Wired for Thought: A book review by Bob Morris

Wired for ThoughtWired for Thought: How the Brain Is Shaping the Future of the Internet
Jeffrey M. Stibel
Harvard Business Press (2009)

How and why the Internet “is transformational…the first real external replication of the human brain that we’ve seen”

With collaborative assistance from Erik Calonius and Peter Delgrosso, Jeffrey Stibel shares in this book what he has learned after stepping back far enough to see the Internet in its entirety. In fact, as he plains, “My conviction that the Internet is evolving into a brain has been the foundation of my business career” thus far and presumably there will be additional books and articles in which he provides new information and insights. He suggests a metaphor when stating that “the Internet is a brain.” I do not share that belief but do agree that in several remarkable ways, the human brain and the Internet are similar. So I will await further revelations before embracing the metaphor, meanwhile proceeding with a simile. After providing a brief history of the brain, Stibel then suggests that the Internet is really the combination of two innovations: the telegraph (precursor to the telephone) and the computer. Both solved huge problems, “but combining the two created new opportunities. The Internet was the result…We are in the early stages, of course, but look at the growth: in its first ten years, the World Wide Web grew roughly 850 percent per year.”

Stibel shares what he characterizes as “bold statements” and supports them in this book. For example, taken out of the context he creates for each:

o As indicated previously, the Internet is a brain.
o The human brain is rather dumb.
o The history of technology is not really a history but an evolution – one machine supplanting another in a Darwinian race for dominance.
o Although the brain is a poor calculating machine, it is a pretty efficient prediction machine.
o Just as human intelligence is a matter of creating and destroying memories and ideas, so is the Internet a machine that creates only to destroy.
o Language is an attribute that many consider uniquely human, but it is at the heart of the most popular and important tool on the Internet: search.
o Inevitably, the Internet will crash. But it will get better and stronger with each crash.
o The Internet may never be “conscious” in the human sense (and who needs it?), but it will be (and already is) capable of creating a collective consciousness.

As I worked my way into Stibel’s narrative, I began to suspect what was later confirmed by a re-reading of the passages I had highlighted: The only limits on what the Internet can become – and do — are those that are self-imposed on the human mind’s willingness and ability to imagine what was previously unthinkable. I agree with Stibel that, if the mind is what the brain does, we must first understand what thinking is all about. He covers that in Part I (Chapters 1 and 2), then begins a transition (in Part II, Chapters 3-5) by examining internet intelligence; then he completes the transition in Part III (Chapters 6-9) when explaining “the brain behind the web’: finally in Part IV (Chapters 10 and 11), he focuses on “the new rules of the brain, business, and beyond” and then on a “ghost on the web” that is best discussed in context before speculating about “the brain of the new machine” in the Epilogue. That is a great deal of thematic ground to cover and Stifel covers it very well indeed.

As I stare at my copy of Wired for Thought atop the desk next to my computer, I again note the subtitle: “How the Brain Is Shaping the Future of the Internet.” It could also be rephrased to suggest, “How the Brain is Using the Internet to help It Shape the Future of the Internet by Using the Internet to Help It Expand Its Capabilities So That It Can More Effectively…..”

Each human mind is a work in progress as is the Internet. I am very excited about what this unique collaboration can accomplish in months and years to come.

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1 Comment

  1. Tomo on July 25, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Great review! Jeff Stibel also just released another book, Breakpoint, on Tuesday! Check it out here: breakpointbook.com/amazon

    It’s a wonderful read!

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