THE FUTURE: Everyone is connected

Today, 2.4 billion people are connected to the internet: a vast ‘global mind’ of information and ideas. This shared consciousness comes with big opportunities – and profound risks.

What the future holds

The American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual is a definitive guide to the problems of the mind. It is filled with such serious mental health issues as alcoholism and schizophrenia. But this year, these may be joined by a new diagnosis: Internet Use Disorder.

The addition is a response to an epidemic. Some 500 million people now play online games for at least one hour a day, and the average US school pupil spends as much time gaming as they do in the classroom. Last year, the number of smartphones in use topped one billion, and 40% of smartphone users go online before they even get out of bed.

This means that global citizens now have access to an unprecedented amount of knowledge. Some 2.4 billion people are now connected to the internet: every single day, this sprawling network generates 294 billion emails, over 98 years’ worth of videos, and enough blog posts to fill Time magazine for 770 years.

For futurist Kevin Kelly, this new technological world resembles a ‘very complex organism’; Al Gore, author of The Future, calls it the ‘global mind’. And as the web becomes an inextricable part of everyday life, Gore says, human minds and the internet are joining, to create a constantly evolving collective brain.

The consequences

The mass power of the internet is changing society in revolutionary ways. When a Tunisian street vendor set himself alight as a protest in December 2010, a video of it was shared online, along with texts that called for political change. Later, social media helped mobilise democracy protests, and the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East.

Everyday changes have also been radical. University-level courses are now available to anyone for free, people thousands of miles apart can discuss ideas, governments can draw on thousands of opinions, and charities can crowdsource donations.

By visiting a webpage, liking something on Facebook, searching Google or tweeting, netizens might learn something new, bond with a friend or add to a discussion. But they also add to a vast, constantly evolving picture of humanity, made from the ‘big data’ that is generated online. Already, this information is being used to discover information – from disease outbreaks to political trends – about the real world.

But opportunities come with dangers. Anything on the internet is vulnerable to hackers, who might rob individuals of money or sabotage the activities of companies. Online records can be used to crack down on political dissent, and by censoring what is on the internet, repressive regimes have quashed opposition. In the USA, a new cyber security facility will soon give government the ability to monitor any electronic communication between citizens.

The amount of information that includes is vast. Recently, a European student claimed all the data that one site, Facebook, had collected about him. He received a CD with 1,200 pages of information – most of which he thought he had deleted.

For better or worse?

Is the global mind worth it? Not everyone thinks so. As well as security risks, they say, living online will mean a profound sacrifice. When such crucial parts of life as intelligence, personal identity and relationships depend on a sprawling technological network, they ask, what will be left of the human individual? Those who become part of the global mind will surely lose some of themselves.

But technological optimists disagree. We are moving, they say, toward a thriving noosphere: a space where all of humanity can collaborate, create and grow together. By being part of this global mind, individuals need not give up any part of themselves, but they have the whole world to gain.

*This series of articles is inspired by Al Gore’s The Future, published by Random House in January 2013

You Decide

  1. What might people miss out on if they are constantly logged on to the internet?
  2. Do you regard the internet as a positive force in society, or has its impact been more destructive? Why?

Activities

  1. Create your own ‘global mind’: a map of your own online life. What connections does the internet allow you make to other nations, people, organisations and ideas?
  2. The benefits and the risks of the internet’s ‘global mind’ have been compared to a ‘Faustian Pact’, after the legendary Doctor Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for all the world’s knowledge and pleasure. Research the story of Faust, and write a short essay on what lessons it might hold in an internet age.

Some People Say...

“Knowledge is power.”

What do you think?

Word Watch

294 billion emails
The vast majority of this is junk mail: spam accounts for 80-90% of all emails exchanged today.
Al Gore
Albert Arnold Gore was the vice-president to Bill Clinton when he led America between 1993 and 2001. He was then beaten to the presidency by George W Bush in one of the tightest elections in US history; supporters still claim that the result was called wrongly. Since then Gore has presented an Oscar-winning documentary, won a Nobel Peace Prize and written several books. The latest of these, The Future, inspired this series of articles.
Arab Spring
The Arab Spring began in Tunisia in December 2010, when a street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight to protest against harassment and a lack of opportunity for young people in his country. His action appealed to widely felt dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement across the Middle East, and populations in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya, among others, all took part in democracy protests. Some overthrew tyrants and established elected governments; in other countries, uprisings were quashed, or spiralled into bloody civil wars.
Netizens
The word netizen is a combination of the words internet and citizen. It means someone who is active as an internet user, especially if they are an engaged participant in internet communities.
Noosphere
This word, coined by French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, refers to the whole sphere of human thought. The concept can appeal to ideas in evolution and Eastern philosophy, as well as the idea of everyone being interconnected by means of the internet.

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