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How Can You Laugh at a Time Like This?

Willy Chaplin

No. 5

Planetary nervous system

March 5, 1998

The Internet is usually regarded as just another communications medium. Oh, sure, it is given much praise as a truly new and different communications medium. I do it myself, pointing out its revolutionary new features. Like its voluntary nature or its global span. Or, for email, its asycnchronicity. We concentrate on those aspects of the Net with direct value to the individual.

But, there is an entirely different way to regard the Net. Think of it as a planetary nervous system for the entire ecosystem of the planet Earth, with individual human beings, sitting as we do at individual nodes, acting like neurons. We are very complicated neurons, to be certain, some more so than others, depending upon how we process input to output. But, we probably resemble the "dumb" neurons in our own nervous system more than we would like to admit.

One of the great fallacies of our species is to confuse the collected knowledge of the entire human race, aggregated over many millennia, with our own individual store of facts and data. The existence of books, electronic communications and various other storehouses abets this illusion. Who among us has not said "I know" when what you really meant was "someone, somewhere knows this and has recorded it and I read it or heard it."

The Internet really makes it seem true that each of us is somehow in possession of the entire communal database of the planet. But is this true? Isn't it more nearly correct to think of each of us as a temporary holder of small bits of data? Some we may pass on to others using email or Web pages or even by broadcasting it on TV or radio. Other information we store temporarily, in our VERY fallible organic memories or on magnetic disk or tape, and then later discard as it no longer useful. We may even subsume it into some higher order data stream like a theory or a summary, as in scientific research, philosophy or punditry. You may object to my characterizing this data as "small bits." Nevertheless, however grandly you may personally regard some particularly wondrous piece of information you have received or deduced, no matter how much acclaim you receive for creating or having it, does it not fade into insignificance compared to ALL that is known, ALL that has been derived?

Magazines, like Wired or Byte, being sold to individuals and being supported by advertisers who sell other things to individuals, by necessity must service the notion of the Internet as a promoter of individuality. Anyone, anywhere can write a Web page about his- or herself and potentially everybody in the entire World can view it. What a wondrous way to "be somebody!" Or is it?

Anyone who has put up a "vanity page" quickly comes to realize that almost nobody knows that it is there. Due to the voluntary nature of the Net, hardly anybody not directly informed of its existence ever sees it. People like yours truly, who spend countless hours creating prose or art or information sources meant to entertain and inform, get an order of magnitude more attention, But the numbers are in the thousands, not millions. The reason is simple. The Internet deals entirely in attention, as currency. There is only a finite amount of attention available. Unlike other forms of wealth, like say money, you can't simply print up some more. So each page that appears on the Web is competing with hundreds of million other pages. Each email sent is only one of billions circulating around the world.

There are really only two classes of Web providers that get significantly more traffic than individuals; those that provide utilities to help individuals sort through the chaotic information dung heap and those who have already acquired Big Names in other endeavors. The former, search engines, news providers and the like, help us to sort the wheat from the chaff. The latter give us some familiarity with which to be comfortable, some place from which to jump off into the information ecosystem. But even these great Web magnets, quickly realize that the competition for the attention of the individual is truly ferocious on the Internet. Their hard earned notoriety, usually the collective effort of many, many individuals, quickly fades and vanishes if they do not "keep up." Yesterdays stars are today's bankrupt has-beens. "Wired" transforms into "Tired" very quickly.

This is the Internet that elevates individuality and glorifies freedom. This is the Internet we all know and love and certainly the one to which I pander. But there is another Internet, one that depends upon the individual as part of a coherent whole. One that uses the input of isolated surfers to keep information providers honest.

Consider errors of fact. The Web is dynamic, unlike the printed page. When errors are made, they can be corrected, inserted over the false information and the refreshed page now exists as if it had never been in error. Furthermore, the quicker these corrections are made, the fewer people who will have viewed the incorrect data. In fact, the Webmaster can assess rather accurately precisely how many viewers even had an opportunity to see the error. An rational decision can then be made whether to call attention to the fact that an error had been made and then corrected. Newspapers, for example, rarely have such luxury, since they have really no idea how many people saw any particular error. They know their gross circulation, but how many people read any particular item is beyond estimation. To call attention to errors of fact, a letter must be composed and printed, it must be inserted in an envelope, a thirty two cent stamp must be purchased and the letter must be deposited in a proper pickup location. How much simpler it is to simply pop open the "mailto" at the bottom of every well designed Web page and type out a quick note to the Webmaster. And, as every Webmaster knows, people frequently take that small effort to call attention to even very minor errors.

This "self correcting" nature of the Internet, especially the Web, is underrated and underutilized. There are many other potential applications of reader interaction than correcting errors of simple fact or typos. By carefully reading the feedback from interested viewers...again easily sent and quickly received via email...people like me derive a constant flow of input to help us with our particular form of output. Your ideas, dropped into the hoppers of our imagination, help us to keep our writing fresh, to stay in tune with some sort of collective spirit of the times. Only here, "the times" are measured in Internet time, that rapidly accelerating temporal current that keeps the Internet changing at such a breathtaking rate.

So far, I have only spoken of applications of feedback that depend upon words and ideas. Such data need human beings to interpret and make them useful. But there are other forms of data that only computers are fast enough to use quickly enough to be beneficial. Consider the statistical data used by marketers to determine to whom to pitch their sales efforts. We all complain about the invasion of privacy that such data collection seems to imply. Yet, who does not appreciate that targeted communique that offers us just the tool we need, just the perfect gift we have been waiting to purchase. At this stage, these efforts are relatively primitive and clumsy, resulting in floods of annoying email (spams) and much unwanted attention wasters that are hardly worth the keystrokes to send them to trash oblivion. As time goes on and the ways are found to shift the cost of such clumsy efforts to the spammers and away from the spammees, not only will the endeavors get more sophisticated (and transparent), but also ever more useful both to individuals and to the human race.

Is it not feasible that whole economies, whole ecosystems will soon be monitored by the Internet? Besides the obvious commercial potential of collecting data about and from individual users in order to sell them something, what about the potential for scientific research, for planetary control? What about the real time monitoring of the weather, the populations of plants and animals, crops and livestock, diseases and health? All of these things are now possible in ways only dreamed of by scientists a few decades ago. Decisions that used to be made by small groups of experts or men of power and influence, can now be made with the input, both directly by voluntary action and indirectly by statistical measurements of actual behavior, of MILLIONS of people, not to mention less conscious members of the ecosystem. I, for one, find this possibility both frightening and profoundly exciting. Frightening because maybe somebody will yet find a way to harness this potential for the purpose of fascistic control, to the detriment of all. But, exciting because, so far at least, all efforts to do that have failed miserably. So far, the good seems to be running rings around the bad. I hope it stays that way.

You can bet your britches that I will be returning to this subject from time to time. I expect the development of our planetary nervous system to continue to be as electrifying in coming years as it is now. Hold on to your hats...

See you tomorrow...

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