The Digital Soul, Part I

“Ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you.” – Oscar Wilde

What if I told you I was willing to pay you $1.81 if you tell me about your bulimia?  Or at the other end of the spectrum, $1.05 to tell me about your gout?  How about $1.93 in your pocket if you’ll admit to me that you and your spouse need marital counseling?

Or $10.11 that your house doesn’t have a security system, $7.16 that you’ve finally given up on paying off your student loans, and $9.24 if you’ll ‘fess up to your coke problem?

$130.34 if you’re afraid you might have asbestos-related mesothelioma?

Or $31.06 if you think you need a DUI attorney? (But only $29.03 if you need a DUI lawyer?)

Or, and I know this might seem chintzy, $0.72 if you think your husband might be gay?

Would you do it?

If I pulled out my checkbook or a stack of bills and the correct change, would you agree to tell me truthfully?

No?

Well, maybe it’s just because we don’t know each other that well yet…  perhaps this would work better if you asked your friends?

Let’s try it.  Click here to send an e-mail to all of your contacts with the subject line “I’ll pay you $9.37 if you admit to your drinking problem.”

How many takers do I have?  Are you up for it?

Now what if I took this thought experiment a step further and proposed to you a business where the model is, in fact, that I am going to ask you to tell me all of these things… for free…  because you’ll want to.

And then I’ll plan on selling that information to a bunch of people you don’t know for the cash.

If you’re gout-stricken, I get a buck and change, almost $2 if you and the Mrs. are at it again. Your being a cokehead nets me a Hamilton.  I get three times as much if you’ve had a run-in with the law at a nighttime checkpoint. And if you’ve been sucking on asbestos for the past decade, I get a crisp Benjamin plus plus.

Are you ready to invest in my venture? I think it’s got real potential.

I’m naming it “Google”… perhaps you’ve heard of it?

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How did we become these people?  Telling such personal things to machines? Sharing what we wouldn’t share with colleagues or classmates or co-religionists or competitors?

Sharing, in fact, our gravest and riskiest confidences with an unforgetting, uncorruptable, unerring, and utterly amoral machine?

Forever, our secrets will be hidden there; they were not stolen, we gave them away willingly.  How did we become those people?

The internet wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.

While it can be conceived, in the words of one late befuddled Senator, as a “series of tubes” through which passes the world’s information, to be strictly precise the internet wasn’t conceived of at all.  It was, rather, the logically inevitable but unplanned, outgrowth of the invention of packet-switching.  Eliminating the single point of failure germinated a thousand, a billion, a trillion, points on the graph.

The World Wide Web was to be the nodes on the graph.

As Tim Berners-Lee shared early on: “The WWW world consists of documents, and links… [It] is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. It provides a single user-interface to large classes of information (reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line help).”

The World Wide Web was about information – large classes of information – and information technology and information scientists were here to assist with its management.  The excitement you feel in reading Berners-Lee’s original proposal, his proselytizing emails, and his usenet posts come from the sense of a man on the brink of enabling a great discovery: the discovery of where we already are.

By creating access to the world’s research, its thought, and its insight, Berners-Lee imagined minds all over the planet downloading, consuming, sharing more and better information than they ever had before.

The information, the beauty, was in the nodes, not between them.

Today, when there are 1,112,000 DUI arrests in the United States annually and 1,620,000 Google U.S. searches on the phrase “DUI attorney” over the past twelve months, do you have any doubt that the majority of the former shared their predicament with the latter?

And all of the examples of payouts above come from searches conducted this morning on Google’s Adsense tools, which estimate how much each click will cost an advertiser in response to keywords such as “alcohol abuse”, or “bulimia”, or “mesothelioma.”

Today the information, the beauty, the shock and surprise, come from between nodes: their interaction, their aggregation, their implications.

Emergence is the occurrence of novel properties in the whole which are not present in the components, and are unpredictable from the knowledge of those parts.  There is nothing about ice crystals that tell us what snowflakes will look like.  There is nothing in the raindrop that can describe the hurricane.  Studying the grain of sand will not yield knowledge of the dune, nor will knowing the bird teach you about the flock.

In every case, it is the interaction between the “nodes”, whether they be water droplets, birds, ice crystals… or keyboards, that leads to the surprise of scale.

What, then, we can ask ourselves, is the emergent behavior of the internet?

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