Seven Billion Brains on Planet Earth

Every morning we – all seven billion of us – wake up with a certain amount of cognitive energy, our mental fuel tank for the day to come. We use up this cognitive energy every time our brain must process information and apply knowledge. This includes tasks as seemingly mundane as packing a school lunch for our children, and as complex as understanding the fundamentals of quantum mechanics.

On the one hand, today’s competitive knowledge economy is requiring a larger percentage of the world’s population to expend more cognitive energy than human beings have ever done in the past. Software programmers, for example, often spend 60 hours a week thinking about the logical rules behind the applications on our computers and cell phones. The need to make a day’s worth of cognition as efficient as possible has led to a whole industry of productivity gurus, and to a market of “nueroenhancing drugs.”

On the other hand, the efficiency of the modern global economy means that many individuals in the developed world are working far fewer hours than ever before. Tim Ferriss has recruited a large following on the internet by recommending a four-hour work week. Even those who aren’t able to heed Ferriss’ call to abandon the 9 – 5 office life still spend an average of two office hours per day (one-fourth of their working time) surfing the web for personal use. estimated that those 2.09 hours of “wasted time” per 8-hour workday add up to $759 billion per year that employers in the United States spent on salaries “for which real work was expected, but not actually performed.”

In terms of discussing cloud intelligence, however, corporate America’s economic loss is far less interesting than what those millions of office employees are doing with their two hours of personal internet use every day.

Cognitive Surplus and The New Socialism

Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened–rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

Clay Shirky, Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

In fact, Clay Shirky points out that in the United States we still spend an average of 100 million hours every single weekend just watching advertisements. What else can you do with 100 million hours? According to Shirky, it took roughly 100 million “thought hours” to build Wikipedia, the largest encyclopedia ever assembled and the most popular general reference work on the Internet.

It would be wrong to overstate Shirky’s argument that all of human society is waking from a sitcom-watching slumber to become active producers of online content; after all, most young people today who give up their expensive cable packages for slightly less expensive internet connections are now watching those same sitcoms on their laptops; clips from American Idol dominate YouTube; and the vast majority of the most popular daily search terms on Google are related to celebrity news. The passive consumption that defined decades of television watching, is also a mainstay of today’s connected generation.

Still, even if only an estimated ten percent of internet users actively contribute content, they have already constructed an vast online repository of culture, knowledge, and tools. And we are just at the beginning of what’s to come.

Kevin Kelly calls Wikipedia, Flickr, and Twitter the “vanguard of a cultural movement”, an emerging “global collectivist society.” Amateur photographers, he reminds us, have published over three billion photographs on Flickr. Six billion videos are uploaded to YouTube every month. The blog search engine Technorati tracks over a million blog posts published every single day. Apple’s pervasive iTunes media player serves over 125,000 podcasts, including more than 25,000 video podcasts.

The small minority of internet users who actively contribute content sure do contribute a lot of it. They review restaurants and businesses on Yelp. They fulfill the role of editors by recommending content on Delicious, StumpleUpon, Digg, and Reddit. They share their medical history on Patients Like Me and Google Health. They create high quality maps of their communities on OpenStreetMap and design 3D models of buildings, monuments, and landmarks using Google’s free SketchUp software. They report news just like traditional journalists. On Flickr they help the United States’ Library of Congress describe and contextualize the photographs in their collection. They translate blog posts, articles, magazines, and videos into different languages.

What is even more incredible is that they do this all for free, without receiving any economic compensation whatsoever. Hundreds of millions of internet users are spending a small amount of their day’s cognitive energy not on the work that they are paid to do, but rather the online projects and forms of self-expression that interest them. Kevin Kelly calls it a “New Socialism“, which is based on sharing and community, but not limited by political ideology. (The most active contributors of free content are as likely to idolize Adam Smith as Karl Marx.)

The Cloud: The Third Chapter of the Internet

A little over fifty years ago, Thomas Watson from IBM said that he could foresee a need for perhaps five computers worldwide, and we now know that that figure was wrong, because he overestimated by four.

Clay Shirky, Napster Speech 2

Whether you speak in terms of clouds, streams, or waves (the modern internet sounds like a naturalist’s dreamscape), the recent preview of Google Wave is indicative of a fundamental change that has transformed how we interact with the internet and how the internet enables us to interact with one another.

The modern web was developed in order to enable academics and scientists to share their research with one another. This was done primarily over email, but also with static (and often ugly) web pages. The second chapter began in the 1990’s when, during a bubble of investment, web programmers developed new technologies that made websites more dynamic by using databases, and more interactive thanks to JavaScript and Flash. The investment bubble burst, but those same technologies were implemented to create the tools that make up the internet as we know it today: wikis, blogs, RSS readers, YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook.

We have now come to the third chapter of the Internet. The “cloud” refers to all those servers based around the world that store our personal data, but which we rarely ever think about. If you are a Gmail user, then your emails live “in the cloud”, on a server at one of Google’s many server farms. Our daily thoughts, in the form of Twitter messages, live in the cloud, as does our search history, our Facebook activity, all of the pictures we publish on Flickr and Picasa.

Just two years ago I stored all of my text documents on my own computer and would send them via email to anyone who showed interest. If they made edits to my documents, then I would need to update my own local copy. Today my documents are stored “in the cloud”, on Google Docs, where they can be instantly accessed by trusted friends and colleagues. At any time I can access the most recent copy of any document on my computer or mobile phone. Today we don’t just publish information to the internet; we actually create it online and then download it to our computers and cell phones when we need it.

The cloud is growing exponentially. Every day more and more of us spend a small percentage of our cognitive energy to add value to the cloud. And as we do so, the cloud itself becomes more intelligent, a vast social brain in which every internet user is a metaphorical neuron. In fact, the structure of the internet and the processes it depends on is similar to that of the human brain.

The less evolved brain


Neurons in the cingulate cortex of a mouse. [via Wikipedia]

The human brain is by far the most complex organ that three to four billion years of natural selection on this planet have been able to produce. It consists of roughly 100 billion neurons, each linked to 10,000 synaptic connections. Information travels across the brain via small electrical impulses that are transmitted from neuron to neuron, much in the same way that information travels across the internet. Right now, while you’re reading this, billions of small electrical impulses are firing away in your brain as you parse the information, store it in your memory, and apply your own knowledge to add context and challenge what I write.

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Visualization of the internet by the Opte Project.

In comparison, the internet is a decidedly less complex and less evolved organ. Internet World Stats estimates that there are 1.6 billion internet users, or “social neurons”. According to one study, the average Facebook user is connected to 164 “friends”, a far cry from the 10,000 synaptic connections between our 100 billion brain cells. In other words, while the internet could one day become self-aware, it is still in the earliest chapters of its evolution. Yet, already there are several examples which reveal how the internet is rapidly becoming humanity’s social nervous system. Joshua-Michele Ross points to the emergency response following the Mumbai terrorist attacks, Obama’s “Project Houdini“, and Google’s global virus forecasting as three manifestations of the networked social brain.

The human brain formed its present structure over 10,000 years ago when our ancestors encountered environments which required the type of advanced reasoning only provided by a larger brain. With a larger brain came moral reasoning, consciousness, and most importantly, language, without which we could not transmit culture and knowledge across generations. The organ we each carry around in our skulls today, however, has evolved little in the past 10,000 years. It formed when our ancestors lived in tribes of roughly 150 people, not mega-cities filled with millions, and personal address books filled with thousands of contacts.

As the cloud continues to expand exponentially with more information, more social neurons, and more connections between them, our own humble human brains will need to adapt in order to make the most effective use of the cloud without succumbing to lifetimes of mere “continuous partial attention.”

No matter how actively or passively we spend our time online, what we can all be sure of is that one day sooner or later our brain will stop functioning and our stay here on planet Earth will conclude. We will remain, of course, in the memories of our friends and family, and also in the bits and bytes of digital footprints that we leave in the cloud for the generations that follow. What they do with the information we leave behind – or, indeed, what the cloud itself does with the information – will depend on a new type of networked evolution that values sharing and community over proprietary protection.