Last ever rant about the internet and how amazing it is

I wrote this in an email to a friend of mine, but I've decided that it sums up what I think fairly well and I'd like to share it with other people. Here it is:

A lot of people have failed to appreciate that information technology (I hate that phrase, but I guess it does sum up what I mean) is probably the most important technology to happen to the human race, ever! That's a very big claim to make - I'm implicitly trashing a lot of other amazing technology: the invention of fire, domestication of livestock and grains, writing, the idea of a map, money, counting, the printing press, calculus, telegraphy and so on. Okay, so now I try convince you:

Forget about all of computing, just think of the Internet. Because progress has been slow -- old parts have been swapped out and new parts have been swapped in while its running -- most people have stopped noticing that it has changed life in ways that are too numerous to even list. I'm not talking about the big shiny Internet things that people think of, like Youtube or Facebook or twitter (and that all the oldschool folk rolls their eyes at). Those are cool but also sort of trivial. I'm thinking about a million and one little things that would not be possible (or logistically feasible) otherwise.

What kind of things? A small random sampling: , being able to cross reference things so fast that anyone can do their own informal research into almost anything , finding people that share your interests and hearing their thoughts , , leaking incriminating documents when your company , , , , checking out famous art that's been scanned and uploaded for public viewing , , , than lame press releases repackaged as science journalism , reading the online notebook of an author writing a novel , -- and just generally getting access to more interesting than you will EVER, EVER have time to process! And that's before you get to the stuff that violates copyright. I know it has made me smarter, and reignited my passion about things that I thought had dried up, and got me interested in things I never thought I would be interested in.

There is a myth that somehow sitting on your laptop browsing the Internet is an antisocial experience. I think that is such bullshit. I think its ├╝bersocial experience, it is drinking from a rich nourishing soup of humanity (although at this early stage still far from a representative one). Obviously, there is a price to pay. Suddenly, now that you are connected to 10 million people instead of just 2 or 3, your individuality is swamped, and there is less of an emphasis on slowly building relationships with people (though far from none) - its sort of like a huge swingers club but for culture instead of sex.

Another negative is that with emails and forums and such you lose a lot of side channels of information that normally enrich human-human communication: accents, volume, timing, acting, gestures, winks, smiles, grimaces, frowns. I love those things, but I also know that people are adaptable enough that the find a way of representing all these same things in a 1 dimensional string of text to get the message across, things which eventually have the same emotional valence. Sarcasm is :-P, affection is <3, sharing a joke is ;-), joy is :D, shouting is ALL CAPS. Sure, these things can be faked, but they can be faked in real life too, and just like in real life you can tell after a while. And while we spice up our texts (emails, chats, twitters, blogs) in all sorts of different ways to make them informationally rich, we can also store them, search them, cross reference them, recall them after many years - things which we obviously can't do with conversations or phone calls, and that once again is both a good and bad thing. One amazing thing about it is that you can trace your life back, see who you were emailing and about what, see what you were thinking, what kinds of things you were doing, what your moods were at different times. That is an absolutely amazing resource that no-one has ever really had before, not with even a tenth the fidelity. In the past, mostly people kept a box of letters under their bed that was basically an entire lifetime's correspondence, and once every few years they would go through it. That was a different life from the life we will live, and I'm not saying it is inferior, but I know I wouldn't want it after I've tasted this life. I would feel alone, I would feel starved of information and context, I would feel only partially human. And that's really just email.

So I've talked about the strengths and weaknesses of text, which, right now makes up most of the "information" in "information technology". But text only dominates for technological reasons that are beginning to change. VoIP is now extremely widespread, and I think fairly soon speech to text will be pretty commonplace, so that everything you say is also stored as text for you to be able to search it later ("what time did I tell Adi I'll meet him?"). It is also becoming commoditized, viewed as just another technology rather than a class of applications: so these days it's no longer just stand alone apps like Skype, it's voice being embedded into other applications, or even straight into a website. I think within a decade the balance between voice and email is going to blur, and the days when VoIP is just for "special occasions" will be long gone.

Video is also getting big, very quickly. Youtube is evidence of that, but its still a bit clunky: you have to actually upload a video, usually something noteworthy, instead of just streaming stuff straight to the Internet. Eventually, video will become just another channel of information, used just as freely and cheaply as text is right now, maybe as part of a discussion, maybe as a comment on some article, maybe as a more exciting form of email, whatever. At some point it will become trivial to search and sort video for specific content, like "James wearing his red jacket". At some later point it'll just be passe.

Now audio, video, mail, and so on has been around for a long time, so why, cast in this new form, do they excite me so much? Because before the web, the channels of communication were one way: mostly private corporations produced generic content for the public to absorb in large enough quantities to offset the huge infrastructural costs. Now, its very cheap to start disseminating your own culture. Eventually, traditional channels will just be swamped, as print journalism is starting to get swamped (weirdly, by itself in the form of free online editions that publishers don't know how to monetize). The old media technologies don't scale, they are boring, they are extremely inefficient, they are generic, not tailored at anything other than a broad demographic, they all make a huge pretense of objectivity when for the most part they reflect corporate interests, and there is no real sense of community. Internet technology has unlocked the creativity of a vastly greater number of people, still mostly those with more than a bit of technical savvy, but I'd be dumbfounded if user-friendliness did not improve radically in the next ten years.

Put in a slightly mathematical way, the Internet is providing a much more thickly connected and of interpersonal connections for information and culture to diffuse through, the information processing capacity of societies as a whole are being vastly increased. "Information processing" here just means whatever we are doing collectively that uses information - we're doing more of it, and we're doing it faster. I struggle to see this as a bad thing.

Some people have complained that there is too much "noise", that most Youtube videos are crap, that only lame authors release books for free on the Internet. Unfair! The Internet is as close to a meritocracy as human society has ever come. In a bizarre and delicious half-analogy that illustrates my point, PageRank , the actual secret sauce that Google uses to sort and rank all the Web's pages so amazingly well, is based precisely on the premise that the Internet has already sorted itself, using a sort of swarm intelligence like that in an ant-colony or a democracy. In this analogy 'votes' or 'pheromone trails' are simply hypertext links. Isn't that magical? That democracy has been encoded as a mathematical algorithm and is generating billions of dollars ever year for a company whose official motto is ?

So, to sum up, the Internet, and other information technologies, will increasingly be the crucible in which innovative companies, governments, ideas, research, music, books, viewpoints, philosophies, trends, hobbies, technologies, ideologies, movements, in fact memes of all varieties (in short, "Culture") are melted down and reforged anew.

I've rambled a bit, but I hope I've communicated some flavor of my excitement. We are just at the brink of some probably unfathomably deep cultural change, ready and equipped to observe it in glorious ordinary-speed detail. Better yet, as the next generation, we are in a position to spearhead this revolution -- unlike our grandparents, we are unblinkered by an automatic fear of technology (my theory is that this technophobia is fallout from the explosion of obscure Japanese VCR manuals from the late 80s).

Isn't that an exciting world to live in? :-)

A flowery mini-essay about why nerds like me shouldn't feel guilty about spending all day on the internet.

When I browse it really feels like I am participating in Something Important, at least something that is vastly different from anything that has come before in human history. The pages that each evening's browsing will unfurl - those encoded ideas and feelings and beliefs that lie dormant on some server somewhere, sourced from a potentially unlimited cross section of English speaking people, each awaiting the opportunity to seed their own unique interpretations in my mind - represent an infinitesimally thin slice of an information system that is rich and complex almost beyond comprehension. Just compare this dense structure with the old-fashioned, linear media like books and films, which could never reveal so much about so many things so quickly, or expose one in quick succession to such a diversity of cultural artefacts, whether they be software programs, mathematical treatises, cake recipes, vacation photographs, DIY tips, political diatribes, love poems, advertisements, boasts, complaints, technical discussions, random chit-chat, or any of a million things in between.

Browsing for me can be two different things. Sometimes I'm focused, picking up on a particular thread and tracing it from site to site until my desire for information is satiated. Other times my browsing is totally unfocused and incoherent, and sort of a lucid form of REM sleep pieced together from fragments of other people's thoughts. I believe that this second kind of browsing is as close as human beings can get to participating in a hive mind.

Before I started the job at iThemba labs I never really had the opportunity to go on an uninterrupted browsing spree. But now on the weekends when I come into the office I can spend literally the whole day on the internet. I can't get over how stimulating it is! i mean, isn't this one of the most exciting things to humanity, ever? I really wonder how this will be amplified as the technology gets more elaborate and the number of people connected to the web increases exponentially.

I'm reading a book called Darwin Among the Machines which, among quite a few other playful ideas, argues quite eloquently that the agglomerating mass of information we call the web, and the substrate of interconnected computers that underlie it, form something as close to a brain, an evolving intelligence, as our unimaginative definition of the term 'intelligence' actually permits. An intelligence that not only serves as a dumping ground for our information, but in its own right manipulates us into maintaining its servers, updating its data, and enlarging its semantic reach. Much in the same way that our cells maintain the large scale structure of our bodies for their own purposes, though now of course we naturally see the cells as being subservient to the organism, instead of the other way round.