This might be more of a philosophical question than a technical one. Biologists and philosophers have been arguing over the exact terms for defining life for years, but if we examine the Internet under the microscope of the current definitions of life, could we pass off the Internet as a living thing?
Let’s experiment, shall we?
There are 7 requirements for the Internet to be deemed as alive (according to the Internet).
The regulation of the internal environment. Basically it’s the part of our brain that tells our bodies to sweat when we get hot, or go all goose pimply and shiver when we get cold.
There are several regulatory bodies for setting standards on the web. The Internet Society (ISOC) was formed in 1992 to provide leadership in Internet related standards, education, and policy. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) provides stability by making sure that naming conventions are followed properly. There are other groups… but we’ve already passed the litmus on this one. Pass.
This kind of organization refers to the composition of a thing being composed of tiny cells. The basic building blocks of life!
This is easier to explain now that smartphones with internet access are so common. Consider each connected machine as a basic living cell or building block. On it’s own, a single machine is very basic, but connect several of these machines together and you have a network. Networks are structured creations all on their own, and by interconnecting all of these networks together into one, we have the Internet! Building block organization = Pass.
Plants use energy from the Sun. I drink copious amounts of coffee. Even the Olsen twins eat something (probably). A living thing needs to feed on something to survive.
You could argue that the Internet needs electricity to keep itself running, but I’m going for more of a reach and claiming that contributed content is the midnight snack of choice here. The Internet is constantly feeding on the contributed content of users, and expelling information by the buttload. That fits the definition of a metabolism almost too perfectly. Pass.
Without stooping to a “that’s what she said”… Growth is a typical goal for most life forms until they hit their 20’s.
The Internet is growing like a scary monster. In 2000, there were approximately 394 million Internet users. By 2009 that number had ballooned to 1.8 billion. This is an easy pass.
A camel can go for days without water in the desert, and the Irish make some pretty good whiskey. No matter what the environment, life finds a way to survive.
The Internet was actually created as an adaptive network for communication, where packets of data could find their way from Point A to Point B regardless of the landscape, assuming there was some form of connection available. If one node went down, the data would be rerouted down an alternate path. Today, the landscape of the Internet is changing in a different way, with people connecting using tablets, smartphones, TVs, game consoles etc. At first there was nothing but text on the Internet. Now there are videos, audio files, emails, games. As technology moves forward, the Internet adapts to facilitate that movement. Pass.
My father always told me never to punch a bear in the face. Wise words, for that bear would likely respond to the external stimulus by eating me.
If a big news story hits, it’s all over the web. But that’s more evidence of a quick metabolism than a reaction. Consider what happens when the Internet is actually threatened however. Government legislation has tried to restrict the Internet in several countries. SOPA in the United States is a good example. The response to SOPA came not from grassroots American voters, but from the Internet itself. Internet censorship in various countries has led to the creation of Tor – a technology freely distributed on the Internet – to combat said censorship. The Internet reacts consistently to protect itself. That’s a pass.
Cells split in half. Salmon travel hundreds of kilometers back to their birthplace for the fertilization of eggs. Humans rely on the biological response to Old Spice. The Internet?
Uhhh… Despite the immense catalog of reproductive attempts on the Internet, this one is a little tougher to answer. At a stretch, the Internet has facilitated the creation of newer network structures like Facebook, Gnuttella P2P, and Bitcoin. Networked communities are spawning every day under the parentage of the Internet… but I don’t think I can stretch my metaphor so far to say that these structures are the legitimate independent offspring of the Internet. If the parent were to stop functioning, these offspring would die off as well. This is not to say that the Internet is incapable of producing an independent offspring… it simply hasn’t happened yet. Pass? No. Not yet.
Is the Internet a living thing? You decide.
If 6 out of 7 is a passing grade for you, how long do you think it will take until we can define the Internet as intelligent life? Reading YouTube comments might make it hard to believe the potential actually exists, but with Google proposing a search engine that learns from our behaviors, we may yet see an Internet becoming aware of itself within our lifetime. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to freak right out if Google starts asking me for advice. Science fiction gold!
What do you think? Pure fantasy? Or is there a potential for some Jules Verne style prediction here?