You don’t happen to know the average May rainfall for Seattle off the top of your head, do you? If you had to do a search to find out, don’t feel bad, I did too (2.16″, if you couldn’t be bothered). Now, do you happen to remember the name of your second grade teacher? Don’t feel bad if you can’t remember, but I think it would be a fair bet that you were able to pull up your teacher’s name, even though you haven’t used that information in an active way for several years. Now, take a second and think about the two bits of mental gymnastics you just performed. In the case of Seattle rainfall, unless you’re some sort of savant who happens to store up meteorological data from the Pacific Northwest, you relied upon a physically external source for the information, likely by typing “Seattle May rainfall” into the search bar on your browser. In the case of your teacher’s name, you probably used an internal source to get the answer. Other than the source, was there a significant difference as far as your mind was concerned? Was one type of knowledge different from the other in an appreciable way?
For many of us, the internet has become something of a brain extender, the place we keep all the trivia and statistics we don’t want to waste skull space for. I don’t remember phone numbers, my smartphone does it for me; I don’t know birthdays, facebook keeps track of them for me. I might be alone in this, but I have a hunch that I’m not; I have a hunch that if you’re reading an obscure blog you saw linked somewhere with a weird title about “The Electronic Collective Unconscious”, you’re one of the growing number of digital natives wandering around, trying to figure out how to make your phone run your TV and wishing it had an app to help you run even more aspects of your life. More and more of us are looking for more and more ways to integrate the internet and various devices into our daily lives in order to do more, see more, maybe even be more.
The question I’m preoccupied with right now is where the line is between mind and environment, just how much of our mental processes occur entirely within our heads, and how much of it takes place somewhere out there, wherever that may be. This is not something new in human evolutionary terms; the first person to use her fingers to count took her mental processes and used something outside her head to augment it, we’re just doing the same thing in a much more complicated and larger way. Books, pictures, movies, sound recordings, there is an endless list of things human beings have used to extend our minds; twenty years ago, if you wanted to know something, you went to a book and found the information, you asked someone if they knew the answer, or you used some other avenue to take that information out of the external world and into your own grey matter. Now, the process is much faster and more convenient, but there isn’t a difference in the nature of the act of data retrieval from our outer world to our inner one.
Well, that might not necessarily be true; maybe there is something that differentiates our mind’s new tool from its old ones: the fact that it looks very much like a mind itself. Where a book is a physical object, you actually have to walk over to the shelf, open it, and locate the desired information somewhere in space before taking it in, but in the case of the internet, it is drawing closer and closer to being physically co-located with us, through one device or another, and science fiction is rapidly becoming everyday reality. People are looking for ways to have the internet floating in front of us, displayed on our glasses as we walk around, and the question becomes at what point do we stop asking about sentient machines and realize that in fact we are those machines, or at least the ghosts in them. It is not an unimaginable future where we find ourselves living our lives through the filter of the ‘net via implanted devices that become as natural to us as our hands; it’s a near-reality that’s getting closer by the day.
One thing we really need to consider in all of this is once we’re all living online 24/7, where is all the information we’re drawing on coming from? Right now, if you enter “Chinese restaurant” into your search bar, you’re going to get localized results that filter for restaurants in your area based on your IP address. Now, who is doing that filtering? Chances are, you’re a google user, so you know that it’s google doing the filtering of your search results, tailoring them to be the most useful for you, right? Well, yes and no. Certainly, there is a great deal of utility for users in this, you don’t need to scroll down through every Chinese restaurant on the entire web until you find one in your town, it’s right there at the top of the page, probably even with a map giving you directions to each, that much is obvious. However, there is also the question of which restaurants may or may not have purchased advertising from google, which could potentially be affecting the order your search results appear on the page. Say Mao’s Manchurian has paid a little extra to have their restaurant appear at the top of your area’s searches, while Xiang’s Xtreme has not; that money buys Mao’s some prime internet real estate, and you more often than not check them out first, increasing their share of your local Chinese food market.
Well, that’s just Advertising 101, right? Pay for placement, and you’ll raise awareness of your brand and increase business, simple. But what if it goes deeper than just places to get extra MSG in your diet and floats into the political arena. Now, when you do a search on local politicians, the results for the guy whose campaign manager paid for preferential searching might fail to bring up the minor scandal of the day while also bringing up results including stories from years ago mentioning their opponent’s most embarrassing political gaffes when you search his name. Again, this is just advertising, right? It’s just fair and free expression, with the market of ideas being regulated by the invisible hand, nothing untoward, right? Or are we looking at something a little more corrosive to our political process? Is this something that could potentially derail democracy? Spreading it further, we already know how effective misinformation is when it’s propagated through cable news, what about when it’s displayed right on people’s glasses as they’re going about their business?
Something we all need to be aware of as we step into this new reality is who holds the gate keys when it comes to how information is delivered to us. The kind of stealth censorship that can result when a search provider decides that the money to be made by customizing their search algorithms to suit paying customers is something we already see whenever we open our gmail pages. Right there on the side of the page is “targeted advertising” based on the contents of your emails. Having a private conversation with your significant other about what (didn’t) happen last night? Just look to the right, and there’s a helpful link pointing you at some little blue pills. Now, are we really so gullible as to think that governments haven’t made note of this kind of thing and looked for ways to play the game to their own advantage (or rather, for the advantage of their patrons)? It may not be happening here just yet, but most of us have already heard of the Great Firewall of China, and it’s not hard to imagine something like that elsewhere in the world. The rapid spread of information across the globe is a two-edged sword for world leaders; on the one hand, it allows them to respond quickly to situations happening thousands of miles away, but on the other hand, it also means that the truth about what they do in their own countries gets out just as fast as it happens, and oppressing your people in private is becoming a thing of the past.
If a government were to do something like our local restaurants and tweak people’s search results to favour their current policies and agendas, is that a legitimate use of the system, or is it something we should be putting protections against in place? The way we use the internet is becoming more and more like the way we use our own memories, wouldn’t we have a serious problem with the government or corporations tinkering around with the way our memories work? As we increasingly depend on our web-enabled devices for every little thing and get a growing amount of our news and information from it in what we think is a more transparent manner than broadcast and print news and media can provide, the prospect of anybody rigging the way we are able to think about certain things makes the censorship of the past look like nothing in comparison. This is the kind of thing that would have made George Orwell sit bolt upright in the middle of the night, and yet it’s not really something we’re talking about in a serious way. I mean, just think of how people would react with outrage if we heard that a corporation was buying up news outlets in order to suppress certain stories and demonize their opponents, we wouldn’t sit still for that sort of thi- . . .
So, I guess the take home message here is either get ready to get your Walden on in the nearest bit of wilderness to get off the grid, or just get used to the idea that in the near future, our memories will be filtered by people we’ve never met for purposes we may have nothing to do with. But at least the resolution level is going to be fantastic.