Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Revisiting the Big Blue Marble Brain Thingy
It's high time we brought our hive-mind analogy into the 21st century.
When last we left our heroes, they were engaged in global realtime communication about the Persian Gulf War. We concluded that they were capable of 62 billion "daily synapses" if we assumed an average of four useful sentences for each person every day. This compared with just 78 million synapses in the days of early Homo-Sapiens (and their flatmates Neanderthals).
But now we have a brave new world of social media. Each individual has the potential to communicate in a one-to-many channel that simply did not exist in previous eras. Okay, strictly speaking this is not true. "Ham radio" operators have been engaged in one-to-many communication since the early 20th century. We left them out of our previous calculations. And the "CB radio" craze that hit the US in the 1970's had a great number of folks asking who had their "ears on" every time they ran to the store for bread and milk. This is another form of one-to-many communication that we ignored. But while these media make perfectly good examples of one-to-many communication it was probably sufficient that we ignored them -- or at least let our assumptions about "media penetration" encompass them as well. From a numbers point of view, there were not enough folks to really move the needle.
I'm sure there are plenty of examples of folks using ham radios or CB's to spread information about public safety and perform exactly the kind of communication that we would be interested in when considering the individual's ability to act like a brain cell and communicate with the greater organism we call a community. But on a daily communication capacity basis, the existence of CB and ham radio can comfortably fall into the .1% of folks we assumed could talk to 100 people at once.
But the internet and its modern persona -- "social media"-- has changed everything. We now have the equivalent of tens of millions of amateur radio operators logging on and communicating what they ate for breakfast, what they disliked about last night's X Factor, and how great they would look in these new shoes on a daily basis. OMG. I know, right? Powerful stuff.
It's easy to talk about how pointless most of what is "communicated" on social media really is. In fact one would be remiss not to consider that the vast amount of comments are pointless babble. There is no reason to consider social media as a profound tool for global communication... except for one: If there ever really is something worth saying, the modern world has an unparalleled capacity to say it. For all of its whining about homework, sniping about Lindsay Lohan, and obsession about what's for dinner, social media on the whole provides an avenue for exchange of ideas or news updates that is a first for our species.
Just how powerful is this new medium?
Well for starters Facebook is thought to have 100 million daily users. The average number of contacts (friends) for a Facebook user is 100. Facebook themselves report many more user accounts, but they are happy to inflate the figure by counting inactive or seldom active accounts, so I am sticking with fairly reliable estimates to get at the number of people who could truly communicate on Facebook each day. And I'll be making another adjustment to assumptions that will further ensure the contact power of Facebook users is not overstated. More on that later.
But we also have to consider Twitter while we are at it. Twitter is thought to have 50 million regular users, 10% of whom follow more than 50 people. We'll work those numbers into our formula in a minute.
Beyond these two social media titans we have a number of other sources to consider. LinkedIn, Yelp, Sina Weibo, and even Myspace and YouTube are among other one-to-many media. And of course there are countless bloggers on the internet, some of whom have actual traffic to their site. They would further count towards the communication power of the modern individual.
But if we are to assign each of these accounts the power of one-to-many media communication, don't we risk double counting or even triple or quadruple counting some folks? Isn't it entirely reasonable to assume that many Facebook users would also be Twitter users as well? It is, and that is why we are going to adjust our "synapse" rate to account for this. For purposes of social media, we will be counting just two meaningful sentence per social media account each day. This will help reduce duplication of information across different brands of social media.
Doing the Math
So now we can finally assign our 2012 total synaptic magnitude (communication power) of the earth. We will start with the same assumptions that we used for 1990 -- that .1% of the population is media with a reach of 100, 4.9% are "community leaders" with a reach of 20, and 95% engage in daily one-to-one communication. But over and beyond this, we are going to add in our Facebook users (100 million people with a reach of 100 each) our Twitter users (5 million folks with a reach of 50 each), and we'll assume another 10 million people on other social media who have 50 contacts each. In reality these numbers undercount the influence of social media. Sina Weibo, for example, commonly called the "Chinese Twitter" has 300 million registered users. Since we don't know enough about how many of those accounts are active and how many people each account follows, we'll be conservative. We are adding these folks on top of the population, because we are going to go ahead and assume that they are culled from the "95 per centers" who engage in daily one-to-one communication as well.
The population of the planet is 7,029,588,738 as I write this (according to the global population clock at census.gov). This is a 33% population growth over 1990 levels. That fact alone is astounding. And it leads to a 33% growth in communication capacity as well -- before accounting for social media. If we use 1990 assumptions on the 2012 population, we end up with 82.36 billion daily "synapses" worldwide. But factoring in social media adds an incredible 20.7 billion ADDITIONAL messages. That represents nearly a third of the communication capacity of the entire planet in 1990, added to the mix just because of this thing called the internet.
So the grand total from all sources (again likely undercounting social media participation and allowing these folks only 2 daily sentences instead of 4 for everyone else) is over 103 billion daily sentences. The "synaptic capacity" of the planet in 2012 is 66% greater than it was 22 years ago.
The Limits of our Assumptions
Earlier I remarked that we should feel free to make assumptions, but should never forget that they are in the end, simply assumptions. So now that we have reached some sort of end point for our model that explores the growth in communication power of the human race or "synaptic capacity of the hive-mind", it wouldn't hurt to go back and look at the assumptions we made and how they affected our results and most importantly how these assumptions could affect anything we can infer from our results.
The first important assumption we made was to limit daily communication to four sentences. This seems to artificially downplay the communication power of one-to-one channels. Because obviously I can have a long conversation with someone and we can exchange many more than four sentences. So our model appears to have a bias against the effectiveness of one-to-one communication in our daily lives. But let's reflect on that for a second. What we wanted to explore in some very general way was the ability of the little human communication nodes -- the human as neuron -- to convey for the benefit of society a piece of information. Let's look at an example which will make things more clear.
A brain must respond to danger by setting in motion a complex series of communication across the entire brain. There is the perception of the elements of danger (the "information" portion in our ICA model), there is the assessment of these elements to determine whether any danger exists and if so what the nature of this emergency may be (this is the "context" portion in ICA parlance), and there is the brain activity that must lead to the response to this danger, for example the decision to run away followed by all the requisite muscle movements involved in this activity. (This is of course the "action" part of ICA.)
Now if we are looking at the earth as if it were a brain (we already agree it is not, but we are imagining it is for the sake of analogy), then we must be thinking of trans-human communication along the same lines of synaptic activity. So in other words, what if the planet came under attack and the people of earth needed to respond? There would necessarily be the same process of information-context-action that would take place on a global scale. And human activity would need to communicate the same sorts of elements. That is to say, some humans would identify the threat and communicate it to others. These folks would assess the threat and devise a plan, and then they would communicate to other humans who would need to respond to the threat.
Now a global threat that would require the actions of all its citizens is not necessarily something we can easily imagine. But let's take an alien invasion as a case study just for fun.
Little Green Cavemen from Outer Space
To begin with, let's imagine that a clan of neanderthals were visited by little green cavemen from outer space. The image delights me, because I can see them armed with their special high tech stone clubs tricked out with whatever little stylistic flourish might give them that Buck Rodgers appeal. The neanderthals would, obviously, be quite threatened by the arrival of these invading cavemen, who arrived on some huge space Mastodon no doubt. (Look, no one ever knows the propulsion system that brings UFO's to Earth, so the neanderthals are being no more ignorant than witnesses in the 1950's).
Well, the neanderthals want to communicate this global threat to the rest of the planet -- presumably so that action can be taken and survival can be ensured. Well, they have two problems. The first is the limited communication capacity we have already explored, and the second is the RANGE of their communication. In a practical sense, all the nodes of the neanderthal earth are not connected. It would take a great deal of travel and time for one clan to bring word of the alien invasion to all other clans. I intentionally ignored that factor in my model. Why? Because that limitation goes away in the modern era so it only handicaps the communication capacity of the ancient peoples we already knew had an inferior communication capacity. No reason to throw sand in their face and remind them that not only are they dumb but also slow.
Little Green Secularists from Outer Space
Leap ahead to the modern era and use the same example. Only now our aliens are some godless race of humanoids who arrived by some specialized rocket armed with tricked out laser guns. (Are you sensing a pattern in the ridiculous level of athropomorphization going on?) Well now at least if we want to convey our concern globally there is a mechanism to do so. And this is why we limited even one-to-one communication to four sentences a day. Because in a truly urgent threat, the kind of message that needs to spread like wild-fire, the extra conversational capacity of one-to-one communication is not nearly as important. What most of the world will be abuzz with is the perception and dissemination of the threat of alien invasion. True that in the think tanks and command centers where a response is hammered out, there will be a great deal more than four sentences exchanged. But this critical "context forming" will be taking place among a comparatively small number of nodes, so it is easy to discount again in our model. Then finally, when they word to "MOBILIZE the military and SHELTER the civilians" needs to be spread, this again will be broadcast with a kind of economy that makes the four sentence daily synapse seem more fair. Maybe eight sentences would be a better number. Or ten. But in the end it doesn't matter. All that would prove is that the modern world is drastically even more more communicative than it was just 22 years ago. Choosing a nice low data exchange rate helps keep us from wondering if we have produced a big number just by assigning big numbers to begin with.
In the final analysis we can see that the number of sentences we used as a stand in for our "synapse rate" is not that critical. If anything it was better to shoot too low. So this weak spot in the model turns out not to matter. And we also established that the error of not accounting for how the neanderthal nodes were not all connected was not a real problem, either. None of these modeling glitches therefore can prevent us from being properly awed by the expansion of global communication capacity.
To Infinity and Beyond
There is much more we haven't considered yet. So far we've restricted the concept of information to what is communicated between two nodes. Add in our increasing capacity to STORE information and the brainpower of the modern world becomes mind bogglingly greater than it was 22 years ago. But quantifying information will have to wait for a better analysis of what we actually mean when we say information. And figuring out what our new global brainpower may imply for our future is further off still. But we're chipping away at the edges of this formless conceptual boulder, and that's a start.