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The Making of the Global Brain

There are curious parallels between the human brain and human society. The 100 billion or so neurons that make up the brain are deeply connected. Each neuron can trigger approximately 1,000 other neurons. By firing other neurons in turn, any two neurons in the brain are separated by no more than four or five steps. All of our thought and behavior emerge from the interactions between these billions of neurons. Human society looks increasingly similar. The world's population is around six billion. The average person in the developed world knows around 300 other people, and the vast majority of people in the world are now connected by less than six steps.

Soaring connectivity is giving rise to what increasingly resembles a global brain. The idea is hardly new. Early proponents include the 19th century evolutionary biologist Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," and science fiction writer H. G. Wells, who wrote a book, World Brain, outlining his vision for human minds coming together as one. The revolutionary mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin introduced the term noösphere, meaning the global domain of mind. However, communication technology—the domain of hard-nosed engineers—now allows the incredibly rich flow of information and ideas that creates this single mind and that can integrate all of our intelligence and insight.

This is far more about many people who are connected, rather than the connections themselves. Ideas are the still the sole domain of people, despite the latest advances in artificial intelligence. There are two key aspects to this thinking process of the global brain and the individual minds that comprise it. The first is generating and developing ideas. The second is filtering the universe of information, paying attention only to what is important and useful.

The Sexual Life of Ideas

Ideas don't like being alone. In fact they like copulating promiscuously with any other idea in sight. There is no such thing as a virgin birth in the world of ideas. Ideas are always born from other ideas: interacting, mating, and procreating. This often orgiastic coupling takes place in the fertile substrate that is the human mind. Our minds are hotbeds of unspeakable activities. Ideas have a life of their own, but they need somewhere to carry on their flirtations and breeding.

In her book The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore suggested that humans are purely and simply carriers for memes, which means ideas or behaviors that can be passed on to others. Our species has evolved to become a more refined vehicle for propagating ideas. One result is the desire to produce and consume mass media that seems so intrinsic to our race. Another is our drive to implement communication technologies, to engage more richly with others, and to publish on the Internet.

Using these new technologies, the ideas in our minds can participate in online discussions, starting from the voyeurism of watching other ideas interacting and playing, to the flirtation of engaging with others, however still fairly safe in the limited self-exposure afforded by a text-only discussion. At the other end of the spectrum, when people get together with the explicit intention of creating intellectual property, ideas are essentially procreating. In the free-flowing sexual life of ideas, one of the key dangers is losing your seminal creativity, bearing offspring without sharing in the rewards. There is no child support due in the world of ideas; rather your children may support you. The most fecund propagators of ideas can choose to intermingle freely with others, or guard their worth carefully, like the expensive semen of a prize racehorse.

Idea-X is an online idea exchange established by consultancy Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. Participants can either propose ideas or ask for ideas to address a specific problem. A suite of tools allows people to see how other members rate each of the ideas and the people proposing them, and to keep track of the best ideas on the site. The problem with Idea-X and similar forums is that everyone can see the ideas and use them as they will. At the other end of the spectrum is PLX Systems, an online market for intellectual property. Participants can buy and sell intellectual property they have generated, but, in order to do so, it must first be legally registered, for example by patent, copyright, or trademark. I examine strategies for those who propagate ideas and generate wealth from them in Chapters 5, 8, and 10.

Collaborative Filtering Saves Humanity!

Effectively filtering the information that assails us is essential for our survival. We would be completely overwhelmed if we were not able to reduce the millions of sensory impressions we receive to something our logical brain can cope with. Schizophrenics can be understood as lacking the usual filters that protect them from being swamped by their sensory input. Instead of perceiving only the outstanding features of their environment, everything stands out for them. The drug LSD works by temporarily disabling our brain's sensory filtering mechanisms.

In the information age, this ability to filter effectively has moved from an essential of survival to one of the primary determinants of success. Information overload is the defining feature of our times. Those who are most effective at making sense of the flood of incoming information and turning it to action lead our world. You can read about them in the Forbes rich list.

Filtering performed at the group level is called collaborative filtering. Instead of everyone individually attempting to make sense of the universe of information we swim in, we can work together. This is not new. Whenever you share a recommendation for a book, movie, or restaurant with a friend, you are collaborating to narrow down the wealth of choices you have available. You don't need to try every book or restaurant yourself in order to find those that you like the most. When people talk about word-of-mouth—usually in the context of marketing—they are referring primarily to the way people share information with friends about what they like . . . or don't like.

Technology now enables this process of collaborative filtering to happen globally rather than simply between friends. A simple but well-known example is the recommendation service of Amazon.com. If you liked a particular book, you can see what others who liked that book are also reading. You can read the comments of people who have read those books. You can far more easily discover new books that are likely to interest you.

Many Web sites—simply by providing links to selected resources—are acting as filters. The search engine Google was a late entrant to a crowded field. When it started business, there were literally dozens of search engines that people used regularly. Google has come from behind to become the top pure search engine. The heart of Google's search algorithm is identifying the sites that have the most links from other sites. Rather than simply identifying Web sites that contain the keywords you are looking for, it shows you those that have proved to be most popular with others. You are benefiting from the exploration and judgments of all other Web surfers, by following what others find useful. More recently, Google is looking at getting users to rate the Web sites they visit in a more overt implementation of collaborative filtering.

Corporations are using collaborative filtering software to make sure their employees only spend time reading the information that is most relevant and interesting to them. The Sun ONE e-business platform incorporates software that takes users' ratings of the value of documents they read, together with their work profiles, to provide people with accurate predictions of how useful they will find any given information. The system's foundation of people's considered opinions of value provides far more accurate ratings than purely technology-based approaches. Throughout this book, I explore some of the vital business implications of collaborative filtering, notably in Chapter 4 on relationships and in Chapter 8 on content distribution. I also look at the role of collaborative filtering in the future of the networks in Chapter 11.

We, the Media

The brilliant visionary Marshall McLuhan accurately described the media as an extension of our senses. Your eyes can see what's happening in your immediate vicinity, and your ears can hear what people are saying in the same room as you. However, with television and radio as an adjunct to your senses, you can see and hear anywhere around the world. All of the cameras and microphones of the world's media are an extension of your eyes and ears, and journalists are your personal emissaries to report on their findings and impressions.

Now connectivity is extending your senses to all the connected people on this planet. Media is becoming a participatory sport. You can tap into what any of a vast army of people are seeing and thinking or can contribute yourself to the global flow. This certainly doesn't mean the end of mass media. Most people will always choose to access a common frame on the world that gives views of politics, society, and entertainment and provide a basis for interaction and discussion. However, the new world of media is at the heart of how the networks are coming to life.

Go to the Slashdot news Web site for the technology community, and it looks much the same as many other news services for that audience. The difference is that the stories are all submitted by readers, reflecting what they believe to be most important news to their peers. At least as important as the actual news is the commentary from the highly sophisticated community. All participants can rate how interesting and useful each comment is, so readers can choose to view comments with whatever rating level they choose, from everything to only the very best. An elaborate system gives temporary special privileges to those whose contributions are judged most valuable by the community. Because the software behind the system is openly available, more than 100 other Web sites, each with a different focus and community, are using the same system.

As you saw at the opening of this chapter, weblogs are the stream of consciousness of the networks. Now more than half a million bloggers—as weblog writers call themselves—regularly post their thoughts and links to interesting material. Some of the best-known bloggers, such as Dave Winer of Scripting News, attract tens of thousands of readers every day. Sometimes bloggers report news directly. It's increasingly common for conference organizers to provide wireless connectivity in conference rooms, which means you can sometimes almost feel like you're there just with Internet access. Dan Gillmor, who is both a reporter for the San Jose Mercury and a weblog devotee, was writing directly into his blog during a presentation at PC Forum. Before the question session, the speaker had time to look at his laptop, and on stage corrected something Gillmor had just written. Many other mainstream journalists are doing weblogs, blurring the boundary between established media and this burgeoning new medium.

The highly interlinked nature of weblogs means that they are in themselves a powerful form of collaborative filtering. What is most interesting and worthwhile quickly becomes most visible, as we saw at the beginning of this chapter. This effect is enhanced further by specialist search engines. Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Media Lab provides a "top hits" site that searches all the weblogs each day to identify the most common links. Every day you can discover what this large and diverse community of often quirky people consider the most interesting news and Web sites, and if you want, you can include your own weblog in the daily tally. Not surprisingly, the results are usually rather different from the newspaper or TV news headlines.

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