Matt Brubeck

01 Mar 2010

The network is the human being

Nathanael Boehm wrote a nice essay last month called The Future of Employment?, about a disconnect between workers' and employers' views of social networks. (This post is based partly on the ensuing Hacker News thread.) Boehm wrote:

When I need help with a challenge at work or need to run some ideas past people I don’t turn to my co-workers, I look to my network of colleagues beyond the walls of my workplace. Whilst my co-workers might be competent at their job they can’t hope to compete with the hundreds of people I have access to through my social networks.

The late Sun Microsystems taught us that the network is the computer. It's true: we still use non-networked computers for specialized tasks, but nobody wants one on their desk – it's just so useless compared to one that talks to the entire world. Boehm could have titled his essay The Network is the Employee. There are still tasks that people do in isolation, but the ability to contact a network of peers and experts makes the difference in my job, and many others.

Alone together

The lone computer programmer in a small business has thousands of colleagues on Stack Overflow, Reddit, and so on. It's a messy way to find answers, but it's sure better than the days when your only choice was to call tech support – or smack the box with your fist, whichever seemed more useful. I can't begin to list all the problems I've solved and things I've learned by Googling for others with experience, and getting help from a different expert for every problem.

Decades before the web, computer geeks had virtual communities on mailing lists, Usenet, and IRC. Now every job in the world has its corresponding forum. Even the night clerk at the gas station has Not Always Right.

Teaching has long been a solitary profession. Despite working in a crowded classroom, teachers are isolated; they rarely have colleagues observing or participating directly in their work. This has such an impact that teachers are sometimes trained in meditation or reflection techniques, to make up for the lack of external feedback. So I'm curious what happens when teachers start to work together remotely the way programmers do.

You will be assimilated

Boehm's essay also reminded me of a vague sci-fi idea I've been kicking around: the first group minds will evolve from the intersection of Mechanical Turk, virtual assistants, social networking, and augmented reality.

Starting around the 1990s, it was possible to instantly "know" any fact that was published online. Since then, we've increased the amount of content online, our tools for searching it, and ways of connecting to the network. Today we have instant access to almost any published knowledge, anywhere.

There are more people on the net too, and more ways to find and talk to them. Most of us can contact dozens of friends at any given moment, plus friends-of-friends, co-workers, fellow members of communites like Hacker News or MetaFilter, and also complete strangers. Along with raw facts, we have access to vast amounts of human judgement, experience, and skill.

One product of this is the "virtual assistant," who provides a service that was once exclusive to high-powered executives. Now personal assistants can work remotely (often overseas), spread costs by serving many masters, and leverage the internet superpowers listed above. Their services are mostly targeted at small business owners and the Tim Ferriss crowd, but I'm sure someone soon will market virtual assistance to all sorts of other creative workers, teachers, even stay-at-home parents.

So, how long before I can touch a button to let a remote assistant see what I'm seeing in real-time and help me make transportation plans, translate foreign signs and speech, look up emails related to whatever I'm doing or thinking, or even advise me on what to say? Some of these queries will go to my circle of friends, others to the general public, and some to a personal assistant who is paid well to keep up with my specific needs. And that assistant of course will subcontract portions of each job to computer programs, legions of cheap anonymous Turkers, or his or her own network of helpers. At that point, I'm augmenting my own perception, memory, and judgement with a whole network of brains that I carry around, ready to engage with any situation I meet.

If nothing else, I hope someone writes a good sci-fi thriller story in which a rogue virtual assistant manipulates the actions of unsuspecting clients, leading them to some unseen end.