|

1.1 From organicism to netizens: A brief history of ideas regarding a cognitively-connected world

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Enthusiasm for the intellectual and social potential of machines that could compute, store, and transmit great quantities of information has existed long before their practical implementation and widespread diffusion. The cyberneticist Francis Heylighen tells us these enthusiasms are rooted in ideas pertaining to a unified global intelligence that stretch as far back as antiquity (274). In particular, he identifies three conceptual trends that have contributed to this notion. Organicism, “which sees society or the planet as a living system,” appears as early as the 4th century in works of Aristotle and in the 19th century becomes a seminal metaphor for founding fathers of sociology Auguste Comte, David Émile Durkheim and Herbert Spencer (275). Encyclopediasm, “which aims to develop a universal knowledge network,” was advanced by Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century, and whose influence continues to be palpable in current Internet sites such as Wikipedia or Google search.  Emergentism, “which anticipates the evolution of a suprahuman level of consciousness,” was not theoretically developed until the mid 20th century, but Heylighen traces its roots to ancient mystical traditions such as Buddhism and later forms of American transcendentalism such as manifest in Emerson’s concept of the ”oversoul.”

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In the 20th century, technological advances and globalizing forces would inspire some thinkers to begin to merge these different concepts into a unified metaphor Heylighen calls the “global brain.” The global brain, he writes:

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 is a metaphor for this emerging, collectively intelligent network that is formed by the people of this planet together with the computers, knowledge bases, and communication links that connect them (Mayer-Kress and Barczys 1995). This network is an immensely complex, self-organizing system (Heylighen 2007b). It not only processes information, but can also be seen to play the role of a brain: making decisions, solving problems, learning new connections, and discovering new ideas. No individual, organization or machine is in control of this system: its knowledge and intelligence are distributed over all its components. They emerge from the collective interactions between all the human and machine subsystems. Such a system may be able to tackle current and emerging global problems that have eluded more traditional approaches (Idem 2004).

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Naturally, the occupations, interests, and ideologies of each individual thinker inflected their imagination of the methods and the aims of such a global brain. Naturally, in the early part of the 20th century, these visions did not yet include computing. Nikola Tesla, the physicist who made major contributions to our modern electricity system, instead imagined it in the medium that he helped develop: “When wireless is perfectly applied the whole Earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole … and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared to our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket” (Colliers 1926). These transformations, he argues, will help reduce domestic labor, transportation issues, and allow for the instantaneous transmission of news and information.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 H.G. Wells, the British writer who helped forge the genre of science fiction, also developed a notion of a “world brain” in a series of essays published in 1938. Writing at the brink of World War II, Wells declares the world brain the necessary instrument for working towards world peace. Wells was generally unimpressed with the activities of the universities, believing them to be too out of touch with both the times and the majority of the human population. In one of his essays, he complains, “Why are our universities Boating above the general disorder of mankind like a beautiful sunset over a battlefield?” For Wells, education and knowledge production could and should do more. Any hope of world peace demanded a global education process that would unify the minds of humankind by being “in direct touch with all the original thought and research in the world” as well as extending “its informing tentacles to every intelligent individual in the community–the new world community.” The first step of developing this World Brain would be to create a “World Encyclopedia.” Interestingly, while his vision of this world encyclopedia is institutional and organizational rather than technological, his description of it has many parallels with the networked information environment of the 21st century:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This World Encyclopaedia would be the mental background of every intelligent man in the world. It would be alive and growing and changing continually under revision, extension and replacement from the original thinkers in the world everywhere. Every university and research institution should be feeding it. Every fresh mind should be brought into contact with its standing editorial organisation.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 And also:  

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 A World Encyclopaedia no longer presents itself to a modern imagination as a row of volumes printed and published once for all, but as a sort of mental clearing house for the mind, a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarised, digested, clarified and compared. It would be in continual correspondence with every university, every research institution, every competent discussion, every survey, every statistical bureau in the world. It would develop a directorate and a staff of men of its own type, specialised editors and summarists. They would be very important and distinguished men in the new world. This Encyclopaedic organisation need not be concentrated now in one place; it might have the form of a network. It would centralise mentally but perhaps not physically. Quite possibly it might to a large extent be duplicated. It is its files and its conference rooms which would be the core of its being, the essential Encyclopaedia. It would constitute the material beginning of a real World Brain.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Just after the war, we find what also might be considered a species of the global brain imaginary in Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article for the Atlantic Monthly, “As We May Think.” Bush, the engineer who oversaw the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, wrote the article to suggest a new occupation for the engineers who had recently been relieved of their wartime duties. Though like Wells, Bush is invested in the easy accessibility of the increasingly-abundant store of human knowledge, his imagination of it could not be more different. Whereas Wells imagined institutions and professional organizations distributing knowledge, Bush imagined a technical device called the “memex,” in which “an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.” Bush thought the memex would help update professional methods of transmitting and reviewing knowledge, which Bush observed were “generations old and by now … totally inadequate for their purpose.” While the memex was neither a computer nor a network, the design of the memex aspired to provide many of the same affordances later offered by networked computers. For example, the memex was intended to serve as an extension of human memory, enable individuals to browse the great storehouse of knowledge through associative trails, and allow individuals to easily share their browsing trails with others. But perhaps most interesting of all is the way in which a consideration of war enters his discussion of the memex. For Wells, the world brain was a means to prevent war and foster peace. For Bush, the memex was a tool to produce knowledge, which he considered a “true good” in and of itself. Its only relationship to war was the fact that war would potentially “terminate” human development before such a tool could be realized. Knowledge produced by the memex apparently was not the type that could save the world.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The gradual emergence of the networked digital computer would come to dominate the global brain imaginary in the last quarter of the 20th century. As the availability of networked computing technology slowly rippled beyond the the labs of military and academic engineers, everyday individuals had a chance to explore the social and intellectual potential of networked technologies in earnest. The early events in the development of these technologies however were notably less lofty than the visions set forth by the previously noted speculators, and emerged often as solutions to quotidian problems. Email, for example, emerged in the 1960s out of a primitive system of leaving text files in a folder of a mainframe computer shared by as many as a hundred users. It was a system accessible to the extremely small population of individuals whose work happened to involve a mainframe computer, and even then, these networked individuals could only communicate with their coworkers. In the next few decades, military, academic, and commercial actors further developed the functionalities and power of these technologies while also expanding their use to broader professional spheres and eventually the consumer market. Arpanet, the Internet’s precursor, was launched by an university-military partnership in 1969. Computer bulletin systems, which allowed for community postings and discussion, were developed in 1978.  CompuServe and The Source launched the first commercial online services in 1979, allowing anyone with a computer and a modem to access the internet and the increasingly popular computer bulletin systems. The first networked, text-based, multiplayer game, known as a “Multi User Dungeon (MUD)” was released in 1980 (Kelly & Rheingold 1993). Usenet, a highly-influential online discussion forum, was launched by two graduate students in 1980, followed by the university network Bitnet in 1981, and the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link in 1985. Listserv software, which allowed for one-to-many email, was released in 1986. Altogether, these developments enabled an increasing number of users to experience for themselves ways in which networked technology created new modes of building community, and sharing and producing knowledge.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Alongside these technical developments, discussion continued to develop around the best way to shape these emerging technologies and their broader social and intellectual effects. However, in distinction to the visions offered by Tesla, Wells, and Bush that advocated for broadened accessibility of expert forms of knowledge, these discussions increasingly focused on the political, intellectual, and social value of technologies that allowed everyday people to exchange and produce information together. Howard Rheingold, clearly enthused by his own experiences with these technologies, provided an early catalogue of these different ideas in his 1985 book Tools for Thought. Of key importance to the book is the way in which computers amplify thought not only through their ability to store and compute great quantities of information, but also through the social communities enabled by their networks. The Pentagon engineers J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Taylor working on the Arpanet project offered one of the earliest articulations of this democratic social value of online communities. In a paper published in 1968, before they even launched Arpanet, they expressed high hopes for computer mediated communication:

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 First, life will be happier for the on-line (sic) individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity. Second, communication will be more effective and productive, and therefore more enjoyable. Third, much communication and interaction will be with programs and programmed models, which will be (a) highly responsive, (b) supplementary to one’s own capabilities, rather than competitive, and (c) capable of representing progressively more complex ideas without necessarily displaying all the levels of their structure at the same time-and which will therefore be both challenging and rewarding. And, fourth, there will be plenty of opportunity for everyone (who can afford a console) to find his calling, for the whole world of information, with all its fields and disciplines, will be open to him—with programs ready to guide him or to help him explore. (40)

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Critically, they also emphasized the importance of democratizing these technologies, arguing that they would be a “boon to humankind…beyond measure,” but only if made a right for all rather than a privilege for a “favored segment of the population.”

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Other thinkers continued to advance encylopediasm and emergentist notions of a networked world and spent their careers working to shape technology and institutions to these visions with mixed results. Douglas Engelbart and Murray Turoff, two specialists in computing, began to theorize in the sixties about the ways networked communication could give rise to new forms of collective intelligence needed for today’s “urgent problems.” During this same time, Ted Nelson,  then a philosophy graduate student at Harvard University, began to dream up a way that networked technology could be used to organize, produce, and distribute knowledge in more powerful ways, such as through two-way links and versioning systems. In 1960 he founded Project Xanadu as an initiative to carry out some of these ideas, and later documented them in what is widely-regarded as the first book on the personal computer, Computer Lib/Dream Machines (1974).  Also notable in this book is his still-radical argument that users should be able to understand the technology running their machines, and that artists and visionaries need to be part of the process of imagining these global systems.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Though Rheingold is clearly enthusiastic about these technologies, he stresses that their ethical outcome is still uncertain: “Nobody knows whether this will turn out to be the best or the worst thing the human race has done for itself, because the outcome of this empowerment will depend in large part on how we react to it and what we choose to do with it.” However, in his description of the way the personal computer is enabling more individuals to freely communicate with others, we can detect a latent conceptualization of these technologies as having democratic potential. In the decade following his book’s publication, this concept would come to be directly articulated by a surge of new writers and advocates as well as by Rheingold himself. The 1990s proved a fruitful time to reflect on the networked digital culture experienced by a small but highly-active networked population, and scholars and writers began to theorize these activities as representing a new type of two-way public sphere that consisted of access to both information and to publication. Media scholar Henry Jenkins published Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture (1992)which explores the ways fans use networked technology to take a more active role in producing or interacting with the cultural forms they consume. A year later, Rheingold discussed his experiences with computer mediated communication technologies developed in the 1980s such as Well and IRC in The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993). But the 1990s was also a pivotal decade for writing on aspects of networked society as it suddenly became a much more visible and accessible technology with the public release of the world wide web in 1991. Throughout the 1990s, organizations such as libraries and governmental agencies experimented with the web for distributing information while hundreds of books, articles, and conference proceedings were published on topics pertaining to networked digital society, such as The Wired Neighborhood (1996); Community Networks: Lessons from Blacksburg, Virginia (1997); Cyberdemocracy: Technology, Cities, and Civic Networks (1998), The Networked Nation (1993), CyberSociety: Computer Mediated Communication and Community of Media (1995). Wired magazine, the self-touted “Rolling Stone of technology,” was launched in 1993. The Computer-Mediated Communication magazine launched in 1994. Michael Hauben, an early adopter and advocate of networked technologies, published his highly influential account of early computer-mediated technologies in Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet in 1997.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 In the early 2000s, networked technologies went through additional transformations starting with the sheer quantity of users. In 1995 there were almost 45 million Internet users, by 2005 that number more than doubled to more than 1 billion Internet users. Alongside this increase in the user population came a flood of new platforms and services often described as “Web 2.0” technologies that enabled users to produce, distribute, and access information in novel social and intellectual ways, and often for free. These technologies included the content management system Drupal (2000), the crowd-sourced encyclopedia Wikipedia (2001), blogging platforms like WordPress (2003) and Blogger (2003), the virtual gaming platform Second Life (2003), the social network Facebook (2004), the restaurant review platform Yelp (2004), the video sharing platform YouTube (2005), the micro-blogging site Twitter (2006), and a suite of tools offered by Google, such as the collaborative writing platform Google Docs (2004), Google Books (2004), and Google Maps (2005).

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The explosion of activity that occurred on these platforms fueled wide-ranging scholarly and popular discussion about the value of these new forms of user-driven cultural production and exchange, many of them from an optimistic perspective. As media scholar Jose van Dijck writes, “between 2000 and 2006, quite a few media theorists claimed that Web 2.0 applications

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 exponentially enhanced the natural human need to connect and create, and they declared early victory for the user” (Culture 10). Rheingold focused on the affordances of networked mobile technologies in his book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (2002). Jenkins’ extended and updated his prior work on online fan culture with Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture in 2006. He also advocated for the adoption of these online practices in education in a co-authored whitepaper Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (2006). Other optimistic discussions of networked technologies are found in Internet critic Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008) and media theorist Alex Bruns’ Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage, which celebrates the emergence of a new class of “produsers.” In 2006, Time Magazine named “You” as the Person of the Year, highlighting how new networked technologies were allowing users to “change the world” by “wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing” (van Dijck 11).  For some, this narrative of empowered users was further confirmed in the following years as networked technologies such as mobile phones, Twitter, and Facebook played a visible supporting role in political events and movements such as the Egyptian Revolution, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter. Though some critics such as Eugene Morozov pushed back against utopian accounts of these networked digital technologies (2012), and others such as Nicholas Carr and Sherry Turkle argued they were making us stupider and more socially isolated, discourse surrounding networked digital technology in academic, popular, and commercial spheres continued to emphasize its liberatory and transformative potential. Metaphors describing these technologies in terms of a global thinking apparatus continue to populate discourse, such as in Jean-Claude Guédon’s reflective essay “Open Access: Towards the Internet of the Mind.”

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Though countless theorists have observed the positive affordances of networked digital technology, there are three whose ideas are particularly worth noting given their influence and the ways in which they either theoretically ground popular notions or are informed by direct contact with the industry of digital products and services. Legal scholar Yochai Benkler, media scholar and educational advocate Henry Jenkins (whose work I have briefly mentioned), and technology writer Kevin Kelly, all offer important perspectives on the economic, political, cultural and social transformations occurring on account of networked digital technology. This is not to say that these thinkers are uncritical of the emerging technological environment. Each in their own way and to varying degrees urges for political and social direction so as to realize the full potential of these technologies. In my next section, I will give an overview of their ideas as a representation of some of the most optimistic and informed positive accounts of the web.

Source: https://hcommons.org/table-of-contents/chapter-one-alienated-intelligence-the-private-interests-of-the-world-brain/from-organicism-to-netizens-a-brief-history-of-ideas-regarding-a-cognitively-connected-world/

Skip to toolbar