Saturday, August 01, 2009

evolution's third replicator?

New Scientist | Last year Google announced that the web had passed the trillion mark, with more than 1,000,000,000,000 unique URLs. Many countries now have nearly as many computers as people, and if you count phones and other connected gadgets they far outnumber people. Even if we all spent all day reading this stuff it would expand faster than we could keep up.

Billions of years ago, free-living bacteria are thought to have become incorporated into living cells as energy-providing mitochondria. Both sides benefited from the deal. Perhaps the same is happening to us now. The growing web of machines we let loose needs us to run the power stations, build the factories that make the computers, and repair things when they go wrong - and will do for some time yet. In return we get entertainment, tedious tasks done for us, facts at the click of a mouse and as much communication as we can ask for. It's a deal we are not likely to turn down.

Yet this shift to a new replicator may be a dangerous tipping point. Our ancestors could have killed themselves off with their large brains and dangerous memes, but they pulled through. This time the danger is to the whole planet. Gadgets like phones and PCs are already using 15 per cent of household power and rising (New Scientist, 23 May, p 17); the web is using over 5 per cent of the world's entire power and rising. We blame ourselves for climate change and resource depletion, but perhaps we should blame this new evolutionary process that is greedy, selfish and utterly blind to the consequences of its own expansion. We at least have the advantage that we can understand what is happening. That must be the first step towards working out what, if anything, to do about it.

Susan Blackmore is becoming more and more interesting with the passage of time.