For all its fiber-enabled, live-video-streaming, 24/7-connected promise, our information network encapsulates a fundamental flaw: it’s proving a suboptimal system for keeping the world informed. While it embraces nodes dedicated to propagating a rich seam of information, because the internet’s governing algorithms are optimized to connect us to what they believe we are already looking for, we tend to retreat into familiar and comfortably self-reinforcing silos: idea chambers whose feeds, tweets and updates inevitably echo our pre-existing prejudices and limitations. The wider conversation, a precondition for a healthy intellectual culture, isn’t getting through. The signals are being blocked. The algorithmic filter is building ever-higher walls. Facts are being invalidated by something called “post-truth.” And that’s just not healthy for the quality of informed public debate that Edge has always celebrated.
Thankfully a solution is suggested by neural networks of a biological kind. Inside our brains, no neuron ever makes direct contact with another neuron; these billions of disconnected cells pursue their own individual agendas without directly communicating with their neighbors. But the reason we are able to form memories, or sustain reasoned debate, is that the very gaps between these neurons are programmed to build connections between them. These gaps—called synapses—connect individual neurons using chemical or electrical signals, and thus unite isolated brain cells into a healthy central and peripheral nervous system. The synapses transfer instructions between neurons, link our sense receptors to other parts of our nervous system, and carry messages destined for our muscles and glands. Truth be told, without these unheralded gap-bridging entities called synapses, our disconnected brain cells would be pretty irrelevant.
We need to celebrate the synapse for its vital role in making connections, and indeed to extend the metaphor to the wider worlds of business, media and politics. In an ever-more atomized culture, it’s the connectors of silos, the bridgers of worlds, that accrue the greatest value. And so we need to promote the intellectual synapses, the journalistic synapses, the political synapses—the rare individuals who pull down walls, who connect divergent ideas, who dare to link two mutually incompatible fixed ideas in order to promote understanding.
Synaptic transfer in its scientific sense can be excitatory (encouraging the receiving neuron to forward the signal), or inhibitory (blocking the receiving neuron from further communicating the message). Combined, these approaches ensure a coherent and healthy brain-body ecosystem. But as we promote the metaphorical sense of synaptic transfer, we can afford to be looser in our definition. Today we need synapse-builders who break down filter bubbles and constrained world-views by making connections wherever possible. These are the people who further healthy signalling by making unsolicited introductions between those who might mutually benefit; who convene dinner salons and conferences where the divergent may unexpectedly converge; who, in the Bay Area habit, “pay it forward” by performing favors that transform a business ecosystem from one of hostile competitiveness to one based on hope, optimism and mutual respect and understanding.
So let’s re-cast the synapse, coined a century ago from the Greek words for “fasten together,” and promote the term to celebrate the gap-bridgers. Be the neurotransmitter in your world. Diffuse ideas and human connections. And help move us all beyond constrained thinking.