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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