Civilian Twitter experiments and professional Twitter strategies imagine an intoxicating and tangible upside. Jokes might gain an audience; a regular person or established media property might become an indispensable new information node; a snack food, or an airline, might foster goodwill from prospective customers and absorb the public outrage of detractors. This upside, in the long term, has either eluded its seekers or revealed itself to be vanishingly small.
Finding a big audience that uses you to make their life easier or more convenient, as Yahoo has by creating something useful, is very different than providing a cultural experience that scratches a very deep part of the brain.
Don’t Punch Above Your Weight
You know a simple two-step way to solve all project issues?
1) Tell the person directly concerned. Yes, to their face. 2) Having done Step #1 (and you must do Step 1) — if that doesn’t resolve or clarify the situation — inform your boss, so he/she can tell that person’s boss. Really. It’s that simple. You’ll be surprised at how many things those two steps can actually solve.
A well-educated time traveller from 1914 enters a room divided in half by a curtain. A scientist tells him that his task is to ascertain the intelligence of whoever is on the other side of the curtain by asking whatever questions he pleases.
The traveller’s queries are answered by a voice with an accent that he does not recognize (twenty-first-century American English). The woman on the other side of the curtain has an extraordinary memory. She can, without much delay, recite any passage from the Bible or Shakespeare. Her arithmetic skills are astonishing—difficult problems are solved in seconds. She is also able to speak many foreign languages, though her pronunciation is odd. Most impressive, perhaps, is her ability to describe almost any part of the Earth in great detail, as though she is viewing it from the sky. She is also proficient at connecting seemingly random concepts, and when the traveller asks her a question like “How can God be both good and omnipotent?” she can provide complex theoretical answers.
Based on this modified Turing test, our time traveller would conclude that, in the past century, the human race achieved a new level of superintelligence. Using lingo unavailable in 1914, (it was coined later by John von Neumann) he might conclude that the human race had reached a “singularity”—a point where it had gained an intelligence beyond the understanding of the 1914 mind.
The woman behind the curtain, is, of course, just one of us. That is to say, she is a regular human who has augmented her brain using two tools: her mobile phone and a connection to the Internet and, thus, to Web sites like Wikipedia, Google Maps, and Quora. To us, she is unremarkable, but to the man she is astonishing. With our machines, we are augmented humans and prosthetic gods, though we’re remarkably blasé about that fact, like anything we’re used to. Take away our tools, the argument goes, and we’re likely stupider than our friend from the early twentieth century, who has a longer attention span, may read and write Latin, and does arithmetic faster.
The time-traveller scenario demonstrates that how you answer the question of whether we are getting smarter depends on how you classify “we.” This is why Thompson and Carr reach different results: Thompson is judging the cyborg, while Carr is judging the man underneath.
Beyond Oculus Rift, it’s worth thinking about what Kickstarter project creators owe their early backers—the very people that help put them on the map in the first place. Do these creators merely owe their early backers pre-order products and other goodies, or something more substantial? With Oculus Rift, specifically, are prototypes and developer kits a fair trade for a less risk-averse form of capital investment? Or maybe it’s further evidence that early Kickstarter backers should be given the option to own stock, which is currently illegal under crowd-funding rules provided by the Securities and Exchange Commission.