The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Interesting Thoughts

The Internet is more like a brain, and the Web more like a mind, than anything so far implemented on a single computer. This far-from-original idea suggests some interesting thoughts, about, well, interesting thoughts. The following were stimulated by Teresa Nielsen Hayden's thread on moderating conversations in virtual space, and a Crooked Timber thread on Gresham's Law and Blogging. In particular, what set off my surge of neural linkage was Teresa's point number 5. Over-specific rules are an invitation to people who get off on gaming the system. and a remark somewhere on the Crooked Timber thread to the effect that linkage is Technorati's criterion for 'interestingness'; because that, in turn, called to mind James P. Hogan saying, re AI research: 'We don't have an algorithm for interestingness.'

This raises the possibility that things that can go wrong with the Web might have fertile analogies with what goes wrong with minds. I'm thinking about things like spamming, trolling, and scamming. They all work by exploiting our criteria for interesting thoughts - or to put in computer terms, gaming the algorithm for interestingness. Spam usually offers us interesting stuff, for normal or depraved values of interesting. Comment spam works by increasing the linkage to a site, thus lifting it up the league tables that rate sites by the number of links to them. Trolling works by pushing our hot buttons. Come to think of it, topic drift occurs much the same way. Scams work by latching onto the desire to make money.

It occurs to me that some ideas, or complexes of ideas, might work the same way in propagating themselves within and between minds. Obsessions and compulsions might be just ideas that have hijacked an internal mechanism for bringing important matters to our attention: mental spam, as it were. When I mentioned this to a friend last night, he suggested that depression might gain its grip from doing the same thing, or the same sort of thing with the opposite sign: instead of the wrong things becoming interesting, almost everything seems uninteresting.

What about the spread of dodgy ideas between minds? I'm thinking here about pseudosciences, conspiracy theories, urban legends, canards, rumours, gossip ... they all work by exploiting flaws in the criteria by which we identify interesting ideas - and, of course, flaws in our application of critical thinking. We all apply critical thinking. We just don't all, or always, apply it correctly or widely enough. Extending the domain of critical thinking from everyday practicalities to wider horizons is what progress, individual and historical, is about. We're all scientific and sceptical. We're all ignorant and credulous. It's a matter of degree. It too is easily gamed. Some mistaken ideas have owed their tenacity to ignorant scepticism: if the world is round, why don't the people on the other side fall off?

Another point that this analogy suggests is that Richard Dawkins' 'religion is a mind virus' meme is wrong. There are lots of reasons for thinking it wrong, especially (to my mind, anyway) thinking about how religious people actually think. But if the brain is more like the whole Internet than it's like a computer, the virus analogy falls at the first hurdle. Religious ideas are held, not because they are downloaded into infant brains, but because they seem to make sense to adult minds. It was adult minds that came up with them in the first place. Religion can be understood as something like a science. In Cro-Magnon times the idea of the spirit world may have seemed as brilliant a deduction as our latest neuroscience does to us. 'Oh, so that's why we see dead people in dreams!' 'Hey, wait a minute! Suppose ...' And off they went, these Dawkinses of the dawn.


Post a Comment