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." 


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)