The Big Idea: Robert J. Sawyer
What would we do if the World Wide Web became sentient? I, for one, would welcome our new LOLcatting overlord, and would ask it to kill every spammer it could find, in its mercy. But then I’m thinking about the idea rather shallowly. Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer, however, has been thinking about the idea in rather more detail as the basis of his “WWW” trilogy of books, the first of which, Wake, arrived in bookstores in the US this week and will be in Canadian bookstores next week.
When Sawyer started thinking about the Web waking up, he did more than think about what its effects might be — he looked at the very nature of consciousness itself. What did he find? I’ll let him tell you himself.
ROBERT J. SAWYER:
In the 1960s, science fiction was split in two. Old-school SF, which wrote about the mechanics of spaceships and the intricacies of alien biology and was typified by the contents of Astounding (later renamed Analog), was shunned by some, who started a movement called “The New Wave,” with the British New Worlds as their central forum.
Whereas the old-fashioned SF school was all about outer space, the New Wave was about the soft, mysterious realm of inner space. It was taken as a given then that what went on between our ears was outside the purview of science.
In 1979, I entered university, and although my major was broadcasting, I also took courses in psychology. We weren’t even sure psychology was a science then — at my school, it was taught as a one of the humanities — and B.F. Skinner was still supreme: our brains were just black boxes, the workings of which were both unknowable and irrelevant. In all the courses I took in psych, never once was the word “consciousness” mentioned.
Flash forward (heh heh) thirty years, and lo and behold, the single most interesting area — at least to me! — of hard science is consciousness studies. Disciplines as diverse as medical imaging, neurobiology, quantum physics, and computer science are all obsessed with understanding why it is like something to be aware, why we have any inner life at all. The territory the New Wave had tried to map out as its own has come right back to being part of hard-SF Analog country — and, indeed, my new novel Wake, which is all about the dawn of consciousness, was first serialized in Analog.
Wake‘s main story is about the World Wide Web waking up — but I counterpoint that with several other plotlines also about the nature of consciousness: a blind 15-year-old girl learning to see; a sign-language-using chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid who has started making representational art; and an autistic genius trying to cope in a world of neurotypicals. Consciousness, it seems, is a many-splendored thing.
A novel is a strange lifeform: it grows from many seeds, instead of just one. One of the seeds for Wake was a comment I read more than a decade ago in a pop-science magazine to the effect that the Internet will soon have as many interconnections as a human brain has synapses. That, of course, got me wondering about what would happen then.
Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by paleoanthropology (as a ten-year old, I painstakingly wrote out in pencil a seven-page bibliography of all the sources I could locate for information about australopithecines, and, of course, that interest fueled my Hugo-award winning Hominids and its sequels). I knew that our consciousness was an emergent property of sufficient complexity: when our brains reached a critical mass of synapses, some 40,000 years ago, suddenly the lights went on and, at last, somebody was home. Would the same thing happen to the Internet?
Another seed was the fascinating paper “Helen Keller as Cognitive Scientist” by Justin Leiber (Fritz Leiber’s son!) from the journal Philosophical Psychology (Vol. 9, No. 4, 1996, online here).
Leiber’s conclusion, that neither Keller nor anyone else, could relate what the booting up of consciousness was actually like, struck me as a writerly challenge worth tackling — and I made the decision to write large parts of Wake from the point of view of a growing self-aware entity supervening on the infrastructure of the World Wide Web.
Those scenes turned out to be the hardest things I’ve ever written in my life, and they went through multiple drafts — which, Daniel Dennett fans will tell you is certainly appropriate when writing about consciousness! (Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained — sometimes dismissed by its critics as Consciousness Explained Away — promotes a “multiple draft” model of consciousness, in which “reality” is endlessly rewritten.)
Another seed for Wake was the fascinating 1976 nonfiction work The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, a book I’ve long loved. Last year, in fact, I was mightily torn: my Rollback was up for the Hugo to be presented at the Worldcon in Denver — but the same weekend a conference about Jaynes’s work was being held on Prince Edward Island, where he summered.
Jaynes’s theory — that human consciousness didn’t actually emerge until historical times, and only came about when our two cerebral hemispheres finally started communicating with each other effectively — reminds me of the best science fiction: wildly thought-provoking, engendering a sense of wonder, and, at the very least, not easily dismissed based on what we currently know about science.
If merely having sufficient interconnections wasn’t enough to kick start the World Wide Web into consciousness, what, I wondered, would happen if a large portion of it was cleaved off — say, by the Chinese strengthening their Great Firewall — and then later was reunified? Could Jaynes’s scenario then play out again on a much grander scale?
Wake will be followed by Watch and Wonder making this — hee hee — the WWW trilogy. I’ve actually just finished Watch — which tackles the question of what consciousness actually is for and why it’s worth having from an evolutionary perspective — and am starting the third volume. Collectively, I’m hoping they’ll provide an uplifting scenario in which good old Homo sapiens survives the advent of superintelligence without being subjugated or eliminated, and without us losing our essential humanity and individuality.
I’ve been working on this trilogy for five years now and have another year to go — meaning I’ll have been at it longer than anything else I’ve ever worked at in my life (my longest regular job, before becoming a full-time writer in 1983, lasted nine months). It’s been an amazing journey so far, and I’m going to be sad when it ends — but it will indeed definitively do so: the first thing I wrote for this series was the very last scene of the final book. I hope you’ll join me on the journey, and hope you have as much fun reading the books as I’ve been having writing them.