The web we weave
We've had the Internet in many forms over the centuries, creating
a collective mind that thinks faster and faster
By ROBERT WRIGHT
December 27, 1999
Web posted at: 12:44 p.m. EST (1744 GMT)
In the middle of the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson
registered a lyric complaint about the oppressive force of
material goods: "Web to weave and corn to grind; Things are in
the saddle and ride mankind."
Talk about your sensitive poets. If Emerson found such modest
machinery as corn grinders dehumanizing, how would he handle the
end of this century? Today we are more than ever slaves of
technology, tethered to computers and cell phones and beepers.
Meanwhile, we have to cope with unprecedented change. Things are
riding us faster and faster.
And the more tethered we become, the faster things change,
because the tethers are plugging people into the very social
collaboration that drives the change. Science, technology, music,
politics--flux in all these realms is hastened by the new
electronic synergy. The Internet and allied technologies make us
neurons in a vast social brain, a brain that keeps enticing us
into making it bigger, stronger, faster. We have, you might say,
a Web to weave.
What are we to make of all this in practical terms, philosophical
terms, even spiritual terms? How to comprehend an age in which,
suddenly, we find ourselves enmeshed in a huge
information-processing system, one that seems almost to have a
life of its own and to be leading us headlong into a future that
we can't clearly see yet can't really avoid?
The first step is to delete the word suddenly from that last
sentence. For this giant social brain has been taking shape, and
hastening change, for a long, long time. Not just since Emerson's
day, when the telegraph--sometimes called the "Victorian
Internet"--made long-distance contact instantaneous, but since the
very dawn of the human experience. For tens of thousands of
years, technology has been drawing humanity toward the epic,
culminating convergence we're now witnessing.
This fact is best seen from a perspective that flourished more
than a century ago, as Emerson was fading from the intellectual
scene. In the wake of Darwin's theory of natural selection, some
anthropologists started viewing all human culture--music,
technology, religion, whatever--as something that evolves rather
as plants and animals evolve. "In the mental sphere the struggle
for existence is not less fierce than in the physical," observed
the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer. "In the end the
better ideas carry the day."
Lately, this view, "cultural evolutionism," has been revived and
given a new vocabulary. "Meme"--a word chosen to stress the
parallel with "gene"--is the label for packets of cultural
information: technologies, songs, beliefs and so on. Just as
those genes most conducive to their own replication are the ones
that prevail, those memes best at getting themselves transmitted
from human to human are the ones that come to form the human
From the very beginning, cultural evolution was a social
enterprise, mediated by what you could loosely call a social
brain. One person invents, say, a flint hand ax; the idea creeps
across the landscape, gets improved here and there, and finally,
in a distant land, stimulates a whole new idea: axes with handles
That it took hundreds of thousands of years to get from hand ax
to ax with handle suggests that as of 50,000 B.C., during the
Middle Paleolithic, the social brain was not humming very
vibrantly. There were only 2 million or 3 million
"neurons"--a.k.a., people--scattered across the whole planet, and
lacking fiber optics or even postal service, they weren't exactly
in constant contact.
Still, even back then, the social brain, through positive
feedback, was maturing. With each advance in subsistence
technology, survival grew more secure, hastening population
growth; and as population grew, the advances came more quickly.
By the Mesolithic Age, around 10,000 B.C., with the neuronal
population up to around 4 million, the rate of advance had moved
from one major innovation per 20,000 years to a sizzling one per
200--including such gifts to posterity as combs and beer.
It was around this time that, as the economist Michael Kremer has
noted, Mother Nature happened to conduct an experiment that
underscored the value of large social brains. Melting polar ice
caps severed Tasmania from Australia and the New World from the
Old World. Thereafter, just as you would expect, the larger the
landmass and hence the population, the faster subsistence
technology progressed. The people of the vast Old World invented
farming before the people of the smaller (and, at first, thinly
populated) New World. And the Aborigines of yet smaller Australia
never farmed. As for tiny Tasmania, modern explorers, on
contacting the Tasmanians, found them lacking such Australian
essentials as fire, bone needles and boomerangs.
Farming, which took shape in the Old World around 8,000 B.C. and
in the New World a few millenniums later, is a much misunderstood
meme. Anthropologists sometimes call it an "energy technology,"
since food does, after all, energize us; but farming may have
originally mattered more as a kind of information-processing
technology. By radically increasing the human population that a
given acre could support, farming sped up the synergistic
exchange of cultural information, lubricating innovation; it
packed lots of neurons together, raising both the size and the
efficiency of social brains.
The results were epoch making. In both the New World and the Old
World, within a mere 5,000 years of the inception of farming,
there were dazzling technological advances, including monumental
temples, big dams and, above all, a whole new information
Early writing didn't spur invention the way writing does now.
There were no technical journals to convey news of inventions, no
patents to file. No, the main service of writing, like that of
farming, was to permit bigger, faster social brains; to allow
neurons to be packed more densely still, further boosting
intellectual synergy. After all, it was via writing that royal
bureaucracies kept large cities functioning. And writing also
meant clear, precise legal codes, which kept urban life peaceful,
even though people now lived cheek by jowl with lots of other
people who were neither friends nor family.
For example, the code of the Mesopotamian city of Eshnunna in the
early second millennium B.C., developed a century before the more
famous code of Hammurabi, left no doubt what would happen if you
punched a man in the face: a fine of 10 shekels of silver (a
bargain compared with the levy for biting off his nose, which
would cost 60). As long as people could go about their business
without fear of getting their noses bitten off, the social brain
could productively throb.
As distant cities became linked through commerce (much of it
orchestrated by written contract), culture acquired a kind of
disaster insurance. Any valuable meme--the concept of the chariot
or of coins--would spread so fast from city to city that it could
survive any catastrophes that afflicted its birthplace. The
world's data-processing system was getting better at making
That's why so much Roman culture survived the disintegration of
the Western Empire. The most prolific memes had long since spread
to Byzantium if not beyond, and would keep replicating themselves
even as Western Europe struggled to regroup. Thus the astrolabe
would eventually be reintroduced to the area via Islamic culture,
which thrived during the early Middle Ages. Meanwhile, in Asia,
key memes would arise--the spinning wheel, even printing--and some
would migrate all the way to Europe.
The movable-type printing press, up and running in Europe by the
mid-15th century, was by far the most Internet-like technology in
history. Eventually, it would convey detailed news of inventions,
allowing people in distant lands who would never meet to
collaborate, in effect, on new technologies. "James Watt's steam
engine" was actually lots of people's steam engine, including the
Frenchman who had first shown that steam could move a piston.
The economic historian Joel Mokyr, stressing this sort of
international synergy, has attributed Europe's Industrial
Revolution to "chains of inspiration" by which one idea sparked
another. But, as we've seen, chains of inspiration had been vital
to the whole history of technical advance, even the glacial
process by which the stone flake inspired the inventor of the
stone knife. What was new was how fast the chains were being
forged, even across great distances.
In the early 19th century, the coming of the railroad train
further sped things up. Paired with increasingly smooth local
postal service, the train meant that people thousands of miles
apart were separated by only days. With chains of inspiration
sprouting wildly, the multinational technical community became an
almost unified consciousness. Increasingly, good ideas were "in
Witness how often the same basic innovation was made
independently by different people in different places at roughly
the same time. And witness--as testament to the impetus behind
easing communication--how often those independent breakthroughs
were in information technology itself: the telegraph (Charles
Wheatstone and Samuel F.B. Morse, 1837); color photography
(Charles Cros and Louis Ducos du Hauron, 1868); the phonograph
(Charles Cros--again!--and Thomas Edison, 1877); the telephone
(Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell, 1876)--and so on, all
the way up to the microchip (Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce, 1958).
And each such advance--by easing the transmission of data, whether
by sound, print or image--only raised the chances of further
advances. Via endless positive feedback, the technological
infrastructure for a mature global brain was, in a sense,
building itself. And so it had been, ever since the Middle
Paleolithic: the story of humankind is faster and vaster data
So where does this cosmic perspective leave us? Inspired?
Depressed? As helpless in the face of technology's onslaught as
For starters, if you equate nature with beauty--as Emerson and
other transcendentalists tended to--then there is a kind of beauty
in the unfolding of technology. It is a process of natural
evolution, and may deserve the tribute that Darwin paid to
organic evolution: "There is grandeur in this view of life."
Indeed, if you believe, as I do, that intelligent,
culture-generating animals were a likely outcome of biological
evolution, then you might even say the first great evolutionary
process naturally spawned the second, which has since taken over
as the great molder of the material world. In this view, the kind
of global brain now taking shape has been in the cards not just
since the Stone Age but since the primordial ooze; it has been,
in some sense, life's destiny.
This aura of inexorability has led some people to wax poetic
about cosmic purpose. The Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de
Chardin, writing at midcentury, long before the Internet,
nonetheless discerned a "thinking envelope of the earth" that he
dubbed the "noosphere." This was the divinely ordained outcome of
the two evolutions, and would lead to "Point Omega," where
brotherly love would reign supreme.
Now, nearly a half-century after Teilhard's death, we have cause
to be less sanguine about this noosphere business. Viewing the
noosphere up close and personal--from the inside--we can see that
its potential for good and evil is about equal. The Internet can
unite people across distance, but it is indifferent to whether
they are chess players, crusading environmentalists or neo-Nazis.
And, for all the benefits that keep us plugging into the
Internet, it can be alienating. (Is it just me, or is e-mail a
much poorer substitute for face-to-face contact than a phone
call is? And if so, why am I letting e-mail crowd out my phone
calls?) There is indeed the sense sometimes that, like neurons,
we subordinate ourselves to the efficiency of the larger
whole--that technology wins in the end, that culture trumps
biology. As Emerson put it, "There are two laws discrete, Not
reconciled,--Law for man, and law for thing; The last builds
town and fleet, But it runs wild, And doth the man unking."
Yet, in the end, we are free to use the technology however we
want, even if it takes real effort, inspired by a touch of
resentment toward our would-be technological master. We can in
theory follow Emerson's advice: "Let man serve law for man; Live
for friendship, live for love." Maybe all along it was the
destiny of our species to be enmeshed in a web that would give us
the option to exercise either amity or enmity over unprecedented
distance, with unprecedented power. There are worse fates than to
have a choice like that.
Robert Wright is the author of The Moral Animal. His new book,
Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, comes out this week
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: December 31, 1999