In trying to get a grasp on what the Internet means for communication and information sharing, I keep coming up with the analogy of a nervous system. If all the people in the world constitute the “body,” the Internet has quickly evolved into performing a similar role in this body as it does in other bodies. It has senses, receptors and nerves. A toe is stubbed in, let’s say South Africa, and depending on the severity of the stub, the whole body groans in pain.
Looked at this way, the “body” that is the current mass of humanity alive in the second decade of the twenty-first century has gone through an “inflationary period” of evolution. Where before, we had the nervous system more akin to a slug or an earthworm, with only humongous inputs having any real impact on us (I’m talking mass media here), now, the slightest input from billions of receptors can be relayed around the globe in synaptic time.
But, I’m thinking we have evolved a pretty sophisticated nervous system without too much of a brain to make sense of it. That suggests to me we are in a pretty early stage of evolution. I don’t know exactly how many receptors I have in my body connected to my senses. I do know that I can smell a wide variety of things, see multiple things going on, feel pain or other inputs throughout my body, taste the smallest distortion in my morning coffee and do all of that at the same time. The inputs coming from all the nerve receptors are nearly continuous, and if my brain didn’t have the ability to quickly filter out the noise from what I really need to focus on, I’d be in big trouble. Chances are I’d just go into some kind of shutdown to avoid all the noise that didn’t make sense anyway.
In one way, that’s where we are today. The biggest challenge in emergency management related to the explosion of social media and how it is being used in disasters and emergencies is how to filter all the noise coming from hundreds or thousands of receptors and “nerves” and turn it into actionable intelligence. We have the nervous system, but do we have the brain power we need?
This article from New York Times made me think about this nervous system/brain/global body analogy. I haven’t spent a lot of time on the “content farms” it refers to and frankly, was not aware of the likes of Demand Media, but I’m intrigued about how many people are trying to capitalize on the noise that is today’s Internet. The idea seems to be to figure out what search terms people use, take advantage of Google’s algorithms to drive people to your site where you make money by delivering eyeballs to your paid advertisers. Not all that results from this is junk, of course. Many bloggers, for example, are doing essentially that and providing a lot of worthy content. But, the kind of meaningless, robot or semi-robot generated content that Virginia Heffernan is referring to contributes to the noise.
That’s why the attempt by Google with Panda is so interesting. This game will go on for a long time. But that is not what fascinates me. What is significant is the continual effort of Google and many others to organize the world’s information. We have a body, we even have nerves. Now, we desperately need a brain. We are the Scarecrow in search of the Wizard. Google along with the others trying hard to catch up or surpass Google in organizing the world’s information is already providing that. But it is rudimentary compared to what is needed. And it seems the faster the capability grows to filter and find meaning, the faster the nervous system expands into new and unpredictable directions–making it that much harder to keep pace. Think, for example, of the new AR Drones flying around with two cameras on them. Imagine the data if they were all linked and available on the same network–oh, wait, they are. Imagine what we could see and experience through everyone’s flying these machines around. Imagine where we could go. We have the receptors, the central nervous system, the spinal cord. We really need a brain.