Stibel, Jeffrey. Wired For Thought: How the Brain is Shaping the Future of the Internet. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 2009. Pp. xxxi + 203. Hardcover, $29.95.
The Internet is a brain. It learns. It improves itself. It is gradually gaining the ability to think. Pictures of the network of neurons in the brain and of the network of computers in the Internet are remarkably similar. The human brain in fact is “a lump of axons and dendrites and other carbon-based stuff”—not very amazing chemistry. Because the brain is not made of anything special, people can create something similar. Human thought is much messier than computer processing—the mind thinks by looping around a problem rather than going straight for an answer. The power of the brain is in recognizing patterns, not doing flawless calculations. Intuition, based on this pattern recognition ability, has great survival value for the species. So does a talent for recognizing the most important factor in a complicated situation—Stibel’s example is General Robert E. Lee outfoxing the Union army at Chancellorsville. The argument goes on to show how the Internet, but not an individual computer, performs like a brain. Sites that dominate a niche survive. Evolutionary pressure drives towards more useful site content, as evolutionary pressure forces brains to be more effective. Patterns are recognized in the Internet; so are dominant behaviors. The Internet and the brain are networks. Metcalf’s law argues that the value of a network increases as the square of the number of devices included. So evolution would appear to imply continuous growth, but networks cannot grow limitlessly because connecting everyone to everyone else reduces effectiveness. MySpace allows sexual predators to connect to children. Facebook grows by forming groups. Its network of networks approach seems more promising in the long run and mimics the structure of the brain. Stibel illustrates these ideas about the evolution of the Internet with his own experiences as a successful entrepreneur in the software sphere. He was there as the evolution took place. Many, many ideas are presented in an accessible, friendly style. The book connects brain science, entrepreneurship, software, and the human condition, and is exciting to read.