I was looking at Bill Cheswick’s map of the internet. This is the map that plots the number of connections between operating systems on the internet and creates an image of those connections and there are billions of connections and counting. I have to say that the map looks like a brain with all its pathways and even two distinct hemispheres. I am certainly not the first or the only person to make that observation. Clay Shirkey noted in a recent TED talks video that the number of connections represented on Cheswicks internet map is approach the number of neural connections in the human brain. What fascinates me about the analogy between the human brain and the Internet is that it speaks to a deeper reality. The internet is, to take HG Wells term, becoming the world’s brain or at least can be argued that it is.
If the Internet is the world brain then it has to have the functions of the human brain and it does have many, for instance, the internet has long-term memory, increasingly has short term memory and the capacity to make connections or synthesize new information at incredible speed. It also has computational power of course as well as sensory centres and a recall function ie Google. Before this creates images in peoples minds of a self-conscious Skynet waking up one day (i think its 2010) and deciding to eradicate us messy humans, i would concede briefly that this analogy of internet as world brain lacks one fundamental characteristic. The Internet doesn’t have consciousness. What’s missing in all of this is the ghost in the machine. Or is it lacking?
If the internet is considered to be wires and boxes and memory blades then no the Internet is not a world brain. But what is interesting here is that if you broaden the conception of the internet to an ecosystem then there IS a ghost in the machine, in fact millions and millions of humans who interact daily, add knowledge and information and communicate through these pathways. At the core of this argument is that we are the technology, that the internet is an extension of our cognitive communications and social selves.
So when critics of the internet raise concerns about our loss of mental capability such as attention span the ability to think deeply or memorize. The response is that we are adapting and in fact merging our neural nets with the internet. We dont need to have these functions in each of us because we can extend our neural nets outside of ourselves and access all of this in the world brain. When it comes right down to it we are the intenet.