Of course I'm liberal, I believe in liberty.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

A Foreshadowing of the Distant Future? 

There's a fascinating, thought provoking blog entry over at Legal Fiction, "THE INTERNET & TSUNAMI RELIEF - A Foreshadowing of the Distant Future?".
...I think we are quite literally witnessing a phenomenon that has never happened in human history. In a span of days, hundreds of millions of dollars instantly appeared to help the devastated region. Nothing like this has ever happened - not this much, this fast, over the Internet.

In roughly ten years, the human race has constructed a global infrastructure connecting it to each other as never before. I am more convinced than ever that the invention of the Internet is destined to take its place alongside tools, the wheel, agriculture, and the printing press as one of the greatest milestones in the history of the human race...
I agree. The Internet has created a fundamental paradigm shift on how the world operates and how we view each other; it has all happened at a dizzyingly fast pace. I often remind my eight year old daughter that the Internet really isn't any older than she is. As a girl who only developed the habit of good spelling to improve her Google searches, she has a hard time imagining that time long, long ago where if someone didn't know something they would either have to go to a library or just live with the ignorance. In her world, answers and knowledge are always a click away. Once while playing a video game I wasn't sure what to do next to defeat some boss I was battling, so she ran upstairs to her room while I thought about it; a few moments later she came down and told me a strategy that worked for someone else. That's her world.

On the emotional side, the other night I spent a few hours clicking though the "Next Blog" link at the top of my blog (blogspot puts it there) and it was fascinating. I found a 12 year old girl in Malaysia with exactly the same interests as my daughter (well, plus boys to a bit), a women posting her family's move from America to Africa and a boy in Indonesia that just discovered the cool lyrics to Hotel California. I'll admit I teared up a bit1; the world never seemed smaller.
...this infrastructure also the potential to bring the world together – to connect it within a larger global market and information infrastructure. Railroads, telegraphs, radios, and television all helped transform the United States from a collection of bickering states into a nation. Today, even though we root for our home states in sports events, we would never dream of fighting a war for them.

The ultimate goal of humankind should be to replicate this evolution on a global scale. The great promise of the Internet and global markets is to draw the world together and make it interdependent. Though I will never live to see it, I would hope that the world will one day treat the idea of nations and nationalism as antiquated relics from a distant past. I want nationalism to become limited to soccer games. The end of nations – that is both the dream, and the logical implication, of globalization over the very long-term...
On the other hand, how would someone in 1940's France or Germany would feel about the two countries sharing the same constitution, not by conquest but by choice. The world is moving very, very fast right now; it is almost impossible to tell where we will end up in even the very near future. I feel we are at a critical point in history where many different outcomes are possbile. My biggest fear is every mistake George Bush makes will be magnified a thousand times over. There are real reasons this was the "most important election ever" and we lost.
Anyway, the most frightening aspect of their argument was that as “Empire” grows, it becomes more vulnerable. Because it is for all practical purposes a growing organism that has no true center (like the Internet), a collapse at any one point could bring the whole thing down. For example, when the world is truly interconnected within “Empire,” a financial crisis in Thailand or Argentina could bring down the whole thing – as could a terrorist attack that caused the world’s markets or cyber-infrastructure to collapse...

As much as I reject their values, I fear they may be prophetic. In an interdependent world, we are just that – interdependent. A collapse in any one place could cause a massive chain reaction that sucked us all down into the abyss. If we're all tied together, any one who falls in the water could drown everyone.
Yes and no. The odds of the entire planet failing may go up, but the odds of any individual area failing goes down because the rest of us are there to help, just like with the tsunami relief. This is sort of the opposite of the nuclear problem. Back in the cold war the odds of total global catastrophe was relatively high; today the human species is safe from nuclear extinction, but the odds of a single bomb going off in, say, London or Washington is much higher. Hmmm, perhaps the internet issue and the nuclear issue cancel each other out...

Actually, this dual dynamic is everywhere. Just as the internet is connecting us it also makes it much easier to find others that think just like we do. We are simultaneously entering an era of great unity and great polarization. How these forces interact going forward could be anyone's guess.
Before I finish, I want to make one last point about the rise of the Internet and its potential implications. And here’s where I’m going to get science-fictiony, so indulge me. I suspect the day is coming when computers will able to interface with the human brain. Maybe it will be one hundred years, maybe it will be a thousand. I don’t know. But I think the day is coming. If and when that happens, I’m not sure that we’ll actually be humans in the same sense that we are today. If you and I can connect in a similar way that two computers can, would it be coherent to say that we are still different entities? If you and I can download each other’s mind into our own, would we still be different?

My point is that I can imagine a day where human existence evolves into something more collective and more like a computer network. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the great interfacing happens in the year 2500. If it does, it would be wrong to think that it happened overnight. In reality, the evolution would have occurred gradually and along a spectrum through time. Thus, the rise of human communities on the Internet may eventually come to be seen as a link between earlier human life and future human life in the same way that certain primate species link us to our ancestors. In other words, maybe we are witnessing the rise of something post-human in something as unlikely as tsunami aid. Emailing, instant messaging, blogging – perhaps these will be seen as points along the road toward something truly different.
Though he doesn't use the term, he's describing the singularity (that's the phenomena, not the world famous prog group from Denver). It is fair to claim humans trumped the evolutionary arms race when we learned to develop tools and pass on that information to our decedents; we now 'evolve' exponentially faster than any other creature. The prophesied singularity trumps our tools by allowing intelligence itself to grow exponentially, adding another exponent to our2 evolutionary advantage.

Anyway, that's a great, thought provoking post. Read the whole thing.

1 Hey, it was really, really late. The next one of you to call me a girly-man is going to get it; I'm going to kick your ass! Yea, that's what I thought; sit back down.

2 Of course, the definition of 'our' is debatable here. If this happens, will we still be us?