Review of Jeffrey Stibel’s Wired For Thought: The Internet is a brain…kind of

“Not ‘The Internet is like a brain…The Internet is a brain,’” is the argument of scientist/entrepreneur Jeffrey Stibel in his recent book Wired For Thought: How the Brain is Shaping the Future of the Internet. Working off that premise, Stibel compares the Internet’s network of web-pages to the brain’s neural network, distributed computing software to mental parallel processing, and the development and future of the Net to the maturation process of the human brain. A fairly successful businessman with interesting, if somewhat sci-fi, credentials (he’s the the chairman of BrainGate, a company that implants computer chips in people’s brains so that they can control electrical devices with their minds) Stibel provides a provocative and intelligent angle on the Internet – plus good background material on the brain – though his attempt to market the book as a business self-help resource wasn’t totally convincing. Still, just looking at the Internet from the perspective of brain science – which could be considered the earliest and most mature investigation of information architecture – could be so valuable that it’s in our best interest to listen to what Stibel has to say.

So is the Internet a brain?

Well…kind of. It’s not a carbon-based organ at the center of an animal’s nervous system. It’s not, as Stibel admits, going to become conscious or pursue it’s own desires, and it won’t have to interpret sensory perceptions and form an internal representation of the outside world. Which, really, is a lot of what the brain does. But whether or not the Internet actually is a brain, I think, is irrelevant. Stibel’s main argument for how the Internet is a brain is really about how the Internet grows like a brain. Like the brain, the Internet is the product of blind evolution, not intelligent design. And while that may seem like a small and relatively obvious point, it’s the most compelling one in his book because it’s got huge implications for how we attempt to make sense of the Internet.

We’re All Blind Watchmakers

Who designs the Internet? All of us, which is to say, none of us. There are lots of people involved in designing apps, services, websites, and in coming up with new uses for the Internet, but the way these bits and pieces become integrated into it is through primitive natural selection. If a service or site works well, then – ideally, but also quite typically – people start using it and telling their friends about it, it shows up on Digg, then Google, others copy it, and poof! – it’s become a new part of the Internet. If the site doesn’t work well for any reason, it fades into obscurity and basically disappears. Of course, this ideal meritocracy is the same argument people have been using for free enterprise for a century – but on the Internet, we can also add the democratic nature of URLs (all sites are equally easy to access), a massive, extremely reactive audience, and incredible speed to the equation. In fact, everything happens so fast and there’s such immediate feedback on the Net, that it makes less sense for technologists or advertisers to think seriously about their consumers and design their products accordingly, than to just try something, or everything, and see what works. Stibel asks us to: “Imagine hundreds of thousands of variables and thousands of ad campaigns, all competing with one another to survive and flourish…The whole process goes so fast that often we don’t even know what is working or why.” Which sounds a lot more like natural selection than rational design.

So you could say that technologists or web entrepreneurs are designing the Internet, in that they design the pieces of it that sometimes work. Or you could say that everyone is designing the Internet through our behavior on it: every time we visit a site, tell our friends about it, or link between two sites. But if none of us understands completely how the Internet works, what will flourish or fail, or can predict what it will become, then you could also say that no one is designing the Internet. The Internet is out of our control.

Sound scary? Back in 1994, Kevin Kelly had already identified the network as “the icon of the 21st century” in his book Out of Control. He called it “the only organization capable of unprejudiced growth, or unguided learning…the banner of noncontrol…it conveys the logic both of Computer and of Nature – which in turn convey a power beyond understanding.” Kelly is excited, rather than scared, about the prospects of a new collective intelligence. But however you feel about it, the point seems to be that it’s no longer our choice; having set the grinding process of evolution upon an organism of our own creation, we can’t now reverse it. I wouldn’t want to anyway.

Why Messy Works

Reconceptualizing the Internet as a product of blind evolution is a surprisingly useful way to think about it. We can stop thinking of super-successful web CEO’s as geniuses (though some of them are) and of their creations as perfect. The viral technologies that overwhelm the web can actually be less well-designed and perform more poorly than their mainstream competitors, as long as they fill some unique need of their users adequately well. Often, that need is one that the designers didn’t anticipate – as is the case with MySpace and Twitter, points out blogger Cody Brown. Studying a successful site’s overall design probably won’t help you succeed, because the reason for its success may have little to do with its design or performance. What’s important to remember, says Clayton M. Christensen in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, is that technological evolution, like biological evolution, follows an S-curve: development consists of a lot of incremental improvements disrupted occasionally by sudden leaps that can come in the form of a lower-quality product that is either significantly cheaper (low-end disruption) or addresses a brand new need (new-market disruption). Christensen predicted what Wired reporter Robert Capps recently called The Good Enough Revolution – the explosion in cheap, low end technology like the Flip camera or the MP3.

What this means is something that Web 2.0 champions already know: the most successful things on the web are usually messy. Take Google – it’s not smart enough to answer your questions, but does a good enough job by matching your queries to well-linked sites. Or Wikipedia – its open editing system means that we can never be sure that everything is true, but we can expect a high probability that it will be. Or Craigslist – an article in Wired, aptly titled Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess, decried its messy design and functionality, but had to admit that it’s still really really successful. Stibel explains this triumph-of-the-messy as yet another parallel between the Internet and the brain – the brain also relies on messy mental shortcuts (like stereotypes, rules-of-thumb, and intuition) that work efficiently and 95% of the time – but it’s just the natural outcome of evolution. The things that compete best, in the jungle or on the Internet, are not the ones that do a few things perfectly but the ones that do almost everything pretty well.

Reversing Entropy’s Arrow

Let’s look at our new Internet-organism in terms of the Semantic Web. To me, the success of a web based on messy shortcuts seems to run counter to the Semantic Web vision of a well-organized database-web. Our minds aren’t well-organized; we don’t have every relevant memory or piece of knowledge linked meaningfully together. They act much more like the Web 2.0 examples: full of idiosyncratic, personal, sometimes weird links that become reinforced the more often they’re used.The tangle that results from all that is… actually pretty organized. Or at least organized well enough. We usually find what we need because the neural links we use the most are the strongest and, more importantly, we’re free to come up with odd, human-like associations that sometimes lead to revelatory insights. Stibel explains that it’s the “loopy, iterative process…found in the brain” and the surprising connections we come up during daydreams that make it as powerful as it is.The best mimics of the human brain so far don’t depend on machine computing but on learning from human behavior; a budding website called Hunch claims to help make decisions for you by correlating your personal data with hundreds of people like you.

Stibel praises the Semantic Web movement without addressing whether or not it’s a departure from the naturally evolving brain-like web. And it’s possible that the Semantic Web could add another layer of meaning to the web without disrupting the accumulation of all the non-semantic, nonsensical links that give rise to new ways of thinking. But it’s also possible that the web is headed toward a type of self-organization, based entirely on the behavior of its users and the patterns of links they unwittingly build with every click.

An Introduction to Geek Ethics; or Who Really Rules the Web

In our anxiety over building online business models, monetizing user traffic, rescuing newspapers, and otherwise maintaining (monetary) control on the web, the thing we’ve forgotten is that the web isn’t the empire of our towering media moguls. In fact, the web is ruled by geeks. Geeks created it, geeks popularized it, and – however much businesspeople and politicians intrude – geeks will direct the future of the web. It’s their playground, their rules.

Our problem is that we think like businesspeople, not geeks. When non-geeks get a new toy (a bread machine or a camera or something), we try to learn, as quickly as possible, what it can do for us. When geeks get a new toy, they’ll play with it for hours just to learn what it can do. For geeks, the web is simply the biggest, most exciting new toy around.

Our problem is that, presented with an unprecedented new platform for sharing information, we see it as a problem. We don’t know how to play with the web; instead, we try to warp it into some perverse imitation of what we knew before and use all our old-world strategies for succeeding in a new one. Right now, geeks have an advantage in understanding the web because the philosophy behind it came from within their own ranks. To know where the web going, we need to think like geeks.

With that in mind, here’s my crude and oversimplified Primer on Geek Ethics:

1. Sharing information is Good. This is absolutely fundamental, it’s built into the Scientific Method. (Scientists are geeks. Scientists follow the Scientific Method. Therefore, geeks follow the Scientific Method.) Scientists know that the only way to advance human knowledge is to share their methods and results freely so that anyone can improve upon and extend them. The evil scientist is the one who hides his data from the rest of the scientific community, maintaining ownership at the expense of humanity and his work’s full potential. This is why the geek who invented the web (Tim B-L) made sure that the web technology was put in the public domain, ensuring free universal access forever after, and this is at the root of the web’s tradition of open source software. People concerned with profit don’t get it; they’d just as soon develop their technology in secret and sue anybody who tries to use it. In science or academia, you simply do not hide your information from someone who needs it, much less charge her for it. It would be, as Tim put it, “an act of treason.”

2. Coolness is Good. The biggest misunderstanding between geeks and non-geeks, I believe, has to do with cool stuff. The stuff geeks love and frequently build doesn’t have to be profitable or even useful, it just has to be cool (my dad is a geek; hence, our house is overflowing with 12-setting espresso machines and “Universal” remote controls that turn off the lights when you’re trying to change the channel). On the web, this means that there are a lot of cool applications and services that don’t have any apparent way of making money or leading to ways to make money. This scares and confuses people, because our Hobbesian-materialist understanding of the world doesn’t account for people who are driven by coolness, not profit. We’re terrified of powerful products that weren’t built for any apparent reason (think Twitter) but if we could accept that 1) geeks love building cool stuff, 2) they’re going to keep doing it whether or not it turns a profit, and 3) some of this stuff will become very successful while a lot of it will sink quietly into the backwaters of the Net, then suddenly the erratic pattern of viral web fads doesn’t seem so mystifying anymore.

3. Simplicity is Good. Any mathematician/scientist/computer programmer will tell you that the most beautiful equation/theory/code is the one that’s simplest. For geeks, this is axiomatic; simplicity is good, is beautiful, is the ideal. But applied to the real market of the web, it’s an axiom that’s proved advantageous: The applications that are simplest to use and have the simplest rules (Digg, Craigslist) are the ones that thrive. If you’re building a new app or service or website (a geek wouldn’t need to be told this), make it as simple as possible.

4. Corollary: Unnecessary Complexity is Evil. Since simplicity is intrinsically good, anyone who makes something more complicated than it needs to be (especially out of selfish money-making motives like trapping users or pushing their other products) is evil. Apple makes it a lot of work to use anything but iTunes with your iPod – that’s evil. It used to be next to impossible to permanently delete your account from Facebook – that was evil. As much as Google has inserted itself into every aspect of our online lives, at least it’s created the Data Liberation Front – a team working to make it as simple as possible to pull your data out of its apps, even though that makes it easier for you to switch to a Google competitor.

5. Monopolies are Evil. Monopolies are evil because monopolies are the antithesis to innovation. When a company kills its competition, it tends to get lazy and stop funding research for innovation. Evidence: Back in 1997, after Microsoft beat Netscape in the browser wars, Internet Explorer was the only browser on the market. Microsoft stopped innovating. Netscape opened up its code to allow users to help it create Mozilla Firefox. Today, Firefox rules and Explorer sucks.

…And finally (this doesn’t fit into the good versus evil ethics framework, but I think it’s a really important point)…

Technology is the expression of a worldview. A lot of geeks are idealistic. The ones who start things like Wikipedia or Craigslist are visionaries. They reveal the way they see the world and what they want it to become in the websites/services/applications/companies that they build. The web was created by a scientist who dreamed of “unveiling entirely new ways to see our world” by establishing a global, non-centralized web of information made up of a potentially infinite number of links and connections. “In an extreme view,” he wrote, “the world can be seen as only connections, nothing else.” Likewise, many of the most successful websites today are manifestations of the philosophies of their creators. Why does Craig Newmark refuse to add features like tagging or usernames or even minimal layers of security to Craigslist? Because “people are good and trustworthy and generally just concerned with getting through the day,” he says.

I don’t really want to list a lot of quotes or examples, but just to emphasize the humanness that’s such a big part of technology and that people don’t seem to remember. “Phenomenons” like the web or even Twitter don’t just happen spontaneously. They’re built deliberately and scrupulously by people who believe in what they’re doing. True, not all of these people are geeks and not all of them are idealistic. But idealism is still woven deep into the binding threads of the web – and it wasn’t put there by the media critics.