[tweetmeme]Once upon a time, the idea of all humanity being connected into a single, universal mind was confined to the realms of science fiction and mysticism. Lately, though, I notice that it has gone mainstream.
Could it be that, in some sense, the point of evolution has been to create these social brains, and maybe even to weave them into a giant, loosely organized planetary brain?
The quote above the photo is from a recent OpEd column in The New York Times in which Robert Wright speculates that we may be missing the point in our hand-wringing over the intellectual impact of the social Web. Whether Google is making us stupid – as Nicholas Carr has provocatively argued – or not is beside the point. What we are experiencing as we become hooked more and more tightly into the social Web is something much bigger than we are. It is technology that is blasting forward, and humanity just happens to be caught in its evolutionary wake.
As Carr himself has made clear in the past, Google is hardly unaware of this possibility. In The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google, Carr cites a Playboy interview in which Google co-founder Sergey Brin asserts that far from wanting to stem the flow of information our goal should be to tap into as much of it as possible. “The solution isn’t to limit the information you receive,” Brin says. “Ultimately you want to have the entire world’s knowledge connected directly to your mind.” [p. 212]
Larry Page, the other Google founder, took that thought several steps further when he later said that “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.”[p. 213]
You didn’t think Sergey and Larry were just interested in building a better search engine, did you?
The upbeat side of linking our brains together is persuasively articulated by Clay Shirky in his latest book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Shirky views television and other traditional forms of mass media as forces that essentially hijacked our minds over the past century. The non-work time that we had available to us for mental activity was absorbed by watching Gilligan’s Island, Dancing with the Stars, and other mindless programming. The social Web has now given us the opportunity to take back that time, to use our “cognitive surplus” in much more dynamic and meaningful ways.
But as positive as this may sound, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that there is something not just disturbing, but downright creepy lurking just below the surface. By connecting human minds through machines we open up the possibility that the machines themselves begin to acquire something akin to a “mind.” That appears to be what Sergey and Larry are thinking, and it is certainly what the well-known and widely-read futurist Ray Kurzweil has in mind when he talks about concepts like “the singularity.”
“The Singularity” – at least as Kurzweil sees it – is “an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.” Certainly there could be upsides to such a civilization, but the descriptor “nonbiological” makes my back tingle just a bit at the place where the plug will be inserted just before I am placed in my pod next to Keanu Reeves. (Not coincidentally, Kurzweil’s Singularity University is partially funded by Google.)
Kevin Kelly – a Wired founder, future thinker, and generally very smart guy – will apparently cap off the Summer of the Big Brain in a forthcoming book titled What Technology Wants. I’ve already pre-ordered a copy on Amazon and can’t wait to hear what Kevin has to say. But in the meantime:
What do you think? Have you been paying attention to the growing conversation about the “big brain?” What do you think the implications are for you personally and for the world in general? Please comment and share your thoughts.