Saturday, September 26, 2009

I'm a little neuron!

Where this blog fits in.

Blessed reader! Let me get you a cup of tea, comfortable chair, and a pipe. Don't smoke? How about some nice mood music while we settle in? There now. It's been a year of blogging, and what a fun ride it's been! Perhaps you've had a few chuckles, a few sighs, and some smoke coming out of your ears. Well, I appreciate your attention in any case.

For me, it has been a pleasure. I thought the ideas would dry up by now, but they keep trickling in, for better or for worse. Not only that, but I have a reading list of other blogs that grows by the week, from wingnut economists to climate alarmists. It has been fascinating to tap into this inspired and free-form media experience.

I've begun to think of blogs as neurons in the great cyber-brain. Some are stimulatory, proposing new ideas and policies, while others are inhibitory, given to critique. Some gather actual news, serving as perceptual neurons, while most, (as in the brain), reprocess and refine that news to generate deeper, or just orthogonal, (or just derivative), insights. Over a week's time I gather ideas and links through an arbor of dendrites, all mangled and processed into an axonal splurge on the weekend's post, distributed to you, dear reader- the few, the proud, the blogotariat!

What is this cyberbrain doing? Many bloggers interconnect in primitive circuits, (mostly positive feedback, but what the heck!), developing ideas, arguments, tastes, memes. Until they have a random spike of expression to the "real" world, like scooping some news or changing someone's mind. What used to be dinner-table conversations over the news can now be transcontinental musings, analysis, and discussion, injecting quite a bit more variety into the average person's information diet.

The whole pulsing inter-piped web of blogs, discussions, news, etc. is our expressed consciousness. It shapes how we think, subjecting privately held models and fixations to critique while spreading more sophisticated and diverse conceptions of the world. Or perhaps just spreading group-think. It is hard to tell the difference before these ideas meet the real world in some empirical test, like the financial crisis through which we are passing. But they have effect, as the progressive buzz of thought propagates to the neuromuscular junctions- those who have actual effects on the world, deciding how to invest, whom to vote for, and how to conduct our affairs.

This collective brain progresses at a glacial pace- we are still dealing with cultural inheritances from Rome! But it does progress, and we all participate. The cultural movement towards gay rights has been astonishing, in its slowness but inexorable progress, little by little, as people's minds are turned with new understandings.

Are some neurons more equal than others? Yes- as long as old media lives and gives perches to super-bloggers like the New York Times columnists, FOX cable commentators, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, some will have megaphones far louder than the common run. A recent article in the New Republic was devoted to the influence of one columnist in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf, who is leading the world's financial elite by the nose through this crisis. (Well, they made it sound that way.) In economics, as elsewhere, everyone knows something and no one knows enough (or even very much), so the one person who knows a little more than the rest of the field gains powerful influence, at least until the next crisis uncovers yet other forms of ignorance and forgetfulness.

But increasingly the platform will not dictate the readership. Assembling a network of blogs and other reading on the internet requires little regard to the sponsor, the quality of advertising, or the ancillary features. Each writer will gain an audience based mainly on individual consistency and quality. Such Darwinism occurs on several levels in the brain as well. During development, far more neurons are born than ultimately survive. Those that make no connections die, while those that do connect, survive. Later during active brain function, ever-changing coalitions of neurons constitute the focus of attention and consciousness by synchronized firing, in a sort of competition for participation in a metastable system. Thirdly, while regional specialization in brain is broadly mapped out in development, substantial regions of neurons can change their functions depending on use even through adulthood, such as when a limb is lost and brain regions associated with its sensation and action are taken over by those operating the nearby body regions or other senses. Competition lies at the heart of many information economies.

  • Glen Greenwald rakes David Brooks, NYT ├╝ber-blogger, over the coals for his neocon warrior schtick.
  • The Nation similarly deals with other megaphones of the right.
  • More on-the-ground news from Afghanistan- who are we kidding?
  • The sense of self: magic, or neuronal?
  • Homeschooling goes awry.
  • Statistics and the bell curve.


  1. "Each writer will gain an audience based mainly on individual consistency and quality."

    Quality or fitness? If the latter, we would have to call any blog that survives "quality". But if "quality" means someone's deep, personal enjoyment of a blog, or other information source, this doesn't mean it will necessarily last, or display "fitness".

    How many potential Beethovens didn't have enough indeterminate, "favorable" circumstances fall their way, and are left out of the history books and symphonic repertoire?

    Of course, selection is always a reality - but I'm not sure fitness equals quality.

    But of course, your blog gives us both!

  2. Hi, Steven-

    You offer a deep question. I agree that popularity can not be equated with cultural fitness- perhaps durability could be, or some other criterion in addition. Using the bare mechanistic definition of biological fitness/survival won't do, since we have far more aims in terms of the "good" than simple survival. Yet having an ecosystem (to descend into yet another biological metaphor) where participation is free and selection is individual seems like it might be better than the corporate method of heavy vetting and control, as it were.

    At very least, you might agree that quality has to be recognized by someone, if not by a mass audience, if it is to exist at all. It is hard to evaluate communication without someone on the other end. Potential alone seems insufficient. Could a crypto-Beethoven be submerged in the vaults for hundreds of years, only to emerge next year? His cultural effect would have been nil in the meantime. That could lead to discussion of elites, of varying depths of appreciation, and how mass appreciation might be led by the discerning few, etc. But on the whole, I'd agree that this was one of my weaker efforts!


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  4. Steven Stark said...

    First, I think ALL your efforts are strong! I enjoy having my thoughts provoked with sophistication and in different ways. I like a cosmopolitan mix of.....different crap. ("crap" in the ROYAL usage, not suggesting that your ideas are crap. It's all crap. the ROYAL all, not your "all".................. crap.)

    Anything that references selection always fascinates me. Selection seems to tell us everything and nothing at the same time.

    I am a musician, who has recorded many, many songs for few, few listeners. So I have thought long and hard on popularity, quality, staying power, etc. in the arts. When your taste is different from what is the most popular at any given time, I'm sure anyone wonders these things. If I'm emulating Stravinsky and a 1970's Randy Newman song, do I have any hope of popularity? How much of this is true and how much is it the fact that I do not work hard enough to get it out there? Fitness is not quality, but quality without fitness will have no durability, as you suggested.

    I am sympathetic to the unknown Beethovens of history.

    I also enjoy thinking of each of us as a neuron in a great brain. If the human brain is a collection of algorithmic processes which work up to emergence, then what is the internet? Is it conscious? What about the universe?

    Your comments - I too find the internet a great hope for different voices to emerge without the filter of singular "taste-makers". We'll see!