers, a network that nobody, literally nobody, ever designed or put together, but which grew, haphazardly, organically, in a way that is not just biological but specifically ecological.

Of course there are negative aspects, but they are easily forgiven. I’ve already referred to the lamentable content of many chat room conversations without editorial control. The tendency to flaming rudeness is fostered by the convention – whose sociological provenance we might discuss one day – of anonymity. Insults and obscenities, to which you would not dream of signing your real name, flow gleefully from the keyboard when you are masquerading online as ‘TinkyWinky’ or ‘FlubPoodle’ or ‘ArchWeasel’.

And then there is the perennial problem of sorting out true information from false. Fast search engines tempt us to see the entire web as a gigantic encyclopaedia, while forgetting that traditional encyclopaedias were rigorously edited and their entries authored by chosen experts. Having said that, I am repeatedly astounded by how good Wikipedia can be. I calibrate Wikipedia by looking up the few things I really do know about (and may indeed have written the entry for in traditional encyclopaedias) say ‘Evolution’ or ‘Natural Selection’. I am so impressed by these calibratory forays that I go, with some confidence, to other entries where I lack first-hand knowledge (which was why I felt able to quote Wikipedia’s definition of the Web, above). No doubt mistakes creep in, or are even maliciously inserted, but the half-life of a mistake, before the natural correction mechanism kills it, is encouragingly short. John Brockman warns me that, while Wikipedia is indeed excellent on scientific matters, this is not always so “in other areas such as politics and popular culture where . . . edit wars continually break out.” Nevertheless, the fact that the Wiki concept works, even if only in some areas such as science, flies so flagrantly in the face of all my prior pessimism, that I am tempted to see it as a metaphor for all that deserves optimism about the World Wide Web.

Optimistic we may be, but there is a lot of rubbish on the Web, more than in printed books, perhaps because they cost more to produce (and, alas, there’s plenty of rubbish there too). But the speed and ubiquity of the Internet actually helps us to be on our critical guard. If a report on one site sounds implausible (or too plausible to be true) you can quickly check it on several more. Urban legends and other viral memes are helpfully catalogued on various sites. When we receive one of those panicky warnings (often attributed to Microsoft or Symantec) about a dangerous computer virus, we do not spam it to our entire address book but instead Google a key phrase from the warning itself. It usually turns out to be, say, “Hoax Number 76”, its history and geography meticulously tracked.

Perhaps the main downside of the Internet is that surfing can be addictive and a prodigious timewaster, encouraging a habit of butterflying from topic to topic, rather than attending to one thing at a time. But I want to leave negativity and nay-saying and end with some speculative  – perhaps more positive – observations. The unplanned worldwide unification that the web is achieving (a science-fiction enthusiast might discern the embryonic stirrings of a new life form) mirrors the evolution of the nervous system in multicellular animals. A certain school of psychologists might see it as mirroring the development of each individual’s personality, as a fusion among split and distributed beginnings in infancy.

I am reminded of an insight that comes from Fred Hoyle’s science fiction novel, The Black Cloud. The cloud is a superhuman interstellar traveller, whose ‘nervous system’ consists of units that communicate with each other by radio – orders of magnitude faster than our puttering nerve impulses. But in what sense is the cloud to be seen as a single individual rather than a society? The answer is that interconnectedness that is sufficiently fast blurs the distinction. A human society would effectively become one individual if we could read each other’s thoughts through direct, high speed, brain-to-brain radio transmission. Something like that may eventually meld the various units that constitute the Internet.

This futuristic speculation recalls the beginning of my essay. What if we look forty years into the future? Moore’s Law will probably continue for at least part of that time, enough to wreak some astonishing magic (as it would seem to our puny imaginations if we could be granted a sneak preview today).  Retrieval from the communal exosomatic memory will become dramatically faster, and we shall rely less on the memory in our skulls. At present we still need biological brains to provide the cross-referencing and association, but more sophisticated software and faster hardware will increasingly usurp even that function.

The high-resolution colour rendering of virtual reality will improve to the point where the distinction from the real world becomes unnervingly hard to notice. Large-scale communal games such as Second Life will become disconcertingly addictive to many ordinary people who understand little of what goes on in the engine room. And let’s not be snobbish about that. For many people around the world,  ‘first life’ reality has few charms and, even for those more fortunate, active participation in a virtual world could be more intellectually stimulating than the life of a couch potato slumped in idle thrall to ’Big Brother’. To intellectuals, Second Life and its souped-up successors will become laboratories of sociology, experimental psychology and their successor disciplines, yet to be invented and named. Whole economies, ecologies, and perhaps personalities will exist nowhere other than in virtual space.

Finally, there may be political implications. Apartheid South Africa tried to suppress opposition by banning television, and eventually had to give up. It will be more difficult to ban the Internet. Theocratic or otherwise malign regimes, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia today, may find it increasingly hard to bamboozle their citizens with their evil nonsense. Whether, on balance, the Internet benefits the oppressed more than the oppressor is controversial, and at present may vary from region to region (see, for example, the exchange between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky in Prospect, Nov-Dec 2009).

It is said that Twitter is playing an important part in the current unrest in Iran, and latest news from that faith-pit encourages the view that the trend will be towards a net positive effect of the Internet on political liberty. We can at least hope that the faster, more ubiquitous and above all cheaper Internet of the future may hasten the long-awaited downfall of Ayatollahs, Mullahs, Popes, Televangelists, and all who wield power through the control (whether cynical or sincere) of gullible minds. Perhaps Tim Berners-Lee will one day earn the Nobel Prize for Peace.