Humans and neurons
As a devout Kevin Kelly fan, specifically regarding his recent book What Technology Wants, which anthropomorphized the human+technology+culture hybrid as the Technium, I think a lot about the direction technology is taking us (largely independent of our own input).
It’s pretty obvious (to me) that we’re in the “connect” phase of the Technium’s development. From roads to the postal service to telephones to television to email to Twitter to the iPhone, we’re well on our way to building a highly connected network of humans, computers, and data. But can you take the metaphor further than that? Watch me! :)
What can we learn about our future if we study previous connect phases in lower orders of magnitude like in our brain, or in the evolution from single to multi-cellular organisms?
One analog that has been amusing me for a while is the brain metaphor. During the first few years of a child’s life, about 2 million synapses are being made per second… resulting in the eventual 1,000,000,000,000,000 (one quadrillion) connections between the one hundred billion neurons in the human brains. Out of this network emerges everything we love and hate about being alive. But at its core, there are a few simple functions that make it all happen:
A neuron has 3 functions:
- Create a signal and send it out (the axon)
- Pick out the important signals (the dendrites)
- Transport signals quickly (the myelin sheath)
Another way of thinking about this, as it relates to technology, is that our world is getting better at creating signal, distributing signal, and filtering signal — all simultaneously:
This is an easy one. Almost every business in the world has at least some interest in creating original content. And everyone in the world is being given tools to create their own content: camera phones, touch screens, blogs, etc. In the health-improvement world, it’s particularly interesting to me to watch how every week it seems there’s a new gadget or app that’s helping create new data from things in our lives that we previously couldn’t capture. From the Fitbit, to the Withings scale, to Nike+, to GPS, to heart-rate monitor apps, to sleep trackers… there is more and more data every day to play around with. This is a good thing, and it isn’t going to slow down anytime soon.
The largest part of a neuron is the axon… specifically the long thin part covered in a myelin sheath (basically like rubber tubing around a wire that helps insulate and speed up the signal as it travels from your brain down to your toes). The easiest analogies for this in the tech world are roads, phone lines, internet cables, satellites, trains, airplanes, and boats. And one layer of abstraction above that: newspapers, television, email, Twitter, Facebook, SMS. And one layer of abstraction above that: smart phones, cheap laptops, the iPad. Creating these technologies is slower than creating signal, but they provide the foundational architecture to make the entire system faster, more secure, and more accessible to a greater number of people.
This function is still fairly undeveloped in the Technium so far. We can now consume or create more content in an hour than many of our ancestors probably consumed in a year. And we hear a lot about information overload, internet diets, etc… the need for better filters is there but the technology hasn’t really caught up with the need yet. Two examples that are pretty impressive is spam filters and virus protection software. But what other products and services are all about keeping unimportant (rather than just harmful) content out of our attention?
You could say that Twitter and Facebook are filters, in the sense that you now no longer need to read or watch all of the news, but can just wait to see what your social networks bubble up to your attention. But the net effect of both of these services is MORE signal, rather than less.
I’m gonna keep my eye out for products and services in the next couple years that sell themselves primarily on their ability to lower the amount of information that reaches you, while simultaneously improving the quality and relevance of that information to you when it does reach you. As I heard in a pitch at Startup Weekend last week, this problem of finding the best signals in the haystack of noise that is growing increasingly louder every day isn’t going to be going away anytime soon. It’s time for technology to start solving this problem in earnest.