The Belmont Club has a typically well-written essay up about the nature and future of the vast networking power of the internet, as typified by the blog phenomenon:
The blogosphere is a specific manifestation -- and by no means the only one -- of the networks made possible by the Internet which can be imperfectly compared to the emerging nervous system of a growing organism.
This is a concept that has fascinated me since reading an article in New Scientist years ago detailing in a somewhat fluff manner the idea of a type of meta-consciousness emerging from the complex networks made possible by the internet. Aside from code geeks and thesis papers, however, the idea hadn't yet creeped into everyday discussion. The 'blog moment' of the past election cycle may be about to change that.
Francis Heylighen and Johan Bollen explain the evolution of information technology as it relates to this phenomenon:
After the advent in the 19th century of one-to-one media, like telegraph and telephone, and in the first half of this century of one-to-many media, like radio and TV, the last decade in particular has been characterized by the explosive development of many-to-many communication networks. Whereas the traditional communication media link sender and receiver directly, networked media have multiple cross-connections between the different channels, allowing complex sets of data from different sources to be integrated before being delivered to the receivers. For example, a newsgroup discussion on the Internet will have many active contributors as well as many people just `listening in'. Moreover, the fact that the different `nodes' of the digital network are controlled by computers allows sophisticated processing of the collected data, reinforcing the similarity between the network and the brain. This has led to the metaphor of the world-wide computer network as a `global brain' [Mayer-Kress & Barczys, 1995; Russell, 1995].
The questions lurking just beneath the surface of any discussion on this issue will be a type of post-modern Frakenstein complex. Have we gone too far? Are we in the process of creating a type of monster that we will be unable to fully understand or control? Isn't this a little too much like the Borg from Star Trek to make us comfortable? The answer, of course, to each of these is both yes and no depending on your world view.
One of my more colorful uncles is a ten-gallon hat wearing 18-wheeler driving trucker who is turning 60 soon. He has a rather gruff manner but he has seen quite a bit more of the world and how it works than I will anytime soon. He is, in a nutshell, a veritable wealth of red-state knowledge and wisdom, if you deign to believe that such things exist. Visiting with him over the holidays, I found myself fascinated by one of his more bellicose assertions, that the Iraq war, were it to be fought under the same limited media circumstances as WWII, would by now be successfully over. All they knew, at 10 years of age, was that Walter Winchell and one other journalist were the sole voices of information in their world, and every plane that flew overhead was therefore suspect in their naive young minds. But, and this is where I became interested, they did not have to put up with a constant barrage of negative press, viscious punditry and anti-American whining. Eliminate the noise, in other words, and you remove a major stumbling block to success.
This struck me as a rather unique luddite conservative take on the world. I asked my uncle, "so, do you think that less freedom of the press is the answer to some of our problems?" He blustered his way through a non-answer, limiting himself to the idea that if the same technology had existed during the last world war we would be probably be speaking German.
As ridiculous as this type of thinking seems on its face, there is a Pandora's Box aspect to the ever-increasing mass of communications technology we have today, and my uncle is simply tapping into a fundamental tension that is bound to emerge more forcefully as we adapt to the transformative power of the global brain. The logical wall that he stumbled into when I questioned him is no sign of idiocy on his part, but rather a conundrum that it would be wise to acknowledge openly as soon as possible. Otherwise, we (denizens of the blogosphere and like-minded technology junkies) may find ourselves fighting a protracted cultural battle in the years ahead, similar to the ridiculous 'debate' over genetically modified foods in Europe or the rising tide of criticism of nano-technology that Glenn Reynolds has been chronicling for several years now. The 'frankenfood' myth took hold so powerfully in the popular imagination in the EU that no amount of factual debunking may be sufficient to combat the ignorance.
You can see the shape of this franken-fear in the current media hoopla over steroids as well, and Andrew Sullivan has been addressing the logical grey areas rather well recently, asking questions such as "Isn't oxygen, and for that matter nutrition in general, a form of physical enhancement not so dissimilar to steroids?" Are GM foods any different from strategic farming that has been perfected for thousands of years, or varietals that have been united by unholy processes? The answer, again, is yes and no, with the real answer returning to the eternal tug-of-war between progress and the status quo that defines every human culture.
Perhaps a little nervousness about the nature of the emerging global brain is a healthy human response to such a seachange in our ability to communicate with one another. But it is an inevitable part of our future, and will help us make the next major evolutionary leaps that will render our current state hopelessly quaint and historical by comparison.