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or philosophical concerns about encounters with technology,
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Dear [ 422 ] ,
Your question brings to mind Balk’s Third Law: “If you think The Internet is terrible now, just wait a while.” Logging on already provides a daily megadose of paranoia (mass surveillance), epistemic vertigo (deepfakes), and fremdschämen (thirstposting). Imagine the day when this colony of horrors becomes unified, intentional, and self-aware. I say this not to alarm you, only to suggest why the prospect of a conscious internet isn’t often discussed. The information age (if that’s still where we are) constantly reminds us of the many grim scenarios that await us—floods and famine, red giants, gray goo. I don’t think people have the bandwidth, so to speak, to take on yet another existential threat.
But as you appear to have a higher-than-average tolerance for psychological torment, I will try my best to answer honestly. Consciousness, of course, is notoriously difficult to pin down. You can’t measure it, weigh it, or hold it in your hand. You can observe it directly in yourself, but not in others.
This is not a technical problem, or even a modern one. Christ seemed to discern the slipperiness of the psyche when he told his disciples, “You will know them by their fruits,” meaning, essentially, that the only way to determine the state of another person’s soul is through its outward manifestation: behavior. Philosophy and artificial intelligence tend to circumnavigate the Problem of Other Minds in a similar manner. Alan Turing constructed his famous criteria for machine intelligence, the Turing Test, on the assumption that the mind is a black box. If a computer can convince us, through its actions, that it has human-level intelligence, we must assume that it does.
So perhaps we should reformulate your question: Does the internet behave like a creature with an internal life? Does it manifest the fruits of consciousness? There are certainly moments when it seems to. Google can anticipate what you’re going to type before you fully articulate it to yourself. Facebook ads can intuit that a woman is pregnant before she tells her family and friends. It is easy, in such moments, to conclude that you’re in the presence of another mind—though given the human tendency to anthropomorphize, we should be wary of quick conclusions.
Some of the more convincing evidence for internet consciousness might be difficult to perceive, since we ourselves would be the nodes and neurons that constitute the brain. For some social scientists, the many political movements that have originated on social networks qualify as “emergent” behavior—phenomena that cannot be attributed to any one person, but belong to the system as a whole. Two French cognitive psychologists have gone so far as to claim that the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring were evidence of Virtual Collective Consciousness, which they describe as “internal knowledge shared by a plurality of persons.”
I imagine you don’t find this very convincing, nor should you. When we speak of consciousness, we usually mean something more cohesive: that singular stream of mental experience—the ego, the self—that would seem to be more than the sum of all Twitter posts. You asked, after all, about “self-awareness.” Some very smart people have argued, of course, that our own self-awareness is an illusion. The intuition that we are, as Richard Dawkins once put it, “a unit, not a colony” is not really supported by the architecture of the brain, with its billions of tiny, unconscious parts. But such dismissals of subjectivity aren’t very illuminating or precise: If a unified mind is nothing more than an illusion, where does the illusion come from? And how do we know whether other things have it too?
As it happens, one of the most convincing cases for internet consciousness stems from a theory of mind that was developed to account for precisely this kind of unified experience. Integrated Information Theory, pioneered by Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi, holds that consciousness arises from complex connections across different regions of the brain.