One Big Brain

Conor Friedersdorf

Bob Wright:

...technology is weaving humans into electronic webs that resemble big brains -- corporations, online hobby groups, far-flung N.G.O.s. And I personally don't think it's outlandish to talk about us being, increasingly, neurons in a giant superorganism; certainly an observer from outer space, watching the emergence of the Internet, could be excused for looking at us that way. In fact, the superorganism scenario is in a sense just the cosmic flip side of the diagnosis offered by Carr and other techno-skeptics.

To begin with, note that the new technologies, though derided by some of these skeptics for eroding the simple social bonds of yesteryear, are creating new social bonds. We're not just being lured away from kin and next-door neighbors by machines; we're being lured away by other people -- people on Facebook, people in our inbox, people who write columns about giant superorganisms.

And, as the author Steven Johnson recently noted, these social connections, though so distracting that it's hard to focus on any task for long, nonetheless bring new efficiencies. In a given hour of failing to focus, you may: 1) check your e-mail and receive key input from a colleague as well as a lunch confirmation from a friend; 2) check Facebook and be led by a friend to an article that bears on your political passions, while also checking out the Web site of a group that harnesses that passion, giving you a channel for activism; 3) and, yes, waste some time reading or watching something frivolous.

But frivolity isn't a recent invention. On balance, technology is letting people link up with more and more people who share a vocational or avocational interest. And it's at this level, the social level, that the new efficiencies reside. The fact that we don't feel efficient -- that we feel, as Carr puts it, like "chronic scatterbrains" -- is in a sense the source of the new efficiencies; the scattering of attention among lots of tasks is what allows us to add value to lots of social endeavors. The incoherence of the individual mind lends coherence to group minds.

Read the rest here. And a followup here.



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