Distributed minds - the cyberorganism
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #26

Books form the collective memory of humankind; cyberspace could be its collective brain. A book is something that can be referred to, either for the purpose of learning - copying knowledge from a collective to a personal memory - or for the extraction of greater detail when an individual memory is sketchy. The latter use of collective memory is best seen in academic theses for example, which are littered with pointers to further sources of information, making them similar to cross-referenced human memories, rather than the linear texts that they are.

Knowledge floating within cyberspace is far more potent. Unlike books, which are static and hence akin to memory, the dynamic processing of information by machines and people makes a global electronic network like a vast extended mind, throbbing with intelligence. With the right interface, it can behave like an extension of your own, and I can imagine a slogan not so many years away - 'The Internet - the brain you can log in to!'

It's not such a far-fetched notion, really. Many people already use the Net as a ready source of information from the utterly trivial to the inextricably complex, 'logging in' to this extended brain whenever they can't solve problems with their own.

Those who are very familiar with the alleys and by-lanes of cyberspace can develop a sort of virtual expertise any area they like, by storing in their local brain, as it were, the basics together with an idea of how and where to learn more in a hurry. Such people (myself included!) rely on the Net for information in far too many topics - from human rights to genetic engineering - than would be practical otherwise. With the extended brain of cyberspace, one can follow up an idea to one's satisfaction without having to devote a lifetime to it.

The major problem with this cyber-organism is its unwieldy interface. One may not have to spend a lifetime following up a chance thought on genes, but one has to spend a fair part just getting to use the Net. This is a problem of interfacing.

The Internet has always been a little frightening to the unfamiliar, spawning a tradition of gurus and newbies. The advances in user interfaces for individual computers are catching up with cyberspace. Mosaic, a particularly popular front-end to the Net's World Wide Web, provides one conforming to all the expectations of a GUI such as the Macintosh or Windows.

Cyberspace's special needs do require a special interface, not just windows-and-rodents on steroids. Some cybernauts would have the interface to the global body of knowledge resemble the physical world as closely as possible. Using snazzy graphics and virtual reality, you could 'walk' among buildings representing storehouses of information with names like 'Bio-tech Towers' and 'Paleontology House', giving a new meaning to an old phrase - down memory lane. Such an interface would pose several practical problems to its designers. Should Jurassic City be closer to Reptileville than Chemistrygrad? The advantage of a street-map interface to information is that it is familiar to those used to roam streets. The leaps of understanding and the ability to connect the seemingly unrelated, so common and powerful a tool of human thought, have little parallel in physical movement. Perhaps these interfaces will include teleportation, already found in so many video games.

Whatever the continuously developing interfaces turn out to look like, the barriers between original inventors and innovators, between information and its transmission, between mind and matter, are bound to diminish rapidly as we move from an age of processes to the age of ideas.

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