The South Africans have a beautiful philosophy called Ubuntu, which translates as "I am what I am because of who we all are." This is a perfect way to think about the way a brain develops, influenced by its surrounding people and experiences. It's also how we should think about the way the Internet is developing, and about the way our choices in how we use technology are shaping this global brain. For both the brain and the Internet, networks are always binding us in new ways and changing our understanding of who we are and how we perceive the world. If we believe that the Internet comparatively is in the same critical stage of early development as a child, making as many connections as possible, then we need to be mindful of how we're building its foundation.
In his latest book, Net Smart, Howard Rheingold outlines five skills for mindfully connecting online: attention (focusing on what's relevant); participation (being a good Internet contributor); collaboration (working with a diverse online community to develop new ideas); critical consumption of information (or, as he calls it, "crap detection"); and network smarts (learning about and building networks). As Rheingold argues, "There is a bigger social issue at work in digital literacy, one that goes beyond personal empowerment. If we combine our efforts wisely, it could produce a more thoughtful society: countless small acts like publishing a Web page or sharing a link could add up to a public good that enriches everybody."
We need to think about how we're shaping the Internet on a global scale. Just as every interaction creates new connections in a child's brain, every email, tweet, search, or post is creating and strengthening connections in our global brain, changing the shape of the Internet that we billions of people are developing together. How can we mindfully connect people who want to participate in this global network of knowledge and ideas?
One person working to find the answer is Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee is also the founding director of the World Wide Web Foundation, which aims to increase Web access and usefulness globally. The foundation's three initiatives include Web Rights (which promotes the availability of affordable, uncensored, unmonitored access to the Web), Web for Civic Engagement (which strives to increase civic participation, accountability, and openness), and Web for Economic Development (which encourages the growth of an economic "Web ecosystem" and uses technology to help combat poverty). This is what proceeding mindfully looks like: working together to build a Web that serves vital, neglected needs, that links all who want to be linked, and that fosters creative interaction to make a better world.
Vint Cerf, considered one of the co-creators of the Internet's architecture, wrote in a 2012 New York Times Op-Ed that "The Internet stands at a crossroads. Built from the bottom up, powered by the people, it has become a powerful economic engine and a positive social force. But its success has generated a worrying backlash. Around the world, repressive regimes are putting in place or proposing measures that restrict free expression and affect fundamental rights. Like almost every major infrastructure, the Internet can be abused and its users harmed. We must, however, take great care that the cure for these ills does not do more harm than good. The benefits of the open and accessible Internet are nearly incalculable and their loss would wreak significant social and economic damage."
Both a young child's brain and our young, global Internet brain are in highly creative, experimental, innovative states of rapid development -- just waiting to make connections. So, here's a question for the 21st century: How do we help shape both of these young, rapidly growing networks to set a course for a better future? These were the questions that led me to make my short film, embedded below. In making the film, I used social media to ask thousands of people how they thought about the Internet and the brain. What I heard back amazed me and reinforced the analogue between the current stage of the Internet's development and a child's brain, and the importance of developing both in the right way.