I’ve often contemplated how the external engineering of men so closely resembles man himself. A drive into the city and the metaphor is fully visible. In a car (or a cell) containing an implement of information (yourself), traveling through a tunnel—a vein, we get the sense that the city encloses us… or how about a city’s sewer system, water plants, air conditioning and heating ducts (its intestines, kidneys, lungs?). What is truly fascinating, however, is the stage of the evolution we’ve now come upon—there was the microchip, yes, then the internet to connect it all, but now we shall soon cede our intelligence over to a higher entity, created mainly unconsciously by us. Often called the cloud—but truly it’s a brain in the making and no one company will be making decisions for this brain—yet collectively the companies on the forefront of consciousness computing may just might.
I would like to discuss here some corporations who are the primary builders of this brain. Who are they? What is their contribution? And also raise the question: are we ceding too much power over to these corporations? I believe these questions are dire and need to be answered right here and right now. The rapid pace of change for this evolving cerebral entity far exceeds what anyone could have envisioned over the course of the past fifteen years and I believe we are at a tipping point--where the questions regarding these certain companies far exceed the implications of a monopoly; rather, the direction of our species depends on our reaction to their juggernaut growth and how quickly we adapt and understand what exactly is happening.
Let’s start with Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), and not because it’s the most influential brain matter available; but rather, because how concrete it has become in our daily lives with the success of the ipod and iPhone. There has been an astonishing trend in the App store—1.5 billion downloads of its applications in a relatively short amount of time. In one sense, right now the magnitude of this feat is privy to a relatively small cluster of the world’s population: over 45 million iPhone and touch users as of last earnings call; yet in a larger sense, with the trend of the world’s population now currently using cell phones (soon to be smart phones I believe) combined with the rapid advance of technology and shrinking costs to produce such technology.
I believe Apple should be ranked as a formidable developer of the world brain. Its itunes and app store is housed and transported digitally—completely transparent, but the depth and quality of information being transmitted far exceeds what the radio, television, mp3 player, gaming device, kindle reader, etc… could possibly fathom. The synergies these devices creates raises the question regarding how much an apple device user is worth. By providing internet accessibility anywhere and anytime always in our pocket or palm is telltale of the breadth of its power—this while the possibilities the iphone and ipod touch applications continues to exceed our imaginations.
For those of you familiar with brain chemistry, you can think of these devices as a neurons—when we touch or speak into it, it transmits information based on our usage habits, times spent on apps, the types of apps we download, the music and movies we like, the games we are interested in, or basic information based on who we reach out to—such demographics are stored in a centralized location profiling who we are as users, customers, cultures. Where we go and what we are doing is transmitted and known to the central brain and the brain itself can respond to our likely needs based on the data stored.
Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) operates in much the same way between its users and the information collected and stored. One of the primary functions of the brain is to collect, process, and store information; ironically, this is exactly what Google does. If we examine what Google is amassing in databases, it is a collective consciousness of human research, expression, and knowledge; Google stores the answers to the questions of who, what, why, where, when and how by accessing images, video, charts, maps, drawings, diagrams, recording, virtually anything that can have a digital replica.
What is actually contained in Google’s databases is in reality a mirror of the human endeavor, a digital warehouse becoming more and more ubiquitous and omniscient daily: a digitized clone of who we are, what we want, where are we going—the database can give information as specific to us in terms of age, sex, race, location, etc… or the database can be mined for our collective consciousness, through Google trends for example a user can get a sense of the type of interests popular to a region, a nation, or our species as a whole—and all this can be specific to a timeframe: a season, a month, or as a reaction to an event of any given date.
There is something almost religious about the way Google conducts business. As the Dali Lama advocates in the Art of Happiness—it is with openness, non-anger and true altruism we find the pathway to happiness, Google follows the same practices of giving and openness in their business model—as Buzz Machine blogger Jeff Jarvis pointed outs in his book “What would Google Do?”, Google’s business practices are revolutionizing economics and society as whole. Google is a business model built on the notion of giving everything away, much to the dismay of so many traditional businesses; however, as an access point of all things digitally replicated—the role of Google and the change it brings is likely to accelerate as this fetal brain develops.
In another darker respect, we can also envision an evil Google lab, maybe called the Department of Psyops Search Trends, where the brightest behavioral psychologists work with search engine data analysts determining the specific actions and reactions of prominent influential individuals--possibly the habits of influential government officials are tracked, and letters to the FCC are constructed in perfect fashion to appeal to whomever the targeted decision maker’s psychological profile is.
Google, as a corporation with the data mine of human behavior, from social groups right down to individuals, make more pertinent the question of how much is already known and observed about us that we do not even know? And also, do we just trust Google not to access or exploit this sort of data?—what tools and laws are in place to prevent Google, or any corporation from doing so in this new link economy?
In terms of consciousness, I cannot fail to mention Twitter, the real time search engine explosively finding its way into every corner of everywhere and everything at the speed of a mouse click, snapshot, instant message, or video in real time to the masses. Instead of having to search for trends or go through the Google data mines to understand what the world’s streaming consciousness is reflecting on, here globules of information pour into internet enabled devices and present the hotspots of our global body as a whole.
Take the recent elections in Iran, where turmoil and protests across the county were attempted to be blocked by Iran’s regime. Closing off journalists could do nothing in the face of Twitter’s ability to present real time information. As smarter phones get into the hands of more and more people this surge of the uncensored will continue to disrupt governments and other institutions who attempt to close off and stifle the voices of the world. Google may have quite the competitor evolving, as Twitter seems to be developing into a company on the forefront of consciousness, and as our thoughts tend to determine the direction of ourselves—the direction of the human species may be more apt to be controlled by a Twitterlike entity than any other. Twitter expresses, the world responds.
Let’s consider Facebook, the astonishing growth of the company is an example of how neural connections grow greater and greater, reaching out from one user to another, each friend a connection—all with ability to monitor and keep up to date on business , social , and interest contacts. Facebook gives us an acute awareness of our progress and change within the realm of people we care about and the movements we support. It also heightens the feeling of connectedness with a wide range of people we typically may only run into at high school reunion.
In terms of brain function, it is here that our voices merge and unify our purposes and the feelings people, businesses and intuitions alike gain support and resonate through its network, into our lives; it paints the zeitgeist of the particular moment we all coexist together in, it’s a living commentary on our curiosities and endeavors. We learn and absorb knowledge about each other, share knowledge about ourselves, all on a wall for the community to see and respond to, and of course it’s stored and filed for access, by a central intelligence somewhere in Facebook’s digidata.
These examples are what I consider the more obvious brain building neural networks of the world... who deserves to be on the list I hope will be debated. Others of prominent importance to be discussed are Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) with its warehouse of digital book , Ebay (NASDAQ: EBAY) with the rise of Skype and Paypal, and of course Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), who seems to be trailing behind in the new age of brain building. The metaphor itself raises the question of who we are as a whole.
Is this the point where we actually lose control over the direction of our species? Where corporations or networks of corporations determine the future direction of nations, organizations and other corporations? Or will our voices somehow rise up, voices when merged together are one great consciousness of the brain? Voices that shout to its body, the world, “That it’s about what we want, what we will not tolerate, and most importantly, who we will let determine the course of our future.”
So investors and consumers alike, these larger questions of brain building open for us not only a framework for thinking about which companies will likely have tremendous success in the future, but also the moral question of “what are they succeeding in?”. Because if we move blind, dumb and an unquestioning through the conglomeration of hyperlinks, banner ads, and media regurgitation, we risk our individuality being swallowed up by the Neural Network itself. It is not a question of who is Big Brother anymore— the question is what is this brain evolving before us? How are we going to let it affect our lives?
Disclosure: Long on Apple