World on Wi-Fire

The human race is interconnected as never before. Is that a good thing? Ask the Lords of the Internet—the men running the companies Eric Schmidt of Google recently called “the Four Horsemen”: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google—and you’ll get an unequivocal “yes.” But is it true? In view of the extraordinary economic and political instability of recent months, it’s worth asking if the Netlords are the Four Horsemen of a new kind of information apocalypse.

Don’t get me wrong. I love all that these companies have achieved. I order practically everything except haircuts from Amazon. I write this column on a MacBook Pro. I communicate with my kids via Facebook. It’s 6:55 a.m., and I’ve already run six searches on Google. Did I forget to mention that I’ve already received 29 emails and sent 14?

I also really like the Netlords. They are among the smartest guys on the planet. Yet they are also self-deprecating and sometimes very funny. (OK, not Steve Jobs.) So my question for them is a real question, not some kind of Luddite rant: does the incredible network you have created, with its unprecedented scale and speed, not contain a vulnerability? I’m not talking here about the danger of its exploitation by Islamist extremists or its incapacitation by Chinese cyberwarriors, though I worry about those things too. No, I mean the possibility that the global computer network formed by technologically unified human minds is inherently unstable—and that it is ushering in an era of intolerable volatility.

The communications revolution we are living through has been driven by two great forces. One is Gordon E. Moore’s “law” (which he first proposed in 1965) that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every 18 months. In its simplified form, Moore’s Law says that computing power will double every two years, implying a roughly 30-fold increase in 10 years. This exponential trend has now continued for more than half a century and is expected by the techies to continue until at least 2015 or 2020.

The other force is the exponential growth of human networks. The first email was sent at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the same year Moore’s Law was born. In 2006 people sent 50 billion emails; last year it was 300 billion. The Internet was born in 1982. As recently as 1993 only 1 percent of two-way telecommunication went through it. By 2000 it was 51 percent. Now it’s 97 percent. Facebook was dreamed up by an über-nerd at my university in 2004. It has 800 million active users today—eight times the number of three years ago.

Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner sees this trend as our friend (it has certainly been his). As the number of people online doubles from 2 billion to 4 billion over the next 10 years and the number of Internet-linked devices quadruples from 5 billion to 20 billion, mankind collectively gets more knowledge—and gets smarter. Speaking at a conference in Ukraine in mid-September, Milner asserted that data equivalent to the total volume of information created from the beginning of human civilization until 2003 can now be generated in the space of just two days. To cope with this information overload, he looks forward to “the emergence of the global brain, which consists of all the humans connected to each other and to the machine and interacting in a very unique and profound way, creating an intelligence that does not belong to any single human being or computer.”

In the future as imagined by Google, this global brain will do much of our thinking for us, telling us (through our handheld devices) which of our friends is just around the next corner and where we can buy that new suit we need for the best price. And if the best price is on Amazon, we’ll just click once and look forward to its next-day delivery. Maybe it’ll already be there when we get home.

That’s the kind of sci-fi scenario that gets a true nerd out of bed in the morning. But is it just a bit too utopian?

Exhibit one for a contrarian view is the recent behavior of global financial markets, the area of human activity furthest down the road of computerization and automation. According to math wonk Kevin Slavin, algorithms with names like the “Boston Shuffler” are the new masters of the financial universe. Whole tower blocks have been hollowed out to accommodate the computing power required by high-frequency (and very high-speed) trading. So how is this brave new world of robot traders doing?

finance economics
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