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The Philosophical Significance of Twitter: Consciousness Outfolding

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NOTE: This is my latest post for Consider This News, a new site I've launched with conservative blogger Patrick Hynes focusing on news and newsmakers.

As with any new phenomenon, a wave of curiosity, criticism, mockery, and adulation follows. The Twitter meta wave is cresting.

Now, attention is focused on Twitter's practical applications in the disputed Iranian election and its unique capacity to harness real-time events. In the larger picture, the most intriguing thing about Twitter is not how it is different from other online communication mechanisms, but how it is the same: one more technological innovation enabling the outfolding of consciousness -- the collective turning-outward of human thought.

In Embryos, Galaxies, and Sentient Beings: How the Universe Makes Life, an exquisitely written and astonishingly insightful book, Richard Grossinger writes about 'infoldedeness', stating that "the universe is comprehensible only as a thing that has been folded many times upon itself." Reversing Grossinger's idea: the outfolding of the human mind, the collective sharing of our thoughts, myriad thoughts from the inane to the mundane to the profound, enabled by technology, is changing our perception of reality and thus changing reality itself.

The explosion of online communication/networking tools this decade seems teleological; it is as though human evolution has a clear destination and the vehicles to get there are appearing and being adopted at lightning speed. In The Revolution of the Online Commentariat I wrote about the political ramifications:

For the first time, we are thinking aloud unfettered and unfiltered by mass media gatekeepers. Events, information, words and deeds that a decade ago were discussed and contextualized statically in print or through the controlled funnel of television and radio, are now subjected to instantaneous interpretation and free-association by millions of citizens unencumbered by the media's constraints, aided by the optional -- and liberating -- cloak of anonymity.

This is transformative, not just because it is a web-driven enhancement of traditional political and social mechanisms (as we've seen with organizing and fundraising) but because it is a radically different way that the world processes information and understands itself. If there's one thing that makes the 2008 election an inflection point, it is this: that the context, perception, and course of events is fundamentally changed by the collective behavior of the Internet's innumerable opinion-makers. Every piece of news and information is instantly processed by the combined brain power of millions, events are interpreted in new and unpredictable ways, observations transformed into beliefs, thoughts into reality. Ideas and opinions flow from the ground up, insights and inferences, speculation and extrapolation are put forth, then looped and re-looped on a previously unimaginable scale, conventional wisdom created in hours and minutes.

Twitter is the latest instance in this ongoing process of pouring the content of hundreds of millions of minds onto a global cyber-canvass, the commixture becoming something new and unpredictable. This outfolding is at an early stage, and eventually the various ways in which it is manifested -- solipsistic profiles on Facebook and MySpace, instantaneous mass communication on Twitter, mind-melding on blogs, self-broadcasting on YouTube, virtual identities in Second Life -- will merge. At that point, we'll be wearing our brains on the outside, metaphorically.

Moses Ma waxes poetic about the significance of this evolution:

We're all interconnected now -- each of us acting like a single neuron in humanity's brain, firing bits of electricity at one another, slowly coadunating and collectively struggling toward a great awakening. That awakening could turn out to be the next stage in our evolution, and a single tweet the butterfly's wings that eventually leads to a big bang of global meta-consciousness.

To me, the twitterverse is like a river of human awareness, composed of billions of tiny 140 character molecules -- each a snapshot of life or a thought or a reflection. A river of pure information that equals energy, according to the laws of quantum thermodynamics and stochastic processes. A river of life flowing by us as we meditate at its bank like some Siddhartha wannabe, in tattered jeans and Oakley sunglasses instead of orchid robes and begging bowl. And now, after long last, we see.

His reference to quantum theory is apt, as there is a curious parallel between what's taking place on Twitter (and other similar platforms) and quantum entanglement, that bizarre and quasi-spiritual correlation between remote particles, a complementariness that defies our conception of time and space. Analogously, spatial separation of minds is increasingly unimportant. Online communication/networking is demonstrating our own interconnectedness more convincingly than ever before.

It's easy to get overexcited about the near term potential of the medium -- and for cynics, it's easy to be dismissive about things with quirky names like 'Twitter' and 'blog.' But something important is going on and though we're too close to the beginning to know how it unfolds, we're far enough along to realize it will reshape us.

Cross-posted at CTN