Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The cloud: what are we doing to our minds?

Fred Hoyle's 1957 novel "The Black Cloud" is chock-full of ideas and of inventions; still amazing to read today. In particular, Hoyle was prophetic with the concept of an "intelligent cloud"  that reminds the concept of "Internet Cloud" as we understand it today. What is the cloud doing to our minds?

I grew up in a remote province of the Empire and for most of my life, there, I was starving for information. Bookstores carried mostly books written in the local, obscure language and of what was said in the Imperial language I could access only the minuscule fraction that was translated. Getting books from the Empire's cultural centers, overseas, was possible; but it was slow, cumbersome,  and incredibly expensive.

Everything changed when I had the chance to live in Berkeley. It  was like being able to breathe after having been drowning. It was so different: the libraries of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory were open the whole night just to let us, the researchers, stay there as long as we wanted, combing obscure tomes in search for truth. And the bookstores in Berkeley! My gosh: books, and books, so many more than anything I had ever seen - and so cheap!

The best feature of so much abundance was serendipity. You know the meaning of the term: is the sudden and unexpected discovery - the new idea that shatters your mental blocks and washes out your old ideas. You can't reach the fabulous world of Serendip by ordering books by mail - as I could do from home in my country. But in Berkeley, with so many books available, all lined up so nicely in shelves and stands, all what you needed to do was just to walk on and let serendipity come across to you. You pick up one by chance, you look at the cover and you say, "well, that may be something interesting." You buy it, maybe it was a used book on sale for less than a dollar. You read it, and then your life changes. It was in this way that I discovered the concept of "peak oil", in 2001, in a bookstore in Berkeley. It changed my life.

That was more than ten years ago and it is unbelievable how things have changed in such a short time. I haven't been back to Berkeley, recently, but I am sure that the bookstores there are now a pale shadow of what they used to be. Serendipity has migrated to the Web.

We use now the term "surfing" for that kind of serendipity searching that I used to perform in bookstores. I can't quantify how enormously larger is the amount of information in the Web than it was in the old bookstores. Surely, it has become so large that I am starting to feel scared. Too much information to absorb.

That feeling brought back to my mind the science fiction novel that Fred Hoyle wrote in 1957: "The Black Cloud". I must have read it in the 1960s, in an Italian translation, when I was, maybe, 14 years old. It may not be a great novel, but it surely was prophetic in many respects. Hoyle couldn't really imagine the Internet, although there are hints of something similar in the story. But where he hit the bull's eye was with the concept of "cloud."

Hoyle's Black Cloud is not the same cloud that we have today as part of the World Wide Web. It a sentient being: benevolent although not necessarily merciful; as it has no qualms in atom-bombing a number of terrestrial cities. But the focal point of the story is the enormous knowledge that the Black Cloud has accumulated over millions of years. The dramatic point comes when it turns out that the Cloud must leave the Solar System in a hurry. So, there has to be a way to transmit that giant mass of knowledge to earthlings before the Cloud disappears forever. Two scientists attempt to absorb that knowledge, but they both die; their brains literally fried up by the sheer amount of data. Apparently, the new knowledge conflicted with the old one. They couldn't change their views fast enough and the result was that their brain went short-circuit; destroying itself.

Sometimes, I feel like I am attempting to do the same thing as the scientists of the novel; trying to absorb an enormous amount of knowledge from the cloud - the modern one. I don't know what's the experience of the average Web surfer but, for me, in the last few years, for me it has been a continuous bombardment of new ideas which have consistently replaced old ones. It has been the triumph of serendipity.

But, at the same time, it has not been painless. The new ideas are far from being reassuring. Peak oil, peak food, societal collapse, the climate tipping point. The universe is turning out to be a dangerous place and this planet a speck of rock that we are destroying because we can't even understand what we are doing. This kind of knowledge is so upsetting that I am starting to fear that my brain is going to get fried like those of the scientists of Hoyle's novel.

So, what are we doing with this awesome beast we have created, the giant cloud also known as "the Web"? We are changing ourselves at the same time as we are changing the world. In both cases, the change is not necessarily for the best, but - as usual - we are hurling ourselves head-on into the future without the smallest idea of what we are doing and where we are going.


Some links on how the "cloud" may be  changing our minds. People are not commonly complaining about having too much information available, but some are starting to recognize that there is a problem.

Is Google making us stupid? ...... (Nicholas Carr) Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. 

The internet: is it changing the way we think? (Sarah Churchwell - as quoted), In 10 years, I've seen students' thinking habits change dramatically: if information is not immediately available via a Google search, students are often stymied. But of course what a Google search provides is not the best, wisest or most accurate answer, but the most popular one.

Yes, the internet is changing your brain. (Marc McGuinness) Every day, as you surf the internet, clicking on hyperlinks, opening new tabs and windows, flicking between e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and whatever it was you were reading just now, your patterns of thought are changing. And neuroscientists have amassed solid evidence that when we change our thinking, we change our brain. 

Your brain on line. (Sharon Begley) The Internet is also causing the "disappearance of retrospection and reminiscence," argues Evgeny Morozov, an expert on the Internet and politics. "Our lives are increasingly lived in the present, completely detached even from the most recent of the pasts ... Our ability to look back and engage with the past is one unfortunate victim." 


  1. I think there is another angle on the "Cloud."

    While the usefulness is undeniable, I think I am dumber in a lot of ways after 5 years or so of heavy internet use.

    I'm talking about effects discussed in The Shallows, a book that came out in the past few years.

  2. We are also mired in an era of specialization. This allows for very profound depth and exploration and discovery, especially in science - but is hostile to a broader view. Picking apart ecology into compartmentalized disciplines has enabled the exploitation of the ecosystem.

    Then again, that is a practice as old as civilization.

    1. Science is a tool to cut and reap as well as any scythe.

      "Science makes everything dead not only by declaration, but by method. Science deals only with the quantitative. It does not admit values or emotions or the way the air smells when it's starting to rain..."

      Science the Destroyer
      by Ran Prieur

  3. Ugo,
    I know what you mean.
    Grasping at how concepts like serendipity and black swans influence our reality can be particularily "mind blowing".
    Even just trying to filter all the white noise of "the cloud" is tiresome.

    I find it theraputic to "unplug" and do something physical on a regular basis.

  4. ". . . we are hurling ourselves head-on into the future without the smallest idea of what we are doing and where we are going"

    I would add to this:

    "or the slightest idea who's steering or why we're on a patently suicidal course."

    How often, in all the chatter on all the sites you read, have you seen any actual questioning of the competing orthodoxies on the most fundamental issue we face, that of climate destabilization ?
    There are shades of denial running up to those who ignore the observed loss of arctic sea ice and press on with tweaking models that show its loss next century. But the orthodoxy of inaction is ruthlessly defended.

    And there is the endless rebuttal, with ever more dire cutting edge science posted which, without accompanying plausible commensurate remedies, feeds the apathy that disables activists and decimates recruitment. The orthodoxy here is at least as dubious as that of inaction via denial /lukewarmism /complacent self-censored science: it is that of a misdirected blame onto the fossil lobby and its major customers for preventing the vital global action.

    Their profiteering I don't dispute (though to avoid becoming someone else's lunch dinosaurs face a treadmill of consuming anything they can get faster than the next guy) nor do I question their chickenfeed funding having helped set up and maintain the denial shills since 2009.

    But their control of the global body politic ? Or even of the US commercial & political establishments ? On an issue that poses an existential threat to the nation ? Other corporations' ignorance seems to me implausible as an explanation for their silence, and in my view it has been since in '96 the 'Global Climate Coalition' (aka the US-EU joint fossil lobby and et al) were told by the team of first-rank scientists they'd commissioned in '94, that their comprehensive studies showed that AGW was unequivocal, and posed a profound challenge if not abated. The GCC petered out after that, with Shell, BP and European interests pulling out first.

    Given the range and massive scale of US corporations with no inherent loyalty to fossil fuels, and the fact that a twenty-year planning horizon is the norm at that level, meaning that they'll long since have assimilated how serious is the AGW threat, anyone who rejects the orthodoxy of blaming the fossil lobby might ask just where exactly are numerous equally powerful corporations' counter-action of fossil lobby propaganda and influence ? Totally MIA is where.

    And how is it that US fossil corporations are so powerful they can block US action on climate and silence almost all other industries, but they cannot block the feeble Europeans from fulfilling Kyoto, and from now debating raising the 2020 CO2 target from a 20% cut to 30% ? And the EU is a whale compared to many little-fish nations now adopting carbon cuts - all bravely defying the long arm of the US fossil lobby ?

    And how is it that, outside the US, the major corporations are piling into the climate issue ? For instance, BHP Billiton has just declared that coal will go into decline, and should do, due to its climate impact ? And Munich Re tells the world of its ~40 year record of insured climate damages rising at around 6% per year ? And BP joins a major industries forum that studiously ignores the recent US interest in a carbon tax - as urged by Exxon - calling instead for an urgent effective carbon pricing framework ? And the huge accountancy corporation KPM publishes a long and detailed study warning of a climate hazard in terms more chilling than even recent UN World Bank and UN International Energy Agency reports ?


  5. There is a major lacunae in common between these many anomalies - but one could search the supposedly radical sites for weeks and see no mention of them. Reams of stuff on the evil fossil corporations, loads on the renewables and their growth prospects (ignoring the reality that without a climate treaty any fossil fuels locally displaced will be bought and burnt elsewhere) quite a bit dissing the need of a treaty, and regular doses of apologia for Obama's prone silence due to all those nasty deniers.

    It was Einstein who remarked that "Nationalism is the measles of humanity" (measles being a childhood illness that we grow out of, with spots and a high fever that is dangerous in cultures with low immunity). Nationalism is a very different explanation of US inaction at home and obstructionism abroad.

    Consider how China is now within a decade or so of facing crop failures coinciding with failures elsewhere, potentially sufficient to cause extreme prices and shortages (as a study out of Leeds Uni has just confirmed). Given the modern communications tech (as in the Arab Spring), and the potential for subversion via well-practiced astroturf and auto-bot messaging, and the rising unrest in China over working conditions, land seizures, corruption, pollution, human rights, etc, what is the prospect of the climatic destabilization of the government, and the end of its bid for global economic dominance ?

    If current trends hold, China will take away America's cherished global economic dominance in 2016, and America has no visible preparations to prevent it, despite its maintenance having been Washington’s paramount priority since WW2. An undeclared policy of a 'Brinkmanship of Inaction' with China since 2000 would fully explain this huge oddity. (Consider the money spent and risks taken in seeing off Russia's bid for dominance, that Cheyney was in amongst). The callous indifference to uncountable casualties to famine of this policy is not rare for people of Cheyney's politics, nor is the willingness to play a long game of brutal imperial rivalry.

    It was in '95 after Cheyney had been Sec of Defense under Bush senior, that one Edward Teller provided an exit strategy for such a policy - in the form of a peer-reviewed paper on the prospect of sulphate aerosols geoengineering, should global warming develop to the point of it becoming necessary. Being celebrated in Washington as "The father of the H-bomb", Cheyney would certainly have been acquainted with him.

    After being elected in 2008, Obama gave a rousing address with adamant calls to climate action to a State Goveners' Climate Summit - yet by March of 2009 he was adopting Bush's unilateral 2005 emissions baseline and so reneging on the UNFCCC 1990 baseline, and signalling the world diplomatic community that US climate policy would be maintained: it was now bipartisan. Later that year he went much further than Bush by making a trainwreck out of Copenhagen - by demanding a 'deal' whereby each American would still have about three times the emission rights of each Chinese in 2050 - and thereby imposing gratuitous offence.

    An inadmissible bipartisan policy to counter China's threat to US hegemony would explain a lot, including: the very different conduct of US corporations from European ones, the extraordinary flip in Obama's conduct into silence on climate and occasional derailing of opportunities to advance mitigation, and the hasty fabrication in 2009 of a circus of denial and rebuttal as a spurious excuse for his silent inaction and as a diversionary target for the activists. The fact that across Europe politicians' and newspapers' positions on climate tend to closely follow their commitment as allies of America, would imply that US diplomatic influence has been applied, but with notably poor results in failing to prevent a very slow but steady progress toward ending fossil fuel dependence and advancing the required treaty.


  6. These ideas seem plausible to me in explaining glaring anomalies in the orthodoxy of blaming the fossil lobby for inaction on climate, and the clear lack of any other counter to China's rise. Certainly a bipartisan policy of a Brinkmanship of Inaction, aiming to destabilize a rival by affecting the food supply - is no sort of conspiracy - it is merely the real politique that any threatened empire may apply in preference to resorting to war.

    But where on the web, with all of the 'radical' focus on climate, could one find discussion of such a policy ? My own postings on it have met with a number of strong affirmations but very few denials (some of whom seemed strangely furious) and no discussion as such but mostly just silence.

    All of which leads me to question the value of a ‘free press,’ as well as the wondrous world wide web. Plainly the western press is not much more use than Tass or Isvestia in their scant efforts to alert society to an existential threat; but then the open access web seems little better.

    Maybe the part that actually matters in a society's discourse is peoples' willingness to question the orthodoxies, and to think for themselves and develop their own discussions ? Is there some change in our culture suppressing those capacities ?

    As an old lady in the 1950s, whose son had bought her one of the new 'televisions', remarked to a TV interviewer:
    "Well it's very nice, but the pictures were so much better on the radio . . . ."



    1. Lewis, you are clearly right. No matter what we do, we seem to be losing the battle. Better said, it is humankind that loses the battle for survival.

      I believe that, as long as there is a glimmer of hope, we need to keep fighting. It is becoming more and more difficult, though, to keep that faint glimmer alive.

  7. The really scary thing about the web/cloud world we live in is the amount of energy it requires to exist - and the fact that without that energy it ceases to exist. So the rush to digitize all knowledge and park it in the Cloud is not really a thougtful effort to preserve our knowlege but a rush towards future amnesia when the lights go out, as they must.

    1. something that raises an interesting point about priorities in energy use....



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)