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Author interview - Jeff Stibel 'Breakpoint'

There will come a point when the Internet will reach its physical limit and hit what author Jeff Stibel calls 'breakpoint'. But that is not necessarily as catastrophic as it sounds.

We could be forgiven for thinking that the Internet is infinite. In scale it is certainly the biggest thing humans have ever invented, and there is no doubt, at least not in Jeff Stibel's mind, that it has grown to "epic proportions".

We're used to reading that if an alien arrived on Earth it would probably assume that the Internet was the largest living organism on the planet, and yet the author of 'Breakpoint' says that it has a long way to go before it becomes as sophisticated as a human brain. This is because, while computers are very good at storing information and making calculations, they have nothing like the brain's power to communicate. In fact, when we hook up two computers together the result is only a "rudimentary brain".

The Internet, if not teetering on the brink of collapse, has a predictable and inevitable failure written into its future. It will reach a stage in its development ' the breakpoint ' where it simply will no longer be able to grow. We know this because all networks go through the same process. And we know that because when it comes to the technological life cycle, the Internet has remarkable parallels to biological cycles we find in natural networks such as ant colonies or even the human brain.

Stibel is a brain scientist and an entrepreneur. His first book, 'Wired for Thought', explored the similarities between the human brain and the Internet. In the words of perhaps one of the longest book subtitles ever conceived, his latest examines 'why the Web will implode, search will be obsolete, and everything else you need to know about technology is in your brain'.

It's not all bad news. Stibel says that his book is more than just a doomsday scenario. "'Breakpoint' is about how networks, both biological and technological, evolve and thrive. By looking to biology, we can learn the phases of all networks and apply them to the technologies we engineer."

He goes on to say that while we might never have had the Internet before, we can predict its development over time because we know a lot about biological networks, "specifically that they grow, reach a breakpoint, and then shrink to find equilibrium. So we can use that knowledge to predict where the Internet, the Web, and the constellation of technologies that leverage them are headed. Swap computers for ants, reindeer and termites, and it turns out you can learn a lot about the Internet".

Although a breakpoint happens when a network is terminally held back in terms of physical expansion, it is not necessarily the end of the story. According to Stibel, ant colonies grow to a certain size and then decrease, collectively learning from the experience. "Human brains reach a maximum number of neural connections in childhood, and then shrink drastically. The hardware of the Internet is a network that will reach a physical limit."

Fibre-optic cables and servers can only physically handle so much traffic, he says. But the good news is that just as natural systems gain in efficiency and sophistication, "there is strong evidence that the same positive effects can happen with the Internet and other technological networks".

Stibel says he wrote 'Breakpoint' to test the thesis that biology may have more to teach us about engineering than engineering itself. And while this sounds like something of a grand quest, he remains convinced that "Mother Nature has already solved so many of the challenges that we consider to be the domain of technology or engineering".

There are some obvious examples: aeroplane wings designed in the image of bird wings, and camera lenses borrowing from the construction of a human eye. "I'm most intrigued by the ones we learned about in hindsight. Computer scientists developed transmission control protocol in the 1970s to regulate the flow of information on the Internet. But ant colonies have been using TCP to regulate communication for hundreds of millions of years; we just didn't discover that until a few years ago. Had we studied ants earlier, we wouldn't have had to reinvent the wheel when it came to developing TCP."

The end of the Internet as we know it

I put it to Stibel that if he is right and the Internet really is reaching breakpoint, then surely we only have ourselves to blame. We can hardly be accused of using it wisely, and if bringing it to its knees by clogging it up with tweets and Facebook postings really is our future, then surely we get the Internet we deserve?

Stibel admits that there is "clearly plenty of junk on social media, and one could certainly conclude that it's not doing us any favours. Many of us have had the urge to delete our social media accounts after receiving one too many Farmville requests".

But the benefits far outweigh the costs when it comes to social media, says Stibel. "Social networks allow disparate people to connect. They allow geographic distances to be bridged. Product reviews on Amazon and restaurant critiques on Yelp are also social media innovations. More people are getting their news from Twitter than ever before.

"Don't forget the social and political movements that are leveraging these tools, giving a voice to some groups who previously had none. That said, many social media applications have gotten too big and unwieldy, and these sites must go through a breakpoint to succeed."

The message is clear, and the old adage that if something looks too good to be true then it probably is appears to apply here. But it won't be the first time we've scared ourselves with human breakthroughs and asked where it will all end. There was a time when we felt the same way about electricity, while in the ancient world Socrates was against the written word itself.

As Stibel says: "We were fully functional humans before the alphabet, the printing press, the telephone, and certainly before the Internet. But we evolved. Far from backtracking away from the Internet, I believe that in our lifetimes we will see humans and machines merging together. In the future, we won't be able to conceive of ourselves without the Internet. Some people find this terrible. I find it terribly exciting."

'Breakpoint' by Jeff Stibel is published by Palgrave Macmillan, £17.99

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