The Social Nervous System Has More Than One Sense

Radar’s Joshua Michele-Ross published a fabulous piece on Forbes entitled The Rise of the Social Nervous System. His premise:

…communication is the foundation of society, business and government. When you scale up communications, you change the world….As ever more people get connected, we see an acceleration in the way the Internet is used to coordinate action and render services from human input. We are witnessing the rise of a social nervous system.

Josh focuses on now familiar examples: the Mumbai terrorist attacks as reported real-time on twitter, the Obama campaign (and in particular, the Houdini project), and Google Flu Trends. But Josh weaves them into a powerful conclusion:

Watch the news, and you will see daily evidence of how a system that connects billions of people is influencing the physical world–from recent protests in California against Proposition 8 organized by Facebook to the riots in my hometown of Oakland after several witnesses uploaded video taken from their mobile phones of a police shooting.

These examples all follow the core web 2.0 narrative, that in the era of the network, the key competency is harnessing collective intelligence. But Josh hammers home the further insight, namely that these effects are not limited to cyberspace, but are used to control and coordinate real-world activity. This is the new frontier, moving from “sensing” to “reacting,” from “cognition” to “coordination” and group action.

The one area where I disagree with Josh’s analysis is in his dismissal of purely machine-mediated sensing.

It is easy to confuse this concept with the emerging field of machine learning such as the smart energy grid, traffic control using the sensor Web or the Planetary Skin Initiative recently announced by Nasa and Cisco. Machine optimization is useful but hardly social: Human beings do not contribute the data, share it or act upon it. And the implications of a social nervous system are far more profound than simply a “smart” grid.

While Josh is right that a network that responds to and expands the power of human activity is uniquely powerful, that activity need not be conscious. Many of the most succesful Web 2.0 systems are derived from implicit rather than explicit data. We don’t think that we are contributing to Google when we make a link from one site to another, but we are. We don’t think we are contributing when we click on one link rather than another, or buy one product rather than another, but we are. You will argue, of course, that those are human actions of just the kind that Josh celebrates.

But where do you draw the line? When we make a phone call from one location rather than another, we don’t think we are contributing our location, but our phone is quietly doing so nonetheless. When we make a credit-card purchase, we don’t think we are contributing, but software at the bank, the merchant, and our personal finance application is listening to that credit card reader. When we turn on a light switch in a Smart-grid connected house, we won’t think we are contributing, but we will be. And the refrigerator waking up and deciding to turn on its compressor will be making exactly the same kind of contribution. The Smart Grid is in fact intended to be just such a sensing-and-responding system, connecting people and machines into a new kind of super-organism.

It’s important to remember that even the human brain has more than one sense. Computers will have a rich new sensorium of their own, driving increasingly autonomic applications. Those applications will share and sense not just words passed from human to human across services like twitter, or our search behavior as captured in the database of intentions, but sounds, pictures, and increasingly, data from senses that unaided humans don’t possess at all, or less precisely: a sense of precise location, or the rate of speed at which we move, the power we consume, the carbon we emit, the approaching weather, the state of the financial markets, the unique sequence of our genome, or even the way we smell. I’d bet some of the next great fortunes will be made by someone discovering how to build a system that reacts to one of the internet’s new senses.

Still, Josh’s analogy is a powerful reminder that “collective intelligence” is not cerebral, but ultimately becomes visceral, that it affects not just what we think but what we do. I expect that many of the “new” senses that currently appear to be merely mechanical will soon develop social dynamics of their own.

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  • My take on “participatory deliberation” as a component of decision making has everything to do with the cognitive aspects of our wet-brain. However the nervous systems actually works, and we really don’t grok that in a holistic way (I’m fond of Hebb’s theory. Mebbe just cuz I went to Dalhousie?), there are processes that we can grapple with and operationalize.
    What I’ve applied is “priming” in the context of ?what? dialectical discourse … fairly rigorous discussion, if you will.

    I’m sure most of us are familiar with how related material “comes to mind” in situ … stuff pops up.
    When I fill my brain (especially short-term) with sugar-coated junk food (i.e. “entertainment”) I’m bound to think as though ADHD … it just follows.
    So my design (“gnodal” … 2 of 12 google hits are mine) has everything to do with stacking the deck, if you will, creating a rich context that will in-form thinking on a certain matter or issue. I figure that just has to improve decision making.

  • Great followup comment about Josh’s piece over on Dave Farber’s IP mailing list:

    From: Scott Brim
    Date: March 12, 2009 1:04:43 PM EDT
    Subject: Re: [IP] The “Social Nervous System”

    I quote Arthur C. Clarke out of context:

    “What we are building now is the nervous system of mankind, which will link together the whole human race, for better or worse, in a unity which no earlier age could have imagined.”

    – Arthur C. Clarke, “The Social Consequences of Communications Satellites,” paper presented at the 12th International Astronautical Congress, Washington, DC, 1961, and published in Arthur C. Clarke, Voices from the Sky: Previews of the Coming Space Age (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 139.

  • Hi Tim

    A quick comment on this:

    > This is the new frontier, moving from “sensing”
    > to “reacting,” from “cognition” to
    > “coordination” and group action.

    I guess you’ll not be surprised to hear that I read both of these (sensing->reacting and cognition->coordination) as moves from passive, mainly read-only consumption of information to active read-write interaction and the creation of more information, in situ as @Ben says.

    My own take on how to usher in this future is to provide an architecture (FluidDB, as you know) that allows for completely unanticipated contributions to existing information – done in the place where the original information resides, without asking for permission. Putting the new information with the old makes it all more valuable.

    I don’t think it’s going to work long term to build these things piecemeal (though that certainly has more short term rewards and is fun), i.e., at the application level. I think it needs to be done at a lower, architectural/platform, level that lets all apps take advantage, work together, etc.

    You’ve heard all this before, I know :-)

  • Falafulu Fisi

    Wasn’t this distributed interconnectedness similar to a project started at Sun Micrososystem in the late 1990s to early 2000s by its former Chief Scientist, Bill Joy called Jini? Jini was meant to connect everything under the hood, people & devices (actuators & sensors).

    It looks like that they’re similar or almost the same thing.

  • no mystery for the yogi …

    he already knows about collective consciousness, knows that there already is a “nervous system” of existence …

    and, knows that the internet, and technology, is just the out-picturing of what the developed awareness can already do …

    you tech guys from the west like to think you are creating something new, but sorry, merely imitating nature is not all that laudable …

    in other words, to joshua micahael-ross, big deal, learn a bit about your own nature and you will cease to see anything extraordinary …

    drama queens, those silicon valley “thought-leaders” :-)

  • I wonder what pathologies will emerge once the social nervous system becomes larger. Will we see the equivalent of Parkinson’s disease as information flows cause huge lagged responses to social input? Will we see the loss of the natural damping of responses as the system becomes less fragmented? Is there some optimal connectedness that can be exceeded, and which side of this optimum are we at?

  • It’s like Dune when they think about what mankind can do deep in the sands…


  • Herb

    Herbert Marcuse, a sociologist at the Frankfurt Institute, who helped develop many of the techniques that are currently employed socially, said in his book, “One Dimension Man”:

    “…the populace is strategically marginalized into apathy and indifference, out and away from the concerns of policy making decisions by vested interests who strive to make huge profits by ‘dumbing down’ standards of humanity, tricking the public into subsidizing high end military technology, and appealing to base attractions and distractions (greed, superficiality, apathy) in order to secure the compliance of a mass of stunningly indifferent, dumb people who are actively participating in their own degredation and ultimate demise, if only by their inability and/or unwillingness to acknowledge what should be flagrantly obvious.”

    O’Reilly should prove to all the people that are feverously working to develop and deploy his vision that he is not “tricking the public [Silicon Valley workers] into subsidizing high end military technology”. I think those that have invested time studying network centric systems will find it a tall order to demonstrate that O’Reilly’s future model is anything other than command and control system that slaps any thoughts of tangible liberty in the face.