Is the internet alive? Robert J. Sawyer thinks so


First aired on Spark (29/05/11)

Most of us depend on the Web as our primary source of information, entertainment, and data storage. We depend on it so much that it's easy to think of it as an entity itself. But what would happen if one day, that tongue-in-cheek anthropomorphizing became something real? What would happen if all that information developed consciousness? That's the premise of Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer's series of novels, the WWW Trilogy: Wake Watch Wonder. WWW tells the story of Caitlin Decter, a 15-year-old math prodigy who was born blind. After an experimental treatment allows Caitlin to regain her sight, she also discovers that the web has developed consciousness. This new internet is called the WebMind and as the story unfolds, we learn how great WebMind's power is. We don't just know the web, the web knows us.

Sawyer's WWW trilogy is a work of fiction, but it is based on a very real idea. Several years ago, Sawyer was reading New Scientist when he learned that in the early 21st century, the world wide web could have the same number of synapses as the human brain. This factoid triggered several questions for Sawyer. "When our brains reached a sufficient level of complexity 30, 40, 50 thousand years ago, we kind of woke up, became self-aware, started making art and adorning ourselves with jewelry," Sawyer explained to Spark host Nora Young in a recent interview. "We clearly had an inner life going on. And it occurred to me to wonder whether that same thing would happen when the world wide web reached that same complexity."

Sawyer refers to this idea — that something new arises from an increasingly complex, yet familiar, system — as emergence. He argues that most new ideas and projects we see today, especially on the web, are a result of emergence: Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia and the internet itself came about as a result of a new idea emerging out of old, but evolving, systems. The phenomenon isn't limited to technological advances. Science, medicine, even art, writing and music, grow and change through systems of emergence. What fascinates Sawyer — and what he can't solve — is exactly how emergence occurs. "It's a wonderful, wonderful phenomenon," he said. "We're really still grappling with why things are emerging out of complexity, but there's no doubt that they do."

In Sawyer's WWW trilogy, the world wide web moves from an "it" to an "I." When you consider the development of artificial organs, genetic engineering and even the appearance of the computer Watson as a contestant on Jeopardy, the web-as-person doesn't seem so far-fetched. In fact, Sawyer says it's inevitable. "There's no question that that's going to happen."

A Widows Story

WWW Trilogy: Wake

Robert J. Sawyer

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From Penguin Canada:

"Caitlin Decter is young, pretty, feisty, a genius at math — and blind. But she can surf the Net with the best of them, following its complex paths in her mind.

When a Japanese researcher develops a new signal-processing implant that might give her sight, she jumps at the chance, flying to Tokyo for the operation.

But the visual cortex in Caitlin's brain has long since adapted to allow her to navigate online. When the implant is activated, instead of seeing reality, she sees the landscape of the World Wide Web spreading out around her in a riot of colours and shapes. While exploring this amazing realm, she discovers something — some other — lurking in the background. And it's getting smarter...."


Read more at Penguin Canada

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