Resident colleague Ben links to the following article:
In Embryos, Galaxies, and Sentient Beings: How the Universe Makes Life, an exquisitely written and astonishingly insightful book, Richard Grossinger writes about ‘infoldedeness’, stating that “the universe is comprehensible only as a thing that has been folded many times upon itself.” Reversing Grossinger’s idea: the outfolding of the human mind, the collective sharing of our thoughts, myriad thoughts from the inane to the mundane to the profound, enabled by technology, is changing our perception of reality and thus changing reality itself.
Surely technology is changing the world (the closest thing I know to ‘reality’), since technology is precisely in the business of changing the world. And certainly the internet as a medium for social interaction has profoundly influenced the course of this change. However, our thoughts are by their very nature shared and collective. Technology has at best expanded the scope of the collective itself. In other words, minds haven’t changed. We have. To mistake this change for a new global consciousness is precisely to miss the trees for the forest. You must first understand what we are doing before you can understand the networked superorganism we have become, and above all else this requires settling reference of the paradoxical first person plural pronoun ‘we’.
Daou argues that Twitter represents something like a global, networked manifestation of collective human consciousness, implying that we have somehow become singular and unified through our connected technologies. I think this is the wrong way to think about social media, mostly because of the unnecessary emphasis on ‘humanity’. If anything, the global collective is represented as much by the technology itself as its human operators. When we learned to ride horses, it would have been improper to note that man has learned to gallop on all fours. What we have learned to do with Internet is as much a collaborative effort between ourselves and our machines as horse riding is a collaborative effort between ourselves and our beasts of burden. Twitter is the work horse assisting in the production of social change, and recognizing its role in this production ought to have significant consequences for the way we think about the social network community.
Careful consideration about the specifics of the technology would lead one to revise a lot of the claims being made. For instance, Daou says:
For the first time, we are thinking aloud unfettered and unfiltered by mass media gatekeepers.
Perhaps this is right. The revolution will not be televised, but it will almost certainly be Twittered, and Iranian protesters and our own State Department is keenly aware. But we should ask: where were those gatekeepers stationed, and how long before they move their gates?
With traditional media (newspapers, television, radio), the gatekeepers have been the content producers, who had the infrastructural support to feed constant, uniform streams of information to countless recipients. This emphatically does not represent a limitation or filter on individual thought, and individuals have long had the right to make their voices heard. The gatekeeper’s power rested in a near monopoly over the infrastructure necessary to distribute information, and perhaps more importantly, the legitimacy that such a monopoly affords. This did not stop independent voices from being heard, it simply drowned them out with high powered transmitters.
Networked media has changed this model, but its liberating effects are not as clear cut as Daou seems to think. The means for content production have been democratized, and at least on this side of the digital divide individuals can produce and distribute information cheaply and effectively. But this has not produced genuine competition to the wired media model, which apart from a few tragic missteps has more or less successful encroached on the networked landscape. Instead, it has produced a cacophony of individual voices, nearly all of which are mundane and underproduced. Instead of being drowned out by a high powered transmitter, we are each competing to be heard above the din of our neighbors, who are many and global. We were at the mercy of a flowing river; now that the dams have broken, we are lost in an oppressive sea.
Has this really generated the ideal of global consciousness? My television stays off most of the week, and I haven’t subscribed to a newspaper in a decade; aside from NPR, my radio is fed by Pandora from the cloud. Instead, I stare blankly at a constant input stream of Tweets and Facebook status updates and RSS feeds. These feeds are originating from global sources to be sure, and I can interact with them at my will, but my interactions rarely reach a global audience, or if they do I have been largely lost in that transition; my speech is largely stripped of its source, augmented and repackaged to fit the preferences and advertising demographics of other end users with whom I otherwise have no connection. The fact that I have stated my opinion on some topic matters much less than the ability to aggregate the opinions of hundreds of others whose opinions are indistinguishable from mine. Perhaps I have as much say in the network as an individual neuron in an unimaginably complex brain, but is this cause to celebrate? Daou glosses over these questions with an ill-conceived quasi-mystical allusion to quantum mechanics:
… there is a curious parallel between what’s taking place on Twitter (and other similar platforms) and quantum entanglement, that bizarre and quasi-spiritual correlation between remote particles, a complementariness that defies our conception of time and space.
Such comparisons are really unfortunate, since they relegate the complexities of technologically mediated social interactions to the realm of magic and spirituality, which is wholly antithetical to the project of understanding the nature of technology and the consequences of its changes. We should make the effort to understand the network on its own terms instead of standing paralyzed in awe and worship. What bugs me more is that, despite Daou’s mystical treatment, he still feels entitled to make genuine predictions on future technological advancement:
This outfolding is at an early stage, and eventually the various ways in which it is manifested – solipsistic profiles on Facebook and MySpace, instantaneous mass communication on Twitter, mind-melding on blogs, self-broadcasting on YouTube, virtual identities in Second Life – will merge. At that point, we’ll be wearing our brains on the outside, metaphorically.
If the comparison to quantum mechanics is apt, then such a prediction is manifestly absurd. So abandon the mystery. What sense can we make of the network, and our place in it? Is it really the manifestation of our collective consciousness, finally unified after tens of thousands of years?
I have a hard time identifying this aggregate as the collective mental efforts of hundreds of individuals unified by purpose and standardized by technology. After all, none of us have performed these feats of aggregation. This information is not collected, distributed, organized, or maintained by us. This information, this collected body of knowledge which Daou thinks represents humanity, is under the exclusive oversight of our machines. We have entrusted our machines to manage our collective glossolalia.
This is precisely why the sea of information is both oppressive and has affected such radical social change. We are lost, but not misguided. Our guides are our machines. Twitter organizes information to be easy to find, if you want it, and this process absolutely requires stripping that information of its individual sources, in a sense to dehumanize it, and to present it contextualized by the countless alternative sources for nearly indistinguishable information. Google has made the billions of webpages and trillions of words on the net searchable, and this is an essentially and necessarily inhuman feat.
We each come at this information with distinct, often competing purposes, and our machines reconfigure themselves to suit our requests on demand and in real time. This social dance of human-machine interaction sustains the illusion (and it is just an illusion) that our machines are operating solely as expressions of our will, and that we maintain dominion over their operation. Combined with a bit of metamagical thinking, you have Daou’s thesis that the internet foments the collective conscious.
I propose that the internet doesn’t just represent us meager humans as the collective voice of our otherwise unheard cries. Instead, the internet represents a new entity entirely, and one that none of us can genuinely take credit for, individually or collectively, since ‘we’ are not the only ones involved. We all contribute to its success but are unable to identify with it, since it speaks in a voice that is largely alien to us. It is an entity that is controlled, structured, and realized by machines that most of us do not understand but are entirely dependent upon. It is an entity that often surprises us even when it reflects our contributions.
It is, in a word, an artificial intelligence: not just the coming together of individuals, but the creation of something new entirely, a thing that learns from us through stealing and seduction. It is not the expression our our minds, but its cooption.