Hyperconnected Education

I: Connect / Disconnect

Recently, I had the opportunity to teach a lecture at the University of Sydney.  I always consider teaching a two-way street: there’s an opportunity to learn as much from my students as they learn from me.  Sometime I simply watch what they do, learning from that what new behaviors are spreading across the culture.  Other times I take advantage of a captive audience to run an ethnographic survey.  With eighty eager students ready to do my bidding, I worked up a few questions about mobile usage patterns within their age group.

First, I ascertained their ages – ranging mostly between eighteen and twenty-two, with a cluster around nineteen and twenty.  Then I asked them, “How old were you when you first got a mobile of your own?”  One student got her first mobile at nine years of age, while the oldest waited until they were nineteen.  An analysis of the data shows that half of the students owned a mobile at around eleven and a half years old.

When I shared this result with some colleagues on Twitter, they responded, “That seems a bit old.”  And it does – precisely because these students are, on average, eight and a half years older than when they got their first mobile.  This survey looks back into 2003 – the year that I arrived in Australia – rather than at the present moment.

Another survey, conducted last year, shows how much has changed, so quickly.  Thirty-seven percent of children between Kindergarten and Year 2 have their own mobile (of some sort), with one fifth having access to a smartphone.  By Year 8, that figure has risen to eighty-five percent, with fully one-third using smartphones.

Since the introduction of the mobile, thirty years ago, the average age of first ownership has steadily dropped.  For many years the device was simply too expensive to be given to any except children from the wealthiest families.  Today, an Android smartphone can be purchased outright for little more than a hundred dollars, and thirty dollars a months in carriage.  With the exception of the poorest Australians, price is no longer a barrier to mobile ownership.  As the price barrier dropped, the age of first mobile ownership has also tumbled, from eleven years old in 2003, to something closer to eight today.

The resistance to mobile ownership in the sub-eight-year-old set will only be overcome as the devices themselves become more appropriate to children with less developed cognitive skills.  Below age eight, the mobile morphs from a general-purpose communications device to a type of networked tether, allowing the parent and the child to remain in a constant high state of situational awareness about each other’s comings and goings.  Only a few mobiles have been designed to serve the needs of the young child.  The market has not been mature enough to support a broad array of child-friendly devices, nor have the carriers developed plans which make mobile ownership in that age group an attractive option.  This will inevitably happen, and from the statistics, that day can not be very far off: the resistance to the mobile in this age group will be designed away.

There is no real end in sight.  The younger the child, the more the mobile assumes the role of the benevolent watcher, a sensor continually reporting the condition of the child to the parent.  We already use radio-frequency baby monitors to listen to our children as they fuss in their cribs; a mobile provides the same capability by different means.  This sensor will also track the child’s heartbeat, temperature, and other vital statistics, will grow smaller and less-power hungry, until – at some point in the next fifteen years, a child have receive their first mobile moments after they pop out of the womb.  That mobile will be integrated into the hospital tag slipped around their foot.

It is an absolute inevitability that sometime within the next decade, every single child entering primary school will come bearing their own mobile.  They will join the rest of us in being hyperconnected – directly and immediately connected to everyone of importance to them.  Why should Australian children be any different than any of the rest of us?  Mobile subscription rates in Australia exceed 120% – more than one per person, even counting all those currently too young or too old to use a mobile.  Within a generation, being human and being connected will be seen to be synonymous.

The next years are an interregnum, the few heartbeats between the ‘before time’ – when none of us were connected – and a thoroughly hyperconnected afterward.  This is the moment when we must make the necessary pedagogical and institutional adjustments to a pervasively connected culture.  That survey from last year found that even at Kindergarten level, two-thirds of parents were willing to buy a mobile for their children – if schools integrated the device into their pedagogy.  But the survey also pointed to opposition within the schools themselves:

“When we asked administrators about the likelihood of them allowing their students to use their own mobile devices for instructional purposes at school this year, a resounding 65% of principals said “no way!”

School administrators overwhelmingly hold the comforting belief that the transition into hyperconnectivity can be prevented, forestalled, or simply banned.  A decade ago most schools banned the mobile; within the last few years, mobiles have been permitted with specific restrictions around how and when they can be used.  A few years from now, there will be no effective way to silence the mobile, anywhere (except in specific instances I will speak to later), because so much of our children’s lives will have become contingent upon the continuous connection it affords.

Like King Canute, we can not hold back the tide.  We must prepare for the rising waters.  We must learn to swim within the sea of connectivity.  Or we will drown.

II: Share / Overshare

When people connect, they begin to share.  This happens automatically, an expression of the instinctive human desire to communicate matters of importance.  Give someone an open channel and they’ll transmit everything they see that they think could be of any interest to anyone else.  At the beginning, this sharing can look quite unfocused – bad jokes and cute kittens – but as time passes, we teach one another those things we consider important enough to share, by sharing them.  Sharing, driven by need, amplified by technology, reaches every one of us, through our network of connections.  We both give and receive: from each according to their knowledge, to each, according to their need.

Sharing has amplified the scope of our awareness.  We can find and connect to others who share our interests, increasing our awareness of those interests.  The parent-child bond is the most essential of all our interests, so parents are loading their children up with the technologies of connection, gaining a constant ‘situational awareness’ of a depth which makes them the envy of ASIO.  The mobile tether becomes eyes and ears and capability, both lifeline and surrogate.  The child uses the mobile to share experiences – both actively and passively – and the parent, wherever they may be, ‘hovers’, watching and guiding.

This ‘helicopter parenting’ was difficult to put into practice before hyperconnectivity, because vigilance required presence.  The mobile has cut the cord, allowing parental hypervigilance to become a pervasive feature of the educational environment.  As the techniques for this electronic hypervigilance become less expensive and easier to use, they will become the accepted practice for child raising.

Intel Fellow and anthropologist Dr. Genevieve Bell spent a day in a South Korean classroom a few years ago, interviewing children whose parents had given them mobiles with GPS tracking capabilities – so those parents always knew the precise location of their child.  When Bell asked the students if they found this constant monitoring threatening, one set of students pointed to another student, who didn’t have a tracking mobile, saying,  “Her parents don’t love her enough to care where she is.”  In the context of the parent-child bond, something that appears Orwellian transforms into the ultimate security blanket.

A friend in Sydney has a child in Kindergarten, a precocious boy who finds the classroom environment alternately boring and confronting.  She’s been called in to speak with the teacher a few times, because of his disruptive behavior – behavior he links to bullying by another classmate.  The teacher hasn’t seen the behaviour, or perhaps thinks it doesn’t merit her attention, leaving the boy increasingly frustrated, dreading every day at school.

In conversation with my friend, I realized that her child felt alone and undefended in the classroom.  How might that change?  Imagine that before he left for school, his mother affixes a small button to his school uniform, perhaps on the collar.  This button would have a camera, microphone and mobile transmitter within it, continuously recording and transmitting a live stream directly from the child’s collar to the parent’s mobile – all day long.  The child wouldn’t have to set it up, or do anything at all.  It would simply work – and my friend would have eyes and ears wherever her child went.  If there was trouble – bullying, or anything else – my friend would see it as it happened, and would be able to send a recording along to her son’s teacher.

This is not science fiction.  It is not even far way.  Every smartphone has all of the technology needed to make this happen.  Although a bit bulkier than I’ve described, it could all be done today.  Not long ago, I purchased a $50 toy ‘spy watch’, which records 20 minutes of video.  My friend could equip her son with that toy asking him to record anything he thought important.  Shrinking it down to the size of a button and adding mobile capability will come in time.  When such a device hits the market, parents will find it irresistible – because it finally gives them eyes in the back of their head.

We need to ask ourselves whether this technological tethering is good for either parent or child.  Psychologist Sherry Turkel, who has explored the topic of children and technology longer than anyone else, believes that this constant close connectivity keeps the child from exploring their own boundaries, artificially extending the helplessness of childhood by amplifying the connection between parent and child.  Connection has consequence: to be connected is to be affected by that connection.  A small child might gain a sense of freedom with an electronic tether, but an adolescent might have a dependency on that connection that could interfere with their adult development.  Because hyperconnectivity is such a recent condition, we don’t have the answers to these questions.  But these questions need to be asked.

This connection has broad consequences for educators.  Two years ago I heard a teacher in Victoria relate the following story: In a secondary school classroom, one student had failed to turn in their assignment.  This wasn’t the first time it had happened, so the teacher had a bit of a go at the student.  As the teacher harangued the student, he reached into his knapsack, pulled out his mobile, and punched a few buttons.  When the connection was made, he said, “You listen to the bitch,” and held the phone away from his face, toward his teacher.

Connection and sharing rewire and short-circuit the relationships we have grown accustomed to within the classroom.  How can a teacher maintain discipline while constantly being trumped by a child tethered to a hypervigilant parent?  How can a child gain independence while so tethered?  How can a parent gain any peace of mind while constantly monitoring the activities of their child?  All of these new dynamics are persistent features of the 21st-century classroom.  All are already present, but none are as yet pervasive.  We have some time to think about our response to hyperconnectivity.

III: Learn / You, Me, and Everyone We Know

A few years ago, both Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (my alma mater) made the revolutionary decision to publicly post all of lesson plans, homework assignments, and recordings of lectures for all classes offered at their schools.  Why, some wondered aloud, would anyone pay the $40,000 a year in tuition and fees, when you could get the content for nothing?  This question betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of education in the 21st century: knowledge is freely available, but the mentoring which makes that knowledge apprehensible and useful remains a precious resource.  It’s wonderful to have a lesson plan, but it’s essential to be able to work with someone who has a deep understanding of the material.

This is the magic in education, the je ne sais quois that makes it a profoundly human experience, and stubbornly resistant to automation.  We have no shortage of material: nearly four million English language articles in Wikipedia, 2500 videos on Khan Academy (started, it should be noted, by an MIT educator), tens of thousands of lessons in everything from cooking to knitting to gardening to home renovation on YouTube, and sites like SkillShare, which connect those who have specialist knowledge to those who want it.  Yet, even with this embarrassment of riches, we still yearn for the opportunity to conspire, to breathe the same air as our mentor, while they, by the fact of their presence, transmit mastery.  If this sounds a wee bit mystical, so be it: education is the most human of all our behaviors, and we do not wholly understand the why and how of it.

Who shall educate the educators?  All of the materials so far created have been affordances for students, to make their lives easier.  If it helps an educator, that’s a nice side benefit, but never the main game.  In this sense, nearly all online educational resources are profoundly populist, pointing directly to the student, ignoring both educators and educational institutions.  Hyperconnectivity has removed all of the friction which once made it difficult to connect directly to students, but has thus far ignored the teacher.  In the back of a classroom, students can tap on a mobile and correct the errors in a teacher’s lecture, but can the teacher get peer review of that same material?  Theoretically, it should be easy.  In practice, we’re still waiting.

I recently had the good fortune to be a judge at Sydney Startup Weekend, where technology entrepreneurs pitch their ideas, then spend 48 frenetic hours bringing them to life.  The winning project, ClassMate, directly addresses the Educator-to-Educator (E2E) connection.  Providing a platform for a teacher to upload and store their lesson plans, ClassMate allows teachers share those lesson plans within a school, a school system, or as broadly as desired – even charge for them.

This kind of sharing gives every teacher access to a wealth of lesson plans on a broad variety of topics.  As the National Curriculum rolls out over the next few years, the taxonomy of subject areas within it can act as an organizing taxonomy for the sharing of those lesson plans.  Searching through thousands of lesson plans would not simply be a splayed view based on keywords, like a Google search, but rather something more highly specific and focused, drawn from the arc of the National Curriculum.  With the National Curriculum as an organizing principle, the best lesson plans for any particular node within the Curriculum will quickly rise to the top.

This means that every teacher in Australia (and the world) will soon have access to the best class materials from the best teachers throughout Australia.  Teachers will be able to spend more time interacting with students as the hard slog of creating lecture materials becomes a shared burden.  Yet teachers are no different from their students; the best lesson plan is in itself insufficient.  Teachers need to work with other teachers, need to be mentored by other teachers, need to conspire with other teachers, in order to make their own pedagogical skills commensurate with the resources on offer to them.  Professional development must go hand-in-hand with an accelerated sharing of knowledge, lest this sharing only amplify the imbalances between classrooms and between schools.

Victoria’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development has the ULTRANET, designed to facilitate the sharing of materials between teachers, students and parents.  ULTRANET is not particularly user-friendly, presenting a barrier to its widespread acceptance by a community of educators who may not be broadly comfortable with technology.  Educational sharing systems must be designed from the perspective of those who use them – teachers and students – and not from a set of KPIs on a tick sheet.  One reason why I have high hopes for ClassMate is that the designer is himself a primary school teacher in New South Wales, solving a problem he faces every day.

Sharing between educators creates a platform for a broader sharing between students and educators.  At present almost all of that sharing happens inside the classroom and is immediately lost.  We need to think about how to capture our sharing moments, making them available to students.  Consider the recording device I mentioned earlier – although it works nicely for a child in Kindergarden, it becomes even more useful for someone preparing for an HSC/VCE exam, giving them a record of the mentoring they received.  This too can be shared broadly, where relevant (and often where it isn’t relevant at all, but funny, or silly, or sad, or what have you), so that everything is captured, everywhere, and shared with everyone.

If this sounds a bit like living in a fishbowl, I can only recommend that you get used to it.  Educators will be hit particularly hard by hyperconnectivity, because they spend their days working with students who have never known anything else.  Students copy from one another, teachers borrow from teachers, administrations and departments imitate what they’ve seen working in other schools and other states.  This is how it has always been, but now that this is no longer difficult, it is accelerating wildly, transforming the idea of the classroom.

IV: All Together Now

Let’s now turn to the curious case of David Cecil, a 25 year-old unemployed truckie from Cowra, arrested by the Australian Federal Police on a series of charges which could see him spend a decade imprisoned.  With nothing but time on his hands, and the Internet at his fingertips, Cecil found the thing he found most interesting, found the others interested in it, and listened to what they said.  The Internet became a classroom, and the people he connected to became his mentors.  Dedicated to learning, online for as much as twenty hours a day, Cecil took himself from absolute neophyte to practiced expert in just a few months, an autodidactic feat we can all admire in theory, if somewhat less in practice.  On the 27th of July, Cecil was arrested during a dawn AFP raid on his home, charged with breaking into and obtaining control over the computer systems of Internet service provider Platform Networks.

Cecil might have gotten away with it, but his ego wot dun him.  Cecil went back to the same bulletin boards and chat sites where he learned his ‘1337 skills’, and bragged about his exploits.  Given that these boards are monitored by the forces of law and order, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable arrest.  While it might seem the very apex of stupidity to publicly brag about breaking the law, the desire to share what we know – and be seen as an expert – frequently overrules our sense of self-preservation.  We are born to share what we know, and wired to learn from what others share.  That’s no less true for ourselves than for that ideal poster child for Constructivism, David Cecil.

Now that this figurative internal wiring has become external and literal, now that the connections no longer end with our family, friends and colleagues, but extend pervasively and continuously throughout the world, we have the capability, in principle, of learning anything known by anyone anywhere, of gaining the advantage of their experiences to guide us through our own.  We have for the first time the possibility of some sort of collective mind – not in a wacky science-fiction sense, but with something so mundane it barely rates a mention today – Wikipedia.

In its 3.7 million articles, Wikipedia offers up the factual core of human knowledge – not always perfectly, but what it loses in perfection it makes up for in ubiquity.  Every person with a smartphone now walks around with the collected essence of human knowledge in their hands, accessible within a few strokes of a fingertip.  This is unprecedented, and means that we now have the capability to make better decisions than ever before, because, at every step along the way, we can refer to this factual base, using it to guide us into doing the best we can at every moment.

That is the potential for this moment, but we do not yet operate in those terms.  We teach children to research, as if this were an activity distinct from the rest of our experience, when, in reality, research is the core activity of the 21st century.  We need to think about the era, just a few years hence, when everyone has a very smart and very well connected mobile in hand from birth.  We need to think about how that mobile becomes the lever which moves the child into knowledge.  We need to think about our practice and how it is both undermined and amplified by the device and the network it represents.

If we had to do this as individuals – or even within a single school administration – we would quickly be overwhelmed by the pace of events beyond the schoolhouse walls.  To be able to encounter this accelerating tsunami of connection and empowerment we must take the medicine ourselves, using the same tools as our students and their parents.  We have agency, but only when we face the future squarely, and admit that everything we once knew about the logic of the classroom – its flows of knowledge and power – has gone askew, and that our future lies within the network, not in opposition to it.

In ten years time, how many administrators will say “No way!”, when asked if the mobile has a place in their curriculum?  (By then, it will equivalent to asking if reading has a place in the curriculum.)  This is the stone that must be moved, the psychological block that dams connectivity and creates a dry, artificial island where there should instead be a continuous sea of capability.  The longer that dam remains in place, the more force builds up behind it.  Either we remove the stone ourselves, or the pressures of a hyperconnected world will simply rip through the classroom, wiping it away.

Your students are not alone on their journey into knowledge and mastery.  Beside them, educators blaze a new trail into a close connectivity, leveraging a depth of collective experience to accelerate the search for solutions.  We must search and research and share and learn and put that learning into practice.  We must do this continuously so we can stay in front of this transition, guiding it toward meaningful outcomes for both students and educators.  We must reinvent education while hyperconnectivity reinvents us.

CODA: Disconnect

Finally, let me also be a Devil’s Advocate.  Connectivity is amazing and wonderful and empowering, but so is its opposite.  In fifteen years we have moved from a completely disconnected culture into a completely connected culture.  We believe, a priori, that connection is good.  Yet connection comes with a cost.  To be connected is to be deeply involved with another, and outside one’s self.  This is fine – some of the time.  But we also need a space where we are wholly ourselves, contingent upon no one else.

Our children and our students do not know this.  The value of silence and quiet may seem obvious to us, but they have never lived in a disconnected culture.  They only know connection.  Being disconnected frightens them – both because of its unfamiliarity, and because it seems to hold within it the possibly of facing dangers without the assistance of others.  Furthermore, this generation has no positive role model of disconnection to look to.  They see their parents responding to text messages at the dinner table, answering emails from in front of the television, running for the mobile, every time it rings.  Parents have no boundaries around their connectivity; by their actions, this is what they have taught to their children.

Educators must instill some basic rules – a ‘hygiene of connectivity’ in the next generation.   We need to highlight disconnection as something to be longed for, a positive feature of life.  We need to teach them ways to manage their connectivity, so that they become the master of their connections, not servants.  And we need to be able to set the example in our own actions.  If we do that, we can give the next generation an important insight into how to be whole in a hyperconnected world.

People Power

Introduction: Magic Pudding

To effect change within governmental institutions, you need to be conscious of two important limits.  First, resources are always at a premium; you need to work within the means provided.  Second, regulatory change is difficult and takes time.  When these limitations are put together, you realize that you’ve been asked to cook up a ‘magic pudding’.  How do you work this magic?  How do you deliver more for less without sacrificing quality?

In any situation where you are being asked to economize, the first and most necessary step is to conduct an inventory of existing assets.  Once you know what you’ve got, you gain an insight into how these resources could be redeployed.  On some occasions, that inventory returns surprising results.

There’s a famous example, from thirty years ago, involving Disney.  At that time, Disney was a nearly-bankrupt family entertainment company.  Few went to see their films; the firm’s only substantial income came from its theme parks and character licensing.  In desperation, Disney’s directors brought on Michael J. Eisner as CEO.  Would Eisner need to sell Disney at a rock-bottom price to another entertainment company, or could it survive as an independent firm? First things first: Eisner sent his right-hand man, Frank Wells, off to do an inventory of the company’s assets.  There’s a vault at Disney, where they keep the master prints of all of the studio’s landmark films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Bambi, A Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, and so on.  When Wells walked into the Vault, he couldn’t believe his eyes.  Every few minutes he called Eisner at his desk to report, “I’ve just found another hundred million dollars.”

Disney had the best library of family films created by any studio – but kept them locked away, releasing them theatrically at multi-year intervals designed to keep them fresh for another generation of children.  That worked for forty years, but by the mid-1980s, with the VCR moving into American homes, Eisner knew more money could be made by taking these prize assets and selling them to every family in the nation – then the world.  That rediscovery of locked-away assets was the beginning of the modern Disney, today the most powerful entertainment brand on the planet.

When I began to draft this essay, I felt as constrained as Disney, pre-Eisner.  How do you bake a magic pudding?  Eventually, I realized that we actually have incredible assets at our disposal, ones which didn’t exist just a few years ago. Let’s go on a tour of this hidden vault.  What we now have available to us, once we learn how to use it, will change everything about the way we work, and the effectiveness of our work.

 

I: What’s Your Number?

The latest surveys put the mobile subscription rate in Australia between 110-115%.  Clearly, this figure is a bit misleading: we don’t give children mobiles until they’re around eight years old, nor the most senior of seniors own them in overwhelming numbers.  The vast middle, from eight to eighty, do have mobiles.  Many of us have more than one mobile – or some other device, like an iPad, which uses a mobile connection for wireless data.  This all adds up.  Perhaps one adult in fifty refuses to carry a mobile around with them most of the time, so out of a population of nearly 23 million, we have about 24 million mobile subscribers.

This all happened in an instant; mobile ownership was below 10% in 1993, but by 1997 Australia had passed 50% saturation.  We never looked back.  Today, everyone has a number – at least one number – where they can be reached, all the time.  Although Australia has had telephones for well over a hundred years, a mobile is a completely different sort of device.

A landline connects you to a place: you ring a number to a specific telephone in a specific location.  A mobile connects you to a person. On those rare occasions when someone other than a mobile’s owner answers it, we experience a moment of great confusion.  Something is deeply disturbing about this, a bit like body-snatching.  The mobile is the person; the person is the mobile. When we forget the mobile at home – rushed or tired or temporarily misplaced – we feel considerably more vulnerable.

The mobile is the lifeline which connects us into our community: our family, our friends, our co-workers.  This lifeline is pervasive and continuous.  All of us are ‘on call’ these days, although nearly all of the time this feels more like a relief than a burden.  When the phone rings at odd hours, it’s not the boss, but a friend or family member who needs some help.  Because we’re continuously connected, that help is always there, just ten digits away. We’ve become very attached to our mobiles, not in themselves, but because they represent assistance in its purest form.

As a consequence, we are away from our mobiles less and less; they spend the night charging on our bedstands, and the days in our pockets or purses.

Last year, a young woman approached me after a talk, and said that she couldn’t wait until she could have her mobile implanted beneath her skin, becoming a part of her.  I asked her how that would be any different than the world we live in today.

This is life in modern Australia, and we’re not given to think about it much, except when we ponder whether we should be texting while we drive, or feel guilty about checking emails when we should really be listening to our partner.  This constant connectivity forms a huge feature of the landscape, a gravitational body which gently lures us toward it.

This connectivity creates a platform – just like a computer’s operating system – for running applications.  These applications aren’t software, they’re ‘peopleware’.  For example, fishermen off of India’s Kerala coast call around before they head into port, looking for the markets most in need of their catch.  Farmers in Kenya make inquiries to their local markets, looking for the best price for their vegetables. Barbers in Pakistan post a sign with their mobile number, buy a bicycle, and go clipper their clients in their homes.  The developing world has latched onto the mobile because it makes commerce fluid, efficient, and much more profitable.

If the mobile does that in India and Kenya and Pakistan, why wouldn’t it do the same thing for us, here in Australia?  It does lubricate our social interactions: no one is late anymore, just delayed.  But we haven’t used the platform to build any applications to leverage the brand-new fact of our constant connectivity.  We can give ourselves a pass, because we’ve only just gotten here.  But now that we are here, we need to think hard about how to use what we’ve got.  This is our hundred-million dollar moment.

 

II: Sharing is Daring

A few years ago, while I waited at the gate for a delayed flight out of San Francisco International Airport, I grew captivated with the information screens mounted above the check-in desks.  They provided a wealth of information that wasn’t available from airline personnel; as my flight changed gates and aircraft, I learned of this by watching the screen.  At one point, I took my mobile out of my pocket and snapped a photo of the screen, sharing the photo with my friends, so they could know all about my flying troubles.  After I’d shot a second photo, a woman approached me, and carefully explained that she was talking to another passenger on our delayed flight, a woman who worked for the US Government, and that this government employee thought my actions looked very suspicious.

Taking photos in an airport is cause for alarm in some quarters.

After I got over my consternation and surprise, I realized that this paranoid bureaucrat had a point. With my mobile, I was breaching the security cordon carefully strung around America’s airports.  It pierced the veil of security which hid the airport from the view of all except those who had been carefully screened.  We see this same sensitivity at the Immigration and Customs facilities at any Australian airport – numerous signs inform you that you’re not allowed to use your mobile.  Communication is dangerous.  Connecting is forbidden.

We tend to forget that sharing information is a powerful act, because it’s so much a part of our essential nature as human beings.

In November, Wikileaks shared a massive store of information previously held by the US State Department; just one among a quarter million cables touched off a revolt in Tunisia, leading to revolutions in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Jordan.  Sharing changes the world.  Actually, sharing is the foundation of the human world.  From the moment we are born, we learn about the world because everyone around us shares with us what they know.

Suddenly, there are no boundaries on our sharing.  All of us, everywhere – nearly six billion of us – are only a string of numbers away.  Type them in, wait for an answer, then share anything at all.  And we do this.  We call our family to tell them we’re ok, our friends to share a joke, and our co-workers to keep coordinated.  We’ve achieved a tremendously expanded awareness and flexibility that’s almost entirely independent of distance.  That’s the truth at the core of this hundred-million dollar moment.

All of your clients, all of your patients, all of your stakeholders – and all of you – are all unbelievably well connected.  By the standards of just a generation ago, we are all continuously available.  Yet we still organize our departments and deliver our services as if everyone were impossibly far-flung, hardly ever in contact.

Still, the world is already busy, reorganizing itself to take advantage of all this hyperconnectivity.

I’ve already mentioned the fishermen and the farmers, but as I write this, I’ve just read an article titled “US Senators call for takedown of iPhone apps that locate DUI (RBT) checkpoints.”  You can buy a smartphone app which allows you to report on a checkpoint, posting that report to a map which others can access through the app.  You could conceivably evade the long arm of the law with such an app, drink driving around every checkpoint with ease.

Banning an app like this simply won’t work. There are too many ways to do this, from text messages to voice mail to Google Maps to smartphone apps.  There’s no way to shut them all down.  If the Senate passes a law to prevent this sort of thing – and they certainly will try – they’ll find that they’ve simply moved all of this connectivity underground, into ‘darknets’ which invisibly evade detection.

This is how potent sharing can be.  We all want to share.  We have a universal platform for sharing.  We must decide what we will share.  When people get onto email for the first time, they tend to bombard their friends and family with an endless stream of bad jokes and cute photographs of kittens and horribly dramatic chain letters.  Eventually they’ll back off a bit – either because they’ve learned some etiquette, or because a loved one has told them to buzz off.

You also witness that exuberant sharing in teenagers, who send and receive five hundred text messages a day.  When this phenomenon was spotted, in Tokyo, a decade ago, many thought it was simply a feature peculiar to the Japanese.  Today, everywhere in the developed world, young people send a constant stream of messages which generally say very little at all.  For them, it’s not important what you share; what is important is that you share it.  You are the connections, you are the sharing.

That’s great for the young – some have suggested that it’s an analogue to the ‘grooming’ behavior we see in chimpanzees – but we can wish for more than a steady stream of ‘hey’ and ‘where r u?’  We can share something substantial and meaningful, something salient.

That salience could be news of the nearest RBT checkpoint, or, rather more helpfully, it might be a daily audio recording of the breathing of someone suffering with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.  It turns out that just a few minutes listening to the sufferer – at home, in front of a computer, or, presumably their smartphone – will cut their hospitalizations in half, because smaller problems can be diagnosed and treated before they become life-threatening.  A trial in Tasmania demonstrated this conclusively; it’s clear that using this connection to listen to the patient can save lives, dollars, and precious time.

This is the magic pudding, the endless something from nothing.  But nothing is ever truly free.  There is a price to be paid to realize the bounty of connectivity.  Our organizations and relations are not structured to advantage themselves in this new environment, and although it costs no money and requires no changes to the law, transforming our expectations of our institutions – and of one another – will not be easy.

 

III:  Practice Makes Perfect

To recap: Everyone is connected, everyone has a mobile, everyone uses them to maintain continuous connections with the people in their lives.  This brand-new hyperconnectivity provides a platform for applications.

The first and most natural application of connectivity is sharing, an activity beginning with the broad and unfocused, but moves to the specific and salient as we mature in our use of the medium.  This maturation is both individual and institutional, though at the present time individuals greatly outpace any institution in both their agility with and understanding of these new tools.

Our lives online are divided into two separate but unequal spheres; this is a fundamental dissonance of our era.  Teenagers send hundreds of text messages a day, aping their parents, who furiously respond to emails sent to their mobiles while posting Twitter updates.  But all of this is happening outside the institution,  or, in a best practice scenario, serves to reinforce the existing functionality of the institution.  We have not rethought the institution – how it works, how it faces its stakeholders and serves its clients – in the light of hyperconnectivity.

This seems too alien to contemplate – even though we are now the aliens.  We live in a world of continuous connection; it’s only when we enter the office that we temper this connection, constraining it to meet the needs of organizational process.

If we can develop techniques to bring hyperconnectivity into the organization, to harness it institutionally, we can bake that magic pudding.  Hyperconnectivity provides vastly greater capability at no additional cost.  It’s an answer to the problem.  It requires no deployment, no hardware, no budgeting or legislative mandates.  It only requires that we more fully utilize everything we’ve already got.

To do that, we must rethink everything we do.

Service delivery in health is something that is notoriously not scalable.  You must throw more people at a service to get more results.  All the technology and process management in the world won’t get you very far.  You can make systems more efficient, but you can’t make them radically more effective.  This has become such a truism in the health care sector that technology has become almost an ironic punchline within the field.  So much was promised, and so much of it consistently under-delivered, that most have become somewhat cynical.

There are no magic wands to wave around, to make your technology investments more effective.  This isn’t a technology-led revolution, although it does require some technology.  This is a revolution in relationship, a transformation from clients and customers into partners and participants. It’s a revolution in empowerment, led by highly connected people sharing information of vital importance to them.

How does this work in practice?  The COPD ‘Pathways‘ project in Tasmania points the way toward one set of services, which aim at using connectivity to monitor progress and wellness. Could this be extended to individuals with chronic asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, or severe arthritis?  If one is connected, rather than separate, if one is in constant communication, rather than touching base for widely-spaced check-ins, then there will be a broad awareness of patient health within a community of carers.

The relationship is no longer one way, pointing the patient only to the health services provider.  It becomes multilateral, multifocal, and multiparticpatory.  This relationship becomes the meeting of two networks: the patient’s network of family, friends and co-afflicted, meeting the health network of doctors and nurses, generalists and specialists, clinicians and therapists.  The meeting of these two continuous always-on networks forms another continuity, another always-on network, focused around the continuity of care.

If we tried to do something like this today, with our present organizational techniques, the health service providers would quickly collapse under the burden of the additional demands on their time and connectivity required to offer such continuity in patient care.  Everything currently points toward the doctor, who is already overworked and impossibly time-poor.  Amplifying the connection burden for the doctor is a recipe for disaster.

We must build upon what works, while restructuring these relationships to reflect the enhanced connectivity of all the parties within the healthcare system.  Instead of amplifying the burden, we must use the platform of connectivity to share the load, to spread it out across many shoulders.

For example, consider the hundreds of thousands of carers looking after Australians with chronic illnesses and disabilities.  These carers are the front line.  They understand the people in their care better than anyone else – better even than the clinicians who treat them.  They know when something isn’t quite right, even though they may not have the language for it.

At the moment Australia’s carers live in a world apart from the various state health care systems, and this means that an important connection between the patient and that system is lacking.  If the carer were connected to the health care system – via a service that might be called CarerConnection – there would be better systemic awareness of the patient, and a much greater chance to catch emerging problems before they require drastic interventions or hospitalizations.

These carers, like the rest of Australia, already have mobiles.  Within a few years, all those mobiles will be ‘smart’, capable of snapping a picture of a growing rash, or a video of someone’s unsteady gait, ready to upload it to anyone prepared to listen.  That’s the difficult part of this equation, because at present the health care system can’t handle inquiries from hundreds of thousands of carers, even if it frees up doctor’s surgeries and hospital beds.

Perhaps we can employ nurses on their way to a gradual retirement – in the years beyond age 65 – to connect with the carers, using them to triage and elevate or reassure as necessary.  In this way Australia empowers its population of carers, creating a better quality of life for those they care for, and moves some of the burden for chronic care out of the health care system.

That kind of innovative thinking – which came from workshops in Bendigo and Ballarat – which shows the real value of connectivity in practice.  But that’s just the beginning.  This type of innovation would apply equally effectively to substance abuse recovery programs or mesothelioma or cystic fibrosis.  Beyond health care, it applies to education and city management as well as health service delivery.

This is good old-fashioned ‘people power’ as practiced in every small town in Australia, where everyone knows everyone else, looks out for everyone else, and is generally aware of everyone else.  What’s new is that the small town is now everywhere, whether in Camperdown or Bendigo or Brunswick, because the close connectivity of the small town has come to us all.

The aging of the Australian population will soon force changes in service delivery.  Some will see this as a clarion call for cutbacks, a ‘shock doctrine‘, rather than an opportunity to re-invent the relationships between service providers and the community.   This slowly unfolding crisis provides our generation’s best chance to transform practices to reflect the new connectivity.

It’s not necessary to go the whole distance overnight.  This is all very new, and examples on how to make connectivity work within healthcare are still thin on the ground.  Experimentation and sharing are the orders of the day.  If each regional area in Victoria started up one experiment – a project like CasConnect – then shared the results of that experiment with the other regions, there’d soon be a virtual laboratory of different sorts of approaches, with the possibility of some big successes, and, equally, the chance of some embarrassing failures.  Yet the rewards greatly outweigh any risks.

If this is all done openly, with patients and their community fully involved and fully informed, even the embarrassments will not sting – very much.

In order to achieve more with less, we must ask more of ourselves, approaching our careers with the knowledge that our roles will be rewritten.  We must also ask more of those who come forward for care.  They grew up in the expectation of one sort of relationship with their health services providers, but they’re going to live their lives in another sort of arrangement, which blurs boundaries and which will feel very different – sometimes, more invasive.  Privacy is important, but to be cared for means to surrender, so we must come to expect that we will negotiate our need for privacy in line with the help we seek.

The magic pudding isn’t really that magic. The recipe calls for a lot of hard work, a healthy dash of risk taking, a sprinkle of experiments, and even a few mistakes.  What comes out of the oven of innovation (to stretch a metaphor beyond its breaking point) will be something that can be served up across Victoria, and perhaps across the nation.  The solution lies in people connected, transformed into people power.

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.