2010 : HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?

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Physicist, Computer Scientist, Chairman of Applied Minds, Inc.; author, The Pattern on the Stone
THE DAWN OF THE ENTANGLEMENT

It seems that most people, even intelligent and well-informed people, are confused about the difference between the Internet and the Web. No one has expressed this misunderstanding more clearly than Tom Wolfe inHooking Up:

I hate to be the one who brings this news to the tribe, to the magic Digikingdom, but the simple truth is that the Web, the Internet, does one thing. It speeds up the retrieval and dissemination of information, partially eliminating such chores as going outdoors to the mailbox or the adult bookstore, or having to pick up the phone to get hold of your stock broker or some buddies to shoot the breeze with. That one thing the Internet does and only that. The rest is Digibabble.

This confusion between the network and the services that it first enabled is a natural mistake. Most early customers of electricity believed that they were buying electric lighting. That first application was so compelling that it blinded them to the bigger picture of what was possible. A few dreamers speculated that electricity would change the world, but one can imagine a nineteenth-century curmudgeon attempting to dampen their enthusiasm: "Electricity is a convenient means to light a room. That one thing the electricity does and only that. The rest is Electrobabble."

The Web is a wonderful resource for speeding up the retrieval and dissemination of information and that, despite Wolfe's trivialization, is no small change. Yet, the Internet is much more than just the Web. I would like to discuss some of the less apparent ways that it will change us. By the Internet, I mean the global network of interconnected computers that enables, among other things, the Web. I would like to focus on applications that go beyond human-to-human communication. In the long run, these are applications of the Internet that will have the greatest impact on who we are and how we think.

Today, most people only recognize that they are using the Internet when they are interacting with a computer screen. They are less likely to appreciate when they are using the Internet while talking on the telephone, watching television, or flying on an airplane. Some travelers may have recently gotten a glimpse of the truth, for example, upon learning that their flights were grounded due to an Internet router failure in Salt Lake City, but for most this was just another inscrutable annoyance. Most people have long ago given up on trying to understand how technical systems work. This is a part of how the Internet is changing the way we think.

I want to be clear that I am not complaining about technical ignorance. In an Internet-connected world, it is almost impossible to keep track of how systems actually function. Your telephone conversation may be delivered over analog lines one day and by the Internet the next. Your airplane route may be chosen by a computer or a human being, or (most likely) some combination of both. Don't bother asking, because any answer you get is likely to be wrong.

Soon, no human will know the answer. More and more decisions are made by the emergent interaction of multiple communicating systems, and these component systems themselves are constantly adapting, changing the way they work. This is the real impact of the Internet: by allowing adaptive complex systems to interoperate, the Internet has changed the way we make decisions. More and more, it is not individual humans who decide, but an entangled, adaptive network of humans and machines.

To understand how the Internet encourages this interweaving of complex systems, you need to appreciate how it has changed the nature of computer programming. Back in the twentieth century, a programmer had the opportunity to exercise absolute control within a bounded world with precisely defined rules. They were able to tell their computers exactly what to do. Today, programming usually involves linking together complex systems developed by others, without understanding exactly how they work. In fact, depending upon the methods of other systems is considered poor programming practice, because it is expected that they will change.

Consider as a simple example, a program that needs to know the time of day. In the unconnected world, computers often asked the operator to type in the time when they were powered on. They then kept track of passing time by counting ticks of an internal clock. Programmers often had to write their own program to do this, but in any case, they understood exactly how it worked. Once computers became connected through the Internet, it made more sense for computers to find out the time by asking one another, so something called Network Time Protocol was invented. Most programmers are aware that it exists but few understand it in detail. Instead, they call a library routine, which asks the operating system, which automatically invokes the Network Time Protocol when it is required.

It would take a long time to explain Network Time Protocol, how it corrects for variable network delays and how it takes advantage of a partially-layered hierarchy of network-connected clocks to find the time. Suffice it to say that it is complicated. Besides, I would be describing version 3 of the protocol, and your operating system is probably already using version 4. It really does not make sense for you, even if you are a programmer, to bother to understand how it works.

Now consider a program that is directing delivery trucks to restock stores. It needs to know not just the time of day, but also the locations of the trucks in the fleet, the maps of the streets, the coordinates of its warehouses, the current traffic patterns, and the inventories of its stores. Fortunately it can keep track of all of this changing information by connecting to other computers through the Internet. It can also offer services to other systems that need to track the location of packages, pay drivers, and schedule maintenance of the trucks. All of these systems will depend upon one another to provide information, without depending on exactly how the information is computed. All of these communicating systems are being constantly improved and extended, evolving in time.

Now multiply this picture by a million fold, to include not just the one fleet of trucks, but all the airplanes, gas pipelines, hospitals, factories, oil refineries, mines and power plants not to mention the salesmen, advertisers, media distributors, insurance companies, regulators, financiers and stock traders. You will begin to perceive the entangled system that makes so many of our day-to-day decisions. Although we created it, we did not exactly design it. It evolved. Our relationship to it is similar to our relationship to our biological ecosystem. We are co-dependent, and not entirely in control.

We have embodied our rationality within our machines and delegated to them many of our choices, and in this process we have created a world that is beyond our own understanding. Our century began on a note of uncertainty, as we worried how our machines would handle the transition to the new millennium. Now we are attending to a financial crisis caused by the banking system miscomputing risks, and a debate on global warming in which experts argue not so much about the data, but about what the computers predict from the data. We have linked our destinies, not only among ourselves across the globe, but with our technology. If the theme of the Enlightenment was independence, our own theme is interdependence. We are now all connected, humans and machines. Welcome to the dawn of the Entanglement.