Brave New World

I found the linked video on BoingBoing. It was created by Michael Wesch, an assistant Cultural Anthropology Professor at KSU. It goes into the way that Web 2.0, the advent of social networking sites, wikis, communication tools, and folksonomies, will affect how we live from here on out. It’s a great piece of work.

However, there are cautionary elements in there, elements which the fatalist movie lover in me picked up straightaway. Every time we tag something, or add a link, or mail something to someone, a computer somewhere is taking notes. As the video says, we are teaching the machine and the machine is learning to think.

Now, where have we heard that before, children? Armed robot gunships, memetic polyalloy assassins, self-aware machines; naked Austrians? How long before Google responds to your search request with “I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle?” Suddenly, terms like “search bot” and “web spider” have a jackboot soundtrack.

Leaving aside the possibility of a self-aware, self-replicating web of killing machines, I like the way the shiny side of the web is going. I like that I can write this drivel and ignore the fact that no-one bar me will ever read it. It gives me a sense of empowerment, that somehow my writing this will add to the pool of human knowledge. But if Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Blogger, etc are really listening to everything I commit to the Ether, then I’m actually contributing to the eventual pool of human blood.

So, could the internet morph into a sentient entity? “Sentience is a by-product of the complexity required for the ability to self-evolve.”, said the internet when I asked it1. Now, the router tables that know how to get from every server in the world to every other server in the world do precisely this. When a broken connection is detected, the router re-routes data through alternate connections. When you buy things online, the site suggests other things you might like to buy.

From the Web 2.0 sites, a computer could determine the characteristics of the human race. Yes, based on what books we buy on Amazon. From there, it’s not too far a leap to the point where it starts to alter the user experience. If you wanted to buy a book on World War II, the site might say, “Many customers decided not to buy this and bought a book about existentialism instead.” or “You have been added to the Nazi sympathisers list”.

We have some time. We have years of shared web nirvana in our future. But we would do well to consider that our utopia, our brave new world, may be but a veneer of fantasy over the grimy, pixellated reality of a machine world that is coldly and dispassionately shaping our lives through a web page2.

Thank you for reading this post. Blogger is adding your name to the list.

1 If the internet was self-aware, it would not have told me that the possibility exists. So, we’re safe, for the time being.
2 If you’re getting Matrix overtones, that’s fine. So was I.

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