Mob Rules (The Law of Fives)
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The world has changed. The world is changing. The world will change a whole lot more. We lucky few, we band of coders, bear witness to the most comprehensive transformation in human communication since the advent of language. We are embedded in the midst of this transition; we make it happen with every script we write and every page we publish and every blog we post and every video we upload. For that reason, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. No wonder it looks so crazy and chaotic.
In the mid 20th century, American philosopher H. Richard Neibur wrote that the first question of ethics is not, “What is right?”, but rather, “What is going on?” This arvo, before we retire to the Shelbourne for drinks and conversation, I’d like to take you on a tour of our very peculiar present. Something’s happening that is so unexpected, most of us don’t even know it’s going on.
Confusion: Three Billion
We begin on the shores of the Indian Ocean, in the south Indian state of Kerala. For at least a thousand years the fishermen of Kerala have sailed their sturdy dhows to sea, lowered their nets, prayed to their gods, and – if their prayers were heard – hauled in a bountiful catch. Fully laden, the fishermen set their sails to shore, to any one of the many fishing villages and fish markets which dot the Kerala coast. The selection of a port is done more or less at random, so throughout all these thousand years too many boats pulled into one port, leaving the markets oversupplied, and the fisherman selling their catch at a loss, while another market, just a few kilometers away, has no fish for sale at any price. This kept the fishermen poor, and the markets consistently either oversupplied or undersupplied.
From 1997 through 2001, as India’s rush to industrialization gathered momentum, several of India’s mobile telecoms firms strung the Kerala coast with GSM towers. GSM is a radio signal, and travels in line-of-sight, which means that, out at sea, the signal can reach 25 kilometers, the point where the curvature of the Earth blocks the view of the shore.
GSM handsets cost a month’s wages for a Kerala fishermen – imagine if a handset here cost four or five thousand dollars. (Even my Nokia N95 didn’t cost that much.) Yet, some wealthy fisherman, somewhere in Kerala, bought a GSM handset and took it to sea. At some point during a fishing voyage that fisherman had some communication with the mainland – perhaps a trivial family matter. But, in the course of that communication, he learned of a village going wanting for fish, at any price. So he made for that port and sold his catch at a tidy profit that day. The next day, perhaps, he called into shore, talking to fish sellers to the various ports, and learned which market needed fish the most – and was willing to pay for it. So it began.
Fishermen form a tight-knit community; while they might be secretive about their favorite spots to fish, they all trade technique with one another, and – within a very short period of time – all the other Kerala fishermen had learned of the power of the GSM handset, and each of them brought their own handset to sea, made calls to the markets, and sold their catch for a tidy profit. Today, the fish markets in Kerala are only rarely oversupplied with fish, and are almost never undersupplied. The network of fish sellers and fishermen have created their own bourse, a marketplace which grows organically out of an emergent web of SMS and voice calls which distribute the catch efficiently across the market. The customers are happy – there’s always fish for sale. The fish sellers are happy – they always have fish to sell, and at a good price. And the fisherman are happy – and earning so much more, these days, that a GSM handset pays for itself in two months’ time.
None of this was predicted. None of this was expected. None of this was anything but shocking to the legion of economists who are now studying this unprecedented phenomenon. To our Western eyes this doesn’t even make much sense. We think of mobile phones as a bit of bling, a technological googaw that makes our lives a bit easier – something that removes the friction from our social interactions. In the age of the mobile, you’re never late, just delayed. You can always call to say you’re sorry. (Or text to say you’ve broken up.) While they can be useful in our economic lives, they’re hardly necessary – and, given that the boss can now reach you 24 hours a day, wherever you are on Earth – they’re often more of a pain in the arse than a blessing. But at the end of the day they’re extraneous. Nice, but non-essential.
Except they’re not.
Study after study is confirming something that many were already beginning to suspect: the very poorest people on Earth – the five billion of us who earn less than a few thousand dollars a year – can benefit enormously from pervasive wireless communications. It seems counterintuitive – why would a subsistence farmer in Kenya need a mobile phone? As it turns out, that farmer – and farmers in Nigeria, and Bangladesh and Peru – will phone ahead to the markets, and learn where their produce will bring the best price. Left to their own devices, human beings with things to trade will create their own markets. When mobile communications enter the mix, their ability to trade effectively increases enormously.
Those who serve the poor – microfinance institutions like Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank – have real experience of the power of mobiles to help the poor. So many of Grameen Bank’s loans went to finance mobile handsets that they recently founded their own telecoms firm – Grameen Phone – to provide services to the poor. None of this is charity work – all of these are profit-making enterprises; but it turns out that helping the poor to communicate is one of the most effective ways to help them to improve their economic effectiveness.
That, too, wasn’t predicted by anyone. After all, don’t the poor need schools, clean water, inoculations and transparent governments? Yes, certainly they need all these things, but they also need the tools that let them help themselves. Near as anyone can tell, a mobile handset pretty much tops that list of tools. And although this singular discovery is nearly unknown in the Western world, the poor of the world know it – because they’ve been snapping up mobiles in unprecedented and unexpected numbers.
Sometime in the next 30 days, the telecoms firms of the world will have reached a new milestone – three billion subscribers. About ten percent of that number are customers who have multiple accounts, but – somewhere in the middle of 2008, half of humanity will own a mobile handset. In just a decade’s time, we’ll have gone from half the world never having made a telephone call to half the world owning a phone. Unprecedented. Unexpected. But, given what we now know, perfectly natural. And it’s not slowing down. It took a decade to get to the first billion mobile subscribers, four years to get to the second billion, and eighteen months to get to three billion. In a year, more or less, we’ll hit four billion, then things will begin to slow, as we reach the ranks of the desperately poor, the two billion who earn less than a dollar a day. Yet these are precisely the people who would most benefit from a mobile. Expect to see some big campaigns in the next few years, from Oxfam and World Vision, asking you to buy mobiles for the poor.
Nokia looked at the curves, figured out what’s going on, and created a mobile handset targeted directly at the emerging markets of the world – the Nokia 1100. It’s cheap, simple, has predictive text for just about any language with more than 10 million speakers, and – in the four years since its introduction – they’ve sold well over 200 million of them. By comparison, Nokia sold twice as many 1100s as Apple sold iPods – in half the time. The most successful consumer electronics device in history, the 1100 is the Model T of wireless networking. Put an 1100 in someone’s hands, and they’ll use it to improve their life. It’s as simple as that.
And – what’s really interesting here – these farmers and fishermen and spice traders and so forth didn’t need an eBay to help them trade. They don’t need fancy services – and wouldn’t use them. They only need to be connected to other people. That in itself is entirely sufficient. People come fully equipped to provide all the services they need. Nothing else is required. Five thousand years of civilization have seen to that. We know how to organize our own affairs – and can do so without any assistance. But now we can do so globally and instantaneously. That’s not a power restricted to the billion richest of us; it’s now within reach of half of us, and improves the lives of the poor far more than it helps us. Our innate capacity for self-organization, now extended and amplified almost infinitely, has itself produced some unpredicted and unexpected effects.
Discord: The Center Will Not Hold
In the Jurassic Era of the Internet, before the Web was more than a few hundred pages in size, and still mostly run off a series of servers in Geneva, John Gilmore, who co-founded SUN Microsystems before going off to found Cygnus Support and the EFF, recognized an inherent quality of networks: they promote the sharing of information. This was codified in what I (only half-jokingly) call Gilmore’s Law:
“The net regards censorship as a failure, and routes around it.”
At the time Gilmore made this statement, he was talking politics. Gilmore is a political animal – many of you probably know of his long-running tangle with US Homeland Security over the free right to travel within the States without having to display ID. And, for many years this aphorism was interpreted as a political maxim – that political censorship of the net was essentially impossible.
As we all know, the Chinese have tried, with their “Great Firewall of China”, but even they’ve given up. Just two months ago, Wang Guoqing, the Vice-Minister for Information in China was quoted as saying, “It has been repeatedly proved that information blocking is like walking into a dead end.”
At around the same time as that shock admission of failure, Senator Coonan introduced the Government’s latest attempt to appease its conservative base by locking down the Australian Internet, because, well, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” Turns out that’s just what the children were doing – it took a 16 year-old Australian boy 30 minutes to crack through that filter, and another 40 minutes to crack it again, after the filter was “upgraded.”
In that same week, a fifteen year-old in the United States got his hands on a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, photographed the entire text, bound it up as a PDF, and uploaded it to the Pirate Bay so that tens of thousands could use BitTorrent and download their own copy – four days before the much-hyped simultaneous international release.
Gilmore, it seems, wasn’t thinking broadly enough. He assumed that censorship necessarily has a political dimension. It doesn’t. Censorship can be driven by a wide range of motives: some are political, some are moral, some are cultural, and some are economic. In the end, it doesn’t matter. All censorship inevitably encounters Gilmore’s Law, and loses. The net finds a way around it.
Before we get all hippy-dippy and attribute agency to something that we all know is really just a collection of wires and routing boxen, we need to clarify what we mean when we use the word “net”. The wiring isn’t the network. The routers aren’t the network. The people are the network. We had social networks ten million years before we ever had a telephone exchange; we carry those networks around in our heads, they’re part of the standard “kit” of our cortical biology. We have been blessed with the biggest and best networking gear of all the hominids, but we all share the same capability. The social sharing of information has played a big part in the success of the hominids, and, in particular, human beings. We are born to plug into the network of other human beings and share information. It’s what we do.
But just now we’re facing increasingly frequent collisions between Gilmore’s Law and old-fashioned and time-tested ways of the world. We’ve long known that there are no secrets in a small town; now that same law of interpersonal relationships are being applied to businesses, to governments, to institutions of every shape and description. Consider these examples:
- Encyclopaedia Britannica hides behind a walled garden and is subsequently obsolesced by Wikipedia;
- Television shows and films end up on BitTorrent before they’re broadcast; the torrent for Halo 3 was posted last week. The video game was released on Monday.
- A tight group of reporters and bloggers just brought down the US Attorney General, who attempted to stonewall all investigations into his politically-motivated firings of eight US Attorneys.
- And – oh yeah – there’s that whole open-source movement which is, ever so slowly and carefully, eating Microsoft.
What’s happening here? What is it about the network that makes it so potent? Simply this: the network, in every form, is anathema to hierarchy. The network represents the other form of organization, not a contradiction of hierarchy, but, rather, a counterpoint to it. I’ve rewritten Gilmore’s Law to reflect this:
“The net regards hierarchy as a failure, and routes around it.”
For the fifty-five hundred years of human civilization, hierarchy has always had the upper hand. Now the network, amplified by all those wires and routers, is stronger than hierarchy, and battle has been joined. But this isn’t going to be some full-on Armageddon, a battle between the Empire and the Alliance; this is the Death of a Thousand Cuts. The network is simply kicking the legs out from under hierarchies, everywhere they exist, for as long as they exist, until they find themselves unable to rise again. What it really come down to is this: we are assuming management of our own affairs, because we are now empowered to do so. It doesn’t matter if you’re a maize farmer in Kenya or a video producer in Queensland; these mob rules apply to us mob.
In a future which looks increasingly like the present, there is no center anywhere, no locus of authority, no controlling power ordering our daily lives. There are no governments, no institutions, no businesses that look anything like the limited liability enterprises born in the Netherlands five hundred years ago. Instead, there are groupings, networks within the network, that come together around a project or ideology, a shared sense of salience – meaning – for that group. The product of that network could be Wikipedia – or it could be al Qaeda. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
And it’s not over yet. The network hasn’t finished changing, and it hasn’t finished changing us.
Bureaucracy: Collapse and How to Profit From It
To recap: we know where we are, and we have some idea of what is really going on. But enough of philosophy: let’s play!
But. Well. One more thing…
Although the network has done a tidy job of disassembling the hierarchies of the world, there is still one hierarchy which remains stubbornly resistant to change, which retains its top-down, command-and-control hierarchical model of authority – and has for well over a hundred years. Telcos.
I find this endlessly ironic: the firms which created the network are somehow immune to the effects of the network. And, in consequence, so are the networks themselves. In fact, you can look at any of the networks – telephone, broadband, or wireless – and see in them the physical embodiment of hierarchy. It’s curious. It’s damned interesting. It’s also over.
Four months ago, a small startup in Silicon Valley named Meraki (Greek for “doing it with love”) for unveiled a cute little device, a wireless router that they simply named the Mini. Inside it has a RISC CPU running a custom version of LINUX which handles all of the routing tasks. That’s where it gets interesting. You see, Meraki have pioneered a new technology known as “wireless mesh networking”. You can power up a Mini in anywhere you like, and if there’s another Mini within distance – and these devices can reach nearly half a kilometer, outdoors – it will connect to it, share routing information, and route packets from one to another – all without any need to configure anything at all. Add another, and another, and another, and all of a sudden you’ve created a very wide area WiFi network. Only one of the Minis needs to be connected to the Internet as a gateway; the others will find it and route traffic through it. The Minis are small – and they’re also cheap. For just $49 dollars US, you can order one complete with an Australian wall wart. That’s cheaper than most access points out there, and because of the mesh networking, it does a whole lot more.
But what does the Meraki Mini have to do with the end of the telcos? Just this: a mesh network is a network that’s been subject to the corrosive effects of a network. There is no center anywhere. There’s no hierarcy or preferred route. There’s no gatekeeper anywhere. You can have one gateway, or twenty. You can have one mesh node or a thousand. Just throw another mesh node into the mix, and it’ll all work seamlessly. And mesh networks scale: the dynamics of a network of a thousand mesh repeaters aren’t substantially different from a network with ten. Packets still find their way, with minimal delay.
What this means is that we all have the capability to create our own large-scale, low-cost wireless networks within our grasp. Meraki is already proving this in San Francisco, where Google and Earthlink had been fighting the telcos for years to get a city-wide free wireless network installed. Last week, Earthlink pulled out – they just couldn’t fight the politically power of AT&T. Meanwhile, since February, Meraki has been offering free Meraki Minis to anyone in San Francisco who wanted to donate a little of their own broadband to a free municipal WiFi network. Lately that network has been growing by leaps and bounds – no easy feat in a city which effectively broken up by a series of large hills. The “Free the Net SF” project already has almost 14,000 users – that’s nearly triple the number two months ago – and hundreds of nodes. It is proof that us mob can seize control of the spectrum and use it for our own ends.
That’s fine and dandy for San Francisco, but what about here in Australia, where we’re suffering under a decade-old peering agreement which makes us pay and pay and pay for every bit we take out of the cloud? Which costs us tens of dollars an hour if we want to use a public WiFi hotspot, or, in the case of the Sydney Convention Centre, $800 for an hour’s access? (That was the quote Maxine received when I asked if we could have public WiFi during my talk.) Internet access in Australia has always been about bending over and taking it like a man.
Or at least it was.
But for the past thirty five minutes, you’ve all been bathing in WiFi, which I’m providing to all of you, free of charge. Here’s how I did it: my Nokia N95 connects to Vodofone’s HSDPA network at a couple of megabits per second. That’s piping through the Bluetooth connection of my mate David’s MacBook Pro, which is Internet Sharing the Bluetooth connection out to his Ethernet port. That Ethernet port is connected to a Meraki Mini, which, in turn, is talking to three more Meraki Minis scattered throughout the auditorium. You’ve all got good signal, and (I hope) plenty of bandwidth to blog, or check email, or whatever you might want to do when I get boring.
But here’s the kicker – it’s all running off batteries. The Meraki Minis only use three watts, so I built some simple power supplies for them. The N95 and the MacBook Pro already have their own batteries built into them. The whole thing is good for at least four hours of fun before someone needs to go find the mains. And, because it’s both entirely battery powered and entirely wireless, I can drop it anywhere in Sydney. Were we out-of-doors, I could probably cover a square kilometer, with just these four Minis. Of course, you can always add a few more. Or a thousand more.
Ok, Mark, that’s nice, you might be saying. That’s kind of cool. But big deal. We don’t own Meraki Minis – and we don’t really plan on buying one. That’s fine, and it doesn’t matter at all. You see, a mesh network node isn’t hardware device. It’s software which runs on arbitrary hardware. You can mesh network WiFi. Or Bluetooth. Or infrared, if you wanted to be perverse. It’s software. Which means that every laptop in this room is potentially another mesh network node, listening to the traffic and passing packets along. Consider the density of laptops and desktops (equipped with WiFi adapters) in Sydney, or Melbourne. Now imagine them as nodes within a vast mesh network. That’s where we’re going – and it’s just a software update away.
When I originally composed this section of the talk, I was going to make a prediction: because mesh networks are just software, and because my Nokia N95 has built-in WiFi, I predicted we’d soon see mesh networks for mobile phones. But I don’t need to make that prediction: a Swedish start-up, TerraNet, came out of stealth mode two weeks ago to announce they were doing precisely this. With their software, the mobile doesn’t even need the carrier’s wireless network. Mobiles simply route packets between themselves until they reach their destination. You wonder why the wireless telcos fought so hard and so long to keep WiFi out of mobiles? Was it just to prevent VOIP? Hardly. The telcos have known about mesh networking for a long time. And they know it spells their doom. So watch now, as the network frees itself from the authoritarian forms of those most hierarchical of organizations, the telcos.
But I said it was time to play. And it is. It’s time to put the mob rules to work for you. Because you all need to earn a living. But this world we’re entering is so chaotic, so accidental and unplanned for, everything we believe to be absolutely true is about to be severely tested.
ONE: The mob is everywhere.
There are very few places left on Earth where you can’t receive a text. Ulaanbataar to Timbuktu, Tierra del Fuego to Vladivostok, the network is truly global, and now encompasses the majority of humanity. It’s interesting to note that within the same year that half of humanity is urbanized, half of humanity will have a mobile handset. That’s not coincidental; they’re two sides of the same process. Just as we’ve been lured out from our villages into the vitality and opportunity of the city, we’re being drawn into the unexpected and unpredictable global mob.
TWO: The mob is faster, smarter and stronger than you are.
William Gibson put this much more elegantly when he wrote, “The street finds its own use for things, uses its manufacturers never intended.” No one set out to create arbitrage markets for the fishermen of Kerala; that’s something that emerged from the mob. SMS was meant to be used for emergency messaging; now the world sends several billion texts a day. Just add mobiles, and you get a mob.
THREE: Advertising is a form of censorship.
The Web of 2007 is a house built upon sand. Nearly everything online hopes to fund itself through some sort of advertising and sponsorship. Advertising is a demand that you pay attention – a demand which can no longer be enforced. But the mob doesn’t like advertisements; it either ignores them or actively filters them away. In just the last few weeks, certain sites have been blocked to Firefox because it frequently incorporates the AdBlock extension. That’s upset some institutions which built their business model on the delivery of ads – demanding the attention of the mob. But the mob doesn’t like that. Even worse, for those who are raising a hew and cry about the “theft” of their precious content, the more they scream, the more they thrash about, the stronger the mob becomes. Consider: filesharing has only grown more pervasive despite every attempt of every copyright holder to bring it to heel. Each move has been met with a counter-move. There is no safety in copyright, nor any arguing with the mob. Music and movies are freely and broadly available, and will remain so into the indefinite future. Sadly, we’re now seeing that same, sorry battle repeated in double-time as advertisers – and those dependent upon them – assert an authority they no longer possess.
FOUR: The mob does not need a business model.
But what about your precious business models? How do you get paid for all this work you’re pouring into your projects? I have to be honest with you: the mob simply doesn’t care. The mob doesn’t need a business model. Heck, the mob doesn’t even need all this lovely wireless technology. If we took the mobiles away from the Kerala fishermen, they’d develop something – semaphores, mirrors, smoke signals – to maintain the integrity of the network. Once networks are created, they can not be destroyed. Networks are intrinsically resilient against all sorts of failures, and they’ll simply find a way to route around them. So if your business goes tits up because you built it around an economic model that is not viable in the era of mob rules, it will make no difference – the mob will simply route around you and find another way to do it.
So forget your business models, and remember the golden rule, as expressed by Talking Heads, in the song “Found a Job”:
“If your work isn’t what you love, then something isn’t right.”
If you – you folks in this room, who have the mob in your hands, who play with it as if it were a toy – if you don’t wake up in the morning completely possessed by the knowledge that what you’re doing is simply the coolest thing ever, you need to quit that job and find another. You need to reach into that bucket of dreams and ambitions and pull something out to share with us mob, something that will dazzle and excite us. It might only do so for a moment, but, in that moment, your social stock will rise so high that you’ll never have to worry about putting food on the table or paying the mortgage. You may not retire a millionaire, but you’ll certainly never go hungry. The mob is a meritocracy – admittedly a very perverse and bizarre meritocracy – but it is the one place where “quality will out”. Quality only comes from the marriage of craft and obsession. You have the craft. Embrace your obsessions. You will be rewarded.
FIVE: Make networks happen.
I need to leave you with one concrete example of how this is all going to work, and for this example I’ve selected the last bastion of authority and hierarchy – after everything else has dissolved into the gray goo of the network, one thing will remain. It won’t be government – that’s half gone already. It’s medicine. Medicine is very nearly the oldest of the professions, and has been a closely held monopoly for half a thousand years – closer to a guild than anything resembling a modern profession. Why? Medicine is guarded by the twin bulwarks of complexity and mortality: medicine is rich and deep body of knowledge, and, if you screw it up, you’ll kill yourself or somebody else. While the pursuit of medical knowledge is conducted within the peer-review frameworks of science, that knowledge is closely held. That leaves all of us – as patients – in a distinctly disempowered position when it comes to medicine. But that is all going to change.
In twenty years’ time, one in four Australians will be 65 or older – and I’ll be one of them. There is no medical authority big enough to deal with such a mass of gerontology; the system will be overloaded, and it will begin to collapse. Out of that collapse, we will see those of us who grew up within the Network Era – and I’m among the oldest of that generation – begin to work the network to our own ends. We will not be alone. There will be tens of millions of us – first in the West, then throughout the world – who will be facing the same problems, and searching for the same answers. We might not get to live forever, but we’ll want to die trying. So we’ll set to work, creating a common base of collective intelligence – think Wikipedia, but with a depth of medical knowledge that it doesn’t even begin to explore – together with strong social networking tools that embeds us deep within a network of experts – who may or may not be “board qualified”. I’ll probably come to expect that my GP and other specialists are members of this network – peers who share their expertise, not experts pronouncing solutions. And this network will never leave me; in fact, it will probably watch every move I make, every breath I take, every calorie I eat, and every heartbeat. It sounds Orwellian, but I will want this – because I will see it as a profoundly empowering form of surveillance. In other words, my wellness becomes a quality of my network.
This is not a website. This is not WebMD or Healtheon or a cancer support group, or anything that looks like anything we’ve seen yet. This is a self-organizing quality of the mob, painfully aware of their own accelerating senescence, and fully empowered to do something about it. And it represents an enormous opportunity for you. In just the last paragraph I’ve dropped a half a dozen strong business ideas onto you; but they’re so different from how we’re thinking about the network today that it will probably take some time to work it all out. But the mob won’t wait forever. Remember: it is smarter and faster and stronger than you. You can try to get in front of it, and get picked up by it – I’ve given you more than enough clues to do that – or you can get run down. That choice is yours. But if I’ve learned anything from my study of mob rules, it’s that the future lies in making networks happen. If you do that, there’s a place for you with us mob.
We live in increasingly interesting times. Half of humanity has suddenly dropped in – uninvited and unannounced – crashing our private party, eager to participate in an exploration of the possibilities of human communication. Whatever they want, they’re going to get. That’s the way things work now. Fortunately, they want what we want: better lives for themselves and their families. How they get it – that’s in their hands. We can assist them, but they don’t really need our help. That mob will work it out for themselves. And in the process, everything will change for us, as well.
Journalist Norman Cousins wrote, “Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.” Sound advice, particularly in an time when everything is fluctuating out of control. We can’t know what to do – there’s too much uncertainty and potency in us mob for that – but we can know what not to do. For now, that will have to be enough.
Still, there is one thing I can recommend: have courage and keep moving. Standing still is not an option. The world has changed. The world is changing. The world will change a whole lot more. Good luck.