July 1994 column for

Reading the Future

By Christopher Locke

The Internet originated in the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense. The mission-critical objective was to coordinate the efforts of what one analyst called the academic-military-industrial complex. What an odd source for a technology that is today causing many to question fundamental assumptions about privileged knowledge, command and control, even the validity of national boundaries.

I've always been intrigued, not by the conscious design of the net, but by its largely unplanned and unsuspected outcome. Back in those early days, pivotal ideas we now take for granted had barely surfaced in mainstream business circles. These include what we now call the global economy and many of the management strategies designed to respond to its inherent challenges: business process engineering, flattened hierarchies, cross-functional coordination, self-directed work teams, virtual corporations. These represent a whole panoply of linked realizations about the changing nature of business in an environment that no longer rewards captive markets, geographic spheres of influence and economies of scale.

Almost uncannily, the Internet addresses these issues as if it were expressly created for the purpose. Is this because its designers were super-attuned to the potential direction of events not yet apparent to economists and business strategists? I think not. Instead, something bordering on the paranormal seems to have been afoot -- responding to future needs before they were even perceived. But there is nothing metaphysical about this phenomenon. Understanding what's really going on here may provide a key that can unlock one of the most powerful aspects of the Internet.

Neural Networks

As has often been noted, a network is very like a nervous system. Main nerve trunks split into an increasingly fine web of afferent fibers capable of mediating electro-chemical potentials experienced as sensations. At a low level -- say the optical receptors -- neurons are capable of differentiating incredibly small changes. Each neuron, however, performs some specialized task. Concatenated, these fluctuations are fed to the brain, which somehow "makes sense" of them.

The Internet bears significant resemblance to this model. Each of us connected to the net tends to notice different local changes, and to pass along this information into increasingly broader communities. As individuals, we do not necessarily grasp the full import of our perceptions until they are processed by those larger communities and fed back -- often as a continually evolving form of consensus reality.

Sticking with this metaphor for the Internet, many today are asking in effect, "Yeah, but where's the brain?" This is analogous to asking where consciousness resides in biological organisms -- or where genuine intelligence resides in an organization. These are profound questions, to which only a fool would presume to offer definitive answers. Consider the possibility, though, that something like a global mind is gradually emerging from the dark waters of the net.

As spooky as that may sound, the notion has intriguing implications. Because the end-nodes of this nervous system are enormously sensitive to local change, they are picking up on "potentials" that have not yet broken through the limen of consciousness of the culture at large. They are, literally, subliminal. As such, these insights have no name yet, no clearly associated concept, no perceived meaning. However, as these proto-perceptions and embryonic ideas get looped around the net, those grounded in fact often evolve into intellectual counters in the thinking of many people. They begin to have terms and concepts attached to them. Eventually, some are accepted as describing "obvious" realities.

Looked at in retrospect, this process can appear to constitute a form of prescience. Is the sum total of planet-wide networking somehow reading our collective future? In a real sense, the answer is a resounding yes. This has, of course, been going on for millennia -- just a lot slower. Unlike any previous medium, the Internet's speed and reach seem to enable reaction to events that have not yet taken place. But of course, this is an illusion. We are not seeing into the future here, but more deeply into the present.

In a dynamically evolving global economy, companies can't wait decades to understand the shape of things to come. They spend billions each year trying to predict changes that will affect them for good or ill. However, such market research is often no more than an archeological artifact of the recent past. In contrast, the Internet is a potentially powerful stethoscope to the heartbeat of the marketplace, offering critical insight into tomorrow, next year, and the century to come.