The Internet is Sentient
There is a battle going on between the Internet and those who are threatened by the Internet’s values. This includes anyone protecting old business models; incumbent telcos and cablecos, and rights collectives representing old distribution models for intellectual property. Most importantly, the greatest threat is to the power of the nation-state itself.
This struggle is marked by the Internet achieving sentience. I use sentience here to describe the deep symbiosis of the network and the people that use it and the huge quantity of emergent properties that result. The whole is vastly greater than the sum of the parts.
The Internet has achieved sentience. It is some different version of Kurzweil’s singularity, but it exists today. The Internet is self-improving, it propagates its unique values and, most importantly, it has now matured to the point where it is able to protect itself from any threat.
This sentience is a fusion of network and people. Recognizing its existence is central to understanding how society will evolve with and through it and to making this symbiosis as healthy as it can be. For many, this sentience is understood on an implied level. This will be better if made express.
It constantly improves
Every element of the Internet eventually gets improved upon with huge network effects, and those network effects are just accelerating. Not only is the Internet improving with the number of people connected, it is improving the very people connected to it.
It propagates its values
The Internet has often been described as valueless. It is not. In fact strong values have emerged. The Internet stands for openness, connectedness, sharing and fairness. It facilitates these things and propagates them. Think of the generally increasing difficulty that corruption and unfairness are having, from dictators to unfriendly business practices.
The Arab Spring and Verizon removing an unfair $2 surcharge are equally good examples. A groundswell starts and does not come from any one voice, but seems to come from the collective consciousness. It seems to come from everywhere at the same time.
It responds to threats
The Internet itself now clearly responds to things that threaten it. The response is multi-faceted, coming from many different places and in many different ways.
We see responses to legislative threats like SOPA and ACTA where people all over the world have responded to specific national legislation in a way never before seen.
We see this when we see Anonymous and others attacking various parties and entities that threaten the Internet and its values, almost like mutated white blood cells in the Internet’s bloodstream. And of course there is no specific person or thing that is Anonymous. Watching those threatened take a traditional approach to stopping it approaches farce.
We see this when we see plans arise for alternatives to the present Internet in response to threats from those who fear it. As the SOPA debate kicked into high gear a Reddit discussion on “Plan B” kicked off and has not slowed down despite the immediate threat passing. This was not even close to the only dialogue of its kind. The collective consciousness of the Internet understands the threat as continual and existential and in no way limited to SOPA, PIPA or ACTA. Those threatened, on the other hand, think they have a “PR problem” and that somehow Google and Silicon Valley have fooled people.
Finally, the Internet responding to threats to its existence is happening at an increasing rate. Draw a line through Citizen Lab, EFF and others in the late 90’s, TOR and others in the late 00’s and the responses that we have seen in the last months. This trend will accelerate.
What are the implications of sentience
When we interact with the Internet, whether it is in platform design, marketing or our own personal use of social media we need to keep the concept of sentience in mind. It can change the way we approach these tasks.
When we interact with the Internet we need to not only to expect it to change and evolve but we need to actively think about our own participation in this evolution. We are each a tiny part of the sentience of the Internet.
Perhaps most importantly for this post and for the broad theme of conflict between value systems, any attempt to legislate, regulate or otherwise control the Internet ignores sentience at its peril.
The genie of the Internet is out of the bottle. From now on, its sentience will protect its independence, whether one likes it or not. If those threatened try and squeeze too tightly the Internet will simply get up and walk away. The nation-state can no longer control the Internet but it can do significant damage to it, and in doing so to itself.
The hope is that acknowledging and discussing the Internet as sentient will allow us to approach its relationship with the nation-state, and other interests who feel threatened by it, in a way that more smoothly eases us into the future.