Paperworks / Padworks

I: Paper, works

At the end of May I received an email from a senior official at the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.  DEECD was in the midst of issuing an RFP, looking for new content to populate FUSE (Find, Use, Share, Education), an important component of ULTRANET, the mega-über-supremo educational intranet meant to solve everyone’s educational problems for all time.  Or, well, perhaps I overstate the matter.  But it could be a big deal.

The respondents to the RFP were organizations who already had working relationships with DEECD, and therefore were both familiar with DEECD processes and had been vetted in their earlier relationships.  This meant that the entire RFP to submissions could be telescoped down to just a bit less than three weeks.  The official asked me if I’d be interested in being one of the external reviewers for these proposals as they passed through an official evaluation process.  I said I’d be happy to do so, and asked how many proposals I’d have to review.  “I doubt it will be more than thirty or forty,” he replied.  Which seemed quite reasonable.

As is inevitably the case, most of the proposals landed in the DEECD mailbox just a few hours before the deadline for submissions.  But the RFP didn’t result in thirty or forty proposals.  The total came to almost ninety.  All of which I had to review and evaluate in the thirty-six hours between the time they landed in my inbox and the start of the formal evaluation meeting.  Oh, and first I needed to print them out, because there was no way I’d be able to do that much reading in front of my computer.

Let’s face it – although we do sit and read our laptop screens all day long, we rarely read anything longer than a few paragraphs.  If it passes 300 words, it tips the balance into ‘tl;dr’ (too long; didn’t read) territory, and unless it’s vital for our employment or well-being, we tend to skip it and move along to the next little tidbit.  Having to sit and read through well over nine hundred pages of proposals on my laptop was a bridge too far. I set off to the print shop around the corner from my flat, to have the whole mess printed out.  That took nearly 24 hours by itself – and cost an ungodly sum.  I was left with a huge, heavy box of paper which I could barely lug back to my flat.  For the next 36 hours, this box would be my ball and chain.  I’d have to take it with me to the meeting in Melbourne, which meant packing it for the flight, checking it as baggage, lugging it to my hotel room, and so forth, all while trying to digest its contents.

How the heck was that going to work?

This is when I looked at my iPad.  Then I looked back at the box.  Then back at the iPad.  Then back at the box.  I’d gotten my iPad barely a week before – when they first arrived in Australia – and I was planning on taking it on this trip, but without an accompanying laptop.  This, for me, would be a bit of a test.  For the last decade I’d never traveled anywhere without my laptop.  Could I manage a business trip with just my iPad?  I looked back at the iPad.  Then at the box.  You could practically hear the penny drop.

I immediately began copying all these nine hundred-plus pages of proposals and accompanying documentation from my laptop to the storage utility Dropbox.  Dropbox gives you 2 GB of free Internet storage, with an option to rent more space, if you need it.  Dropbox also has an iPad app (free) – so as soon as the files were uploaded to Dropbox, I could access them from my iPad.

I should take a moment and talk about the model of the iPad I own.  I ordered the 16 GB version – the smallest storage size offered by Apple – but I got the 3G upgrade, paired with Telstra’s most excellent pre-paid NextG service.  My rationale was that I imagined this iPad would be a ‘cloud-centric’ device.  The ‘cloud’ is a term that’s come into use quite recently.  It means software is hosted somewhere out there on the Internet – the ‘cloud’ – rather than residing locally on your computer.  Gmail is a good example of a software that’s ‘in the cloud’.  Facebook is another.  Twitter, another.   Much of what we do with our computers – iPad included – involves software accessed over the Internet.  Many of the apps for sale in Apple’s iTunes App Store are useless or pointless without an Internet connection – these are the sorts of applications which break down the neat boundary between the computer and the cloud.  Cloud computing has been growing in importance over the last decade; by the end of this one it will simply be the way things work.  Your iPad will be your window onto the cloud, onto everything you have within that cloud: your email, your documents, your calendar, your contacts, etc.

I like to live in the future, so I made sure that my iPad didn’t have too much storage – which forces me to use the cloud as much as possible.  In this case, that was precisely the right decision, because I ditched the ten-kilo box of paperwork and boarded my flight to Melbourne with my iPad at my side.  I poured through the proposals, one after another, bringing them up in Dropbox, evaluating them, making some notes in my (paper) notebook, then moving along to the next one.  My iPad gave me a fluidity and speed that I could never have had with that box of paper.

When I arrived at my hotel, I had another set of two large boxes waiting for me.  Here again were the proposals, carefully ordered and placed into several large, ringed binders.  I’d be expected to tote these to the evaluation meeting.  Fortunately, that was only a few floors above my hotel room.  That said, it was a bit of a struggle to get those boxes and my luggage into the elevator and up to the meeting room.  I put those boxes down – and never looked at them again.  As the rest of the evaluation panel dug through their boxes to pull out the relevant proposals, I did a few motions with my fingertips, and found myself on the same page.

Yes, they got a bit jealous.

We finished the evaluation on time and quite successfully, and at the end of the day I left my boxes with the DEECD coordinator, thanking her for her hard work printing all these materials, but begging off.  She understood completely.  I flew home, lighter than I might otherwise have, had I stuck to paper.

For at least the past thirty years – which is about the duration of the personal computer revolution – people have been talking about the advent of the paperless office.  Truth be told, we use more paper in our offices than ever before, our printers constantly at work with letters, notices, emails, and so forth.  We haven’t been able to make the leap to a paperless office – despite our comprehensive ability to manipulate documents digitally – because we lacked something that could actually replace paper.  Computers as we’ve known them simply can’t replace a piece of paper. For a whole host of reasons, it just never worked.  To move to a paperless office – and a paperless classroom – we had to invent something that could supplant paper.  We have it now.  After a lot of false starts, tablet computing has finally arrived –– and it’s here to stay.

I can sit here, iPad in hand, and have access to every single document that I have ever written.  You will soon have access to every single document you might ever need, right here, right now.  We’re not 100% there yet – but that’s not the fault of the device.  We’re going to need to make some adjustments to our IT strategies, so that we can have a pervasively available document environment.  At that point, your iPad becomes the page which contains all other pages within it.  You’ll never be without the document you need at the time you need it.

Nor will we confine ourselves to text.  The world is richer than that.  iPad is the lightbox that contains all photographs within it, it is the television which receives every bit of video produced by anyone – professional or amateur – ever.  It is already the radio (Pocket Tunes app) which receives almost every major radio station broadcasting anywhere in the world.  And it is every one of a hundred-million-plus websites and maybe a trillion web pages.  All of this is here, right here in the palm of your hand.

What matters now is how we put all of this to work.

II: Pad, works

Let’s project ourselves into the future just a little bit – say around ten years.  It’s 2020, and we’ve had iPads for a whole decade.  The iPads of 2020 will be vastly more powerful than the ones in use today, because of something known as Moore’s Law.  This law states that computers double in power every twenty-four months.  Ten years is five doublings, or 32 times.  That rule extends to the display as well as the computer.  The ‘Retina Display’ recently released on Apple’s iPhone 4 shows us where that technology is going – displays so fine that you can’t make out the individual pixels with your eye.  The screen of your iPad version 11 will be visually indistinguishable from a sheet of paper.  The device itself will be thinner and lighter than the current model.  Battery technology improves at about 10% a year, so half the weight of the battery – which is the heaviest component of the iPad – will disappear.  You’ll still get at least ten hours of use, that’s something that’s considered essential to your experience as a user.  And you’ll still be connected to the mobile network.

The mobile network of 2020 will look quite different from the mobile network of 2010.  Right now we’re just on the cusp of moving into 4th generation mobile broadband technology, known colloquially as LTE, or Long-Term Evolution.   Where you might get speeds of 7 megabits per second with NextG mobile broadband – under the best conditions – LTE promises speeds of 100 megabits.  That’s as good as a wired connection – as fast as anything promised by the National Broadband Network!  In a decade’s time we’ll be moving through 5th generation and possibly into 6th generation mobile technologies, with speeds approaching a gigabit, a billion bits per second.  That may sound like a lot, but again, it represents roughly 32 times the capacity of the mobile broadband networks of today.  Moore’s Law has a broad reach, and will transform every component of the iPad.

iPad will have thirty-two times the storage, not that we’ll need it, given that we’ll be connected to the cloud at gigabit speeds, but if it’s there, someone will find use for the two terabytes or more included in our iPad.  (Perhaps a full copy of Wikipedia?  Or all of the books published before 1915?)  All of this still cost just $700.  If you want to spend less – and have a correspondingly less-powerful device, you’ll have that option.  I suspect you’ll be able to pick up an entry-level device – the equivalent of iPad 7, perhaps – for $49 at JB HiFi.

What sorts of things will the iPad 10 be capable of?  How do we put all of that power to work?  First off, iPad will be able to see and hear in meaningful ways.  Voice recognition and computer vision are two technologies which are on the threshold of becoming ‘twenty year overnight successes’.  We can already speak to our computers, and, most of the time, they can understand us.  With devices like the Xbox Kinect, cameras allow the computer to see the world around, and recognize bits of it.  Your iPad will hear you, understand your voice, and follow your commands.  It will also be able to recognize your face, your motions, and your emotions.

It’s not clear that computers as we know them today – that is, desktops and laptops – will be common in a decade’s time.  They may still be employed in very specialized tasks.  For almost everything else, we will be using our iPads.  They’ll rarely leave our sides.  They will become so pervasive that in many environments – around the home, in the office, or at school – we will simply have a supply of them sufficient to the task.  When everything is so well connected, you don’t need to have personal information stored in a specific iPad.  You will be able to pick up any iPad and – almost instantaneously – the custom features which mark that device as uniquely yours will be downloaded into it.

All of this is possible.  Whether any of it eventuates depends on a whole host of factors we can’t yet see clearly.  People may find voice recognition more of an annoyance than an affordance.  The idea of your iPad watching you might seem creepy to some people.  But consider this: I have a good friend who has two elderly parents: his dad is in his early 80s, his mom is in her mid-70s.  He lives in Boston while they live in Northern California.  But he needs to keep in touch, he needs to have a look in.  Next year, when iPad acquires a forward-facing camera – so it can be used for video conferencing – he’ll buy them an iPad, and install it on the wall of their kitchen, stuck on there with Velcro, so that he can ring in anytime, and check on them, and they can ring him, anytime.  It’s a bit ‘Jetsons’, when you think about it.  And that’s just what will happen next year.  By 2020 the iPad will be able to track your progress around the house, monitor what prescriptions you’ve taken (or missed), whether you’ve left the house, and for how long.  It’ll be a basic accessory, necessary for everyone caring for someone in their final years – or in their first ones.

Now that we’ve established the basic capabilities and expectations for this device, let’s imagine them in the hands of students everywhere throughout Australia.  No student, however poor, will be without their own iPad – the Government of the day will see to that.  These students of 2020 are at least as well connected as you are, as their parents are, as anyone is.  To them, iPads are not new things; they’ve always been around.  They grew up in a world where touch is the default interface.  A computer mouse, for them, seems as archaic as a manual typewriter does to us.  They’re also quite accustomed to being immersed within a field of very-high-speed mobile broadband.  They just expect it to be ‘on’, everywhere they go, and expect that they will have access to it as needed.

How do we make education in 2020 meet their expectations?  This is not the universe of ‘chalk and talk’.  This is a world where the classroom walls have been effectively leveled by the pervasive presence of the network, and a device which can display anything on that network.  This is a world where education can be provided anywhere, on demand, as called for.  This is a world where the constructivist premise of learning-by-doing can be implemented beyond year two.  Where a student working on an engine can stare at a three-dimensional breakout model of the components while engaging in a conversation with an instructor half a continent away.  Where a student learning French can actually engage with a French student learning English, and do so without much more than a press of a few buttons.  Where a student learning about the Eureka Stockade can survey the ground, iPad in hand, and find within the device hidden depths to the history.  iPad is the handheld schoolhouse, and it is, in many ways, the thing that replaces the chalkboard, the classroom, and the library.

But iPad does not replace the educator.  We need to be very clear on that, because even as educational resources multiply beyond our wildest hopes –more on that presently – students still need someone to guide them into understanding.  The more we virtualize the educational process, the more important and singular our embodied interactions become.  Some of this will come from far away – the iPad offers opportunities for distance education undreamt of just a few years ago – but much more of it will be close up.  Even if the classroom does not survive (and I doubt it will fade away completely in the next ten years, but it will begin to erode), we will still need a place for an educator/mentor to come into contact with students.  That’s been true since the days of Socrates (probably long before that), and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.  We learn best when we learn from others.  We humans are experts in mimesis, in learning by imitation.  That kind of learning requires us to breathe the same air together.

No matter how much power we gain from the iPad, no matter how much freedom it offers, no device offers us freedom from our essential nature as social beings.  We are born to work together, we are designed to learn from one another.  iPad is an unbelievably potent addition to the educator’s toolbox, but we must remember not to let it cloud our common sense.  It should be an amplifier, not a replacement, something that lets students go further, faster than before.  But they should not go alone.

The constant danger of technology is that it can interrupt the human moment.  We can be too busy checking our messages to see the real people right before our eyes.  This is the dilemma that will face us in the age of the iPad.  Governments will see them as cost-saving devices, something that could substitute for the human touch.  If we lose touch, if we lose the human moment, we also lose the biggest part of our ability to learn.

III:  The Work of Nations

We can reasonably predict that this is the decade of the tablet, and the decade of mobile broadband.  The two of them fuse in the iPad, to produce a platform which will transform education, allowing it to happen anywhere a teacher and a student share an agreement to work together.  But what will they be working on?  Next year we’ll see the rollout of the National Curriculum, which specifies the material to be covered in core subject areas in classrooms throughout the nation.

Many educators view the National Curriculum as a mandate for a bland uniformity, a lowest-common denominator approach to instruction, which will simply leave the teacher working point-by-point through the curriculum’s arc.  This is certainly not the intent of the project’s creators.  Dr. Evan Arthur, who heads up the Digital Educational Revolution taskforce in the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, publicly refers to the National Curriculum as a ‘greenfields’, as though all expectations were essentially phantoms of the mind, a box we draw around ourselves, rather than one that objectively exists.

The National Curriculum outlines the subject areas to be covered, but says very little if anything about pedagogy.  Instructors and school systems are free to exercise their own best judgment in selecting an approach appropriate to their students, their educators, and their facilities.  That’s good news, and means that any blandness that creeps into pedagogy because of the National Curriculum is more a reflection of the educator than the educational mandate.

Precisely because it places educators and students throughout the nation onto the same page, the National Curriculum also offers up an enormous opportunity.  We know that all year nine students in Australia will be covering a particular suite of topics.  This means that every educator and every student throughout the nation can be drawing from and contributing to a ‘common wealth’ of shared materials, whether they be podcasts of lectures, educational chatrooms, lesson plans, and on and on and on.  As the years go by, this wealth of material will grow as more teachers and more students add their own contributions to it.  The National Curriculum isn’t a mandate, per se; it’s better to think of it as an empty Wikipedia.  All the article headings are there, all the taxonomy, all the cross references, but none of the content.  The next decade will see us all build up that base of content, so that by 2020, a decade’s worth of work will have resulted in something truly outstanding to offer both educators and students in their pursuit of curriculum goals.
Well, maybe.

I say all of this as if it were a sure thing.  But it isn’t.  Everyone secretly suspects the National Curriculum will ruin education.  I ask that we can see things differently.  The National Curriculum could be the savior of education in the 21st century, but in order to travel the short distance in our minds between where we are (and where we will go if we don’t change our minds) and where we need to be, we need to think of every educator in Australia as a contributor of value.  More than that, we need to think of every student in Australia as a contributor of value.  That’s the vital gap that must be crossed.  Educators spend endless hours working on lesson plans and instructional designs – they should be encouraged to share this work.  Many of them are too modest or too scared to trumpet their own hard yards – but it is something that educators and students across the nation can benefit from.  Students, as they pass through the curriculum, create their own learning materials, which must be preserved, where appropriate, for future years.

We should do this.  We need to do this.  Right now we’re dropping the best of what we have on the floor as teachers retire or move on in their careers.  This is gold that we’re letting slip through our fingers. We live in an age where we only lose something when we neglect to capture it. We can let ourselves off easy here, because we haven’t had a framework to capture and share this pedagogy.  But now we have the means to capture, a platform for sharing – the Ultranet, and a tool which brings access to everyone – the iPad.  We’ve never had these stars aligned in such a way before.  Only just now – in 2010 – is it possible to dream such big dreams.  It won’t even cost much money.  Yes, the state and federal governments will be investing in iPads and superfast broadband connections for the schools, but everything else comes from a change in our behavior, from a new sense of the full value of our activities.  We need to look at ourselves not merely as the dispensers of education to receptive students, but as engaged participant-creators working to build a lasting body of knowledge.

In so doing we tie everything together, from library science to digital citizenship, within an approach that builds shared value.  It allows a student in Bairnsdale to collaborate with another in Lorne, both working through a lesson plan developed by an educator in Katherine.  Or a teacher in Lakes Entrance to offer her expertise to a classroom in Maffra.  These kinds of things have been possible before, but the National Curriculum gives us the reason to do it.  iPad gives us the infrastructure to dream wild, and imagine how to practice some ‘creative destruction’ in the classroom – tearing down its walls in order to make the classroom a persistent, ubiquitous feature of the environment, to bring education everywhere it’s needed, to everyone who needs it, whenever they need it.

This means that all of the preceding is really part of a larger transformation, from education as this singular event that happens between ages six and twenty-two, to something that is persistent and ubiquitous; where ‘lifelong learning’ isn’t a catchphrase, but rather, a set of skills students begin to acquire as soon as they land in pre-kindy.  The wealth of materials which we will create as we learn how to share the burden of the National Curriculum across the nation have value far beyond the schoolhouse.  In a nation of immigrants, it makes sense to have these materials available, because someone is always arriving in the middle of their lives and struggling to catch up to and integrate themselves within the fabric of the nation.  Education is one way that this happens.  People also need to have increasing flexibility in their career choices, to suit a much more fluid labor market.  This means that we continuously need to learn something new, or something, perhaps, that we didn’t pay much attention to when we should have.  If we can share our learning, we can close this gap.  We can bring the best of what we teach to everyone who has the need to know.

And there we are.  But before I conclude, I should bring up the most obvious point –one so obvious that we might forget it.  The iPad is an excellent toy.  Please play with it.  I don’t mean use it.  I mean explore it.  Punch all the buttons.  Do things you shouldn’t do.  Press the big red button that says, “Don’t press me!”  Just make sure you have a backup first.

We know that children learn by exploration – that’s the foundation of Constructivism – but we forget that we ourselves also learn by exploration. The joy we feel when we play with our new toy is the feeling a child has when he confronts a box of LEGOs, or new video game – it’s the joy of exploration, the joy of learning.  That joy is foundational to us.  If we didn’t love learning, we wouldn’t be running things around here.  We’d still be in the trees.

My favorite toys on my iPad are Pocket Universe – which creates an 360-degree real-time observatory on your iPad; Pulse News – which brings some beauty to my RSS feeds; Observatory – which turns my iPad into a bit of an orrery; Air Video – which allows me to watch videos streamed from my laptop to my iPad; and GoodReader – the one app you simply must spend $1.19 on, because it is the most useful app you’ll ever own.  These are my favorites, but I own many others, and enjoy all of them.  There are literally tens of thousands to choose from, some of them educational, some, just for fun.  That’s the point: all work and no play makes iPad a dull toy.

So please, go and play.  As you do, you’ll come to recognize the hidden depths within your new toy, and you’ll probably feel that penny drop, as you come to realize that this changes everything.  Or can, if we can change ourselves.

Blue Skies

I: Cloud People

I want to open this afternoon’s talk with a story about my friend Kate Carruthers.  Kate is a business strategist, currently working at Hyro, over in Surry Hills.  In November, while on a business trip to Far North Queensland, Kate pulled out her American Express credit card to pay for a taxi fare.  Her card was declined.  Kate paid with another card and thought little of it until the next time she tried to use the card – this time to pay for something rather pricier, and more important – and found her card declined once again.

As it turned out, American Express had cut Kate’s credit line in half, but hadn’t bothered to inform her of this until perhaps a day or two before, via post.  So here’s Kate, far away from home, with a crook credit card.  Thank goodness she had another card with her, or it could have been quite a problem.  When she contacted American Express to discuss that credit line change – on a Friday evening – she discovered that this ‘consumer’ company kept banker’s hours in its credit division.  That, for Kate, was the last straw.  She began to post a series of messages to Twitter:

“I can’t believe how rude Amex have been to me; cut credit limit by 50% without notice; declined my card while in QLD even though acct paid”

“since Amex just treated me like total sh*t I just posted a chq for the balance of my account & will close acct on Monday”

“Amex is hardly accepted anywhere anyhow so I hardly use it now & after their recent treatment I’m outta there”

“luckily for me I have more than enough to just pay the sucker out & never use Amex again”

“have both a gold credit card & gold charge card with amex until monday when I plan to close both after their crap behaviour”

One after another, Kate sent this stream of messages out to her Twitter followers.  All of her Twitter followers.  Kate’s been on Twitter for a long time – well over three years – and she’s accumulated a lot of followers.  Currently, she has over 8300 followers, although at the time she had her American Express meltdown, the number was closer to 7500.

Let’s step back and examine this for a moment.  Kate is, in most respects, a perfectly ordinary (though whip-smart) human being.  Yet she now has this ‘cloud’ of connections, all around her, all the time, through Twitter.  These 8300 people are at least vaguely aware of whatever she chooses to share in her tweets.  They care enough to listen, even if they are not always listening very closely.  A smaller number of individuals (perhaps a few hundred, people like me) listen more closely.  Nearly all the time we’re near a computer or a mobile, we keep an eye on Kate.  (Not that she needs it.  She’s thoroughly grown up.  But if she ever got into a spot of trouble or needed a bit of help, we’d be on it immediately.)

This kind of connectivity is unprecedented in human history.  We came from villages where perhaps a hundred of us lived close enough together that there were no secrets.  We moved to cities where the power of numbers gave us all a degree of anonymity, but atomized us into disconnected individuals, lacking the social support of a community.  Now we come full circle.  This is the realization of the ‘Global Village’ that Marshall McLuhan talked about fifty years ago.  At the time McLuhan though of television as a retribalizing force.  It wasn’t.  But Facebook and Twitter and the mobiles each of us carry with us during all our waking hours?  These are the new retribalizing forces, because they keep us continuously connected with one another, allowing us to manage connections in every-greater numbers.

Anything Kate says, no matter how mundane, is now widely known.  But it’s more than that.  Twitter is text, but it is also links that can point to images, or videos, or songs, or whatever you can digitize and upload to the Web.  Kate need simply drop a URL into a tweet and suddenly nearly ten thousand people are aware of it.  If they like it, they will send it along (‘re-tweet’ is the technical term), and it will spread out quickly, like waves on a pond.

But Twitter isn’t a one-way street.  Kate is ‘following’ 7250 individuals; that is, she’s receiving tweets from them.  That sounds like a nearly impossible task: how can you pay attention to what that many people have to say?  It’d be like trying to listen to every conversation at Central Station (or Flinders Street Station) at peak hour.  Madness.  And yet, it is possible.  Tools have been created that allow you to keep a pulse on the madness, to stick a toe into the raging torrent of commentary.

Why would you want to do this?  It’s not something that you need to do (or even want to do) all the time, but there are particular moments – crisis times – when Twitter becomes something else altogether.  After an earthquake or other great natural disaster, after some pivotal (or trivial) political event, after some stunning discovery.  The 5650 people I follow are my connection to all of that.  My connection is broad enough that someone, somewhere in my network is nearly always nearly the first to know something, among the first to share what they know.  Which means that I too, if I am paying attention, am among the first to know.

Businesses have been built on this kind of access.  An entire sector of the financial services industry, from DowJones to Bloomberg, has thrived because it provides subscribers with information before others have it – information that can be used on a trading floor.  This kind of information freely comes to the very well-connected.  This kind of information can be put to work to make you more successful as an individual, in your business, or in whatever hobbies you might pursue.  And it’s always there.  All you need do is plug into it.

When you do plug into it, once you’ve gotten over the initial confusion, and you’ve dedicated the proper time and tending to your network, so that it grows organically and enthusiastically, you will find yourself with something amazingly flexible and powerful.  Case in point: in December I found myself in Canberra for a few days.  Where to eat dinner in a town that shuts down at 5 pm?  I asked Twitter, and forty-five minutes later I was enjoying some of the best seafood laksa I’ve had in Australia.  A few days later, in the Barossa, I asked Twitter which wineries I should visit – and the top five recommendations were very good indeed.  These may seem like trivial instances – though they’re the difference between a good holiday and a lackluster one – but what they demonstrate is that Twitter has allowed me to plug into all of the expertise of all of the thousands of people I am connected to.  Human brainpower, multiplied by 5650 makes me smarter, faster, and much, much more effective.  Why would I want to live any other way?  Twitter can be inane, it can be annoying, it can be profane and confusing and chaotic, but I can’t imagine life without it, just as I can’t imagine life without the Web or without my mobile.  The idea that I am continuously connected and listening to a vast number of other people – even as they listen to me – has gone from shocking to comfortable in just over three years.

Kate and I are just the leading edge.  Where we have gone, all of the rest of you will soon follow.  We are all building up our networks, one person at a time.  A child born in 2010 will spend their lifetime building up a social network.  They’ll never lose track of any individual they meet and establish a connection with.  That connection will persist unless purposely destroyed.  Think of the number of people you meet throughout your lives, who you establish some connection with, even if only for a few hours.  That number would easily reach into the thousands for every one of us.  Kate and I are not freaks, we’re simply using the bleeding edge of a technology that will be almost invisible and not really worth mentioning by 2020.

All of this means that the network is even more alluring than it was a few years ago, and will become ever more alluring with the explosive growth in social networks.  We are just at the beginning of learning how to use these new social networks.  First we kept track of friends and family.  Then we moved on to business associates.  Now we’re using them to learn, to train ourselves and train others, to explore, to explain, to help and to ask for help.  They are becoming a new social fabric which will knit us together into an unfamiliar closeness.  This is already creating some interesting frictions for us.  We like being connected, but we also treasure the moments when we disconnect, when we can’t be reached, when our time and our thoughts are our own.  We preach focus to our children, but find our time and attention increasing divided by devices that demand service: email, Web, phone calls, texts, Twitter, Facebook, all of it brand new, and all of it seemingly so important that if we ignore any of them we immediately feel the cost.  I love getting away from it all.  I hate the backlog of email that greets me when I return.  Connecting comes with a cost.  But it’s becoming increasingly impossible to imagine life without it.

II: Eyjafjallajökull

I recently read a most interesting blog postChase Saunders, a software architect and entrepreneur in Maine (not too far from where I was born) had a bit of a brainwave and decided to share it with the rest of the world.  But you may not like it.  Saunders begins with: “For me to get really mad at a company, it takes more than a lousy product or service: it’s the powerlessness I feel when customer service won’t even try to make things right.  This happens to me about once a year.”  Given the number of businesses we all interact with in any given year – both as consumers and as client businesses – this figure is far from unusual.  There will be times when we get poor value for money, or poor service, or a poor response time, or what have you.  The world is a cruel place.  It’s what happens after that cruelty which is important: how does the business deal with an upset customer?  If they fail the upset customer, that’s when problems can really get out of control.

In times past, an upset customer could cancel their account, taking their business elsewhere.  Bad, but recoverable.  These days, however, customers have more capability, precisely because of their connectivity.  And this is where things start to go decidedly pear-shaped.  Saunders gets to the core of his idea:

Let’s say you buy a defective part from ACME Widgets, Inc. and they refuse to refund or replace it.  You’re mad, and you want the world to know about this awful widget.  So you pop over to AdRevenge and you pay them a small amount. Say $3.  If the company is handing out bad widgets, maybe some other people have already done this… we’ll suppose that before you got there, one guy donated $1 and another lady also donated $1.  So now we have 3 people who have paid a total of $5 to warn other potential customers about this sketchy company…the 3 vengeful donations will go to the purchase of negative search engine advertising.  The ads are automatically booked and purchased by the website…

And there it is.  Your customers – your angry customers – have found an effective way to band together and warn every other potential customer just how badly you suck, and will do it every time your name gets typed into a search engine box.  And they’ll do it whether or not their complaints are justified.  In fact, your competitors could even game the system, stuffing it up with lots of false complaints.  It will quickly become complete, ugly chaos.

You’re probably all donning your legal hats, and thinking about words like ‘libel’ and ‘defamation’.  Put all of that out of your mind.  The Internet is extraterritorial, it and effectively ungovernable, despite all of the neat attempts of governments from China to Iran to Australia to stuff it back into some sort of box.  Ban AdRevenge somewhere, it pops up somewhere else – just as long as there’s a demand for it.  Other countries – perhaps Iceland or Sweden, and certainly the United States – don’t have the same libel laws as Australia, yet their bits freely enter the nation over the Internet.  There is no way to stop AdRevenge or something very much like AdRevenge from happening.  No way at all.  Resign yourself to this, and embrace it, because until you do you won’t be able to move on, into a new type of relationship with your customers.

Which brings us back to our beginning, and a very angry Kate Carruthers.  Here she is, on a Friday night in Far North Queensland, spilling quite a bit of bile out onto Twitter.  Everyone one of the 7500 people who read her tweets will bear her experience in mind the next time they decide whether they will do any business with American Express.  This is damage, probably great damage to the reputation of American Express, damage that could have been avoided, or at least remediated before Kate ‘went nuclear’.

But where was American Express when all of this was going on?  While Kate expressed her extreme dissatisfaction with American Express, its own marketing arm was busily cooking up a scheme to harness Twitter.  It’s Open Forum Pulse website shows you tweets from small businesses around the world.  Ironic, isn’t it? American Express builds a website to show us what others are saying on Twitter, all the while ignoring about what’s being said about it.  So the fire rages, uncontrolled, while American Express fiddles.

There are other examples.  On Twitter, one of my friends lauded the new VAustralia Premium Economy service to the skies, while VAustralia ran some silly marketing campaign that had four blokes sending three thousand tweets over two days in Los Angeles.  Sure, I want to tune into that stream of dreck and drivel.  That’s exactly what I’m looking for in the age of information overload: more crap.

This is it, the fundamental disconnect, the very heart of the matter.  We all need to do a whole lot less talking, and a whole lot more listening.  That’s true for each of us as individuals: we’re so well-connected now that by the time we do grow into a few thousand connections we’d be wiser listening than speaking, most of the time.  But this is particularly true for businesses, which make their living dealing with customers.  The relationship between businesses and their customers has historically been characterized by a ‘throw it over the wall’ attitude.  There is no wall, anywhere.  The customer is sitting right beside you, with a megaphone pointed squarely into your ear.

If we were military planners, we’d call this ‘asymmetric warfare’.  Instead, we should just give it the name it rightfully deserves: 21st-century business.  It’s a battlefield out there, but if you come prepared for a 20th-century conflict – massive armies and big guns – you’ll be overrun by the fleet-footed and omnipresent guerilla warfare your customers will wage against you – if you don’t listen to them.  Like volcanic ash, it may not present a solid wall to prevent your progress.  But it will jam up your engines, and stop you from getting off the ground.

Listening is not a job.  There will be no ‘Chief Listening Officer’, charged with keeping their ear down to the ground, wondering if the natives are becoming restless, ready to sound the alarm when a situation threatens to go nuclear.  There is simply too much to listen to, happening everywhere, all at once.  Any single point which presumed to do the listening for an entire organization – whether an individual or a department – will simply be overwhelmed, drowning in the flow of data.  Listening is not a job: it is an attitude.  Every employee from the most recently hired through to the Chief Executive must learn to listen.  Listen to what is being said internally (therein lies the path to true business success) and learn to listen to what others, outside the boundaries of the organization, are saying about you.

Employees already regularly check into their various social networks.  Right now we think of that as ‘slacking off’, not something that we classify as work.  But if we stretch the definition just a bit, and begin to recognize that the organization we work for is, itself, part of our social network, things become clearer.  Someone can legitimately spend time on Facebook, looking for and responding to issues as they arise.  Someone can be plugged into Twitter, giving it continuous partial attention all day long, monitoring and soothing customer relationships.  And not just someone.  Everyone.  This is a shared responsibility.  Working for the organization means being involved with and connected to the organization’s customers, past, present and future.  Without that connection, problems will inevitably arise, will inevitably amplify, will inevitably result in ‘nuclear events’.  Any organization (or government, or religion) can only withstand so many nuclear events before it begins to disintegrate.  So this isn’t a matter of choice.  This is a basic defensive posture.  An insurance policy, of sorts, protecting you against those you have no choice but to do business with.

Yet this is not all about defense.  Listening creates opportunity.  I get some of my best ideas – such as that AdRevenge article – because I am constantly listening to others’ good ideas.  Your customers might grumble, but they also praise you for a job well done.  That positive relationship should be honored – and reinforced.  As you reinforce the positive, you create a virtuous cycle of interactions which becomes terrifically difficult to disrupt.  When that’s gone on long enough, and broadly enough, you have effectively raised up your own army – in the post-modern, guerilla sense of the word – who will go out there and fight for you and your brand when the haters and trolls and chaos-makers bear down upon you.  These people are connected to you, and will connect to one another because of the passion they share around your products and your business.  This is another network, an important network, an offensive network, and you need both defensive and offensive strategies to succeed on this playing field.

Just as we as individuals are growing into hyperconnectivity, so our businesses must inevitably follow.  Hyperconnected individuals working with disconnected businesses is a perfect recipe for confusion and disaster.  Like must meet with like before the real business of the 21st-century can begin.

III: Services With a Smile

Moving from the abstract to the concrete, let’s consider the types of products and services required in our densely hyperconnected world.  First and foremost, we are growing into a pressing, almost fanatical need for continuous connectivity.  Wherever we are – even in airplanes – we must be connected.  The quality of that connection – its speed, reliability, and cost – are important co-factors to consider, and it is not always the cheapest connection which serves the customer best.  I pay a premium for my broadband connection because I can send the CEO of my ISP a text any time my link goes down – and my trouble tickets are sorted very rapidly!  Conversely, I went with a lower-cost carrier for my mobile service, and I am paying the price, with missed calls, failed data connections, and crashes on my iPhone.

As connectivity becomes more important, reliability crowds out other factors.  You can offer a premium quality service at a premium price and people will adopt it, for the same reason they will pay more for a reliable car, or for electricity from a reliable supplier, or for food that they’re sure will be wholesome.  Connectivity has become too vital to threaten.  This means there’s room for healthy competition, as providers offer different levels of service at different price points, competing on quality, so that everyone gets the level of service they can afford.  But uptime always will be paramount.

What service, exactly is on offer?  Connectivity comes in at least two flavors: mobile and broadband.  These are not mutually exclusive.  When we’re stationary we use broadband; when we’re in motion we use mobile services.  The transition between these two networks should be invisible and seamless as possible – as pioneered by Apple’s iPhone.

At home, in the office, at the café or library, in fact, in almost any structure, customers should have access to wireless broadband.  This is one area where Australia noticeably trails the rest of the world.  The tariff structure for Internet traffic has led Australians to be unusually conservative with their bits, because there is a specific cost incurred for each bit sent or received.  While this means that ISPs should always have the funding to build out their networks to handle increases in capacity, it has also meant that users protect their networks from use in order to keep costs down.  This fundamental dilemma has subjected wireless broadband in Australia to a subtle strangulation.  We do not have the ubiquitous free wireless access that many other countries – in particular, the United States – have on offer, and this consequently alters our imagination of the possibilities for ubiquitous networking.

Tariffs are now low enough that customers ought to be encouraged to offer wireless networking to the broader public.  There are some security concerns that need to be addressed to make this safe for all parties, but these are easily dealt with.  There is no fundamental barrier to pervasive wireless broadband.  It does not compete with mobile data services.  Rather, as wireless broadband becomes more ubiquitous, people come to rely on continuous connectivity ever more.  Mobile data demand will grow in lockstep as more wireless broadband is offered.  Investment in wireless broadband is the best way to ensure that mobile data services continue to grow.

Mobile data services are best characterized principally by speed and availability.  Beyond a certain point – perhaps a megabit per second – speed is not an overwhelming lure on a mobile handset.  It’s nice but not necessary.  At that point, it’s much more about provisioning: how will my carrier handle peak hour in Flinders Street Station (or Central Station)?  Will my calls drop?  Will I be able to access my cloud-based calendar so that I can grab a map and a phone number to make dinner reservations?  If a customer finds themselves continually frustrated in these activities, one of two things will happen: either the mobile will go back into the pocket, more or less permanently, or the customer will change carriers.  Since the customer’s family, friends and business associates will not be putting their own mobiles back into their pockets, it is unlikely that any customer will do so for any length of time, irrespective of the quality of their mobile service.  If the carrier will not provision, the customers must go elsewhere.

Provisioning is expensive.  But it is also the only sure way to retain your customers.  A customer will put up with poor customer service if they know they have reliable service.  A customer will put up with a higher monthly spend if they have a service they know they can depend upon in all circumstances.  And a customer will quickly leave a carrier who can not be relied upon.  I’ve learned that lesson myself.  Expect it to be repeated, millions of times over, in the years to come, as carriers, regrettably and avoidably, find that their provisioning is inadequate to support their customers.

Wireless is wonderful, and we think of it as a maintenance-free technology, at least from the customer’s point of view.  Yet this is rarely so.  Last month I listened to a talk by Genevieve Bell, Intel Fellow and Lead Anthropologist at the chipmaker.  Her job is to spend time in the field – across Europe and the developing world – observing  how people really use technology when it escapes into the wild.  Several years ago she spent some time in Singapore, studying how pervasive wireless broadband works in the dense urban landscape of the city-state.  In any of Singapore’s apartment towers – which are everywhere – nearly everyone has access to very high speed wired broadband (perhaps 50 megabits per second) – which is then connected to a wireless router to distribute the broadband throughout the apartment.  But wireless is no great respecter of walls.  Even in my own flat in Surry Hills I can see nine wireless networks from my laptop, including my own.  In a Singapore tower block, the number is probably nearer to twenty or thirty.

Genevieve visited a family who had recently purchased a wireless printer.  They were dissatisfied with it, pronouncing it ‘possessed’.  What do you mean? she inquired.  Well, they explained, it doesn’t print what they tell it to print.  But it does print other things.  Things they never asked for.  The family called for a grandfather to come over and practice his arts of feng shui, hoping to rid the printer of its evil spirits.  The printer, now repositioned to a more auspicious spot, still misbehaved.  A few days later, a knock came on the door.  Outside stood a neighbor, a sheaf of paper in his hands, saying, “I believe these are yours…?”

The neighbor had also recently purchased a wireless printer, and it seems that these two printers had automatically registered themselves on each other’s networks.  Automatic configuration makes wireless networks a pleasure to use, but it also makes for botched configurations and flaky communication.  Most of this is so far outside the skill set of the average consumer that these problems will never be properly remedied.  The customer might make a support call, and maybe – just maybe the problem will be solved.  Or, the problem will persist, and the customer will simply give up.  Even with a support call, wireless networks are often so complex that the problem can’t be wholly solved.

As wireless networks grow more pervasive, Genevieve Bell recommends that providers offer a high-quality hand-holding and diagnostic service to their customers.  They need to offer a ‘tune up’ service that will travel to the customer once a year to make sure everything is running well.  Consumers need to be educated that wireless networks do not come for free.  Like anything else, they require maintenance, and the consumer should come to expect that it will cost them something, every year, to keep it all up and running.  In this, a wireless network is no different than a swimming pool or a lawn.  There is a future for this kind of service: if you don’t offer it, your competitors soon will.

Finally, let me close with what the world looks like when all of these services are working perfectly.  Lately, I’ve become a big fan of Foursquare, a ‘location-based social network’.  Using the GPS on my iPhone, Foursquare allows me to ‘check in’ when I go to a restaurant, a store, or almost anywhere else.  Once I’ve checked in, I can make a recommendation – a ‘tip’ in Foursquare lingo – or simply look through the tips provided by those who have been there before me.  This list of tips is quickly growing longer, more substantial, and more useful.  I can walk into a bar that I’ve never been to before and know exactly which cocktail I want to order.  I know which table at the restaurant offers the quietest corner for a romantic date.  I know which salesperson to talk to for a good deal on that mobile handset.  And so on.  I have immediate and continuous information in depth, and I put that information to work, right now, to make my life better.

The world of hyperconnectivity isn’t some hypothetical place we’ll never see.  We are living in it now.  The seeds of the future are planted in the present.  But the shape of the future is determined by our actions today.  It is possible to blunt and slow Australia’s progress into this world with bad decisions and bad services.  But it is also possible to thrust the nation into global leadership if we can embrace the inevitable trend toward hyperconnectivity, and harness it.  It has already transformed our lives.  It will transform our businesses, our schools, and our government.  You are the carriers of that change.  Your actions will bring this new world into being.

Dense and Thick

I: The Golden Age

In October of 1993 I bought myself a used SPARCstation.  I’d just come off of a consulting gig at Apple, and, flush with cash, wanted to learn UNIX systems administration.  I also had some ideas about coding networking protocols for shared virtual worlds.  Soon after I got the SparcStation installed in my lounge room – complete with its thirty-kilo monster of a monitor – I grabbed a modem, connected it to the RS-232 port, configured SLIP, and dialed out onto the Internet.  Once online I used FTP, logged into SUNSITE and downloaded the newly released NSCA Mosaic, a graphical browser for the World Wide Web.

I’d first seen Mosaic running on an SGI workstation at the 1993 SIGGRAPH conference.  I knew what hypertext was – I’d built a MacOS-based hypertext system back in 1986 – so I could see what Mosaic was doing, but there wasn’t much there.  Not enough content to make it really interesting.  The same problem that had bedeviled all hypertext systems since Douglas Englebart’s first demo, back in 1968.  Without sufficient content, hypertext systems are fundamentally uninteresting.  Even Hypercard, Apple’s early experiment in Hypertext, never really moved beyond the toy stage.  To make hypertext interesting, it must be broadly connected – beyond a document, beyond a hard drive.  Either everything is connected, or everything is useless.

In the three months between my first click on NCSA Mosaic and when I fired it up in my lounge room, a lot of people had come to the Web party.  The master list of Websites – maintained by CERN, the birthplace of the Web – kept growing.  Over the course of the last week of October 1993, I visited every single one of those Websites.  Then I was done.  I had surfed the entire World Wide Web.  I was even able to keep up, as new sites were added.

This gives you a sense of the size of the Web universe in those very early days.  Before the explosive ‘inflation’ of 1994 and 1995, the Web was a tiny, tidy place filled mostly with academic websites.  Yet even so, the Web had the capacity to suck you in.  I’d find something that interested me – astronomy, perhaps, or philosophy – and with a click-click-click find myself deep within something that spoke to me directly.  This, I believe, is the core of the Web experience, an experience that we’re so many years away from we tend to overlook it.  At its essence, the Web is personally seductive.

I realized the universal truth of this statement on a cold night in early 1994, when I dragged my SPARCstation and boat-anchor monitor across town to a house party.  This party, a monthly event known as Anon Salon, was notorious for attracting the more intellectual and artistic crowd in San Francisco.  People would come to perform, create, demonstrate, and spectate.  I decided I would show these people this new-fangled thing I’d become obsessed with.  So, that evening, as front the door opened, and another person entered, I’d sidle along side them, and ask them, “So, what are you interested in?”  They’d mention their current hobby – gardening or vaudeville or whatever it might be – and I’d use the brand-new Yahoo! category index to look up a web page on the subject.  They’d be delighted, and begin to explore.  At no point did I say, “This is the World Wide Web.”  Nor did I use the word ‘hypertext’.  I let the intrinsic seductiveness of the Web snare them, one by one.

Of course, a few years later, San Francisco became the epicenter of the Web revolution.  Was I responsible for that?  I’d like to think so, but I reckon San Francisco was a bit of a nexus.  I wasn’t the only one exploring the Web.  That night at Anon Salon I met Jonathan Steuer, who walked on up and said, “Mosaic, hmm?  How about you type in ‘www.hotwired.com’?”  Steuer was part of the crew at work, just few blocks away, bringing WIRED magazine online.  Everyone working on the Web shared the same fervor – an almost evangelical belief that the Web changes everything.  I didn’t have to tell Steuer, and he didn’t have to tell me.  We knew.  And we knew if we simply shared the Web – not the technology, not its potential, but its real, seductive human face, we’d be done.

That’s pretty much how it worked out: the Web exploded from the second half of 1994, because it appeared to every single person who encountered it as the object of their desire.  It was, and is, all things to all people.  This makes it the perfect love machine – nothing can confirm your prejudices better than the Web.  It also makes the Web a very pretty hate machine.  It is the reflector and amplifier of all things human.  We were completely unprepared, and for that reason the Web has utterly overwhelmed us.  There is no going back.  If every website suddenly crashed, we would find another way to recreate the universal infinite hypertextual connection.

In the process of overwhelming us – in fact, part of the process itself – the Web has hoovered up the entire space of human culture; anything that can be digitized has been sucked into the Web.  Of course, this presents all sorts of thorny problems for individuals who claim copyright over cultural products, but they are, in essence swimming against the tide.  The rest, everything that marks us as definably human, everything that is artifice, has, over the last fifteen years, been neatly and completely sucked into the space of infinite connection.  The project is not complete – it will never be complete – but it is substantially underway, and more will simply be more: it will not represent a qualitative difference.  We have already arrived at a new space, where human culture is now instantaneously and pervasively accessible to any of the four and a half billion network-connected individuals on the planet.

This, then, is the Golden Age, a time of rosy dawns and bright beginnings, when everything seems possible.  But this age is drawing to a close.  Two recent developments will, in retrospect, be seen as the beginning of the end.  The first of these is the transformation of the oldest medium into the newest.  The book is coextensive with history, with the largest part of what we regard as human culture.  Until five hundred and fifty years ago, books were handwritten, rare and precious.  Moveable type made books a mass medium, and lit the spark of modernity.  But the book, unlike nearly every other medium, has resisted its own digitization.  This year the defenses of the book have been breached, and ones and zeroes are rushing in.  Over the next decade perhaps half or more of all books will ephemeralize,  disappearing into the ether, never to return to physical form.  That will seal the transformation of the human cultural project.

On the other hand, the arrival of the Web-as-appliance means it is now leaving the rarefied space of computers and mobiles-as-computers, and will now be seen as something as mundane as a book or a dinner plate.  Apple’s iPad is the first device of an entirely new class which treat the Web as an appliance, as something that is pervasively just there when needed, and put down when not.  The genius of Apple’s design is its extreme simplicity – too simple, I might add, for most of us.  It presents the Web as a surface, nothing more.  iPad is a portal into the human universe, stripped of everything that is a computer.  It is emphatically not a computer.  Now, we can discuss the relative merits of Apple’s design decisions – and we will, for some years to come.  But the basic strength of the iPad’s simplistic design will influence what the Web is about to become.

eBooks and the iPad bookend the Golden Age; together they represent the complete translation of the human universe into a universally and ubiquitously accessible form.  But the human universe is not the whole universe.  We tend to forget this as we stare into the alluring and seductive navel of our ever-more-present culture.  But the real world remains, and loses none of its importance even as the flashing lights of culture grow brighter and more hypnotic.

II: The Silver Age

Human beings have the peculiar capability to endow material objects with inner meaning.  We know this as one of the basic characteristics of humanness.  From the time a child anthropomorphizes a favorite doll or wooden train, we imbue the material world with the attributes of our own consciousness.  Soon enough we learn to discriminate between the animate and the inanimate, but we never surrender our continual attribution of meaning to the material world.  Things are never purely what they appear to be, instead we overlay our own meanings and associations onto every object in the world.  This process actually provides the mechanism by which the world comes to make sense to us.  If we could not overload the material world with meaning, we could not come to know it or manipulate it.

This layer of meaning is most often implicit; only in works of ‘art’ does the meaning crowd into the definition of the material itself.  But none of us can look at a thing and be completely innocent about its hidden meanings.  They constantly nip at the edges of our consciousness, unless, Zen-like, we practice an ‘emptiness of mind’, and attempt to encounter the material in an immediate, moment-to-moment awareness.  For those of us not in such a blessed state, the material world has a subconscious component.  Everything means something.  Everything is surrounded by a penumbra of meaning, associations that may be universal (an apple can invoke the Fall of Man, or Newton’s Laws of Gravity), or something entirely specific.  Through all of human history the interiority of the material world has remained hidden except in such moments as when we choose to allude to it.  It is always there, but rarely spoken of.  That is about to change.

One of the most significant, yet least understood implications of a planet where everyone is ubiquitously connected to the network via the mobile is that it brings the depth of the network ubiquitously to the individual.  You are – amazingly – connected to the other five billion individuals who carry mobiles, and you are also connected to everything that’s been hoovered into cyberspace over the past fifteen years.  That connection did not become entirely apparent until last year, as the first mobiles appeared with both GPS and compass capabilities.  Suddenly, it became possible to point through the camera on a mobile, and – using the location and orientation of the device – search through the network.

This technique has become known as ‘Augmented Reality’, or AR, and it promises to be one of the great growth areas in technology over the next decade – but perhaps not the reasons the leaders of the field currently envision.  The strength of AR is not what it brings to the big things – the buildings and monuments – but what it brings to the smallest and most common objects in the material world.  At present, AR is flashy, but not at all useful.  It’s about to make a transition.  It will no longer be spectacular, but we’ll wonder how we lived without it.

Let me illustrate the nature of this transition, drawn from examples in my own experience.  These three ‘thought experiments’ represent the different axes of a world which is making the transition between implicit meaning, and a world where the implicit has become explicit.  Once meaning is exposed, it can be manipulated: this is something unexpected, and unexpectedly powerful.

Example One:  The Book

Last year I read a wonderful book.  The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross, is a thorough and thoroughly enjoyable history of music in the 20th century.  By music, Ross means what we would commonly call ‘classical’ music, even though the Classical period ended some two hundred years ago.  That’s not as stuffy as it sounds: George Gershwin and Aaron Copland are both major figures in 20th century music, though their works have always been classed as ‘popular’.

Ross’ book has a companion website, therestisnoise.com, which offers up a chapter-by-chapter samples of the composers whose lives and exploits he explores in the text.  When I wrote The Playful World, back in 2000, and built a companion website to augment the text, it was considered quite revolutionary, but this is all pretty much standard for better books these days.

As I said earlier, the book is on the edge of ephemeralization.  It wants to be digitized, because it has always been a message, encoded.  When I dreamed up this example, I thought it would be very straightforward: you’d walk into your bookstore, point your smartphone at a book that caught your fancy, and instantly you’d find out what your friends thought of it, what their friends thought of it, what the reviewers thought of it, and so on.  You’d be able to make a well-briefed decision on whether this book is the right book for you.  Simple.  In fact, Google Labs has already shown a basic example of this kind of technology in a demo running on Android.

But that’s not what a book is anymore.  Yes, it’s good to know whether you should buy this or that book, but a book represents an investment of time, and an opportunity to open a window into an experience of knowledge in depth.  It’s this intension that the device has to support.  As the book slowly dissolves into the sea of fragmentary but infinitely threaded nodes of hypertext which are the human database, the device becomes the focal point, the lens through which the whole book appears, and appears to assemble itself.

This means that the book will vary, person to person.  My fragments will be sewn together with my threads, yours with your threads.  The idea of unitary authorship – persistent over the last five hundred years – won’t be overwhelmed by the collective efforts of crowdsourcing, but rather by the corrosive effects of hyperconnection.  The more connected everything becomes, the less likely we are prone to linearity.  We already see this in the ‘tl;dr’ phenomenon, where any text over 300 words becomes too onerous to read.

Somehow, whatever the book is becoming must balance the need for clarity and linearity against the centrifugal and connective forces of hypertext.  The book is about to be subsumed within the network; the device is the place where it will reassemble into meaning.  The implicit meaning of the book – that it has a linear story to tell, from first page to last – must be made explicit if the idea and function of the book is to survive.

The book stands on the threshold, between the worlds of the physical and the immaterial.  As such it is pulled in both directions at once.  It wants to be liberated, but will be utterly destroyed in that liberation.  The next example is something far more physical, and, consequentially, far more important.

Example Two: Beef Mince

I go into the supermarket to buy myself the makings for a nice Spaghetti Bolognese.  Among the ingredients I’ll need some beef mince (ground beef for those of you in the United States) to put into the sauce.  Today I’d walk up to the meat case and throw a random package into my shopping trolley.  If I were being thoughtful, I’d probably read the label carefully, to make sure the expiration date wasn’t too close.  I might also check to see how much fat is in the mince.  Or perhaps it’s grass-fed beef.  Or organically grown.  All of this information is offered up on the label placed on the package.  And all of it is so carefully filtered that it means nearly nothing at all.

What I want to do is hold my device up to the package, and have it do the hard work.  Go through the supermarket to the distributor, through the distributor to the abattoir,  through the abattoir to farmer, through the farmer to the animal itself.  Was it healthy?  Where was it slaughtered?  Is that abattoir healthy?  (This isn’t much of an issue in Australia, or New Zealand. but in America things are quite a bit different.)  Was it fed lots of antibiotics in a feedlot?  Which ones?

And – perhaps most importantly – what about the carbon footprint of this little package of mince?  How much CO2 was created?  How much methane?  How much water was consumed?  These questions, at the very core of 21st century life, need to be answered on demand if we can be expected to adjust our lifestyles so as minimize our footprint on the planet.  Without a system like this, it is essentially impossible.  With such a system it can potentially become easy.  As I walk through the market, popping items into my trolley, my device can record and keep me informed of a careful balance between my carbon budget and my financial budget, helping me to optimize both – all while referencing my purchases against sales on offer in other supermarkets.

Finally, what about the caloric count of that packet of mince?  And its nutritional value?  I should be tracking those as well – or rather, my device should – so that I can maintain optimal health.  I should know whether I’m getting too much fat, or insufficient fiber, or – as I’ll discuss in a moment – too much sodium.  Something should be keeping track of this.  Something that can watch and record and use that recording to build a model.  Something that can connect the real world of objects with the intangible set of goals that I have for myself.  Something that could do that would be exceptionally desirable.  It would be as seductive as the Web.

The more information we have at hand, the better the decisions we can make for ourselves.  It’s an idea so simple it is completely self-evident.  We won’t need to convince anyone of this, to sell them on the truth of it.  They will simply ask, ‘When can I have it?’  But there’s more.  My final example touches on something so personal and so vital that it may become the center of the drive to make the implicit explicit.

Example Three:  Medicine

Four months ago, I contracted adult-onset chickenpox.  Which was just about as much fun as that sounds.  (And yes, since you’ve asked, I did have it as a child.  Go figure.)  Every few days I had doctors come by to make sure that I was surviving the viral infection.  While the first doctor didn’t touch me at all – understandably – the second doctor took my blood pressure, and showed me the reading – 160/120, a bit too uncomfortably high.  He suggested that I go on Micardis, a common medication for hypertension.  I was too sick to argue, so I dutifully filled the prescription and began taking it that evening.

Whenever I begin taking a new medication – and I’m getting to an age where that happens with annoying regularity – I am always somewhat worried.  Medicines are never perfect; they work for a certain large cohort of people.  For others they do nothing at all.  For a far smaller number, they might be toxic.  So, when I popped that pill in my mouth I did wonder whether that medicine might turn out to be poison.

The doctor who came to see me was not my regular GP.  He did not know my medical history.  He did not know the history of the other medications I had been taking.  All he knew was what he saw when he walked into my flat.  That could be a recipe for disaster.  Not in this situation – I was fine, and have continued to take Micardis – but there are numerous other situations where medications can interact within the patient to cause all sorts of problems.  This is well known.  It is one of the drawbacks of modern pharmaceutical medicine.

This situation is only going to grow more intense as the population ages and pharmaceutical management of the chronic diseases of aging becomes ever-more-pervasive.  Right now we rely on doctors and pharmacists to keep their own models of our pharmaceutical consumption.  But that’s a model which is precisely backward.  While it is very important for them to know what drugs we’re on, it is even more important for us to be able to manage that knowledge for ourselves.  I need to be able to point my device at any medicine, and know, more or less immediately, whether that medicine will cure me or kill me.

Over the next decade the cost of sequencing an entire human genome will fall from the roughly $5000 it costs today to less than $500.  Well within the range of your typical medical test.  Once that happens, will be possible to compile epidemiological data which compares various genomes to the effectiveness of drugs.  Initial research in this area has already shown that some drugs are more effective among certain ethnic groups than others.  Our genome holds the clue to why drugs work, why they occasionally don’t, and why they sometimes kill.

The device is the connection point between our genome – which lives, most likely, somewhere out on a medical cloud – and the medicines we take, and the diagnoses we receive.  It is our interface to ourselves, and in that becomes an object of almost unimaginable importance.  In twenty years time, when I am ‘officially’ a senior, I will have a handheld device – an augmented reality – whose sole intent is to keep me as healthy as possible for as long as possible.  It will encompass everything known about me medically, and will integrate with everything I capture about my own life – my activities, my diet, my relationships.  It will work with me to optimize everything we know about health (which is bound to be quite a bit by 2030) so that I can live a long, rich, healthy life.

These three examples represent the promise bound up in the collision between the handheld device and the ubiquitous, knowledge-filled network.  There are already bits and pieces of much of this in place.  It is a revolution waiting to happen.  That revolution will change everything about the Web, and why we use it, how, and who profits from it.

III:  The Bronze Age

By now, some of you sitting here listening to me this afternoon are probably thinking, “That’s the Semantic Web.  He’s talking about the Semantic Web.”  And you’re right, I am talking about the Semantic Web.  But the Semantic Web as proposed and endlessly promoted by Sir Tim Berners-Lee was always about pushing, pushing, pushing to get the machines talking to one another.  What I have demonstrated in these three thought experiments is a world that is intrinsically so alluring and so seductive that it will pull us all into it.  That’s the vital difference which made the Web such a success in 1994 and 1995.  And it’s about to happen once again.

But we are starting from near zero.  Right now, I should be able to hold up my device, wave it around my flat, and have an interaction with the device about what’s in my flat.  I can not.  I can not Google for the contents of my home.  There is no place to put that information, even if I had it, nor systems to put that information to work.  It is exactly like the Web in 1993: the lights on, but nobody home.  We have the capability to conceive of the world-as-a-database.  We have the capability to create that database.  We have systems which can put that database to work.  And we have the need to overlay the real world with that rich set of data.

We have the capability, we have the systems, we have the need.  But we have precious little connecting these three.  These are not businesses that exist yet.  We have not brought the real world into our conception of the Web.  That will have to change.  As it changes, the door opens to a crescendo of innovations that will make the Web revolution look puny in comparison.  There is an opportunity here to create industries bigger than Google, bigger than Microsoft, bigger than Apple.  As individuals and organizations figure out how to inject data into the real world, entirely new industry segments will be born.

I can not tell you exactly what will fire off this next revolution.  I doubt it will be the integration of Wikipedia with a mobile camera.  It will be something much more immediate.  Much more concrete.  Much more useful.  Perhaps something concerned with health.  Or with managing your carbon footprint.  Those two seem the most obvious to me.  But the real revolution will probably come from a direction no one expects.  It’s nearly always that way.

There no reason to think that Wellington couldn’t be the epicenter of that revolution.  There was nothing special about San Francisco back in 1993 and 1994.  But, once things got started, they created a ‘virtuous cycle’ of feedbacks that brought the best-and-brightest to San Francisco to build out the Web.  Wellington is doing that to the film industry; why shouldn’t it stretch out a bit, and invent this next generation ‘web-of things’?

This is where the future is entirely in your hands.  You can leave here today promising yourself to invent the future, to write meaning explicitly onto the real world, to transform our relationship to the universe of objects.  Or, you can wait for someone else to come along and do it.  Because someone inevitably will.  Every day, the pressure grows.  The real world is clamoring to crawl into cyberspace.  You can open the door.

World as Database

I.

The idea that the world is a database has a more distinguished provenance than just Google Earth. Back in the 1960s, R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fully proposed the Geosphere, a scale model of the world, 500m in diameter, and thus big enough that anyone could look onto it and make out their home.

The idea, Fuller thought, was to contextualize man in his environment. In doing that, he believed we would have a greater sense of the web of relationships into which we are embedded.

Even the natural world is a database of sorts, just ask a botanist or zoologist; each area has its own climate, soils, flora and fauna. All of this information is there, in some sense, but, for now, is revealed only to those with the education to keep the facts close at hand. That education could reside in the mind of an indigenous person, or in the mind of a dedicated scientist. (And lets not forget the amateurs, who often excel in one area or another.)

Here’s a basic problem: knowledge resident inside grey matter – or locked away within books, and lacking geo-context – is just too hard for us to grasp, search or absorb.

What is needed is an interface to this information; like the “cathedrals of memory” which served the ancient poets, we need an interface which can remind us of the thing itself, keeping all this information neatly at hand.

If we could walk through a landscape, and have this information presented to us, because it had been stored by geo-context (GPS and GPRS would do this, and the new generation of 3G mobile handsets provide both) we would have an immediate experience of knowledge; in other words, a moment of understanding within the environment.

That’s what Fuller wanted, and that’s what’s now possible.

II

The world of man is wholly artificial, in that everything within it is an artifact, a product of human activity. Civilization is entirely artificial. And, more often than not, when we travel, we journey from the comfortable artifice of home into an artifice created by other hands, other minds, and other cultures. Travel broadens the mind because it exposes us to other possibilities, other ways that the cultural norms could be, given different initial conditions.

What we need, as human beings, when we journey into foreign norms, are “handholds’, the points which can serve as translation between the world-as-we-know-it and the world-as-it-is-around us. That’s what a good travel guide, or good travel book does. That traveling companion is like the parent who holds your hand as you step into the deep end of the pool. The benefit of experience is that it bolsters the traveler’s self-confidence.

We can’t always afford a travel guide; we can always have a travel book, but the trouble with a travel book is that it’s often obsolete by the time it reaches publication. The world is dynamic; a book is anything but. Thus travel books progressively diverge from reality, sometimes with hilarious (or tragic) consequences. Books are also of fixed size; you can’t carry around with you a book that would tell you everything you might need to know about the United States, or California, or even San Francisco. There’s just too much there there. This means that the travel book is the equivalent of a photograph, with the same lack of dimensionality. You can possess one view of a moment in time, but there is no depth, nothing behind it.

So the Web comes along, which promises us something more, something dynamic (if not quite portable), and infinitely extensible. A website can be as deep an dense as required – just look at Wikipedia. It can reflect instantaneous changes in the outside world. It can be created collaboratively. And it can be accessed, instantaneously, from almost anywhere on Earth.

This set of characteristics sounds nearly perfect, and it is, with one big, important exception – the Web is not portable. Most people will not travel with an entire database in their laptop, updated minute by minute. Most people will not rush into an Internet café at every single opportunity to keep apprised of the latest developments in travel space or to post their own critiques. It’s too much work and too much bother, for too little gain. This means that the best efforts – such as Thorne Tree – are still essentially static entities; someone gets in front of a computer, uses the service, and keeps a snapshot of what they’ve read in their own head as they travel. It’s better than nothing, but it’s hardly good enough. Travel is about mobility; why should travel services be any different?

III.

All of this work is converging, as it inevitably must, on the mobile telephone. Already there are more mobile telephones in the world than Internet-attached computers; there are more mobile phones in use in China than there are people in the United States. And the Chinese are probably buying a quarter billion mobile telephones a year. (Many of these are used models, as people sell old handsets to buy new ones.)

The modern mobile handset has about as much computing power as a computer of the mid-1990s; that may seem insubstantial by the standards of today, but mobile handsets are evolving far more rapidly than personal computers; within a decade there won’t be much difference between them. Already the mobile handset is Internet connected, via GPRS or 3G packet-switched networks. I have a “Mega Cap” plan from Vodafone AU, which gives me about 3 1/2 hours of GPRS access per day, at a fixed price. I never even come close to using it, but I’m working on services which I hope will start to eat into that enormous data budget. In a few years it won’t seem enormous at all; it might even seem a bit stingy. But for the moment I can have a taste of the future.

Devices like the ever-connected, ultra-powerful, mobile telephone are what the traveler of the next decade will be carrying with them. Already I can run Google Earth on my mobile. Given the amount of processing it takes to run Google Earth – it chugs along on my G4 iBook – it does a fine job. If my mobile had an integral GPS or Galileo receiver, my mobile Google Earth could track my movements in real time. (This can’t be very far away; I’d be altogether surprised if someone hasn’t done that already.)

Google Earth is not just a visualization of the earth; it is, in fact, integrated into Google’s planetary database. The integration is relatively loose right now, but that will only grow with time. It is the place to place everything about place. And travel is all about place.

The 21st century traveler travels with a mobile phone; the growth of GSM/GPRS networks – even the US has them, finally – means that one handset will work everywhere (though not necessarily inexpensively). The mobile is not the preferred interface to the Internet, though this is more of an interface issue than anything else; this is why Google Earth Mobile is so very interesting. Google Earth presents an interface which is intuitive, and which provides a front-end to the nearly-infinite Google database. When people learn how to put these two together, blend the database and make it mobile, we’ll have the first “killer app” for the mobile. And it’s a traveler’s essential, as much as a phrase book, or traveler’s checks.