Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Towards a Singularity? The Web as the Global Brain

-- By AlexanderWong - 24 Feb 2012


Modern technology has been responsible for tremendous changes within society and the world at large. Among the most significant developments is the net. The transformative effects of the net cannot be understated. It has facilitated the rapid flow, transfer, and storage of information in an unparalleled manner. Never before have physical limitations and boundaries meant so little with regards to the dissemination of ideas.

This gets off the ground much too slowly. Three sentences, sixty-four words in, and I'm nowhere near an idea of yours yet.

Yet beyond the immediate implications of information sharing is the possibility for something greater. The ability to connect people and ideas from across the world introduces the possibility of deeper collaboration through distributed intelligence Such is the principle behind the Global Brain, the belief that the web can serve as a collective intelligence, linking distant populaces into a cohesive network of ideas, resulting in a sum that is far greater than its parts. Much of the discussion surrounding the idea of the Global Brain has been grounded in highly theoretical discussions about the utopian consequences of the net as a collective consciousness, essentially serving as a sentient representation of all those connected to it. Yet, beyond the theoretical exploration of the Global Brain is a more simplistic and practical assessment of the potential power of the net. The upshot of this mass assimilation of ideas through the net would be the ability to create an innovative, well informed, and interconnected global society with constant inflow and integration of new information at a rapid pace, resulting in collectivity in thought and actions through information symmetry, rather than through an idea grounded in net self-sentience.

All of this means, "The Net a creates a superorganism by endowing us all with an extraskeletal nervous system, linking all humanity. Right now, there's no consciousness in the network as opposed to the human brains it connects." It's true, but not a very interesting point, the Web itself being less than eight thousand days old. When, like writing, it has become a few thousand years old, where do you imagine humanity will be keeping its consciousness?

Theoretical Background

The theoretical underpinnings to the ideas within the Global Brain can be found from a number of sources, drawing inspiration from both philosophical and scientific observations.


Emile Durkheim's theories of collective consciousness focused on social norms such as religion and class structure as the unifying elements that influenced common thought among those to which it was applicable. His writings suggested that the commonality within those experiences and beliefs resulted in uniformity of thought and decision-making, ultimately influencing and controlling the processes of thought and actions of each individual within the larger collective.


Within nature, scientists have observed behavior from individual organisms in which powerful eusocial bonds are formed, resulting in the creation of a larger superorganism, usually manifest in the form of a hive, nest, or colony. Within the dynamic of the superorganism, individual actors become interconnected parts of a larger social creation, with each part among millions contributing their own intelligence and efforts towards advancing the superorganism. In that sense, the superorganism serves as the guiding consciousness that drives each individual actor within the social construct.

The Net

Within the context of the net, a few useful examples provide insight and illustrations into attempts at collectivizing information and thought.


While the implementation of the Global Brain still largely remains a theoretical concept, already, resources like Wikipedia have shown the enormous potential of collective thinking and the democratization of thought. Wikipedia presents a model for distributed intelligence that highlights the power of collaborative effort, while also emphasizing the value of a universal participatory system through a format that promotes constant reevaluation and rapid integration of newly acquired information. Wikipedia's structure and editing system allow for ease of accessibility that promotes information transfer and encourages simple and immediate assimilation of new data through updates and revisions.

Semantic Web

The Semantic Web was an attempt to increase the accessibility of information on the net, as one of its primary goals was to develop techniques to allow information to be parsed and catalogued with greater efficiency. The Semantic Web attempted to developed standardized formats to allow diverse and varied information to be integrated and connected together, ignoring application formats and other distinctions that would sever or segregrate information.


To reach the Global Brain's vision of collective information consciousness through the net, a variety of obstacles must be addressed. These issues range from legal problems, such as speech restrictions and copyright controls to more practical concerns about access and format.

Access to Information

It is clear that one of the foundational principles underlying the Global Brain is information. In that respect, the rules governing the dissemination of and access to information must be appropriately tailored to maximize societal utility.

One concern relates to access to information. Restrictive government controls on information and speech through limited protections on speech, as well as active attempts to block information, serve to undermine the information sharing and collectivity enabled by the net, thus preventing the spread of information. Similarly, rigid copyright regimes deny people the ability to share information for extreme periods of time, essentially withholding valuable and socially beneficial data from being assimilated and shared among all.

A more practical issue stems from the lack of high-speed, consistent, and stable access to the net. Without efficient and universal access guarantees, the full utility of net as an information-sharing tool cannot be achieved. Instead, the promise of information awareness will fall flat, especially in areas that are already currently lacking in reliable and affordable access.


A final point relates to the concerns the Semantic Web sought to address, namely the issue of information formats. Proprietary, closed-source file formats create an obstacle to information that is unique to the electronic context. In that respect, if true information awareness and consciousness is to be achieved, an open source tool for implementing that must be developed. Software barriers to information present a serious impediment to the vision of the Global Brain by creating costly asymmetries of information.

The difficulty here is the collapse of scale, from the largest phenomena the Net can embrace over the long term, to a grab-bag of near term phenomena and issues. How humanity will behave, evolving in a hyperconnected superorganism, is a most profound unknown it will probably take centuries to understand. But whether the network is constructed for or against the control of the individual by the technology of the network is the first great issue, decisive of the path on which we so path-dependently travel. You don't describe that issue with any clarity. It would have been helpful, in a way that discussion about the fate of the Semantic Web or the particular triumph that is Wikipedia (or the particular catastrophe that is Facebook) are not.


Webs Webs

r7 - 11 Jan 2013 - 21:48:48 - IanSullivan
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