Cloud thinking

Check out this great article by John Brockman, editor of Edge magazine (which is the best ideas publication out there, to my mind)...OK, it's a bit of a pretentious fact, could you imagine a more pretentious opening...but still, some interesting thoughts in this article.

At a dinner in the mid-sixties, the composer John Cage handed me a copy of Norbert Wiener's book, Cybernetics. He was talking about "the mind we all share" in the context of "the cybernetic idea". He was not talking Teilhard de Chardin, the Noosphere, or any kind of metaphysics.

The cybernetic idea was built from Turing's Universal Machine in the late thirties; Norbert Wiener's work during World War II on automatic aiming and firing of anti-aircraft guns; John von Neumann's theory of automata and its applications (mid-forties); Claude Shannon's landmark paper founding information theory in 1948.

What exactly is "the cybernetic idea"? Well, it's not to be confused with the discipline of cybernetics, which hit a wall, and stopped evolving during the 1950s. And it's not your usual kind of idea. The cybernetic idea is an invention. A very big invention. The late evolutionary biologist Gregory Bateson called it the most important idea since the idea of Jesus Christ.

The most important inventions involve the grasping of a conceptual whole, a set of relationships which had not been previously recognized. This necessarily involves a backward look. We don't notice it. An example of this is the "invention" of talking. Humans did not notice that they were talking until the day someone said, "We're talking." No doubt the first person to utter such words was considered crazy. But that moment was the invention of talking, the recognition of pattern which, once perceived, had always been there.

So how does this fit in with the cybernetic idea?

It's the recognition that reality itself is communicable. It's the perception that the nonlinear extension of the brain's experience — the socialization of mind — is a process that involves the transmission of neural pattern — electrical, not mental — that's part of a system of communication and control that functions without individual awareness or consent.

This cybernetic explanation tears the apart the fabric of our habitual thinking. Subject and object fuse. The individual self decreates. It is a world of pattern, of order, of resonances. It's an undone world of language, communication, and pattern. By understanding that the experience of the brain is continually communicated through the process of information, we can now recognize the extensions of man as communication, not as a means for the flow of communication. As such they provide the information for the continual process of neural coding.

How is this playing out in terms of the scenarios presented by Frank Schirrmacher in his comments about the effect of the Internet on our neural processes? Here are some random thoughts inspired by the piece and the discussion:

Danny Hillis once said that "the web is the slime mold of the Internet. In the long run, the Internet will arrive at a much richer infrastructure, in which ideas can potentially evolve outside of human minds. You can imagine something happening on the Internet along evolutionary lines, as in the simulations I run on my parallel computers. It already happens in trivial ways, with viruses, but that's just the beginning. I can imagine nontrivial forms of organization evolving on the Internet. Ideas could evolve on the Internet that are much too complicated to hold in any human mind." He suggested that "new forms of organization that go beyond humans may be evolving. In the short term, forms of human organization are enabled."

Schirrmacher reports on Gerd Gigerenzer's idea that "thinking itself somehow leaves the brain and uses a platform outside of the human body. And that's the Internet and it's the cloud. And very soon we will have the brain in the cloud. And this raises the question of the importance of thoughts. For centuries, what was important for me was decided in my brain. But now, apparently, it will be decided somewhere else."

John Bargh notes that research on the prediction and control of human judgment and behavior, has become democratized. "This has indeed produced (and is still producing) an explosion of knowledge of the IF-THEN contingencies of human responses to the physical and social environment … we are so rapidly building a database or atlas of unconscious influences and effects that could well be exploited by ever-faster computing devices, as the knowledge is accumulating at an exponential rate." The import of Bargh's thinking is that the mere existence of a social network becomes an unconscious influence on human judgment and behavior.

George Dyson traces how numbers have changed from representing things, to meaning things, to doing things. He points out that the very activity involved in the socialization of mind means that "we have network processes (including human collaboration) that might actually be ideas."

What does all this add up to?

Schirrmacher is correct when when he points out that in this digital age we are going through a fundamental change which includes how our brains function. But the presence or absence of free will is a trivial concern next to the big challenge confronting us: to recognize the radical nature of the changes that are occuring and to grasp an understanding of the process as our empirical advances blow apart our epistemological bases for thinking about who and what we are. "We're talking."