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Brains in a Bucket on Alpha Centauri

In Ian Banks’ exceptional Excession, we find ourselves in a distant future when human beings have populated the universe. To help out with this task, humanity has developed sentient computers to fly their planet sized ships, fight their wars, and keep their houses tidy.

There’s a hierarchy to these sentient beings. There’s the drones. Human sized machines buzzing around… sentient… helping out the humans, but having independent lives. Then there’s the Minds. These are the heavy hitting deep thinking AIs which run the joint. Think of a computer program that was responsible for keeping all the folks on Planet Earth happy and you’ve got an idea of the complexity of thought than Banks is suggesting.

In the book, the plot moves along in chapters where the Minds discuss current book events with each other in big monospaced fonts. What’s unique to the discussion is that the reader has no other context for these Minds other than what they say. They have no physical form which describes them as a being, so the reader must piece together an impression of a personality based off what these Minds say.

Relationships completely based off words… ideas. Sound familiar?

I hit my two year of weblogging mark on April 4th. During that time, I’ve wrestled with the fact I’m using a pseudonym for this weblog. I’m not losing any sleep over it, but it does strike me as odd as I look at my Orkut friends list and I’m the only boob who doesn’t have a last name.

Who is Rands? Still, who is he? It reminds me of a puzzler they throw at you in your first year of college in that 9am Intro to Philosophy class… how do you really know Rands isn’t some brain in a bucket on Alpha Centauri? The internet has translated this euphemism into “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog”.

I’m not a dog nor a brain in a bucket, but, chances are, I’ll never truly prove that to you.

No big deal.

In the weblog world, you are defined by what you say, not what you look like or what you do. You have no idea that I love hockey (Go Sharks!) or that I live in California (Go Weather!) or even if I have two legs (Go headshot cam!). You probably have discerned that I work in high technology (Go Apple!) that I’m a manager (Die meetings!) and that I’m a total geek (Go NADD!). These are carefully chosen aspects of my life that I’ve chosen to document and they create Rands… the character you know on the Internet.

This nebulous type of relationship has become increasingly commonplace in my daily life. I’m interacting more and more with people that there’s a good chance I will never ever meet in person. It’s not that I don’t want to meet you, I’m pretty sure you’re not a brain in a bucket, it’s just you happen to live in Romania and I don’t.

My assumption is that over the course of the next decade, web relationships are going to be more prevalent than real relationships simply because you can maintain more of them with less of your time. None of that expensive getting to know you crap… just read my weblog. You’ll get an idea of what I’m about and I don’t have to do a damned thing other than write something down which, by the way, I’m going to do whether or not you’re there or not.

It’s not that I don’t care whether you’re reading or not… I actually do, but I’m doing this for free and I’m doing this for me which means if you keeping coming back there’s a good chance we’d actually get along… but we’ll probably never know because, again, you appear to be in Romania… or Alpha Centauri… I can’t tell from where I’m sitting.

My other assumption is that the influence of weblogs over the next decade will only increase, again, because of productive information economy the weblog-o-sphere encourages. I write a weblog because I choose to. My credibility either goes up or goes down by what I write. The more credibility I have, the more hits I get, the more eyeballs are on my words, the more credibility potential I can achieve. We’ve been over this.

Every weblogger is subject to these rules and if you assume the weblogging population is just increasing, it’s just a matter of time before the weblogging elite, the top 100 influenential webloggers, are formed not because of who they are, what they do, or who they work for, but because of what they say. These are the Minds of the weblog world. I find the admittedly optimistic idea of unbiased opinion having a say in current events rather comforting in a world increasingly populated with people who influence the world through terror and through ignorance.

You probably aren’t one of the elite, but don’t sweat it. It’s a tough gig. You see, once these Minds are well defined, they’ll immediately come under attack or they will abuse their power… there will be revolution, some Minds will say “fuck it” or, worse, they’ll be ignored, and their seat will become available. Next!

If your goal in life is to be influential… to attempt to change the world. You should be weblogging. The goal is not to become a Mind, it’s to make connections… make connections with people you don’t know. Sure, some of these folks you’ll end up meeting in person, but that event is, by far, the exception. Most of the connections that you make… the moment when your idea affects that anonymous brain in a bucket… will happen and you’ll never know that you’ve been heard.

8 Responses

  1. Rands you forgot to mention in your “get to know me”, that your one of these incrementalists bastard who ship buggy software because said bug wasn’t heinous enough… ๐Ÿ™‚

    Pretty much agree with what you says, you are just somewhat late to realise it, we already achieved the next logical step where these influential individual group together, and achieve much more power, like nerd have slashdot, gamers got shacknews, teenagers lurk on something awful and the porn freak have the rest of the internet… Just look at those penny-arcade boys with their foundation, 75000$ ( if I remember right ) donated by mostly stranger. That’s serious power. If you look at evolution, we got people, than group of people, than association in those group, powerclash than war. That will be interesting to follow.

  2. I’ve always been slow. ๐Ÿ™‚

    What I think is unique about this particular aggregation of people is that it has (long term) the potential to cross barriers that have traditionally existed. For example, why in the hell do I get a ton of German referrals? Do I read well in German? Hell if I know… or ever will.

  3. Yeah it’s like peer-2-peer software, it’s not that music sharing never existed before, it’s just that now we have the most powerful distribution system that ever existed.

    Now we have the greatest communication tool ever. What will be done with it? Karyn from already tested the theory that we can beg effectively with it, scammer tested that we can scam with it etc. What will be fun to see is when political party will try to control it, because like you mentionned, the lack of barriers make the possibilities of creating vast network of connections. You know who could stop you if you and your German sect want something, if that sect is big enough, and possibly willing to die for you and your crazy incrementalists ideas? Will people with fewer than 30 open programs at the same time will receive cafeine shot in that Rands/German alternate world? You know, I for one, welcome our new Rands overlord and his loyal german sectoids.

  4. The problem with becoming a Mind these days is the earliest webloggers are already pretty well locked-in as the most linked-to sites. There’s still mobility to be had, and the fact most websites are so short lived will create a lot of turnover, but it’s a function of networks that the oldest nodes will collect some of their connections just by being old and well-known–as opposed to because they’re simply the best sites.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the internet handles this as it ages.

  5. TheNintenGenius 20 years ago

    I’ve been very slow to realize this fact as well. I realize if anyone’s ever going to read anything I do, I should make it well worth someone’s time by having something interesting or informative to say, as opposed to self-indulgent bitchery. (Something that, as a teenager, I’ve yet to fully escape. Hooray for angst.) If anything, I think it’s been reflected pretty well in the content of my website, as I’ve cut and altered so much over the years on there that the website as it stands today barely reflects the site as it once was, either as I’ve learned what my strengths are or realized just what makes good reading.

    Maybe in a couple of weeks when school workloads finally come to an end (well, for the summer), I can actually try to start giving my site some of the effort it deserves. Hell, maybe I could even become a Mind. Stranger things have happened.

  6. weblogging

    I, on the other hand, attempt to make my website a digital extension of myself, although I definitely do have two separate worlds. All my regular readers are family (and maybe a couple friends), but that’s probably because my content is neither highly …

  7. Kindred 20 years ago

    “Tis a brave new world we live in”

  8. Banks actually said that Excession was partially inspired by Civilization and IM programs. Can’t find where I read that, more’s the pity.

    And just to be, you know, a sad, petulant geek, Excession is set in the future, but the humans aren’t us. There’s a lead-in story in Banks’ collection of short fiction entitled The State of the Art, where the Culture come to Earth in the 1970’s, with a young Diziet Sma, and what’s-it’s-drone, starring. (Forgive any factual errors, I lent my copy of Excession to someone two years ago and still haven’t got it back.)