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Wired for Thought

Wired for Thought

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Published by Georgy S Thomas
Book Review of the important work by internet pioneer and thought leader Jeffrey M Stibel
Book Review of the important work by internet pioneer and thought leader Jeffrey M Stibel

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Published by: Georgy S Thomas on Jan 04, 2010
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Book Review: Wired For Thought by Jeffrey M Stibel
Harvard University Press, 2009. Hardcover versions available online from Barnes and Noble andAmazon.Kindle version also available from Amazon.comReviewed by
Georgy S Thomas
In his preface to
Wired for Thought 
, internet pioneer and brain scientist Jeffrey M Stibel offersthe following explanation for his undertaking:‘‘You can take away any phenomenon and study its parts for years, but until you step back far enough to see it in its entirety, you will not understand how it works and where it may go.''Stibel's method of stepping back to view the internet is by comparing it with the human brain.In his view, many of the biggest internet enterprises are successful because they understand thesimilarities between the brain and the internet. He points out the presence of brain scientistsamongst decision-makers in several of the leading internet enterprises.In the introduction, Stibel first lists out his big ideas.
The internet is a brain because it manifests intelligence, rather than merely reflecting it.
Humanlike thinking will emerge from the internet because of its network approach andmimicking of human weaknesses.
The internet is an evolution of the human brain.
The brain as a prediction machine is different from the way computers work, but issimilar to the internet.
Creative destruction is another shared trait between the brain and the internet.
Language, considered uniquely human, is at the heart of the most important internet tool:search.
The internet will crash, but will get bigger and stronger with each collapse. Again a traitsimilar to the brain.He then takes them up in detail chapter by chapter.Along the way, we get acquainted with concepts and terms like memes, intuition, forecasting,heuristics, fuzzy logic, polysemy, synset, spreading activation, encephalization, etc. We alsoencounter a few fascinating characters like Dan Dennett, Jim Anderson (both mentors of Stibel),Robert Metcalfe (whom Stibel rather shamelessly uses as a straw man) and Ray Kurzweil.The book is peppered with nuggets of information. For instance, did you know that many of the biggest internet properties handcode particularly important web pages for easy retrieval? I didn'tuntil I read Stibel. On searching for confirmation on the net, I ran into a Q&A session by
 New York Times
design director Khoi Vinh where he admitted to the practice at the
Times
. The
 
shared concern seems to be that usage of web development applications like Dreamweaver andFrontpage (now Expression Web) as well as other WYSIWYG editors spoils the uniformity of the page's look and feel across various browsers.Also when Stibel, a pioneer and one of the thought leaders of the internet revolution, lists for usthe characteristic features of the best web sites, we better make a note of that.
Stibel's Evolution
Of the big ideas discussed, the one with which Stibel appears to struggle a bit seems to be theargument that the internet is the evolution of the brain. In the beginning part of the book, whiletracing the origins of cloud computing, Stibel discusses Richard Dawkins' twin ideations of theselfish genes and the selfish memes. This allows Stibel to wonder, ''Could it be, then, that theselfish gene became frustrated with the slow evolution of the human brain, and so leapt the fencefrom the organic world to the inorganic? Could selfish genes have created selfish memes to dotheir work? And is that what has led us to selfish software? Is that why humankind, imprisonedas we are in carbon molecules, is driven to invent machines made of sand and metal?''He then goes on to answer these questions with an ''I am not completely convinced...but... the perspective is exhilarating'' approach.But a few pages further, while discussing evolution, Stibel seems to have shed his diffidence. Hesays: ''The human brain evolved as a hardwired device until about 150,000 years ago, when....themind began to outrace evolution. Rather than experiencing a radical improvement in the brainitself, humankind began to develop software _ cultural software _ that has improved over time.''A few sentences later comes the emphatic statement, though still hanging onto the coattails of Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett: ''...the evolution of memes is not merely analogous to geneticevolution; it's an
extension
of it.'' Looks like the author's views have also evolved during thecourse of writing the book!In a similar vein, the book is also not completely free from factual inconsistencies. In page 74,we read the statement: ''Each neuron in the brain has about 7,000 connections, for a total of some100 trillion connections.'' By the time we reach page 124, we read thus: ''The average neuron hasroughly 10,000 connections to other neurons in the brain.'' It's evolution at work again!
The Centrality of Language for Search
The chapter on language being central to both the brain and the internet offers a fascinatinginsight into how search engines derive meaning from language. Stibel is able to speak fromexperience because Simpli.com, a search engine which he founded, used the expanded version of a program called WordNet to do just that. He first states the problem: Choosing the rightmeaning of words having many possible meanings comes effortlessly for people, but isdownright impossible for computers.Then he goes on to explain how WordNet overcame the limitation by first forming a hierarchy of words, and then because words have multiple meanings, building sets of synonyms or synsetswhich operate together for a single meaning. WordNet then uses a process called spreadingactivation, or the wiring and firing together of synsets, to build context into language. Google,which acquired the knowhow through an acquisition, now uses it to power AdSense.

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