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.
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 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 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.
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.