Jun 21, 2007
A vast underground network exists in the American North West. The network is composed of the usual hubs of major activity with numerous interconnections, a complex packet-based communication system, and peer-to-peer sharing. But, this is not the familiar kind of network of BitTorrents, search engines, and wikis. This is a living organism, perhaps the biggest living organism. A fungus known as Armillaria ostoyae. we know almost instinctively that A. ostoyae is alive. It is an ordered entity, it assimilates nutrients and excretes waste products, it grows, it reproduces. Its metabolic pathways carry packets of chemical information along its network of tendrils. It exists beneath a 9 square kilometre area east of Prairie City in a remote corner of Oregon’s Blue Mountains at about 2000 metres.
So, asks Philip Tetlow in his latest book The Web’s Awake, can we similarly define the World Wide Web as being somehow alive, and more philosophically, aware?
Seemingly not. Tetlow draws together a network of evidence but comes to no more solid a conclusion than we cannot yet know whether or not the Web is awake, aware, or simply awash with random clusters of information and interlinks. His title would imply that he had evolved an answer to one of computing’s quintessential questions, can a true Turing machine exist? If the Web were awake, then it would be as parasitic as any fungal sprawl. But, it not only feeds on us, it offers us a symbiotic relationship in which we feed on its digital gifts.
The Armillaria ostoyae network would not exist if it were not for the roots of its forest host, but we still feel it to be alive. In the same way, the Web would not exist without the information and power we feed it. Nevertheless, we do not feel that the Web is alive. Of course, we do not yet know what future structure and organisation may emerge within the Web, maybe its offspring will be autonomous, a parasite or symbiote, maybe it will feed on us just as A. ostoyae feeds on the forest above and will ultimately destroy it.
There are no straight answers to Tetlow’s questions. Maybe we should JFGI. Just Flipping Google It!