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Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Global Nincompoop Awakens

On a recent business trip to New York, I found myself sitting for a couple hours in a Starbucks in the midst of the campus of New York University (which is not a walled campus, but rather a collection of buildings strewn semi-haphazardly across a few blocks of Greenwich Village).

While sitting there typing into my laptop, I couldn't help being distracted by the conversations of the students around me. I attended NYU in the mid-80's (doing a bit of graduate study there on the way to my PhD), and I was curious to see how the zeitgest of the student body had changed.

Admittedly, this was a highly nonrepresentative sample, as I was observing only students who chose to hang out in Starbucks. (Most likely all the math and CS grad students were doing as I'd done during my time at NYU, and hanging out in the Courant Institute building, which was a lot quieter than any cafe' ...). And, the population of Starbucks seemed about 65% female, for whatever reason.

The first thing that struck me was the everpresence of technology. The students around me were constantly texting each other -- there was a lot of texting going on between people sitting in different parts of the Starbucks, or people waiting in line and other people sitting down, etc.

And, there was a lot of talk about Facebook. Pretty much anytime someone unfamiliar (to any of the conversation participants) was mentioned in conversation the question was asked "Are they on Facebook?" Of course, plenty of the students had laptops there and could write on each others Facebook walls while texting each other and slipping in the occasional voice phone call or email as well.

All in all I found the density and rapidity of information interchange extremely impressive. The whole social community of the Starbucks started to look like a multi-bodied meta-mind, with information zipping back and forth everywhere by various media. All the individuals comprising parts of the mind were obviously extremely well-attuned to the various component media and able to multiprocess very effectively, e.g. writing on someone's Facebook wall and then texting someone else while holding on an F2F conversation, all while holding a book in their lap and allegedly sort-of studying.

Exciting! The only problem was: The contents of what was being communicated was so amazingly trivial and petty it started to make me feel physically ill.

Pretty much all the electronic back-and-forth was about which guys were cute and might be interested in going to which party with which girls; or, how pathetic it was that a certain group of girls had "outgrown" a certain other group via being accepted into a certain sorority and developing a fuller and more mature appreciation for the compulsive consumption of alcohol ... and so forth.

Which led me to the following thought: Wow! With all our incredible communications technologies, we are creating a global brain! But 99.99% of this global brain's thoughts are going to be completely trite and idiotic.

Are we, perhaps, creating a global moron or at least a global nincompoop?

If taken seriously, this notion becomes a bit frightening.

Let's suppose that, at some point, the global communication network itself achieves some kind of spontaneous, self-organizing sentience.

(Yeah, this is a science-fictional hypothesis, and I don't think it's extremely likely to happen, but it's interesting to think about.)

Won't the contents of its mind somehow reflect the contents of the information being passed around the global communications network?

Say: porn, spam e-mails, endless chit-chat about whose buns are cuter, and so forth?

Won't the emergent global mind of the Internet thus inevitably be a shallow-minded, perverted and ridiculous dipshit?

Is this what we really want for the largest, most powerful mind on the planet?

What happens when this Global Moron asserts its powers over us? Will we all find our thoughts and behaviors subtly or forcibly directed by the Internet Overmind?? -- whose psyche is primarily directed by the contents of the Internet traffic from which it evolved ... which is primarily constituted of ... well... yecchh...


(OK .. fine ... this post is a joke... OR IS IT???)

18 comments:

Chuck Esterbrook said...

Hey man, Happy Birthday!

"Won't the emergent global mind of the Internet thus inevitably be a shallow-minded, perverted and ridiculous dipshit?"

Yes. See: usenet, AOL

"What happens when this Global Moron asserts its powers over us?"

See: The war in Iraq, IRS tax code, etc.

steve said...

I wouldn't worry.. Even Einstein had to take out the garbage, and try to get dates. Propagation of the species
is a reasonably high priority.

And to think back to the 60's, all the population cannot be hip at the same time. Some people are always free thinking freaks, and the most of people are happy to drift through life.

slartibartfast said...

Social Network Site membership has reached 1 BILLION users. That's 1 IN 6 of all humans...

Bayon, D., (September, 2007) Social networking "reaches one billion users". PCPro Magazine, Retreived November 28, 2007, from http://www.pcpro.co.uk/news/125828/social-networking-34reaches-one-billion-users34.html?searchString=one+billion+users

n8o said...

Regardless of how much some of us may dislike Internet content, the fact is that every bit of it is wanted by someone, just like every bit of conversation in that Starbuck's.

When the Internet fills up with crap because eveyone suddenly has a voice, instead of just the few who can spew crap over the airwaves or cable TV, we did not throw up our hands and go back to television.

We invented search. And we're still inventing news ways to search. And it works.

To me the paradoxical part is that when I think of an central Being "exerting power over us", I think of a guy on television.

If your spontaneous sooper-mind more accurately reflects the things that real people are actually concerned with in their real lives (however crass or bourgeois a few of us might think of them), I tend to consider that a good sign, that such an entity is actually better in touch with what actual humans actually needs and desires are.

Granted, the same is true of nefarious corporate marketing departments or constitution-trampling government intelligence agencies. But I don't see how the content of the "sooper-mind's" knowledge about us doesn't determine its motives. But I'll tell you this - in order to give us things we all want, it will have to know what they are.

Shane said...

Any sufficiently powerful intelligence is able to realise its objective... by definition.

It just so happens that our built in objective function was "designed" with only one objective in mind: to get us to pass on our genes.

As I said to somebody once: Feminine beauty is my genes' way of making me think that it was my idea all along.

Zach said...

People always have been and are always going to be concerned with the mammalian politics of social status, group interaction and mate procuring; to a greater or lesser degree (depending on ones culture and personal disposition). And in many ways, peer-groups and societies are multi-bodied-meta-bodies (or minds if you prefer) and the way these organizations keep from falling apart is constant communication rippling back and forth through the monster, keeping all the various pieces tied in: a self-preservation gravity.

I think that small talk, gossip and ego-advertising are all serving a vital function in the group-dynamics, despite the fact they may be void of any meaningful content. The density, the disregard for time and space those cyborgs displayed in their communication (thanks to their technological prosthetics) is a the real beauty here, and indicator of things to come.

Sat Antyr said...

"Exciting! The only problem was: The contents of what was being communicated was so amazingly trivial and petty it started to make me feel physically ill."


Wild speculation:

Maybe at that layer of abstraction the signals seem trivial... If we looked at the components of a signal in the brain itself they might seem the same.

I mean: what if there's a meta computation happening composed of seemingly trivial information?

The signals being sent back and forth may create larger patterns which could be the true information processed by a metamind.

Paul said...

Glad you were born, Ben. Good work on that one.

Regarding your post, thinking in the context of Novamente, I too worry about the course of evolution of our species, and what your child Bunchkin's little bro might pick up from the absolutely horrid world of Second Life.

Those Starbucks patrons, and the Second Lifers, probably don't act that way in other spheres of their lives, instead playing more respectable roles in front of their parents and professors (hopefully). Perhaps a global consciousness, whilst emerging from this drivel, will only carry on with this drivel on a personal/private level, whilst when necessary will hold on the latest Paris Hilton gossip and instead delve into what we consider more useful pursuits.

ZZMike said...

At first, I was impressed with this new social technology. What could a group of philosophers do with this?

Then we find out that the real information content is negligible.

I never ceases to amaze me to see two people in the same room texting each other.

Given the picture you paint of the interlocutors, I have to wonder if there's a great crashing sound when all their minds switch over from the social-yadayada into the dedicated-student mode.

I wonder, though, about the concept of a "global mind" - even one that extends only as far as a city - or even a campus. A few long-running radio talk shows have spoken of the "group mind", which seems to work pretty well, when it's made up of a lot of like-minded people (it would naturally be ever so much better if only there were more diversity).

But any "group mind" can necessarily be made up of individuals, not computers. Computers can only aid information-spreading.

I think that what you see at Starbucks (a small sample at that) would work "up to expectations" if the participants were thoughtful and dedicated, and had specific problems to work on.

I see a need for new courses in high school (at least), teaching this new communication paradigm.

On another note, the huge quantity of data going over networks, and the fact that so much of it is trivial (which is not to say that it isn't interesting to the participants) suggests that the idea of government monitoring it all is simply impossible.

Paul's reply made me think that perhaps we have an explanation here for the decline in newspaper readers, in movie-goers, and maybe even TV-watchers. That takes time away from more serious pursuits, like text-messaging. (Though I do see the occasional cell phone in movies.)

The large question is still, can a network become self-organizing (and maybe self-aware)?

Jacob Howeth said...

Whether or not the speed and ubiquitousness of communication affect the quality of information, I don't know. Maybe the Internet, cell phone, and other communication technologies are revealing and illuminating what has been around for a long time: much of human thought is derivative, trivial, and circumscribed; and that has not changed; what perhaps has changed is our own ability to understand how limited we are intellectually. Or maybe the accelerating growth of information is so rapidly ascending that humans aren't able to effectively cope with the changes. Or perhaps simply that multitasking compromises the quality of information. Or a combination... or neither of those speculations...

Jacob Howeth said...

Whether or not the speed and ubiquitousness of communication affect the quality of information, I don't know. Maybe the Internet, cell phone, and other communication technologies are revealing and illuminating what has been around for a long time: much of human thought is derivative, trivial, and circumscribed; and that has not changed; what perhaps has changed is our own ability to understand how limited we are intellectually. Or maybe the accelerating growth of information is so rapidly ascending that humans aren't able to effectively cope with the changes. Or perhaps simply that multitasking compromises the quality of information. Or a combination... or neither of those speculations...

But since it was "a highly nonrepresentative sample", speculation probably won't be very helpful to reaching any meaningful conclusion(s).

Anonymous said...

Might I interest you in ...
http://stupidfilter.org/main/

Unknown User said...

Isn't this more or less what Mcluhan said about the "global village"? He said that electric speeds would propel us into a primal society of gossip and fear because of everyone being so involved in everyone else's lives.

The GB, if it emerges (which I believe to be inevitable), will have these elements, of course. What you must remember, though, is that most humans today offload their memories into disks (ebooks, blogs, PDAs, wikipedia articles, theses, notes, mindmaps, telephone doodles) -- and that this is NOT NEW; the invention of phonetic orthography is just that; an ORTHOgraphy, which allows us to take strain off our memories by sticking it in less volitile forms of long-term storage. What was being communicated there was not constructive, however that may be in part due to the fact that they were drawing upon personally stored imprints (the social/sexual circuit), as opposed to the 3rd and 5th circuits, which are typically harder to recall correctly and are therefore stored in text or images (i.e., on the net).

The GB has all of this data at her hands as well, and this would likely serve as the largest content of her long term memory. This trivial stuff is the most common occurrence because it IS trivial, and therefore does not need to be stored in the long term. The important stuff will be recorded on a more permanent basis, and reflected in places like wikipedia and google docs, where the data will be easily found by everyone. In other words, it's a GOOD thing.

TJ said...

The consensus of the respondants seems to be that since a higher-level conciousness is composed of bits of lower-level messages that have no meaning on the higher level, we needn't be concerned that the inanity of most of the web will create a conciousness that reflects it.

A question that arises: is the inverse true? IE, are all the enlightened and lucid thoughts of the web philosophers equally meaningless to the conciousness to which they contribute?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne.

Please check out this reference which points out the "global moron" has already overtaken us.

www.ispeace723.org/youthepeople.html

Plus

www.coteda.com/fundamentals/index.html

Anonymous said...

Yeah, this is an old post, but I feel compelled to respond:

(1) Yes, most Internet traffic is crap, gossip, sex, etc. But we evolved for that, and it isn't as trivial as it sounds (esp. from the point of view of our genes).

(2) Triviality is more likely a sign of a free society than a horrible dysfunction. A society obsessed with grand / noble / epic / deep thoughts is likely to be totalitarian. The 1930's Japanese, Nazi's and Stalinists all hated the triviality of the West (jazz, loose women, stupid movies).

These proto-AIs (totalitarian state institutions as warped distributed cognitive systems) sucked. Perhaps AI's that enjoy mindless trivia will be less likely to gas, nuke, or consume you in gray goo.

Cheers!

Jordan said...

"Perhaps AI's that enjoy mindless trivia will be less likely to gas, nuke, or consume you in gray goo."

In all seriousness I believe that is the best proposal for how to insure Friendly AI I've ever heard.

Khannea Suntzu said...

Do re-read Larry Niven's 'protector' and some other 'known space' books.

...breeders right?