Wired for Thought by Jeffrey Stibel – Book Review
It’s difficult to know where to start in order to review “Wired for Thought” by Jeffrey Stibel. It’s not that this is a difficult book – I read it in one sitting, and thoroughly enjoyed the exercise – I am just hesitating about explaining his theory.
Stibel, you see, contends that the internet will continue to grow and develop until it is capable of thought. In fact he compares it already to the human brain.
He believes that in a very short space of time, certain systems on the internet will reach the level of consciousness that we reserve only for the smartest of animals, including humans.
Like the human brain, in the first three years, it grew exponentially, then continued steadily until in its twenties, growth will soon level out. Stibel explains the current internet like this: “The internet may be a baby brain now, but it won’t be for long. The internet is growing at a mind-numbingly fast rate. Like a growing brain, link relevance is becoming more important, web sites are decaying and dying (the technical term for this is deprovisioning and the business term is churn). Links that have no traffic or usefulness are disappearing from web sites.” Just like a young human brain, it will start to discard that which is no longer useful.
While reading this book, one is left with the possibility that on turning the next page, it will turn into a sci-fi thriller, because reality is given such a bizarre, while at the same time plausible, spin. And gripping it certainly is.
Stibel’s comparison of the internet to that of a human brain is especially convincing when he shows images to prove their similarity and there are other likenesses. He quotes William James who said : “There is no cell or group of cells in the brain of such anatomical or functional pre-eminence as to appear to be the keystone or gravity of the whole system.”
Stibel argues that this isn’t true of the web – yet – but will happen as it develops. He predicts: “As the web evolves, the value of these networks of networks will increase”. New programmes, algorithms, spiders and frameworks will be developed to leverage that power. In the near future, web sites will pull information from various sites to create collages of new information; search engines will leverage link structure to determine category information, and not only popularity; the web itself will enable the formation of content clusters that will in turn enable a semantic web; and increasingly complex neural networks will evolve that will allow for communication, networking and thought.”
Stibel’s argument is that to use the web effectively as a business, or indeed an individual, it is necessary to see the similarity with the mind, and therefore one should concentrate on gaining an understanding of how the mind works. He predicts, quite reasonably, that those companies that gain this understanding will clean up.
Again not surprisingly, Stibel spends quite a bit of time explaining how Google is developing, and how it is using massive computer power in the form of thousands of PCs to harness the power of cloud computing. This is not, as is often understood, just so that companies can store their data online, but in order to allow Google to create what Stibel calls “some semblance of human-like intelligence.
An example of this is MapReduce, a simple, powerful software programme that does what our brains do – it categorises (maps) key pieces of information, distributes them across its server farm of PCs, and then eliminates (reduces) irrelevant data. This is in contrast to what PCs and the internet do at present, which is to store everything without cleaning out the dross.
Stibel spends a lot of space explaining Richard Dawkins’ theory that “memes” (thoughts, ideas, memories, catch tunes,) are as important in terms of evolution as more solid components such as genes. He explains that what is rarely remembered is that Dawkins (author of “The Selfish Gene”) had gone on to suggest that “selfish memes” are passed down from one generation to another, in the form of mythology, skills and catchy tunes such as nursery rhymes. He said: “Just as genes propagate themselves via sperm or eggs, so do memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, could be called imitation.
Stibel suggests that technology, in the form of the internet, will evolve in the same learning way.
While this is all good, thought provoking stuff about the future, Stibel is keen to stress that much of this is relevant to now. He is particularly interesting in his explanation of how Google has evolved its use of spiders, and how today it is links to websites, as much as the content of a website, that puts it among those chosen few on the first page of a search.
There are plenty of other tips for those wanting to use social media and online activity to boost their business.
Basically, you need to read this book because it merges that which we already know with what is likely to happen next in a way that really makes for an absorbing read.
According to Stibel: “What is happening to the internet will have a direct impact on businesses, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the ability of the internet to learn to interpret, guess and make predictions……No matter how the internet behaves, it will get increasingly better at making predictions and this capability will enable businesses to do a better job serving their customers.”
“Wired for thought – how the brain is shaping the future of the internet” by Jeffrey Stibel is published by Harvard Business Press (price UK£21.99.)
More information: www.wiredforthought.com