Brain Power: How Childish is the Internet?


Recently my wife gave me an incredible gift – she surprised me by saying we were going to see the premiere of a new TED movie! (not to be confused with the TED talks, which are live).  The video was called “Brain Power” and was presented by Tiffany Shlain, who was also present to give us a panel discussion about the film – very cool.

So what is “Brain Power”?  Basically, Tiffany is attempting to show that the Internet is built much like a brain – in fact, it is similar to a child’s brain.  Let’s put this in perspective a bit.  A human brain has about 100 billion neurons.  That compares to the Internet which has 1 trillion webpages, which can be thought of as a neuron.  That’s big!  But when it comes to complexity, a child’s brain has it beat.   The Internet has over 100 trillion links.  But a child’s brain has a quadrillion connections – that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000 – or a heck of a lot of zeros!

Tiffany’s point is that a child’s brain goes through an incredible rate of development in a very short period of time – much like what the Internet is doing.  We are still in the infancy of the Internet.  And that’s why we need to take caution about how we shape the future of the Internet.

In the panel discussion that followed, Tiffany and her teammates talked about how a child’s development is influenced by parents – how they talk with the child, what situations they put the child in, etc.  Similarly, the Internet can and will go in directions we haven’t even thought of yet – and that’s why it’s important for us to reflect upon and do our best to positively influence the direction the web is heading.

Unfortunately, there was no time for questions and answers.  If there were, I would have asked a couple:

1)  Who gets to be the influencer of the Internet?  If the Internet is really just a collection of people’s inputs, then essentially we are no different than the neurons in a very large brain.  So how do we influence something like that?  An infant has little control over its own development – it requires something or someone external to the infant brain to help it along.  The only answer I could come to for the Internet would be government regulation – and that can be really, really bad if we’re not careful.  (See SOPA and PIPA!)

2)  Has Tiffany and her team explored how the Internet might mimic consciousness?  Artificial Intelligence is, of course, the holy grail of computer nerds and futurists alike.  Yet, I think you could make the argument that the Internet already has a mind of it’s own in a manner of speaking.  Content often goes viral in ways nobody could predict.  A new technology is developed that has a peas’ chance of surviving, and it somehow results in the entire shaping of the Internet (i.e, Facebook and Twitter).  The Internet may not know whether it exists or not, but certainly it has trends that are beyond the control of its individual actors.

3)  To expand upon this, how would we even know if the Internet achieved consciousness?  I’m pretty sure the neurons in my brain don’t know that my larger brain has it’s own consciousness.  We are part of a system – and it seems plausible that the system could achieve consciousness without any one of us really knowing it.  Just some food for thought… :)

Here’s the video.  It’s also a TED Book:



Chris Ruddell

I'm an Associate Pastor in the United Methodist Church and I serve as a trustee for Saint Paul School of Theology, with campuses in Kansas City, MO and Oklahoma City, OK. I'm also the author and creator of Church Tech Blog, at and the founder of Church Phone Apps at

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