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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???)