The Global Brain is About to Wake Up

The emerging realtime Web is not only going to speed up the Web and our lives, it is going to bring about a kind of awakening of our collective Global Brain. It’s going to change how many things happen on online, but it’s also going to change how we see and understand what the Web is doing. By speeding up the Web, it will cause processes that used to take weeks or months to unfold online, to happen in days or even minutes. And this will bring these processes to the human-scale — to the scale of our human “now” — making it possible for us to be aware of larger collective processes than before. We have until now been watching the Web in slow motion. As it speeds up, we will begin to see and understand what’s taking place on the Web in a whole new way.

This process of of quickening is part of a larger trend which I and others call “Nowism.” You can read more of my thoughts about Nowism here. Nowism is an orientation that is gaining momentum and will help to shape this decade, and in particular, how the Web unfolds. It is the idea that the present-timeframe (“the now”) is getting more important, shorter and also more information-rich. As this happens our civilization is becoming more focused on the now, and less focused on past or the future. Simply keeping up with the present is becoming an all-consuming challenge: Both a threat and an opportunity.

The realtime Web —  what I call “The Stream”  (see “Welcome to the Stream”) — is changing the unit of now. It’s making it shorter. The now is the span of time which we have to be aware of to be effective our work and lives, and it is getting shorter. On a personal level the now is getting shorter and denser — more information and change is packed into shorter spans of time; a single minute on Twitter is overflowing with potentially relevant messages and links. In business as well, the now is getting shorter and denser — it used to be about the size of a fiscal quarter, then it became a month, then a week, then a day, and now it is probably about half a day in span. Soon it will be just a few hours.

To keep up with what is going on we have to check in with the world in at least half-day chunks. Important news breaks about once or twice a day. Trends on Twitter take about a day to develop too. So basically, you can afford to just check  the news and the real-time Web once or twice a day and still get by. But that’s going to change.  As the now gets shorter, we’ll have to check in more frequently to keep abreast of change. As the Stream picks up speed in the middle of this decade, to remain competitive will require near-constant monitoring — we will have to always be connected to, and watching, the real-time Web and our personal streams. Being offline at all will risk missing out on big important trends, threats and opportunities that emerge and develop within minutes or hours. But nobody is capable of tracking the Stream all 24/7 — we must at least take breaks to eat and sleep. And this is a problem.

Big Changes to the Web Coming Soon…

With Nowism comes a faster Web, and this will lead to big changes in how we do various activities on the Web:

  • We will spend less time searching. Nowism pushes us to find better alternatives to search, or to eliminate search entirely, because people don’t have time to search anymore. We need tools that do the searching for us and that help with decision support so we don’t have to spend so much of our scarce time doing that. See my article on “Eliminating the Need for Search — Help Engines” for more about that.
  • Monitoring (not searching) the real-time stream becomes more important. We need to stay constantly vigilant about what’s happening, what’s trending. We need to be alerted of the important stuff (to us), and we need a way to filter out what’s not important to us. Probably a filter based on influence of people and tweets, and/or time dynamics of memes will be necessary. Monitoring the real-time stream effectively is different from searching it. I see more value in real-time monitoring than realtime search — I haven’t seen any monitoring tools for Twitter that are smart enough to give me just the content I want yet. There’s a real business opportunity there.
  • The return of agents. Intelligent agents are going to come back. To monitor the realtime Web effectively each of us will need online intelligent agents that can help us — because we don’t have time, and even if we did, there’s just too much information to sift through.
  • Influence becomes more important than relevance. Advertisers and marketers will look for the most influential parties (individuals or groups) on Twitter and other social media to connect with and work through. But to do this there has to be an effective way to measure influence. One service that’s providing a solution for this (which I’ve angel invested in and advise) is Klout.com – they measure influence per person per topic. I think that’s a good start.
  • Filtering content by influence. We also will need a way to find the most influential content. Influential content could be the content most RT’d or most RT’d by most influential people. It would be much less noisy to be able to see only the more influential tweets of people I follow. If a tweet gets RT’d a lot, or is RT’d by really influential people, then I want to see it. If not, then only if it’s really important (based on some rule). This will be the only way to cope with the information overload of the real-time Web and keep up with it effectively. I don’t know of anyone providing a service for this yet. It’s a business opportunity.
  • Nowness as a measure of value of content. We will need a new form of ranking of results by “nowness” – how timely they are now. So for example, in real-time search engines we shouldn’t rank results merely by how recent they are, but also by how timely, influential, and “hot” they are now. See my article from years ago on “A Physics of Ideas” for more about that. Real-time search companies should think of themselves as real-time monitoring companies — that’s what they are really going to be used for in the end. Only the real-time search ventures that think of themselves this way are going to survive the conceptual paradigm shift that the realtime Web is bringing about. In a realtime context, search is actually too late — once something has happened in the past it really is not that important anymore –what matters is current awareness: discovering the trends NOW. To do that one has to analyze the present, and the very recent past, much more than searching the longer term past. The focus has to be on real-time or near-real-time analytics, statistical analysis, topic and trend detection, prediction, filtering and alerting. Not search.
  • New ways to understand and navigate the now. We will need a way to visualize and navigate the now. I’m helping to incubate a stealth startup venture, Live Matrix, that is working on that. It hasn’t launched yet. It’s cool stuff. More on that in the future when they launch.
  • New tools for browsing the Stream. New tools will emerge for making the realtime Web more compelling and smarter. I’m working on incubating some new stealth startups in this area as well. They’re very early-stage so can’t say more about them yet.
  • The merger of semantics with the realtime Web. We need to make the realtime Web semantic — as well as the rest of the Web — in order to make it easier for software to make sense of it for us. This is the best approach to increasing the signal-to-noise ratio of content we have to look at whether searching or monitoring stuff. The Semantic Web standars of the W3C are key to this. I’ve written a long manifesto on this in “Minding The Planet: The Meaning and Future of the Semantic Web” if you’re really interested in that topic.

Faster Leads to Smarter

As the realtime web unfolds and speeds up, I think it will also have a big impact on what some people call “The Global Brain.” The Global Brain has always existed, but in recent times it has been experiencing a series of major upgrades — particularly around how connected, affordable, accessible and fast it is. First we got phone and faxes, then the Internet, the PC and the Web, and now the real-time Web and the Semantic Web. All of these recent changes are making the Global Brain faster, more richly interconnected. And this makes it smarter. For more about my thoughts on the Global Brain, see these two talks:

What’s most interesting to me is that as the rate of communication and messaging on the Web approaches near-real time, we may see a kind of phase change take place – a much smarter Global Brain will sort of begin to appear out of the chaos. In other words, the speed of collective thinking is as important to the complexity or sophistication of collective thinking, in making the Global Brain significantly more intelligent. In other words, I’m proposing that there is a sort of critical speed of collective thinking, before which the Global Brain seems like just a crowd of actors chaotically flocking around memes, and after which the Global Brain makes big leaps — instead of seeming like a chaotic crowd, it starts to look more like an organized group around certain activitities — it is able to respond to change faster, and optimize and even do things collectively more productively than a random crowd could.

This is kind of like film, or animation. When you watch a movie or animation you are really watching a rapid series of frames. This gives the illusion of there being cohesive, continuous characters, things and worlds in the movie — but really they aren’t there at all, it’s just an illusion — our brains put these scenes together and start to recognize and follow higher order patterns. A certain shape appears to maintain itself and move around relative to other shapes, and we name it with a certain label — but there isn’t really something there, let alone something moving or interacting — there are just frames flicking by rapidly . It turns out that after a critical frame rate (around 20 to 60 frames per second) the human brain stops seeing individual frames and starts seeing a continuous movie. When you start flipping pages fast enough it appears to be a coherent animation and then we start seeing things “moving within the sequence” of frames. In the same way, as the unit of time of (aka the speed) of the real-time Web increases, its behavior will start to seem more continuous and smarter — we won’t see separate chunks of time or messages, we’ll see intelligent continuous collective thinking and adaptation processes.

In other words, as the Web gets faster, we’ll start to see processes emerge within it that appear to be cohesive intelligent collective entities in their own right. There won’t really be any actual entities there that we can isolate, but when we watch the patterns on the Web it will appear as if such entities are there. This is basically what is happening at every level of scale — even in the real world. There really isn’t anything there that we can find — everything is divisible down to the quantum level and probably beyond — but over time our brains seem to recognize and label patterns as discrete “things.” This is what will happen across the Web as well. For example, a certain meme (such as a fad or a movement) may become a “thing” in it’s own right, a kind of entity that seemingly takes on a life of its own and seems to be doing something. Similarly certain groups or social networks or activities they engage in may seem to be intelligent entities in their own rights.

This is an illusion in that there really are no entities there, they are just collections of parts that themselves can be broken down into more parts, and no final entities can be found. However, nonethless, they will seem like intelligent entities when not analyzed in detail. In addition, the behavior of these chaotic systems may resist reduction — they may not even be understandable and their behavior may not be predictable through a purely reductionist approach — it may be that they react to their own internal state and their environments virtually in real-time, making it difficult to take a top-down or bottom-up view of what they are doing. In a realtime world, change happens in every direction.

As the Web gets faster, the patterns that are taking place across it will start to become more animated. Big processes that used to take months or years to happen will happen in minutes or hours. As this comes about we will begin to see larger patterns than before, and they will start to make more sense to us — they will emerge out of the mists of time so to speak, and become visible to us on our human timescale — the timescale of our human-level “now. As a result, we will become more aware of higher order dynamics taking place on the real-time Web, and we will begin to participate in and adapt to those dynamics, making those dynamics in turn even smarter. (For more on my thoughts about how the Global Brain gets smarter, see:  “How to Build the Global Mind.”)

See Part II: “Will The Web Become Conscious?” if you want to dig further into the thorny philosophical and scientific issues that this brings up…

23 thoughts on “The Global Brain is About to Wake Up”

  1. Hi Nova,

    Good article, thanks!

    Personally, I think that any set of interacting minds has an emergent mind of its own, and so entities like corporations and countries are ALREADY conscious.

    It's not obvious to us that they're conscious because they exist at a different level than we do. In other words, humans recognize other humans as conscious because we interact directly with each other. Similarly, countries recognize each other as conscious because they interact with each other.

    By coincidence, I blogged about this today:

    http://grahamglass.blogs.com/main/2010/01/what-

    Cheers,
    Graham

  2. Hi Nova,

    Good article, thanks!

    Personally, I think that any set of interacting minds has an emergent mind of its own, and so entities like corporations and countries are ALREADY conscious.

    It's not obvious to us that they're conscious because they exist at a different level than we do. In other words, humans recognize other humans as conscious because we interact directly with each other. Similarly, countries recognize each other as conscious because they interact with each other.

    By coincidence, I blogged about this today:

    http://grahamglass.blogs.com/main/2010/01/what-

    Cheers,
    Graham

  3. Nova, I appreciate your continued push of the global mind/brain meme. There are not enough people, especially within the more mainstream tech world, talking about such things.

    I agree with your perspective about the importance of humans for the emergence of global mind like phenomena. And speed indeed seems to be an incredibly important component of this burgeoning self-organization.

    My only feedback would be that you don't seem to emphasize the significance of structure for real-time data quite enough. Without standardization, the speed at which memes spread won't really matter, as the cloud of nonsense will be so great that making any meaning out of it will be impossible. Already, if I go to twitter and search for a meme, the results of what I get are kind of meaningless, just a list of random ass people, saying mostly stupid, grammatically incorrect things. Now if there was some structure to it, real-time becomes really cool. While I could care less what Bob from Kansas has to say about anything, I do care what “certain kinds of people” in AGGREGATE with “social influence” have to say about something. It's only that information in aggregate that I can really process at such short increments anyways. If what you are talking about it true, people would literally be monitoring real-time data all day long and not actually DOING anything. It is only with structured real-time data that you get legitimate global FEEDBACK instead of global NOISE, which is where the possibility of a legitimately self-organizing system comes alive.

    Eventually, though, in order for a real mind-like phenomena to occur, all of this real-time data will need to be translated into the deeper language of the mind -NARRATIVE. If you get the chance, pick up The Literary Mind. Great read. The way I imagine it, this global aggregate memetic data will start to form patterns, or global sub-personalities, if you will. The masses of people we now organize into nations and ethnicities and genders will start to get organized by their memetic profile. These collective memetic clusters will then, from a certain perspective, begin to have a conversation, just like one's sub-personalities are in constant dialog, giving rise to the experience of coherent, unified Self. The experience of consciousness is aptly called the “theatre of the mind”, as it is a dance or play of interacting forces. And as you have coherently pointed to the “holarchical” nature of the cosmos, it's very unlikely that individual human nodes will leap directly to a full unified organism. There will very likely be several very significant levels of organization under that. While google's mission to organize the world's information has been the ethos of the last decade, I feel the next decade with demand that we focus more on organizing the world's people and culture.

    Anyways, great work. I really feel that the next decade will be the domain of people thinking at this much higher level – the problems and complexities simply will be too much for people stuck within a narrower paradigm.

    Co-evolutionarily,
    Lion Isis

  4. Nova, I appreciate your continued push of the global mind/brain meme. There are not enough people, especially within the more mainstream tech world, talking about such things.

    I agree with your perspective about the importance of humans for the emergence of global mind like phenomena. And speed indeed seems to be an incredibly important component of this burgeoning self-organization.

    My only feedback would be that you don't seem to emphasize the significance of structure for real-time data quite enough. Without standardization, the speed at which memes spread won't really matter, as the cloud of nonsense will be so great that making any meaning out of it will be impossible. Already, if I go to twitter and search for a meme, the results of what I get are kind of meaningless, just a list of random ass people, saying mostly stupid, grammatically incorrect things. Now if there was some structure to it, real-time becomes really cool. While I could care less what Bob from Kansas has to say about anything, I do care what “certain kinds of people” in AGGREGATE with “social influence” have to say about something. It's only that information in aggregate that I can really process at such short increments anyways. If what you are talking about it true, people would literally be monitoring real-time data all day long and not actually DOING anything. It is only with structured real-time data that you get legitimate global FEEDBACK instead of global NOISE, which is where the possibility of a legitimately self-organizing system comes alive.

    Eventually, though, in order for a real mind-like phenomena to occur, all of this real-time data will need to be translated into the deeper language of the mind -NARRATIVE. If you get the chance, pick up The Literary Mind. Great read. The way I imagine it, this global aggregate memetic data will start to form patterns, or global sub-personalities, if you will. The masses of people we now organize into nations and ethnicities and genders will start to get organized by their memetic profile. These collective memetic clusters will then, from a certain perspective, begin to have a conversation, just like one's sub-personalities are in constant dialog, giving rise to the experience of coherent, unified Self. The experience of consciousness is aptly called the “theatre of the mind”, as it is a dance or play of interacting forces. And as you have coherently pointed to the “holarchical” nature of the cosmos, it's very unlikely that individual human nodes will leap directly to a full unified organism. There will very likely be several very significant levels of organization under that. While google's mission to organize the world's information has been the ethos of the last decade, I feel the next decade with demand that we focus more on organizing the world's people and culture.

    Anyways, great work. I really feel that the next decade will be the domain of people thinking at this much higher level – the problems and complexities simply will be too much for people stuck within a narrower paradigm.

    Co-evolutionarily,
    Lion Isis

  5. Nova,

    Great work – as usual.

    I totally agree with the first 1/2 of your post – events are evolving faster and faster on the real-time web, and as this continues new processes possessing collective intelligence will emerge.

    But I can't quite buy the part where you got misty about qualia and the uniqueness of human consciousness. I see consciousness as the ability to capture, manipulate and respond to an internal model of external reality. I'm conscious of you to the extent I have a analogical model of Nova Spivack (however caricatured and inaccurate) inside my brain somewhere.

    This perspective on consciousness naturally leads to treating consciousness as a continuum, and imbuing other living and non-living entities with various degrees of consciousness. My dog has a degree of consciousness, because it can represent certain aspects of its environment (e.g. the fact that I'm the one that feeds him) and react to them in a way that furthers its goals & needs.

    In this model, even thermostats possess a rudimentary form of consciousness, since they internalize a model of external temperature, and will respond (e.g. trip a relay to turn on the furnace or A/C) when external conditions change enough to warrant a response.

    There is nothing magical about this model of consciousness, and there isn't a need to invoke any spooky quantum effects to explain it.

    As a corollary, machines will come to possess greater levels of consciousness as we (and eventually, they themselves) build in them more rich, accurate & responsive models of the environment.

    At least I hope so, since I'm not as optimistic about the ability of our limited human consciousness to cope with the increasing torrent of information coming at us via the global network. As you alluded to in your great singularity talk, in 20 or 30 years the number of machines with human-level intelligence (or at least human level complexity) will come to vastly outnumber the number of actual humans in the system. When this happens, humans will play an ever decreasing role in the functioning of the Global Mind, whether those machines acheive true intelligence or consciousness themselves, as I've outlined here http://bit.ly/8Ss8OM and here http://bit.ly/73COBi.

    In summary, you and I seem to agree that the Global Brain will inevitably emerge. Where we appear to disagree is on the role that humans will ultimately play in its formation and operation.

    From my perspective human intelligence is a stepping stone, destined to (at best) serve as a component of a global intelligence, much like a neuron in the brain – will a role to play as a unique individual, but a very small role, and with relatively little awareness of what's going at the macro scale.

    –Dean

    @deanpomerleau
    http://www.thoughtfulcog.com

  6. Nova,

    Great work – as usual.

    I totally agree with the first 1/2 of your post – events are evolving faster and faster on the real-time web, and as this continues new processes possessing collective intelligence will emerge.

    But I can't quite buy the part where you got misty about qualia and the uniqueness of human consciousness. I see consciousness as the ability to create, update and respond to an internal model of external reality. I'm conscious of you to the extent I have a analogical model of Nova Spivack (however caricatured and inaccurate) inside my brain somewhere. For anyone interested in this idea, I recommend Hofstrader's book “I am a Strange Loop”.

    This perspective on consciousness naturally leads to treating consciousness as a continuum, and imbuing other living and non-living entities with various degrees of consciousness. My dog has a degree of consciousness, because it can represent certain aspects of its environment (e.g. the fact that I'm the one that feeds him) and react to them in a way that furthers his goals & needs.

    In this model, even a thermostat possesses a rudimentary form of consciousness, since it internalizes a model of external temperature, and will respond (e.g. trip a relay to turn on the furnace or A/C) when external conditions change enough to warrant a response.

    There is nothing magical about this model of consciousness, and there isn't a need to invoke any spooky quantum effects to explain it.

    As a corollary, machines will come to possess greater levels of consciousness as we (and eventually, they themselves) build into them richer, more accurate & responsive models of the environment.

    At least I hope so, since I'm not as optimistic about the ability of our limited human consciousness to cope with the increasing torrent of information coming at us via the global network (or for filters to make it sufficiently manageable). As you alluded to in your great singularity talk, in 20 or 30 years the number of machines with human-level intelligence (or at least human level complexity) will come to vastly outnumber the number of actual humans in the system. When this happens, humans will play an ever decreasing role in the functioning of the Global Mind, whether those machines acheive true intelligence or consciousness themselves, as I've outlined here http://bit.ly/8Ss8OM and here http://bit.ly/73COBi.

    In summary, you and I seem to agree that the Global Brain will inevitably emerge. Where we appear to disagree is on the role that humans will ultimately play in its formation and operation.

    From my perspective human intelligence is a stepping stone, destined to (at best) serve as a component of a global intelligence, much like a neuron in the brain – with a role to play as a unique individual, but a very small role, and with relatively little awareness of what's going at the macro scale.

    –Dean

    @deanpomerleau
    http://www.thoughtfulcog.com

  7. I believe each human has it’s particular timing for his/her thinking and learning processes, and that these timings influence the collective thinking time. I am afraid collective timing may be driven/affected mainly by a small elite of persons (the more skilled internet users), provoking the failure to synchronize personal and collective times in a large amount of individuals.
    It might be useful to create new timing-adjustable tools that enable all individuals to “see the movie instead than single frames”.

  8. I believe each human has it’s particular timing for his/her thinking and learning processes, and that these timings influence the collective thinking time. I am afraid collective timing may be driven/affected mainly by a small elite of persons (the more skilled internet users), provoking the failure to synchronize personal and collective times in a large amount of individuals.
    It might be useful to create new timing-adjustable tools that enable all individuals to “see the movie instead than single frames”.

    1. That is a good thought.The geographical distribution of time will definitely influence the global movie of thought(meme) pattern of the global mind.

  9. In your T2 screenshots (very cool) I don't see support for provenance of data. If a search gives a result, I might be able to click a related link and read the site manually, but the structured data doesn't contain provenance properties that can themselves be processed to automatically build trust. (Is that right?) Provenance information is only important for trusting data much later, especially after circumstanced change. Does your Nowism philosophy reject the need for long-term provenance data, and is that why it isn't in T2?

  10. In your T2 screenshots (very cool) I don't see support for provenance of data. If a search gives a result, I might be able to click a related link and read the site manually, but the structured data doesn't contain provenance properties that can themselves be processed to automatically build trust. (Is that right?) Provenance information is only important for trusting data much later, especially after circumstances change. Does your Nowism philosophy reject the need for long-term provenance data, and is that why it isn't in T2?

  11. That is a good thought.The geographical distribution of time will definitely influence the global movie of thought(meme) pattern of the global mind.

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