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.

Calculated Risks

I:  Baby Books

Forty-eight years ago, when my mother was pregnant with me, her friends and family threw her a baby shower.  Among the gifts, she received a satin-covered ‘Baby Book’, with spaces to record all of the minutiae of the early days of my existence.  I know for a fact that Dr. No and Lawrence of Arabia were playing in the movie theatres in Massachusetts at the time I was born, because it is neatly recorded on a page of my baby book.  I know how much I weighed when I was born (7 lbs, 7 oz – or 3.3 kg), when I got my first tooth, when I started to walk, and so on.  All of it is there, because my mother took the time to write it down as it happened.

What my mother didn’t write down – because it isn’t at all remarkable – was that I was busy reaching out, making connections with everyone I came into contact with.  Those connections began with my mother and my father, then my aunts and uncles and grandparents, and, just a year later, my sister.  I made those connections because that’s what humans do.  It sounds perfectly ordinary because it comes so naturally: in fact, it’s quite profound.  From the moment we’re born, we work to embed ourselves within a deep, strong and complex web of social relationships.

This isn’t a recent innovation, something that we ‘thought up’ the way we dreamed up art or writing or the steam engine; you need to go way, way back – at least ten million years, and probably a great deal more – before you get to any of our ancestors who wasn’t thoroughly social.  A social animal will, on the whole, outperform a loner.  A social animal can harness resources outside of themselves to ensure their survival and the survival of their children.  Ten million years ago, a social animal could share the hunting and gathering of food, childcare, or lookout duties.  Those with the best social skills – the best ability to communicate, coordinate, and function effectively as a unit – did better than their less-well-socialized relatives.  They survived to pass their genes and behaviors along, down the generations.  All along, a constant pressure accompanied them, driving them to become ever more social, better coordinated, and more effective.  At some point – no one knows how long ago, or even how it happened – this pressure overflowed, creating the infinitely flexible form of communication we call language.

The more we study other animals – particularly chimpanzees – the less unique we seem to ourselves.  Animals think, they even reason.  They can carry around within themselves a model of how others think and think about them.  They can deceive.  They even appear to have empathy and a sense of fairness.  But no other animal has the perfect tool of language.  Animals can think and feel, but they can not express themselves, at least, not as comprehensively as we can.  The expressiveness of language has one overriding aim: it allows us to connect very effectively.

The more we study ourselves, the more we understand how our need to connect has worked its way into our bodies, colonizing our nervous system.  Our big brains are the hardware for our connection into the human network: there’s a direct correlation between the amount of grey matter in our prefrontal cortex and the number of individuals we can maintain connections with.  Anthropologist Robin Dunbar came up with a figure of 148, plus or minus a few.  That’s the number of individuals you carry around in your head with you, all the time.  For a long, long time – tens of thousands of years – that was the largest a tribe of humans could grow, before they hived off into two tribes.  When a tribe grows so big you can’t know all of its members, it’s time to divide.

We’ve grown used to being surrounded by people we have no connection with.  That’s what cities are all about.  We’ve been building them for close to ten thousand years, and in that time we’ve learned how to live with those we don’t know.  It’s not easy – it requires police and courts and prisons – but the advantages of coming together in such great numbers outweigh the disadvantages.  In 2008, for the first time in history, half of humanity lived in cities.  We’re in the final stages of the urban revolution – a revolution in the making for the past hundred centuries.  Urban life is now the default human condition.

Just as that revolution reaches is climax, we find ourselves presented with a new technology, which takes all of our human connections and digitizes them, creating an electronic representation of what we each carry around in our heads.  We call this ‘social networking’, though, as I’ve explained, social networks are actually older than our species.  Stuffing them into a computer doesn’t change them: We are our connections.  They are what make us human.  But the computer speeds up and amplifies those connections, taking something natural and ordinary and turning it into something freakish and – hopefully – wonderful.

Before we discuss how these newly amplified connections can be used, it may be useful to step back, and reframe this latest revolution – just three years old – in the context of a child born, not in the early 1960s, but in 2010.  I have good friends in Melbourne who are expecting their first child in early September.  For the sake of today’s talk, let’s use this child (we’ll call her a daughter, though no one yet knows) as an example of what is now happening, and what is to come.

Will this child have a baby book?  Certainly, some beloved relative may provide one to the lucky parents, and mom and dad may even take the time to fill it in – between the 3 AM feedings and the nappy changes.  But the true baby book for this child will be the endless stream of digital media created in her wake.  From a few minutes after birth, she will be photographed, recorded, videoed, measured and captured in ways that would seem inconceivable (and obsessive) just a generation ago.  Yet today think nothing of a parent who follows a child everywhere with a video camera.

As parents collect that all of that media, they’re going to want somewhere to show it off.  An eponymous website. YouTube is already cluttered with videos of babies doing the most mundane sorts of things, precisely so they can be shown off to proud grandparents. Photo galleries on Picasa and Snapfish and Flickr exist for precisely the same reason – they provide a venue for sharing.  Parents post to blogs documenting every move, every fitful crawl, every illness.  What’s the difference between this and what we think of as a baby book?  Nothing at all.

It seems natural and wonderful to gather all of this documentation about her.  This is who she is in her youngest years.  But there’s other information that her parents do not document, at least not yet: who does she connect with?  This list is small in her very first years, but as she grows into a toddler and heads off to day care and pre-kindy and grade school, that list grows rather longer.  Will her parents keep track of these relationships?  Even if they do not, at some point, she will.  She’ll go online to a site patrolled by Disney or Apple or Google or Microsoft and be invited to ‘friend’ others on the site, and enroll her own real-world friends.  Her social network will begin to twin into its physical and virtual selves.  Much of each will be a reflection of the other, but some connections will exist purely in one realm.  Some friends or family members will have no presence online; a few friends might remain life-long ‘pen pals’, never meeting in the flesh, but maintaining constant, connected contact.

The most significant difference between these real-world and virtual networks centers on persistence.  We only have room for 150 people in our heads.  When we fill up, people start to get pushed out, crossing that invisible yet absolutely real line between friend and acquaintance.  We may have a lot of acquaintances, but these relationships, in the real world, don’t consist of very much beyond a greeting and a few polite words.  Contrast this to the virtual world, the world of Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, where connections persist forever unless explicitly deleted by one of the parties to that connection.  There is no upper limit to the number of connections a computer can remember.  (Facebook has an upper limit of 5000 friends, but that’s entirely artificial and will eventually be abandoned.)

As she passes through life, this child will continue to accrue connections, and these connections will be digitized for safekeeping – just like the photos and videos her parents shot in her youngest years.  That list will naturally grow and grow and grow, as she passes through years 1 through 12, moves on to university, and out into the world of adults.  By the time she’s 25, she’ll likely have thousands of connections that accreted just by living her life.  Each of these people will be able to peer in, and see how she’s doing; she’ll be able to do the same with each of them.

Managing the difference between our real-world connections, which top out, and our virtual connections, which do not, is a task that we’ll be mastering over the next decade.  Right now, we’re not very good at it.  By the time she’s grown up enough to understand the different qualities of real and virtual connections, we will be able to teach her behaviors appropriate to each sphere of connection.  At present there’s a lot of confusion, a fair bit of chaos, and a healthy helping of ignorance around all of this.  We can give ourselves a pass: it’s brand new.  But already we’re beginning to see that this is a real revolution.  In the social sphere, nothing will look like the past.

II:  Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire

On Friday evening, my washing machine – which I bought, used, just after I moved to Australia – finally gave up the ghost.  The motor on my front loader seemed less and less likely to make it through an entire spin cycle, so I knew this day was coming, and had some thoughts about what I’d do for a replacement.  One of my very good friends recommended that I buy a Simpson brand washer, just as she owned, just as her mother owned.  ‘Years of trouble-free service,’ she said.  ‘It’ll last forever.’  I took that suggestion under advisement.  But I knew that I had a larger pool of individuals to interrogate.  About thirty minutes after the unfortunate passing of the washer, I posted a message to Twitter, asking for recommendations.  Within minutes I was pointed to Choice Magazine, wher I read their reliability survey.  Many people chimed in with their own love or horror stories about particular brands of washers.  I was quickly dissuaded from Simpson: ‘There’s a reason they’re cheap,’ one person replied.  A furious argument raged about whether LG should be purchased by anyone, for any reason whatsoever, given that they were caught cheating on a refrigerator efficiency test.  Miele owners seemed fanatically in love with their washers – but acknowledged that they paid a big premium for that love.  And so on.  After reviewing the input from Twitter (and Choice), I made a decision to purchase a Bosch, which seemed both highly reliable and not too expensive, good value for money.  I put my decision out to Twitter, and the Bosch owners all chimed in: very happy, except for one, who seemed to have gotten one of those units that inevitably break down a few days after the warrantee expires.  That settled it.  On Saturday morning I played Bing Lee off Harvey Norman, talked one down to a very good price, and made the purchase.  Crisis resolved.

Let’s step back from the immediate and get a good look at this whole process.  In considering what to replace my dead washing machine with, I first consulted my real-world network – my friend who recommended Simpson.  Then I went out to my virtual network, a network which is much, much larger.  I follow about 5700 people on Twitter.  This means I have access, potentially, to 5700 opinions, 5700 sets of experiences, 5700 people who may be willing to help.  Even if only a small proportion of those do decide to offer assistance, that’s a lot of help, and it comes to me more or less immediately.  The entire process took about half an hour – and this on a Friday night.  If it’d been on a Tuesday afternoon, when people idly monitor Twitter while they work, I would have received double the response.

Wherever I go, I carry this ‘cloud’ of connections with me.  These connections have value in themselves – they are a record of my passage through the human universe – but they have far greater value when put to work to accomplish some task.  This is it; this is the knife-edge of the present: We have been busily building up our social networks, and though I freely admit that I am better connected than most, this will not long remain the case, as a generation grows into adulthood keeping a perfect record of all of their connections.  Within a few years, nearly everyone who wills it will enter every situation with the same cloud of connections, the same reliable web of helpers who can respond to requests as the need arises.  That fundamental transition – at the heart of this latest revolution – makes each of us much more effective.  We’re carrying around a whole stadium of individuals, who can be called upon as needed to help us make the best decision in every situation.  As we grow more comfortable with this new power, every decision of significance we make will be done in consultation with this network of effectiveness.  This is already transforming the way we operate.

Some more examples, drawn from my own experience, will help illuminate this transformation.  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 Valley, I asked Twitter which wineries I should visit – and the top five recommendations were very good indeed.  In the moment these can seem like trivial affairs, but both together begin to mark the difference between an ordinary holiday and an awesome one.  Imagine this stretching out, minute after minute, throughout our lives.  We’re not used to thinking in such terms.  But just twenty years ago we weren’t used to the idea that we could reach anyone else instantly from wherever we were, or be reached by anyone else, anywhere.  Then the mobile came along, and now that’s an accepted part of our reality.  We’d find it difficult to go back to a time before the mobile became such an essential tool in our lives.  This is the same transition we’re in the midst of right now with social networks.  We look at Twitter and Facebook and find them charming ways to stay in touch and while away some empty time.  A social network isn’t charming, and it certainly isn’t a waste of time.  We are like children, playing with very powerful weapons.  And sometimes they go off.

Before we explore that more explosive side to social networks, the ‘pillar of fire’ to this ‘pillar of cloud’, I want to introduce you to one more social networking technology, one which is brand-new, and which you may not have heard of yet.   Just over the past month, I’ve become a big fan of Foursquare, a location-based ‘social network’.  Using the GPS on my mobile, Foursquare allows me to ‘check in’ when I go to a restaurant, a store, or almost anywhere else.  That is, Foursquare records the fact that I am at a particular place at a particular time.  Once I’ve checked in, I can then make a recommendation – a ‘tip’ in Foursquare lingo – and share something I’ve observed about that place.  It could be anything – something absurdly trivial, or something very relevant.  As others have likely been to this place before me, there is already a list of tips.  If I peek through those tips, I can learn something that could prove very useful.

As every day passes, and more people use Foursquare (over a million at present, all around the world) this list of tips is rapidly growing longer, more substantial, and more useful.  What does this mean?  Well, I could walk into a bar that I’ve never been to before and know exactly which cocktail I want to order.  I would know which table at a restaurant offers the quietest corner for a romantic date.  Or which salesperson to talk to for a good deal on that washing machine.  And so on.  With Foursquare have immediate and continuous information in depth, information provided by the hundreds or thousands in my own social network, plus everyone else who chooses to contribute.  Foursquare turns the real world into a kind of Wikipedia, where everyone contributes what they know to improve the lot of all.  I have a growing range of information about the world around me in my hands.  If I put it to work, it will improve my effectiveness.

Last weekend I went to the cinema, to see Iron Man 2.  As soon as I left the theatre, I sent out a message to Twitter: “Thought Iron Man 2 better than original.  Snappier.  Funnier.  More comic-book-y.”  That recommendation – high praise from me – went out to the 6550 people who follow me.  Many of those folks are Australians, who might have been looking for a film to see last weekend.  My positive review would have influenced them.  I know for a fact that it did influence some, because they sent me messages telling me this.

On the other hand, if I’d sent out a message saying, ‘Worst. Movie. Ever.’ that also would have reached 6550 people, who would, once again, consider it.  It might have even dissuaded some from paying the $17.50 to see Iron Man 2 on the big screen.  If enough people said the same thing, that could kill the box office.  This is precisely what we’ve seen.  There’s a direct correlation between the speed at which a motion picture bombs and the rise in the number of users of Twitter.  It used to take a few days for word-of-mouth to kill a movie’s box office (think Godzilla).  Now it takes a few minutes. As the first showing ends, friends text friends, people post to Twitter and Facebook, and the story spreads.  After the second or third showing, the crowds have dropped off: word has gotten out that the film stinks.  Where a film could coast an entire weekend, now it has just a Friday matinee to succeed or fail.  Positive word-of-mouth kept Avatar at the #1 spot for nine weeks, and the film remained a trending topic on Twitter for half of that time; conversely, The Back-Up Plan disappeared almost without a trace.  An opinion, multiplied by hundreds or thousands of connections, carries a lot of weight.

These connections always come with us, part of who we are now.  If we have an experience we find objectionable, our connections have a taste of that.  A few months ago a friend found herself in Far North Queensland with an American Express card whose credit limit had summarily been cut in half with no warning, leaving her far away from home and potentially caught in a jam.  When she called American Express to make an inquiry – and found that their consumer credit division closed at 5 pm on a Friday evening – she lost her temper.  The 7500 people who follow her on Twitter heard a solid rant about the evils of American Express, a rant that they will now remember every time they find an American Express invitation letter in the post, or even when they decide which credit card to select while making a purchase.

Every experience, positive or negative, is now amplified beyond all comprehension.  We sit here with the social equivalent of tactical nuclear weapons in our hands, toying with the triggers, and act surprised when occasionally they go off.  Catherine Deveny, a weekly columnist for The AGE, was summarily dismissed last week because of some messages she posted over Twitter during the Logies broadcast.  It seems she hadn’t thought through the danger of sending an obscene – but comedic – message to thousands of people, a message that would be picked up and sent again, and sent again, and sent again, until the tabloid newspapers and television shows, smelling blood in the water, got in on the action.  When you’re well-connected, everything is essentially public.  There’s no firm boundary between your private sphere and your public life once you allow thousands of others a look in.  That can be a good thing if one is hungry for celebrity and fame – Kim Kardashian is an excellent example of this – but it can also accelerate a drive to self-destruction (witness Miranda Devine’s comments from Sunday).  We live within a social amplifier, and it’s always turned up to 11.  When we scream, we can be heard around the world, but now our whispers sound like shouts.

This means that no one can be silenced, anywhere.  Last June, the entire world watched as an abortive Iranian revolution broke out on the streets of Tehran, viewing clips shot on mobile handsets, uploaded to YouTube, tagged, then picked up and shared throughout social networks like Twitter, which brought them to the attention of CNN, the New York Times, and the US State Department. Mobiles brought into North Korea puncture the tightly held reins of state control as information and news seeps across the border with China, the human connection amplified by a social technology. It’s no longer the CIA or ASIO station chief who gathers intelligence from far-flung places.  It courses through our human networks.

You can begin to see the shape of this revolution-in-progess.  Everything is so new, so rough, so raw, so innocent of intention that we really don’t know where we are going.  We’re all stumbling through this doorway together.  Each of us hold our connections to one another; like balloons that, in sufficient numbers, might cause us to take flight.  We’re lifting off and gaining speed.  Whether we’re a glider or a guided missile is up to us.  We must pause, take stock, and ask ourselves what we want from these powerful new tools.  And, in return, ask what we must be prepared to accept.

III:  Threat Assistment

Individuals are becoming radically hyper-empowered.  Our connections give us capabilities undreamt of a generation ago.  As individuals who assess the various risks for your organizations, you’ve just learned about a brand new one, a threat that will – relatively quickly – dwarf nearly all others.  The risk of hyperconnectivity is coming at you from three distinct but interrelated axes: hyper-empowered individuals who want to interact with your organizations; hyper-empowered individuals who compose your organizations; and your organizations, when they grasp the nettle of hyperconnectivity.

What do you do when a hyperconnected individual wants to become a customer, or just interact in some way with your organization?  What happens when an existing customer becomes hyperconnected?  Both of these situations are becoming commonplace affairs.  My friend who had her troubles with American Express typifies this sort of threat.  She had a long-term relationship with the company, but in the last years of that relationship she became hyperempowered.  American Express didn’t know this – probably wouldn’t have understood it – and failed to manage the relationship when she ran into trouble.

The key attitudes for managing external relationships with hyperconnected individuals are humility and openness.  American Express had no idea what was going on because they weren’t plugged into what my friend was saying to thousands of her followers.   They didn’t consider her worth listening to.  There’s no reason for this sort of thing to happen.  Excellent tools exist that allow you to monitor what is being said about your organization, right now, who is saying it, and where.  You can keep your finger on the pulse; when a customer has an issue, you can respond in a timely manner, humbly and transparently.  Social media places an enormous value on transparency: unless someone’s motives – and connections – are apparent to you, you have no real reason to trust them, and no basis upon which to build that trust.

This isn’t a difficult policy to implement, but the responsibility for listening doesn’t lie with a single individual or department within your organization.  Responsibility is spread throughout the organization; that’s the only way your organization will be able to handle all of the hyperconnected customers you do business with.  Spread the load.  The Chinese have a proverb: ‘Many hands make light work.’  That same rule applies here.  Make listening to customers a priority throughout your organizations.  If you don’t, those customers will use their amplified capabilities to make your life a living hell.

Employees within your organizations don’t leave their own networks at the door when they walk into the office.  Although employers often block access to services like Facebook and Twitter from employee workstations, mobiles and pervasive high speed wireless connectivity make that restriction increasingly meaningless.  Employees will connect and stay connected throughout the day, regardless of your stated policy.  Soon enough, you will be encouraging them to stay connected, in order to share the burden of all that listening.  Right now, your employees are well connected, but poorly disciplined.  They don’t know the right way to do things.  Don’t blame them for this.  It’s all very new, and there hasn’t been a lot of guidance.

If you walk out of today’s talk with any one thing buzzing in your head, let it be this: develop a social media policy for your employees.  Employees want to know how they can be connected in the office without damaging your reputation or their position.  In the absence of a social media policy, organizations will get into all sorts of prangs that could have been avoided.  Case in point: last week’s sacking of AGE columnist Catherine Deveny happened, in large part, because Fairfax has no social media policy.  There were no guidelines for what constituted acceptable behavior, or even which behavior was ‘on the clock’ versus ‘off the clock’.  Without these sorts of guidelines, hyperconnected employees will make their own decisions – putting your organizations, your stakeholders and your brands at risk.

Two well-known Australian organizations have established their own social media policies.  The ABC boiled theirs down to four simple rules:

1)    Do not mix the personal and the professional in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute;

2)    Do not undermine your effectiveness at work;

3)    Do not imply ABC endorsement of your personal views;

4)    Do not disclose confidential information obtained through work.

This could be summed up with ‘use common sense’, but spelled out as it is here, the ABC has given its employees a framework that allows them to both regulate and embrace social media.

Telstra’s policy is wordier – it runs to five pages – but it is, in essence, very similar.  It is good that Telstra has a social media policy, but that policy was only developed after a very public and very embarrassing incident.  Last year, Telstra employee Leslie Nassar, who posted to Twitter pseduonymously  under the account ‘Fake Stephen Conroy’, revealed his identity.  When Telstra realized that one of their employees daily satirized the senator charged with ministerial oversight of their organization, the company was appalled, and quickly moved to fire Nassar – only to find that it couldn’t, because Nassar had violated no stated policy or conditions of employment.  Shortly after that, Telstra developed and promulgated its social media guidelines.  Learn from Telstra’s mistake.  This same sort of PR and political catastrophe needn’t happen in your organizations, but I guarantee that it will, if you do not develop a social media policy.  So please, get started immediately.

Finally, what happens when organizations hyperconnect?  For hundreds of years, organizations have been based on rigid hierarchies and restricted flows of information.  Hyperconnectivity puts paid to the org chart, replacing it with a dense set of hyperconnections between individuals within the organization, and between organizations: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.  We don’t really understand much about this new form of organization, other than to say that it looks very little like what we are familiar with today.  But the pressure from hyperconnected individuals – both within and outside of the organization – will only increase, and to accommodate this pressure, the organization will increasingly find itself embedded in hyperconnections.  This is the final leg of the revolution, still some years away, but one which requires careful planning today.  Can your organization handle itself as it connects broadly to a planet where everyone is connected broadly?  Will it maintain its own integrity, will it dissolve, merge, or disintegrate?  This is a question that businesses need to ask, that schools need to ask, that governments need to ask.  Everything from mass production to service delivery is being re-thought and re-shaped by our hyperconnectivity.

Organizations that master hyperconnectivity, putting social media to work, experience a leap forward in productivity.  That leap forward comes at a price.  Every tool that enhances productivity also changes everyone who uses it.  None of us, as individuals or organizations, will be left behind, even if we choose to unplug, because we remain completely connected to a human world which is increasing hyperconnected.  There is no going back, nor any particular safety in the present.  Instead, we need to connect, and together use the best of what we’ve got – which is substantial, because there are plenty of smart people in all your organizations, throughout the nation, and the world – to mange this transition.  This could be a nearly bloodless revolution, if we can remember that, at our essence, we are the connected species.  Thought it may seem chaotic, this is not a collapse.  It is a culmination.

The slides for this talk can be found here.

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.

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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.

Mob Rules (The Law of Fives)

Mob Rules is also available on YouTube, just click here.

Chaos

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.

Unexpected. Unprecedented.

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.

You can’t push a mob any more than you can push a rope; you can pull them, lure them, and, if you’re very lucky, dazzle them for a moment or two, but then, inevitably, they’ll move along. That’s bad news for anyone building web sites. The world of mob rules isn’t about sites; it’s about services, things that the street uses and permutes indefinitely. The idea of web sites dates from a time before the network ate hierarchy; sites are places where you go and follow the rules laid down by some information architect. Well, there’s no way to enforce those rules. The first Google Maps mashup didn’t come from Google. Or the second. Or the third. Or the hundredth. Google resisted the mashup. Claimed mashups violated their terms of use. Mashups come from the mob, the street finding its own use for things. The mob pushed on through; Google bowed down and obeyed. The most powerful institution of the Internet era, pushed around like a child’s toy. Ponder that.

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.

Aftermath

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.

iToldYouSo

I

Few terms convey less meaning than “futurist.” What exactly is a futurist? What does he do? The definition, so far as I chose to apply it, is simple: a futurist looks at the present, at human behavior and human tendencies, to imagine how these trends develop. This is less science than storytelling; the development of any human endeavor is fraught with non-linear events, which yank the arrow of the progress this way and that. One can never know the future with any precision, and the farther the future recedes down the light-cone, the less distinct it becomes. We might know with high accuracy what will happen tomorrow. But five years from now, or twenty? That’s more alchemy than anthropology.

Yet, in order to play the game, futurists must make predictions. It’s what we do. So, for those few futurists who are willing to take the big risks of making short-term predictions – ranging from twelve to thirty-six months in the future – the game is particularly dangerous. Any futurist can predict what will come to pass in twenty years’ time, because no one will remember how wrong they were. But to make a prediction for the near term risks being revealed as a charlatan. Such predictions must be considered carefully, revealed hesitantly, and pronounced provisionally. Doing that will give you an out later on. Yet I have never been one to be either hesitant or provisional; I leap in where braver (and, arguably wiser) souls fear to tread. My particular brand of futurism – the “futurest” – is expansive, encompassing, and uncompromisingly revolutionary. I say this not to tout my strengths, but rather, to reveal the dangers.

In the early 1990s I predicted that VR would become the standard interface metaphor for computers by the 21st century. Did I get that right? It seems not; after all, we still use windows and mice as standard the interaction paradigm, just as we did back in 1990. Yet, if we can draw anything from the recent and somewhat surprisingly successful introduction of the Nintendo Wii, it’s that VR did arrive, is pervasive, and has become a dominant interface metaphor. Just not on the computer desktop. VR isn’t about head-mounted displays, although it might have seemed so, fifteen years ago. VR is about bringing the body into contact with the simulated world. Nintendo, with its clever, cheap, attractive and highly functional Wiimote, has done just that. They’ve done what decades of other researchers and engineers failed to do: they’ve brought us into the game. So predictions might come to pass, but rarely do they come in the form imagined. But every so often, when you step up to the plate, you connect completely, and knock one out of the park.

II

In early December 2005 I was invited to give a plenary presentation to the Australian conference on Interaction and Entertainment Design. This was one of the rare opportunities I get to talk on any subject I desired. Most of these academics wanted to talk about the latest trends in gaming and online communities; having been through that, and more, a decade ago, I decided to take the conversation in an entirely different direction, by focusing on that most common of our electronic peripherals, the mobile phone.

So common as to be nearly invisible, the mobile phone has become the focal point of our social existence. Yet, despite its constant presence, the mobile seemed poorly fit to the task of being our perpetual servant. It seemed stuck in an liminal position, between the wired world and the pervasive networked environment which is the global reality of the 21st century. The mobile was broken, and needed to be fixed. Hence, working with Angus Fraser, my graduate student – who, on his own, has had years of experience developing interfaces and applications for mobile phones – I wrote “The Telephone Repair Handbook”. I started off by challenging the audience to answer three questions:

  1. Q: Why does a mobile phone have a keypad? We never use it.
    A: Because wired phones have keypads. And so we can enter text. Badly.
  2. Q: How many networks are our mobile phones really connected to?
    A: The answer is generally at least three: GPRS/GSM, Bluetooth and IrDA.
  3. Q: What are our phones doing all the time they’re idle?
    A: Nothing. They’re just waiting for a phone call or a text message to make their day.

These basic failures in the design of the mobile phone, I argued, arose from our fundamental misunderstanding of the function of the device. Mobile phones are not simply passive terminals, waiting to be activated. They are (or rather, should be) active communications processors, managing the minutiae of our social relationships.

Once I’d set up the straw men, and knocked them down, I described a new kind of mobile phone, designed from the outset to be a communications servant, a nexus which tracked, facilitated and recorded all of the social interactions happening through it, or, via Bluetooth, proximal to it. And, because I can code, I demonstrated the very first version of Blue States, a small Java J2ME application which allowed mobile phones to note and record the presence of other Bluetooth devices in their immediate proximity. This information, I insisted, could be come the foundation of an emergent social network. The mobile, at all times with you, or nearby, knows your social life better than you do. When exposed, and analyzed, this data becomes a powerful tool. Angus and I worked up a few user scenarios to demonstrate our point: the mobile can be so much more. All it needs is the right software. I finished by encouraging this room of researchers to re-invent the mobile phone, to make it the digital social secretary, the majordomo, and grand vizier.

A month after I gave that presentation, I left my teaching position, and began coding, full-time, on Blue States, readying it for its first deployment, at ISEA San Jose. As an art project at an art festival, it might influence the creative minds of electronic artists. Perhaps they would begin to pervert their own mobile phones, transforming them into something entirely more useful.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to wait for the artists to catch up with me. For it seems that even as I was beginning my research work, more than two years ago, and formulating my theories on the future of the mobile telephone, another group of researchers set to the same task, and came to many of the same conclusions.

III

Yesterday, on a stage in San Francisco, Steve Jobs, CEO of the now-renamed Apple, Inc., introduced the iPhone, Apple’s much-rumored and long-awaited convergence device. Three things must be noted as essential to the design:

  1. It has no keyboard.
  2. It is connected to wireless internet, Bluetooth and GPRS/EDGE networks simultaneously, and moves between each seamlessly.
  3. It has a sophisticated operating system, and is constantly executing several tasks at once. It is never truly idle.

The iPhone is a combination of an iPod and a mobile telephone, and these elements have been fused together with a fingertip-based user interface to make the device nearly as tactile and natural as any familiar object. It is a mobile phone, but it has – finally and rationally – lost its vestigial connections to the wired phone. It is not simply a wireless phone; it is a network terminal, with all that implies. That it has a true operating system – instead of the “toy” operating systems of earlier mobile phones, which are cranky, and which crash all too often – means that programmers can harness the capabilities of the device wholly, taking it into directions that its creators at Apple never intended. This is not simply an iPod, or a mobile phone, but a complete redefinition of the device. This, quite simply, is the future, as I predicted it, thirteen months ago.

Will the iPhone succeed? No one yet knows. The device is both new enough and different enough that significant changes in user behavior must follow in its wake. Like the Macintosh with its Graphical User Interface, this transformation might take a decade to become the dominant interaction paradigm. Or – given the level of hype and excitement seen in the media in the last twenty-four hours – it might be the right device, at the right time. It may be that Apple has told the world not only why the telephone must be reinvented, but has show it how it should be done. If they have, the iPhone will make the iPod look like a weak overture. Copies and clones will proliferate, skirting to the edge of every one of Apple’s two hundred iPhone patents. And people will begin to have very different expectations for their mobile phones.

While the iPhone both excites and dazzles me with its ingenuity, design and inventiveness, I am not completely satisfied with it. It is still a phone, an iPod, and an “internet communicator” rolled into one. It is not, in any true sense, wholly integrated. There is no way for my friends in San Francisco, with their iPhones, to know what my favorite songs are, or what I’m listening to at the moment, or what I’m reading on the web, or who I’m texting. It is halfway to the social device which I see as the inevitable end point. But the rest is just software. The hardware platform is there, ready and waiting, and will be disrupted by a dozen innovations that no one can yet predict. But I do predict they will happen, in the next twelve to thirty-six months.

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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.