The Editor’s Brain – December 2011

By Corey Conley

Nvate Editor's brain

“Click.” There’s a good chance you will hear this sound today. It may come from an actual, physical shutter in a real camera, or, more likely, the poor simulation emitted by a cell-phone camera.

There are thousands of such clicks every second, brought on by the dramatically declining price and widening availability of camera phones, which are increasingly finding themselves in the poorest, least industrialized corners in the world.

Most of these are ready to snap and send a picture in less time than it takes to read this paragraph. Once a picture leaves a memory card for the satellite, it takes on a life of its own, beyond the control of the sender. You know how this works – you’re part of it every time you send or forward a picture or video. It’s the simple principal that turns a single unwise photo sent between young paramours into a school-wide scandal.

If you receive an interesting, a funny, or startling image, you make a snap judgement about whether to let it rest in your phone, or send it on to other people. You send it to a choice few who in turn send it to others in a constantly branching network. It’s a digital grapevine with millions of ears, eyes, and judging minds that filter what gets sent from what doesn’t. From images of a country in revolt that gets sent to millions to a video Christmas card sent only to grandma, each image has the potential to spread across the world based solely on the judgement of millions of individual users.

What happens as this connectivity increases, as communication technology tightens world into a single social network? Such a distributed, multi-connected network is hardly new. Hopefully you’re not too far from such a network right now, because your brain neatly fits that description. Like the millions of users connected via mobile phones each of the 100 billion neurons that compose the human mind take and receive signals. Just like each individual can resend an image, a neuron can relay that signal to multiple neighbors.

In the case of a neuron’s network, the result is a little thing we call consciousness. The physical side of the human experience, of art, of love, of all human creation, lies in the synaptic firings of our gray matter. It’s a beautiful, humbling thought – at least to the collection of neurons that keeps an opinion about such things.

Already, researchers are hard at work simulating the organic firings of our minds. They’ve found that simple rules for each computer simulated “neuron” can lead to complex, brain-like energy patterns. Others are hoping to emulate the mind to give computers better human-like capabilities, such as pattern recognition, and eventually, true sentience.

But what of our ceaseless technological chatter, enabled by modern communications tech? Each of us is a neuron connected, via the famous “six degrees of separation” to every other person on the planet. This idea is nothing new, but the ease of communication, the shrinking social “distance” between us all is rendering a radically new world.

As more and more individuals join and interconnections grow, it seems a “collective mind” is emerging from the cacophony of Twitter, Facebook, and millions of other online social hubs. Whereas a relative handful of powerful individuals controlled the flow of information in the pre-digital age, today information flows in cascading waves from individual to individual, much like the sweeps of firing synapses which compose a thought.

Though I’m in danger of adding to the graveyard of grandiose predictions, it’s clear that this new, chaotic, decentralized flow of information is already having an effect on every aspect of our lives – and it isn’t done yet.

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