Last night we attended a lecture at MIT which once again reminded us why we keep returning to Cambridge after 40 years despite the weather. The event featured Wadah Khanfar, until recently head of the Al Jazeera network, and a panel composed of Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, Mohamed Nanabhay, head of online at Al Jazeera English, and Joi Ito, the ubiquitous internet wag and champion of open netways. As advertised, they talked about the Arab Spring a year after the precipitating events in Egypt, but the discussion soon zoomed into the areas of new media, social media, citizen journalism, and how its all changing fast, before our eyes.
We felt lucky to be there. We only found out about the event that day; fortunately, right now we have a cadre of eight Saudi students who are bright, open-minded, and obviously taking advantage of their time in Boston. Thanks for the head’s up, guys.
One part of the discussion got me thinking, which is why we go to these things in the first place. Mr. Kanfar was speaking about the moments during the day of January 25th, 2011, when the world’s attention turned to Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, and everything changed.
Al Jazeera, he said, was in the middle of a long-planned, meticulously researched, intensively promoted 4-day special series title “The Palestine Papers”. They had a lot of money invested in it. It led their hourly newscasts and was the top story on their popular online sites. They had a few reporters in Tahrir, but as Mr. Kanfar said, there had been a series of protest in that and other public places in Cairo, and they were not expecting anything dramatic. The Egyptian story was fourth or fifth on the website, and drawing hit accordingly.
However, during the afternoon Al Jazeera web traffic monitors (another telling emergent phenomena) noticed something interesting. The hits on the Tahrir Square story were shooting up, and within minutes they had shot past the Palestine Papers. And kept going up.
Al Jazeera, behind Mr. Kanfar, immediately realized they had a major, historic story breaking in their own backyard. They seized the moment and ran with it. Within days the brushfire lit by events in Cairo and across Egypt had spread to a half-dozen countries in the region and every major news organization on the planet was covering it.
But the people who saw it first, all those millions of viewers who clicked through to the story on Al Jazeera’s web site looking for more infomation, how did they find out about it? Two words – Social Media. Twitter and Facebook. Smart phones. Regular, ordinary people had twisted the neck of a major network , shouting, “What’s going on over there?” And the whole world looked.
It has been clear for a while that there is a white-hot spotlight of global media focus that sweeps the planet looking for the three or four stories which occupy the extremely limited planetary attention span for a few days, before fading into the background buzz. Successful stories often feature photogenic famous people, photogenic disasters, or royalty, photogenic or not, and sex, preferably in some combination. But up until now, the focus of the spotlight seems to have been directed by a shadowy cabal of major media groups.
Something new is happening here. Maybe not a revolution, but an accelerated evolution. It seems to us that we are watching the emergence of the first effective Global Neural Network. By that I mean that for the first time, multiple human brains, in fact millions of human brains, can be linked in near instantaneous networks, simultaneously in series and in parallel, so that they are able to process the same information at the same time, voice, video or text, and cogitate over the same questions. No one can say to what extent they will arrive at the same answers.
This is not a completely new phenomena. A spectral precursor to the global neural network has existed as long as humans have been using language. For millennia humans myriad individual consciousnesses were linked by the structure of the languages they spoke and the oral histories they wove and repeated down through their generations. But interlinking of networks depended on physical travel by one of the nodes, a human brain, and this was a difficult and dangerous endeavor until quite recently.
With the popularization of the printed world, the neural network took a great leap forward. Suddenly ideas, memes, modes of inquiry, could reach across the furthest distances, stand the tests of time, form a base to be built upon and allow for collective decision making on a far larger scale. But the transmission of ideas was agonizingly slow, at least from a modern viewpoint, like playing a game of chess via transatlantic schooner. Hard to imagine a global consciousness arising form such glacial cognition.
But now, just in the past five years, it has become possible for ideas, words, pictures and moving images to pass from one mind to another in seconds. From when one isolated consciousness views something in his or her immediate reality, it can be transferred to a million other minds in two or three seconds. Less time than is needed to explain it to someone standing next to you. All you need is a smartphone, which is standard equipment for almost half of the human population right now.
It was a fortuitous combination of hardware, software and wetware. Smartphones provide the neural network hardware , Twitter and Facebook provide the software, and we provide the wetware. If Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckenberg hadn’t done it someone else would have; it was a change waiting to happen and we were waiting for it to happen to us.
We must confess, we are a fan of neither Facebook nor Twitter. Facebook violates our deep instinct for anonymity and we only joined because we had agreed to address a big conference on Using Social Media in the Classroom. Now we are constantly denying friend requests from ex-students. Our history with Twittter is even worse. We got the Twitter pitch back at the Berkman Bloggers Group before it was even in beta, and my dismissive comment at the time was, “Most of my favorite sentences have more than 140 characters”. We forgot the fact that even the most complex mosaic is composed of disparate bits. Which can be crowd-sourced.
It is hard to imagine how the global neural network can get much more immediate until, inevitable, we all get cerebral implants to facilitate direct brain-to-brain transmission of ideas. There will be incremental improvements, for sure. The recently announced Google Glasses heads up display, for example. Envision a citizen journalist in the next Tahrir Square who can transmit exactly what they are seeing from their eyes directly into the eyes of millions of Glasses-wearing viewers around the globe. With the surround-sound earphones on, it would be like the whole world was there.
Beware. Be aware. Everything is changing. We will see it in our lifetimes. Stay tuned.