We have two lifelines

I’ve been thinking about what the recent events with Twitter (Iran, Michael Jackson) tell us about the Internet and how we can or should relate to it.

The human nervous system seems to me like the ideal metaphor. Our nerves are tied together in multiple ways, but every sensory input can have two dimensions of response. The first, as you remember from junior high, is autonomic: involuntary, wide open sensitivity to surroundings.

The autonomic system regulates all the unconscious functions: breathing, heart rate, reflexes. As the online world grows and evolves, it seems to me that Twitter and its ilk increasingly fill this role. Like the autonomic nervous system, Twitter supplies data, and is alert to existential threats.  Without search software, it flies below the radar of consciousness. Watching it unfold is like attempting to monitor the waves of the sea. 

But the human body is not just nerve endings that trigger responses. Our bodies hum along, in touch with reality but not governed by it. Most of the time we are free to choose what stimuli we pay attention to, and what we prefer to ignore. This  somatic dimension allows us to choose our focus. When a bright light flashes, the autonomic response is to blink, perhaps increase heart and respiration; but then the somatic system regains the power to decide. We can now choose to look again, turn away, close our eyes, or go back to reading our paper. This power makes us more than conscious; it makes us human; able to sleep on a decision, to process complexity and nuance, to weigh alternatives, assess risk, delay gratification, make plans, be good judges and good jurors.

Bottom line, there are two distinct channels for sensing, and two distinct ways of responding. I diagram it this way:


2-channel Nervous System

2-channel Nervous System




It seems to me that volitional actions are more important than reflexes, most of the time. (as long as the breathing, heart-pumping functions are working as they should!) Our longevity and happiness do not flow from the fact that we salivate when we see Big Macs pictured; they flow from our decision to either succumb to the Mac Attack or choose better food.

Volitional actions impact what we choose to study, and how hard we work toward gaining our skill set; they impact who we marry, and how our kids turn out. They are far more important than chance or existential circumstances in determining where we will live, how we will live, how long we will live, and whether we’ll be missed when we’re gone.

And yet at times we all enjoy being able to lay aside our pressing engagement with matters of choice … and choose instead to allow existential sensations just reach us randomly in real time, while we focus on the moment and let it unfold around us. It’s fun to meander in the surf, lay on the beach, chill with our friends, feel the breeze, wander down country roads.

And so I see the real strength of Twitter and other real-time inputs as being three key, irreplaceable dimensions:

1. Quantitative information about what herds of people are thinking or doing existentially.

2. Qualitative insights into the motivations behind people’s thoughts, moods, and actions … again, linked to a timeframe and thus helpful for increasing our powers of prediction as well as our breadth of empathy. Often, this info can be linked to specific demographic information, and thus become a source of very nuanced quantitative info as well.

3. Personal means of sharing activities, expectations, moods, experiences, etc. within a chosen circle of friends and associates.

If we try to mix the streams of internet information — combining both real-time data and more reflective intelligence into one list — I think we’re going to run into trouble.

Until now, the internet has been slow in its response to give a meaningful reflection of the Twitter stream-of-consciousness.  And so it has been natural to entertain ideas about what can or should be done to give the Internet in general, and search engines like Google or Bing in particular, a finger on the pulse of thought that keeps relentlessly washing across it.

Social networking mavens such as Waggener Edstrom’s David Patton and Tac Anderson rightly call attention to the gaping hole in search results where immediate feedback is concerned. David calls for an uptick in search engine relevance via a separate stream of realtime info; and Tac invites discussion on the ways in which immediate blogging and aggregator tools such as FriendFeed and posterous change the game with respect to blogs. A mere few weeks ago, blogs were being spoken of as the journalism giant-killer; now blogging itself is hitting the obits!

Another commentator, Erick Schonfeld, argues that something important would be lost if real-time search is allowed to coexist alongside what he calls “memory” content.

My take is that both sides are right in important ways, and that the Internet should be used and enjoyed as two separate channels. If anything, I think the thoughtful, reflective channel should be strengthened so that, real-time, we can be alerted to the fact that the real-time stream could in fact be overpowered by rumor — could be false — and that sudden traffic explosions could be a hack; that both false and true content, devoid of context, can be dangerous.

Neither channel by itself, it seems to me, can be thought of as the sole or reliable companion of  human progress, safety, and freedom.

For example, a Twitter voting system would not be reliable or reproducible. It could be gamed by false rumors, sudden lies, mass hysteria. In my opinion an election that takes months to prepare for, a full day to accomplish, and a methodology that can be monitored and reviewed for distortions, serves the public much better than any instant response system ever could.

Thank goodness we didn’t have Twitter during 9/11. If Michael Jackson’s death can bring it down, what will a catastrophe do? I was thankful for the networks during the week of 9/11 and its aftermath. (By the way, the economics of all these models must be considered seriously. Now that the two leading social network sites are awash in a sea of red ink, we need to get serious about how we’re going to pay for this information that we all increasingly rely on)..

What I would like to see

I like having real-time streams as a passenger in the car, but I wouldn’t want to put them in the driver’s seat where they can influence values and actions too directly. Even aggregation would not be enough separation it seems to me … it might be like putting a robot in the driver’s seat of our policy and life-choice info stream.

I like David Patton’s suggestion of a real-time stream, as long as it does not involve a mixture with published results. That time lag, that slight difference between the moment of publishing and the moment of reporting, seems important to me, and I don’t want to lose it. Even posterous (which I began using this weekend) makes me a little nervous because of its blurring of the lines between these two channels. The avalanche of personal media access can easily turn the firehose we’re drinking from now into Niagara Falls…. and drown everyone in a tsunami of uncharted, irrelevant chatter.

What I love most about the internet is its power to give old  things equal weight with new things. This is a huge advantage, allowing for the first time in human history for a single generation to have before it the voice of all other generations and cultures that have gone before. Now, before we act, we can have ringing in our ears not only the words of mom and dad, grandpa and a few teachers; with one search we can hear what Napoleon, Newton, Caesar and Solomon had to say about that subject.

It’s like being on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Fortunately, we don’t have to decide whether we’ll choose between the opinion of the masses or the advice of our best friend as a lifeline. We can have both. And we need both.


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