A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Is Earth a Brain? No of Course Not, But...

Let's pretend for a moment that the communication which takes place between human beings is analogous to an electrochemical synaptic firing that conveys some tiny amount of information in cells of the brain.

Now we've already established that the brain is capable of some crazy level of data exchange, but we've also said that most of the data processing power of the brain is either dormant at any given time or focused on biological maintenance issue.  Most of the synaptic firing currency is spent on defense and infrastructure, if you will.

Let's apply the same model and come up with a way to find the raw fire power of the hive-mind if it were actually a brain.  To do this, we need to assign some fairly arbitrary values to some variables, like how much communication between two people constitutes one "synapse".  The nice thing is that we don't need to worry about the accuracy or reasonableness of our values, because all we're really doing is making a model for comparison.

We're going to take what we learned from our brain example and accept right away that not every human-neuron will be firing at peak capacity all the time.  Further we are going to ignore the vast amount of synapses that are dealing with self maintenance.  We also need to come up with some unit of information that might be approximately analogous to a synaptic connection.

Let's start there, with the synapse.  Now, a synaptic connection is something that is passed along the change of connections, branching and looping back as it winds it way around the brain.  If we had to characterize a single synapse, it is as if one neuron is saying to another "Here's a charge.  Pass it on."

And the "pass it on" portion of the process reminds me of the children's game of telephone, where one child whispers to another, "The monkey ate the tree at sundown, pass it on."  Look, I know it makes no sense, but that's what I heard.  "The monkey ate the tree at sundown."  I swear. Now pass it on. Anyway, it doesn't matter.

The point is that it seems fair that we would consider a sentence as an information unit that had some analogous relationship to a synaptic connection.   When one human being on the planet shares a meaningful sentence (or even a meaningless sentence as long as it is a valid sentence) then we can call that "one synapse".   But a neural synapse doesn't carry "meaning", it is just an electrochemical spark of sorts.  Why would we map a meaningful unit of data onto something that had no meaning?

Well, the easy answer is that a sentence does not carry meaning.  It carries information.  Information is nothing but data.  It is perception.  MEANING is what happens when we give data (perception) context.

What is it now?

Take the sentence "It is time."  Since this is a valid sentence, it carries information.  But what sort of information is impossible to tell.  We need to take this data "in relation" to other data -- put it into context -- and then this information helps us to form meaning.  For example, if a chef walks into the room wearing two oven gloves and carrying a steaming casserole dish, what would the sentence, "It is time" suggest to us?  We'd probably think it was time to eat. The meaning is simply "dinnertime!"  But if a pregnant woman has her hand on her belly and tells her husband "It is time," would we really be inclined to think it was dinnertime?  Of course not.  It is time to go to the hospital. And if this happens to be taking place on a sitcom, "it is time" for all sorts of hilarity to ensue.  A prisoner sits in a cell anxious to hear the verdict of his trial.  His lawyer comes to him and says, "It is time."  Do you think the prisoner is thinking that maybe there is a steaming casserole in the other room?  A woman about to give birth?  No, of course he knows it is time to hear the verdict.

Now you may notice that some of this example relies on the fact that the pronoun "it" carries no set meaning. "It" can mean any number of things.  "It" tends to be the most obvious thing for the current context.  That is the magic of this particular pro-noun.  "It" is a stand-in for whatever object or concept is relevant at the time.  "It is on fire." "It is not going to work."  "It is the best thing that has ever happened to me."

But the fact that we don't know what "it" is is precisely why it is important.  The sentence "It is time" is information.  We just don't know what it means.

In fact, we may never know what it means and we don't need to understand the meaning of the sentence for the information to carry meaning for another person.  If I told you to tell Bob that I said "It is time," it doesn't matter if you know what I mean as long as Bob does.  You will tell Bob, "It's time" and Bob will know what "IT" is, so the sentence will have meaning for him even though all it was to you was information with no context.

And as luck would have it, this is precisely what we require of neurons when they perform the voodoo that they do so well.  One neuron says to another "here is data, pass it on"  He does not say "You are not going to believe this but Rachel is finally having her baby."  He just says "The other neuron told me this.  Pass it on."

So in other words, we don't expect or need or even want our neurons to understand the context of the data they are conveying.  We just need them to convey the information.  Which they do -- in the form of firing or not firing.

Now we could get very distracted by continuing to be amazed that the mind can find meaning -- or even information -- from the millions and billions of synaptic firings and non-firings taking place at any given time.  But trying to figure out precisely how a bunch of high speed sparks could ever give rise to symbols, tokens, thoughts, and concepts is not useful right now.  What is useful (or at least interesting) right now is to imagine that each human's information passing capacity may be analogous to a synaptic firing in the brain.

So let's go back to this whole notion of how a sentence can be seen as a basic information block and constitute a "synapse" of sort.  Not because that's the truth, but let's just ponder for a second what things would be like if it were true.

Now humans are passing information units in the form of sentences back and forth all day long.  Do we really want to get into complicated math about firing speeds and total synaptic capacity?  Well, no, in fact we can look at a very simplified model and still have a lot of fun.

Now I don't want to say that most of human communication is just a bunch of nonsense and garbage and gossip... but if we assume that is the case for our model, we can make huge strides in advancing this analogy.  So just as most synaptic firings in the brain have to deal with things that aren't the kind of thinking we are interested in, we'll assume that the vast majority of human communication is not relevant for our purposes.

So what we can do is assume that each human has four sentences every day that carry information that is important enough for us to worry about.  We are skipping all the times Neanderthal Mr. White says to  Neanderthal Mr. Green, "I always hate it when the wind is coming from the carrion pile," and "So I hear you got your wife a new bone handled knife.  I was planning on getting one for my wife, but without celebrating Christmas or birthdays it's hard to know when to time that exactly."  Skipping that stuff.  No, we're saving all of our "data exchanges" for the sentences that carry the really good information.  Things like "Water bad."   And we are going to assume that each human manages (on average) four of those each day.  If this number seems really low, that's a good thing.  We want to make sure that our final model has used very conservative measurements so that we can appreciate the size of the final number without wondering if we inflated it during our assumption process.  So we're allowing for each human to utter 4 information sentences to another human each day.

The Hive-mind 100,000 years ago

Since we've already mentioned the jolly Neanderthals, we can start there.  Recall that most of their communication was one-to-one, except for whatever they may have discussed around the fireside as a group.  Now we don't need an anthropologically sound estimate of their culture to get a decent model of how much communication was going on 100,000 years ago.  We can simply assume that every 20th person was a "fireside chat" leader and whenever he said something important it was heard by 20 other people.  As for the rest of them, their four daily sentences of vital information was shared one-to-one.

Great, we can almost do some math to determine the "synaptic firepower" of the "hive-mind" earth (i.e. total communication capacity) in the dawn of modern man.  But we're still missing something.  We need to know how many neurons (people) there were.

Estimates vary, of course.  There were no Neanderthal census takers going from cave to cave asking entirely inappropriate questions about each family's living arrangements.  The nosy census is a modern invention.  So we have to guess.  But 1 million is a common (and fairly safe) approximation of the population capacity under a nomadic structure.  As agriculture took hold, the population capacity expanded greatly and it is assumed that the global population of Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon folks combined never exceeded 15 million.

I think 1 million is an entirely reasonable guesstimate, but I don't want to make the ancient globe less communicative that it really was in relation to the modern one, so I am going to use the more generous assumption of 10 million people.  We suggested that 5% of these people were "team leaders" who communicated with groups of 20 others at one time.  They are the pillars of the community of the ancient world.  What they said carried a lot more clout for communication purposes.

So what we have then is a global population of 10 million folks.  5% of them (500,000) are "community leaders" and convey their message to 20 people each.  95% are simple folk who talk one-to-one.  This yields a daily "communication power" for the planet 100,000 years ago of 78 million sentences or "synapses".

Communication in the Colonial Era

Now let's look at our colonial era earth. It is of course ridiculous to call this the "colonial era" when we are considering the entire planet, but when we are conceptualizing, it helps us to fall back on context we are familiar with, and most Americans have a mental image of the speed of life in the colonies which is easier to conceptualize than trying to imagine China in 1770. So we will think in terms of colonial America, while we understand that we are talking about the population of the entire planet.

For this era, we are going to stick with the assumption that most people perform one-to-one communication.  But we still have a portion of the population that has a greater audience.  We have social, political, and religious gatherings where one or more people have a larger audience.  These are the colonial "community leaders" who speak to groups and perform a simple one-to-many form of communication.  But we also have the birth of media.  There aren't a great many newspapers in the 18th century world, but they do have a greater reach than other forms of communication.  The average colonial newspaper was a weekly with circulation of 500, but in Europe there were dailies like the London Times with circulations in the thousands (5000 in 1815).

Tracking every possible avenue of communication and assigning it a value would be doubly pointless.  To begin with it would be extremely hard to do and secondly it would not be terribly accurate.  But if we take our known data points, we can get an general idea of how we should ballpark the reach of media and other "one-to-many" forms of communication.  So for simplicity, we'll stick with the idea that 5% of the population has a greater reach than the rest (they are ministers, politicians, teachers, activists, business leaders) and we'll stick with the conservative reach of 20 people per day for these folks.  In addition, we are going to assume that .1% of the population has an extended reach through "media".  We'll assign a reach of 100 for this category. All that remains is to get the total population.

The  world population was about 850 million people.  At 4 significant sentences a day with 5% of the population having a one-to-many reach of 20, and .1% reaching 100 people daily, and the rest doing all their talking one-to-one, we end up with just shy of 7 billion daily "synapses".  The population over the time period grew by 85 times, but the communication power is almost 89 times greater.  This is because of the introduction of high reach media (the newspaper).


By the time we get to the 90's we have lots of media to consider -- mostly newspapers, radio and television.  The reach of this media has grown considerably over the media we found in its infancy in 1770.  So we're going to adjust our figures accordingly.  We can keep our assumptions about the vast majority of the population engaging in one-to-one communication, and 5% of the population being "community leaders".  We'll keep the "media" component at .1% but extend its reach to 1000.  Even though some "super media" exist with a reach in the hundreds of thousands or even millions, the vast amount of media we are capturing by assigning a .1% value to the population dictates that we keep very conservative estimates of the reach.

Let's reality check our assumptions here.  The global population in 1990 was 5.28 billion people.  BY saying .1% is "media" we are saying that 5.27 million people have a media reach of 1000.  Now there are only about 44,000 radio stations in the world today (according to the CIA World Factbook), so why are we assuming 5.27 MILLION people have a media reach in 1990?  Well to begin with we are considering all media of the 1990's including not only radios but also television and newspapers and magazines.  But more importantly, we are accounting for the fact that each form of media has more than one writer (or news anchor or DJ) and many forms of media have reaches greater than 1000 people.  So if a weekly magazine has seven writers and a circulation or 100,000 for example, it's daily reach would be 100,000.  So this magazine counts as much as 100 small time media with circulation or listenership of 1000.

So this means we rare assuming 94.9% of the globe still engaged in one-to-one communication, 5% in one-to-many with a reach of 20, and .1% media communicating one-to-many with a reach of 1000 people each day.  Since the population of the planet in 1990 was 5.28 Billion, the daily communication power of the earth in 1990 described in the model was 62 billion "synapses".  The population is 6 times that of 1770 but the communication power is 9 times greater, owing to the increasing influence of media.

Are we there yet?

In modeling our human informational sentences onto a kind of global brain, we are still well short of the awesome synaptic power of the mind -- at least in 1990.  But what happens when social networking allows for individuals to literally "branch out" and become their own one-to-many media channels?  The results are astounding.  And as we shall see, so are the implications for the power and speed of global communication.

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