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Perspectives on the Internet

If I look back over the last couple decades, it's quite clear that I have progressively used the internet to accomplish more and more of the things I do in life. I'm dependent on it to do my daily work, I do a significant amount of my shopping online, and I spend a fair amount of my leisure time reading, researching, and playing on the web.

It's also clear that the internet has many orders of magnitude more function and utility than the insignificant things that I do with it. Its inputs from other people are vast. Its capacity is enormous. And its uses, both in number and power, are incomprehensible. In some ways the internet can be thought of as an extension of yourself, and in other ways it is its own organism with its own emergent behavior, completely outside of anyone's control. This connection between each of us as individuals and the intricate global network tying us closer together is a fascinating thing to contemplate.

Enhancing the Individual

From the perspective of the individual, the internet provides a massive amount of additional memory storage. If we think of the human brain as a memory hierarchy like that in a computer, the fastest and smallest memory we have is short-term memory. It's generally accepted to have a capacity of a few seconds, or about 7±2 elements. That would be analogous to a processor's register set that's used for immediate processing and transfer of information.

The next level up in the human brain is also the last level contained within the brain—long-term memory. It's still relatively fast compared to how fast we can think, but it can be somewhat unreliable. Memories generally need to be recalled periodically or stored with strong emotions to be remembered for long periods of time. We generally need to go through many repetitions to learn things so that they will be reliably stored in long-term memory, and memories can get swapped out without any knowledge that they've been lost. This memory structure is a lot like the multilevel cache system in a processor, with each level storing more information for longer periods of time, but it takes longer to recall the information at higher levels.

After cache, a computer has a main memory store that contains more permanent information than the cache. It takes much longer to load information from this memory into the processor, but because it is so much larger than the caches, it is much more likely that the necessary information is there. Main memory has no analogue in the human brain, but we could think of it as all of the information we keep on hand about our lives in physical form: pictures, videos, notes, and other kinds of records.

The next level of storage in a computer is the hard drive. Until recently, there was no human equivalent to this level of storage. This is where the internet comes in, but it's much, much bigger than a single hard drive. It's more like a huge rack of hard drives—petabytes of information compared to the gigabytes of information in our physical records or the megabytes of information we remember in our own memories. It's an incredibly massive amount of information, and it takes a much longer time to find what you're looking for compared to recalling something from your own memory.

This vast amount of information is also largely unknown to you because it's not your own memories, so you need a good way to search through all of it to find what you need. Enter Google. Those of us who grew up before the internet have had to learn new strategies for searching this huge store of information, and while we're pretty good at it, the newer generations may be much more well equipped to deal with this new tool because they're growing up using it.

People are changing the way they remember information from remembering the details about something to remembering where and how to find it on the internet. Becoming more dependent on the internet could be seen as a disadvantage, but it also enables much wider access to much more information, if we can only find it, filter out misinformation, and interpret the right information correctly to put it to good use. The potential benefits of the internet as an extension of our own memories are truly awesome.

Evolving to the Internet

While the impact of the internet on the individual is impressive, that is far from the only way things are changing. The internet and mobile computing are the most recent big advances in human communication, and that impacts how we advance as a civilization. The ability to communicate is fundamental to our development and technological progress.

Communication is composed of two things—a medium for storage of information and a method of transmission of that information. Every advance in communication has improved both storage and transmission in some way. Storage is improved by increasing it's capacity and making it faster to access. Transmission is improved by increasing its availability and reach, increasing its bandwidth, and lowering its latency.

Developing a spoken language was one of the first dramatic improvements we made in communication. With a spoken language it is much easier to transfer ideas from one person to another, and we could more readily learn things from each other like where good hunting spots were or which plants were good to eat and which ones were not. The storage medium was the brain and transmission happened through voice, so both the amount of information and the number of people that could hear it was limited. Knowledge was passed from one tribe to the next and one generation to the next through stories and songs that could be easily remembered and recited.

Writing down our thoughts was a huge improvement over the oral tradition. Once we developed writing and drawing, we could put our thoughts down more permanently and the amount of information we could retain as a society went up dramatically. We could also make copies of that information and distribute it so that ideas had a much wider reach than they did before.

Written copies took a long time to produce, especially of longer works. An entire workforce of scholars and monks existed for the primary purpose of copying the Bible. The invention of the printing press completely changed that dynamic by making duplication cheap, fast, and reproducible. Suddenly ideas could be distributed to broad segments of the population, and people could read it first hand. All they had to do was learn how to read, a skill that most people didn't need to have previously. The printing press drastically increased people's access to information and shortened the connection between the author and their readership.

The telegraph, telephone, radio, and television all changed the medium of transmission from paper to electrical wires, increasing both the speed and reach of communication. Now ideas could be transmitted around the world nearly instantaneously. The telephone kept the connections one-to-one, but radio and television expanded that to one-to-many communication. The storage medium also improved with tape and film able to hold orders of magnitude more information than paper.

That brings us to the internet, which improved every aspect of communication. Storage capacities exploded with all of the hard drives in racks upon racks of servers, all connected together. Access times plummeted with all of the hardware and software developed to enable automated searching and retrieval of information on high-speed data lines. Transmission expanded to many-to-many connections. Anyone with access to the internet could both produce and consume information with infinite ease. Bandwidth continues to expand rapidly, and now transmission of text, audio, and video is widespread.

Mobile devices, wireless networks, and cell networks are improving communication even further by allowing you to access the internet wherever you go, as long as you can get a signal, of course. We are getting closer and closer to always being connected together, whether that's good or bad for us. We can choose to switch off, but the overall trend is that the human population is getting more connected for longer periods of time with higher bandwidth and lower latency. That isn't a new development with the internet, either. It has been happening incrementally with every advancement in communication.

A Global Network of People and Computers

It's interesting to step back and think about what the internet could be in an even broader sense. To do that, let's think first about atoms. Atoms communicate. They have storage that holds information such as their quantum state, their mass, and their velocity. They transmit information to other atoms through the electromagnetic, strong, weak, and gravitational forces. Everything that we experience in this universe is build upon this communication structure.

Now think about your own brain. It's made up of neurons that communicate. They store information chemically in their cell structure and structurally through connections to other neurons. They transmit information through electrical charge internally and through chemical processes from neuron to neuron. All of the thoughts and memories you have—your very consciousness—comes from the communication between neurons in your brain.

What does that mean for the internet? It's made up of massive amounts of storage, both in the form of hard drives and human brains, and trillions of incredibly fast connections between servers, devices, and human interfaces. Maybe the internet is already a form of global intelligence, but not the way it's normally portrayed in science fiction as a separate sentient artificial intelligence, whether for good or evil. Maybe the immense amount of storage and network connections, including us humans, that makes up the internet already makes a higher-order intelligence than the collection of individual people would alone.

Think about the emergent behaviors that are coming out of the internet. Social and political movements are happening almost daily now that are orchestrated through the internet. The global economy is utterly dependent on the internet to function and continue growing. Our culture is more strongly shaped by things that happen over the internet every year. Clay Shirky relates all kinds of these emergent behaviors in his books, and I'm sure we'll continue to see even more powerful examples in the future.

While the internet is made up of individual sentient beings and the artificial hardware and software they created, no individual has significant control over the internet or what happens through it. Sure, there are leaders that drive movements or social change, but even they don't have control over what will happen as a result of these movements.

The internet has other characteristics of living organisms in addition to this lack of central control. It's an extremely redundant system, and getting more so all the time. Taking out any individual element has essentially no effect on the functions of the system. Taking out major communication trunks or large server farms would cause problems, but individual components are expendable. It also has defense mechanisms to combat invasive attacks from viruses and worms. We think of these defenses as coming from the programmers fighting the viruses (and their creators), but the defenses are being incorporated into the system over time.

The internet heals itself when it suffers damage, both by repairing the damaged areas and routing around them through its redundant channels. Again, people do a lot of the repair work, but in this way of thinking, people are an integral part of the internet organism. We are part of what makes the entire system work, similar to how all of the interconnections of all of those individual neurons makes your brain work.

As more people and more hardware are added, the system continues to grow and change, with new capabilities developing as it reaches new sizes. What will it become in the future? Will it develop a higher-order intelligence that supersedes our own? Maybe that's happened already and we don't recognize it because it's so diffuse and distributed. We experience our own local neighborhood of the internet, but no one can fully comprehend its global behaviors and impacts. We are building something unlike anything we have done before. What incredible developments does the future hold?

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