Netminds–present and future

Shel Kaphan commented on “Dancing toward the singularity“:

Personally, I am comfortable with the idea of participating in… groupings that may involve machines and other humans and have their own entity-hood, and I’m comfortable with the idea that my brain probably has already adapted and become dependent on substantial immersion in computing environments and other technology, and I know what it is like to be part of an early generation, fairly tightly coupled, computing-enhanced group with a focus. I’m just saying the name “hybrid system” as such doesn’t sound either desirable or healthy.

And of course he’s right, who wants to be “hybridized” or “part of a hybrid system”? Ugh, terrible marketing.

So from now on, I’ll call them “netminds”: groups of people and machines working together so closely that they form a thinking entity.

People who become part of a netmind don’t lose their own identity, but they adapt. A moderately good analogy is a dance troupe, a repertory theater company or a band. Each individual retains their own identity but they also adapt to the group. At the same time, the troupe or band selects people who fit its identity (maybe unconsciously). And over time the group identity, the set of members and to some extent the individuals (and brains) co-evolve. So the individual and group identities are in a complex interplay.

This interplay will get much more intense as humans and machines get more tightly coupled. The tightest groups could be much closer than any today, with individuals interacting through machine interpretation of details of muscle tension, micro-gestures, brain state, etc. etc. In such a group people would be “inside each others heads” and would need to give up most personal boundaries between group members. The boundary would fall between the netmind and the outside world.

The fullest exploration of such a merger (without machines) is Vernor Vinge’s Tines in A Fire Upon the Deep. But even Vinge can only sustain the dual point of view (individual and netmind) in places, and elsewhere falls back into treating the netmind as a monolithic entity. This may be necessary in a narrative that appeals to normal humans. Joan Vinge explores the emotional side of netminds in Catspaw.

Netminds today

Does it make sense to talk about netminds as existing today? I think it does, although today’s netminds are relatively weakly coupled.

Gelled development teams, working closely together in a shared online environment, are netminds. The level of coupling we can attain through a keyboard is pathetically low, but as anyone who has been part of such a team can attest, the experience is intense and the sense that one is part of a larger entity is strong.

Quite likely a guild in an online game is a netmind, especially when they are engaged in a raid. I don’t personally have any experience with this, but since it is a more or less real-time experience, it probably has some interesting attributes that are mostly lacking in the software development case.

At the other end of the spectrum, we might want to call some very large, diffuse systems netminds. An appealing example is the Wikipedia editors plus the Wikipedia servers (note that I’m not including readers who don’t contribute). Here the coupling is fairly weak, but arguably the resulting system is still a thinking entity. It forms opinions, makes decisions (albeit with internal conflicts), gets distracted, etc. We can also see the dynamics that I describe above: individuals adapt, some individuals are expelled, the netmind develops new processes to maintain its integrity, and so forth. Human groups without network support do the same kinds of things, but a non-networked group the size of Wikipedia would “think” hundreds or thousands of times more slowly, and probably couldn’t even remain a coherent entity.

I suppose we could even call the whole web plus the Google servers a netmind, in the weakest possible sense. (Probably it is only fair to include all the other search and ranking systems as well.) Because the coupling is so weak, the effect on individual identity is minimal, but people (and certainly websites) do adapt to Google, and Google does exclude websites that participate in (what it considers) inappropriate ways. Furthermore Google works fairly hard to retain its integrity in the face of challenges from link farms, click fraud, etc. But this case is so large and diffuse that it stretches my intuition about netminds past its limits.

Netminds tomorrow

Let’s return to the more tightly coupled cases. Humans seem to naturally get caught up in intense group activities. Usually immersion in the group identity is fleeting — think of rock concerts, sports events, and riots. But intense creative group activity can generate a prolonged emotional high. Many physicists who worked on development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos remembered it as the peak experience of their life. Engineers can get almost addicted to intense team development.

We already have the technology to make gaming environments fairly addictive, even without intense human interaction; there’s a reason Everquest is called Evercrack.

It’s easy to imagine that tightly coupled netminds could exert a very powerful emotional hold over their participants. Netminds will tend to move in the direction of tighter, more intense bonds on their own, since they feel so good. As our technology for coupling individuals into netminds gets better, we’ll have to be careful to manage this tendency, and there are certain to be some major, highly publicized failures.

A related problem is exemplified by cults. Cults don’t provide the emotional high of intense creative effort; they seem to retain people by increasing their dependency and fear of the outside world. Probably technology for tight coupling could be exploited to produce cult-like bonds. Net cults are likely to to be created by exploitative people, rather than arising spontaneously, and such phenomena as cult-like info-sweatshops are disturbingly likely — in fact they arguably already exist in some online games.

Whether creative or cult-like, tightly coupled netminds are also likely to shape their participants brains quite strongly. The persistent personality changes in cult members, long term hostages, etc. are probably due to corresponding changes in their brains — typically reversible, but only with difficulty. Participants in tightly coupled creative groups probably undergo brain changes just as large, but these changes they tend to enhance the individual rather than disabling them, so they produce less concern. Nobody tries to deprogram graduate students who are too involved with their lab.

We already know enough to build netminds that would deliberately induce changes in participants’ brains. We’re already building systems that produce outcomes similar to very disciplined practice. But tightly coupled systems could probably go far beyond this, reshaping brains in ways that ordinary practice could never achieve. As with most of these scenarios, such reshaping could have major beneficial or even therapeutic effects or could go horribly wrong.

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