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Webs and brains and comparisons

"The Net is not like a brain!" I heard myself arguing with more vigor than I'd intended. Unfortunately, the person I chose to gainsay on this topic had been introduced as a hedge fund manager but turned out also to be a neuroscientist at the University of California's Brain Imaging Center. He knows the brain the way I know...well, I don't know anything as well as he knows the brain. You'd be surprised at how much I learned about the ways the Net is indeed like a brain.

The scientist was joined by an industry analyst who also thinks the comparison is fruitful. It was around the moment that the two of them showed me that I was completely wrong that I realized I actually don't believe that dumb old wrong thing. No, what I really believe is that the problem isn't with the comparison to the brain, it's with comparisons at all.

"So the Net's like a brain," I said, "but it's also like the environment, and it's also like an economy, and it's also like a party. Each of these may bring us insights about the Net..."

"Yes," said the analyst. He especially likes the brain comparison because he can look at some structure of the brain and gain insights into the Net that he might otherwise have missed. It spurs his imagination and his analytic insight as well.

But, if you push too hard on any one metaphor, you can easily be led to think that because A is like B in one respect, it must be like B in other respects. This is formally known as the Fallacy of False Analogy and, informally, as the Fallacy of Making Stupid Mistakes. In the case of the brain, it can lead one -- not necessarily the people I was talking with -- to think that the Net might itself be conscious. If that's right (and I don't think it is), it can be suggested by a parallel to the brain but it will only be known by explaining what consciousness is and showing that the Web has those characteristics. The Argument by Analogy only takes us so far. (Note: I'm stipulating that consciousness is an emergent property of brain states and thus doesn't reduce to those states.)

So, yes, the Net is like the brain, and it's like the nervous system, and it's like the body, and it's like 40 jugglers playing checkers with three blind monkeys. Some of these analogies have more points of similarity than others, but in every case, we move beyond the perceived similarities to inductions about other properties at peril of blinding ourselves -- sort of like shining the flashlight of knowledge in our own eyes.

Had the guys I'd been talking with been making that particular mistake, I might have won the argument. Instead, I had to settle for learning a whole lot. Damn! I hate when that happens!

David Weinberger is editor of Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.

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