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Web Epiphanies (a PUBLIC topic)

Dan Kalikow
11:26 PM ET (US)
In my earlier Posting #3 in this Topic, I mused:
    It wasn't just that I was seeing data new to me. It was that the web was allowing me to jump out of the system in a totally unexpected, recursive, self-referential way. Here was the WWW: a medium so powerful that it could show me my own whole wide world -- at a click. How long would it be before I could jump into virtual subatomic or genomic space with the same ease?
Well, check out the following three new-to-me adventures in distributed world-wide supercomputing:Reminiscent of SETI@Home? Intentional I'm sure, but at the other end of the size scale. But is it the other end of the complexity scale? Hmmm... (Speaking of epiphanies: While we're busily folding a protein or nucleotide, what happens if we "wrap around" to a buncha Little Green Men (LGMs) broadcasting pi in binary from the Andromeda Galaxy?) (-: OBTW that "wrapping" pun was intentional :-)
Anyone for a TBTF/QT Team on one of these Fantastic Voyages? I've only just looked at the new microcosmic front Pp, and it's been over a year since I tried SETI@Home, so I don't know which is the most potentially useful, beautiful or fun. Plus, I hate to admit it, but there's no realistic chance of finding any LGMs if we go micro... If anyone wanted to team up, I'd guess that we'd need to make some sort of collective decision as to which client to use, to max the bang-for-the-cycle... Perhaps a branched topic is in order so that Wiser Heads (i.e., the Hive-Mind we can convene in a new Quick Topic) can do a mind-meld :-) ...

OBTW the reason I've labeled this Topic PUBLIC is that Keith Dawson "outed" it [with my permission] in last week's TBTF Log, so that all his email subscribers (and forward-ees) might be dropping in for a looksee here, and they might be traversing the linx they can find herein.

Welcome, Netizens! Where do you want to go today [TM]?
Ted Anderson
07:39 AM ET (US)
Sorry, it is **Steve Yost** not Scott Yost. Scott Yost was a friend of mine back in elementary school!
Ted Anderson
12:45 PM ET (US)
I made a few updates to this essay and attached it off my home page at . The updates consist of links to
Ted Anderson
12:09 AM ET (US)
This mini-essay arose in response to Steve Yost's "Specialization and Cooperation"[1] and "Deep Thoughts"[2] note which I found via Dan Kalikow's "Web Epiphanies" topic[3].

I also find the evolution of new levels of intelligence intriguing. It usually seems a little too mystical to really get much of a grip on, so I don't have much to say on the topic. However, I have a few references I think might be useful for those interested in the subject.

Marshall Savage, in his book "The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps", provides some inspirational thoughts about mankind's destiny along these lines. The beginning of the book is a hard engineering tour-de-force outlining an strategy allowing humanity to gracefully exit the cradle of our birth. The last few chapters have a longer range philosophical aspect. Towards the end of the "Solaria" chapter he says:

   "To form a collective entity of a higher order, a minimum threshold must be exceeded. For individual sub-units the critical threshold appears to be around 100 billion:
     - A hundred billion atoms can organize to form an individual cell.
     - A hundred billion cells can organize to form an individual brain.
     - A hundred billion human minds can organize to form... Something Wonderful!"

He references Peter Russell, "The Global Brain: Speculations on the Evolutionary Leap to Planetary Consciousness", 1983, for the 10^11 number. I haven't tracked down this book(?) but it might be worth it. I certainly enjoyed Savage's book and heartily recommend it.

More recently I read Susan Blackmore's "The Meme Machine" which advances memes as replicators which compete for human mental resources and so evolve through selection. The presence of a second set of replicators which sometimes work with, and sometimes in opposition to, the genes, provides a new interpretation of several of humanity's unusual features, such as language, brain size, and a host of cultural oddities. Historically, memes and genes have been transmitted together along vertical, family lines and usually worked to similar purposes. However, with modern means of communication, meme transmission is more and more horizontal and so the "interests" of memes and genes will increasingly diverge. In this context, it seems that viewing memes as evolving replicators, provides a concrete (I use the term in a relative sense) example of what a higher order evolutionary process, alluded to by Savage, might look like.

Another theme of Savage is the greening of the galaxy as life spreads to fill the void. He views our highest destiny as being a vehicle for that diaspora. This connects with the Freeman Dyson quote about the universe being in some way congenial to life. I've previously lauded Stuart Kauffman's "At Home in the Universe" which argues for a certain structure in complexity which is necessary to allow natural selection to work at all. Along these lines, but at a much more fundamental level is Lee Smolin's "The Life of the Cosmos". Smolin suggests that universes themselves under went a selection process which favored those whose properties lead to the formation of copious black holes. Such conditions also favor complexity on all levels.

Another fascinating book is Robert Wright's "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny". Wright argues that non-zero sum interactions can be found at the basis of all organizations. Because mutually beneficial exchanges depend upon a certain economy of scale and lead to increasing specialization and complexity they provide a sort of arrow "guiding" natural selection. These non-zero sum games are a sort of binding energy holding together increasingly complex organisms all the way from cells to today's global economy.

While all these ideas are a long way from a coherent theory of life, the universe and everything, they do at least suggest that such a story may someday be worked out.

Ted Anderson

Edited 03-16-2001 12:11 AM
Dan Kalikow
03:11 PM ET (US)
Re Lewis #12> Neither am I of a particularly religious bent... and I've learned that discussing hypotheticals is not usually fruitful. I'm bound to say this, though, and given what I've written to the "TBTF Irregulars" list, I'm betting you won't be surprised and trusting you won't be offended. Your hypothesis -- about God's possible intentions vis-a-vis starting the earthquake after ensuring that the sand pendulum was working -- doesn't engender any resonances with me (and that pun was intended). For myself, I tend to think of the "earthquake rose" as a random, fortuitous byproduct of a random, otherwise potentially destructive cataclysm -- which fortunately cost no lives. This time.

That having been said, it is nevertheless wonderful to me that this beautiful tracing, whether a picture painted by design or created by coincidence, echoes a fundamental debate about creation and evolution -- and it is further wonderful to see the way the web has both promulgated this aesthetic aspect of a terrifying event and strongly accelerated its distribution and discussion.

So in my book, this note is apparent disagreement -- leavened by meta-agreement.

Now, my cousin in Seattle seems to think that I am a crypto-Bible-reteller and an Adam-and-Eve-sympathizer to boot; and if that's true, then hey, just disregard this whole damn posting :-)
Edited 03-15-2001 03:15 PM
Lewis Shadoff
02:13 PM ET (US)
I showed the pictures of the sand pendulum to my wife, and we were musing about it. Is it possible that God wanted to paint a picture and caused the earthquake while the pendulum was swinging knowing full well that He could reach more people with His message than ever before possible?

Perhaps this is the purpose of the Web.

Note: These musings are quite out of character for me since I am not of a particularly religious bent.
Steve Yost
12:41 PM ET (US)
I have a short musing on a related topic in my personal wiki: It questions whether there's an evolutionary drive behind the tendency to form meta-organisms.

And (just a homework question) what is that Drive? Is it a manifestation of God? Just an outcome of Earth being a particularly self-organized far-from-equilibrium system? I think what's important is to be aware of how it works within and between us.

That Wiki page in turn links to another QT with Jon Waldron (another Irregular) on the topic. It's a fascinating area for me -- if I could clone myself I'd research and write a book about it.
Edited 03-14-2001 12:41 PM
Dan K's cousin
11:20 PM ET (US)
Dan K here: Offlist, I shared Jamie's and my musings on "earthquake creates art; world too" with a cousin of mine, a lawyer in Seattle WA USA. He lives in Olympia near the epicenter, and he'd seen the Gaelic Wolf pendulum page before. Here's his imho illuminating reaction: [reposted in QuickTopic by permission]

Thanks for your reminiscence of epiphany. It was quite moving. Despite your religious disclaimer up front, I think that this is, in fact, not apostasy but a reconfirmation and a new telling of the Garden of Eden story, as it is retold in other forms and other traditions constantly. When God told the First Pair (not W. and Laura) not to eat of the fruit of knowledge, it was because He knew knowledge was a God attribute, and He wanted the franchise monopoly. This message is constantly rediscovered as we achieve new levels of world perspective and knowledge as a species, and we become more interconnected, and both the knowledge and its universality acccelerates. With this acceleration comes increasing control over things that we always attributed exclusively to The Creator.

The interconnection has also, as you have noted in a more poetic vein, created more of a single organism out of our species than has ever existed. The human family, for all of its internecine wars, is moving toward singularity of knowledge, experience, and even race. What a time to be alive.

The film Pi, by a fellow named Darren Aronofsky, is largely a meditation on these themes with a kind of film noir overlay that is extraordinary. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend you do so. Much of Lewis Thomas' writing ("The Lives of a Cell," "The Medusa and the Snail") also plays with these ideas.
Edited 03-14-2001 11:19 AM
Dan Kalikow
11:12 PM ET (US)
Date: Mon, 12 Mar 2001 18:24:51 -0500

I enjoyed your essay on the sand-painted earthquake meme. It reminded me of my second web-epiphany -- that the web was going to fundamentally change our view of ourselves as a species. (Epiphany #1 was, of course, seeing Mosaic in July '93, when all my "technorevolution alarms" rang.)

Those were the early days now being parodied thus:

   "I remember when the web was only about 100 sites -- and they ALL WORKED."
   "Yeah sure, Grandpa."

I'd seen the Cambridge coffeepot, the Vatican Library, the NCSA site, the U of Hawaii, we were building our intranet within DEC... People over the globe were rushing online, wanting to share their interests, their previously arcane data, or their dreams with one another.

At home, I was connection- and PC-restricted to using LYNX, so I tended to be at the office late or weekends, for DEC's bandwidth. But what hadn't yet truly hit me was that the web wasn't only about a new UI and protocol enabling radically easier info-navigation and -sharing. It was going to be an agent of fundamental change because it would let humanity exceed some sort of intellectual flashpoint.

Christmastime '93. I was alone at DEC HQ, speedsurfing sites like NASA, and came upon an early precursor of -- and my world-view changed.

The trigger was a crude version of what's now at -- a two-week rotating composite image of full Earth, showing daytime weather patterns. In '93, it was far less complex and beautiful, being only B&W, smaller, and taken from only one POV: an equatorial-geosynchronous satellite. But it was still time-lapsed full Earth -- and I was different afterwards.

I mean no disrespect to religious peoples' beliefs by recalling my feelings:
    "I'm looking down on my own planet! But I'm not an astronaut. This is a PC and connection like will be common in a few years. I'm somewhere in this picture; everyone else, too. The entire Internet is here -- and all the undersea cables that knit me to Australia and India are here, hidden beneath the oceans. All the earth's slowly-swirling tectonic plates are underneath those cables, and all its faster-swirling clouds above. I'm perched 23,000 miles above the Equator watching the earth rotate underneath me, the terminator disclosing and reclaiming the days to me. At my "midnight," I can occasionally see sunlight along an entire Great Circle: dawn on one side and dusk on the other. Fortunes of treasure in astronomy, rocketry, telemetry, geophysics, and computer technology are distilled here... and even time, showing me a day in the blink of an eye, so I can see some of the patterns of my living planet.

       ... Isn't this a little like being a God?"
It wasn't just that I was seeing data new to me. It was that the web was allowing me to jump out of the system in a totally unexpected, recursive, self-referential way. Here was the WWW: a medium so powerful that it could show me my own whole wide world -- at a click. How long would it be before I could jump into virtual subatomic or genomic space with the same ease?

Now of course there've been a lot of bytes over the bridge since '93 -- but that synchronicity experience is still with me... and now whenever heavy weather is upon me here in New England USA, I visit
and I feel better -- for if knowledge is power, then at least I feel I have some power over the approaching storms.

Thanks Jamie, for recalling that the web allows us to share bigger pictures and deeper ideas. What I'm getting at in this overlong ramble is my web-slanted view of the closing lines of Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn:"

  "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all
   Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

What I, too, was seeing was truth about earth, and that it was beautiful.

Edited 03-13-2001 11:14 PM
Jamie McCarthy
11:08 PM ET (US)
emailed-date: Sun, 11 Mar 2001 13:16:07 -0500 [reposted in QuickTopic by permission]

There's something visceral about seeing this webpage bounce around mailing lists. An intangible tremor, preserved in the most delicate of media. It could have been created centuries ago. Had it appeared in the day of Benjamin Franklin or John Keats, they might have travelled to see it, a unique symbol, one of their rare peeks through the natural world's keyhole to see a million-to-one conjunction of science and art.

The tracing might have inspired poetry or commentary on the beauty and power of Nature which we might still read today. What would it have been like in that alternate universe for us to go browse in a used-book shop, and happen upon this same sand design, now preserved only in words, leaving us to wonder what it must have looked like, how beautiful and elegant it must have been, and what clicked in those great minds as they mused over it?

Instead millions of people are seeing the thing itself, a simple, wondrous dish of clockworked sand, thrown from a tabletop in Seattle to every continent on Earth. What we have that Keats lacked! And what he had that we'll never know!
Edited 03-14-2001 11:09 AM
Dan Kalikow
11:01 PM ET (US)
This Quick Topic arose from the "Rattle in Seattle" page published by Gaelic Wolf in the aftermath of the Seattle earthquake of February 28, 2001. That site's currently enduring a 'Net "flash crowd" so it loads real slowly as I write this. There's now an article about it on as well (though who knows how long it'll be up on their site). It's well worth a read for additional interesting background -- particularly the conspiracy theorists'!

At any rate, there was some discussion of this event on Keith Dawson's (the noteworthy impresario of Tasty Bits from the Technology Front, which can be found at private "TBTF Irregulars" email-list, to which I have the privilege of belonging. Items 2, 3, and 4 in this Topic were originally distributed on that list, and are reposted here with the authors' permission.
Edited 03-13-2001 11:03 PM

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