The Web We Weave

We've had the Internet in many forms over the centuries, creating a collective mind that thinks faster and faster

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In the middle of the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson registered a lyric complaint about the oppressive force of material goods: "Web to weave and corn to grind; Things are in the saddle and ride mankind."

Talk about your sensitive poets. If Emerson found such modest machinery as corn grinders dehumanizing, how would he handle the end of this century? Today we are more than ever slaves of technology, tethered to computers and cell phones and beepers. Meanwhile, we have to cope with unprecedented change. Things are riding us faster and faster.

And the more tethered we become, the faster things change, because the tethers are plugging people into the very social collaboration that drives the change. Science, technology, music, politics--flux in all these realms is hastened by the new electronic synergy. The Internet and allied technologies make us neurons in a vast social brain, a brain that keeps enticing us into making it bigger, stronger, faster. We have, you might say, a Web to weave.

What are we to make of all this in practical terms, philosophical terms, even spiritual terms? How to comprehend an age in which, suddenly, we find ourselves enmeshed in a huge information-processing system, one that seems almost to have a life of its own and to be leading us headlong into a future that we can't clearly see yet can't really avoid?

The first step is to delete the word suddenly from that last sentence. For this giant social brain has been taking shape, and hastening change, for a long, long time. Not just since Emerson's day, when the telegraph--sometimes called the "Victorian Internet"--made long-distance contact instantaneous, but since the very dawn of the human experience. For tens of thousands of years, technology has been drawing humanity toward the epic, culminating convergence we're now witnessing.

This fact is best seen from a perspective that flourished more than a century ago, as Emerson was fading from the intellectual scene. In the wake of Darwin's theory of natural selection, some anthropologists started viewing all human culture--music, technology, religion, whatever--as something that evolves rather as plants and animals evolve. "In the mental sphere the struggle for existence is not less fierce than in the physical," observed the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer. "In the end the better ideas carry the day."

Lately, this view, "cultural evolutionism," has been revived and given a new vocabulary. "Meme"--a word chosen to stress the parallel with "gene"--is the label for packets of cultural information: technologies, songs, beliefs and so on. Just as those genes most conducive to their own replication are the ones that prevail, those memes best at getting themselves transmitted from human to human are the ones that come to form the human environment.

From the very beginning, cultural evolution was a social enterprise, mediated by what you could loosely call a social brain. One person invents, say, a flint hand ax; the idea creeps across the landscape, gets improved here and there, and finally, in a distant land, stimulates a whole new idea: axes with handles conveniently attached.

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