Hyperdemocracy

For the past three hundred years, the relationship between the press and the state has been straightforward: the press tries to publish, the state uses its various mechanisms to thwart those efforts.  This has produced a cat-and-mouse steady-state, a balance where selection pressures kept the press tamed and the state – in many circumstances – somewhat accountable to the governed.  There are, as always, exceptions.

In the last few months, the press has become hyperconnected, using that hyperconnectivity to pierce the veil of secrecy which surrounds the state; using the means available to it to hyperdistribute those secrets.  The press has become hyperempowered, an actor unlike anything ever experienced before.

Wikileaks is the press, but not the press as we have known it.  This is the press of the 21st century, the press that comes after we’re all connected.  Suddenly, all of the friendliest computers have become the deadliest weapons, and we are fenced in, encircled by threats – which are also opportunities.

This threat is two sided, Janus-faced.  The state finds its ability to maintain the smooth functioning of power short-circuited by the exposure of its secrets.  That is a fundamental, existential threat.  In the same moment, the press recognizes that its ability to act has been constrained at every point: servers get shut down, domain names fail to resolve, bank accounts freeze.  These are the new selection pressures on both sides, a sudden quickening of culture’s two-step.  And, of course, it does not end there.

The state has now realized the full cost of digitization, the price of bits.  Just as the recording industry learned a decade ago, it will now have to function within an ecology which – like it or not – has an absolutely fluid quality.  Information flow is corrosive to institutions, whether that’s a record label or a state ministry.  To function in a hyperconnected world, states must hyperconnect, but every point of connection becomes a gap through which the state’s power leaks away.

Meanwhile, the press has come up against the ugly reality of its own vulnerability.  It finds itself situated within an entirely commercial ecology, all the way down to the wires used to carry its signals.  If there’s anything the last week has taught us, it’s that the ability of the press to act must never be contingent upon the power of the state, or any organization dependent upon the good graces of the state.

Both sides are trapped, each with a knife to the other’s throat.  Is there a way to back down from this DEFCON 1-like threat level?  The new press can not be wished out of existence.  Even if the Internet disappeared tomorrow, what we have already learned about how to communicate with one another will never be forgotten.  It’s that shared social learning – hypermimesis – which presents the continued existential threat to the state.  The state is now furiously trying to develop a response in kind, with a growing awareness that any response which extends its own connectivity must necessarily drain it of power.

There is already a movement underway within the state to shut down the holes, close the gaps, and carry on as before.  But to the degree the state disconnects, it drifts away from synchronization with the real.  The only tenable possibility is a ‘forward escape’, an embrace of that which seems destined to destroy it.  This new form of state power – ‘hyperdemocracy’ – will be diffuse, decentralized, and ubiquitous: darknet as a model for governance.

In the interregnum, the press must reinvent its technological base as comprehensively as Gutenberg or Berners-Lee.  Just as the legal strangulation of Napster laid the groundwork for Gnutella, every point of failure revealed in the state attack against Wikileaks creates a blueprint for the press which can succeed where it failed.  We need networks that lie outside of and perhaps even in opposition to commercial interest, beyond the reach of the state.  We need resilient Internet services which can not be arbitrarily revoked.  We need a transaction system that is invisible, instantaneous and convertible upon demand.  Our freedom madates it.

Some will argue that these represent the perfect toolkit for terrorism, for lawlessness and anarchy.  Some are willing to sacrifice liberty for security, ending with neither.  Although nostalgic and tempting, this argument will not hold against the tenor of these times.  These systems will be invented and hyperdistributed even if the state attempts to enforce a tighter grip over its networks.  Julian Assange, the most famous man in the world, has become the poster boy, the Che for a networked generation. Script kiddies everywhere now have a role model.  Like it or not, they will create these systems, they will share what they’ve learned, they will build the apparatus that makes the state as we have known it increasingly ineffectual and irrelevant. Nothing can be done about that.  This has already happened.

We face a choice.  This is the fork, in both the old and new senses of the word.  The culture we grew up with has suddenly shown its age, its incapacity, its inflexibility.  That’s scary, because there is nothing yet to replace it.  That job is left to us.  We can see what has broken, and how it should be fixed.  We can build new systems of human relations which depend not on secrecy but on connectivity.  We can share knowledge to develop the blueprint for our hyperconnected, hyperempowered future.  A week ago such an act would have been bootless utopianism.  Now it’s just facing facts.

The Blueprint

With every day, with every passing hour, the power of the state mobilizes against Wikileaks and Julian Assange, its titular leader.  The inner processes of statecraft have never been so completely exposed as they have been in the last week.  The nation state has been revealed as some sort of long-running and unintentionally comic soap opera.  She doesn’t like him; he doesn’t like them; they don’t like any of us!  Oh, and she’s been scouting around for DNA samples and your credit card number.  You know, just in case.

None of it is very pretty, all of it is embarrassing, and the embarrassment extends well beyond the state actors – who are, after all, paid to lie and dissemble, this being one of the primary functions of any government – to the complicit and compliant news media, think tanks and all the other camp followers deeply invested in the preservation of the status quo.  Formerly quiet seas are now roiling, while everyone with any authority everywhere is doing everything they can to close the gaps in the smooth functioning of power.  They want all of this to disappear and be forgotten.  For things to be as if Wikileaks never was.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic cables slowly dribble out, a feed that makes last year’s MP expenses scandal in the UK seem like amateur theatre, an unpracticed warm-up before the main event.  Even the Afghan and Iraq war logs, released by Wikileaks earlier this year, didn’t hold this kind of fascination.  Nor did they attract this kind of upset.  Every politican everywhere – from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Vladimir Putin to Julia Gillard has felt compelled to express their strong and almost visceral anger.  But to what?  Only some diplomatic gossip.

Has Earth become a sort of amplified Facebook, where an in-crowd of Heathers, horrified, suddenly finds its bitchy secrets posted on a public forum?  Is that what we’ve been reduced to?  Or is that what we’ve been like all along?  That could be the source of the anger.  We now know that power politics and statecraft reduce to a few pithy lines referring to how much Berlusconi sleeps in the company of nubile young women and speculations about whether Medvedev really enjoys wearing the Robin costume.

It’s this triviality which has angered those in power.  The mythology of power – that leaders are somehow more substantial, their concerns more elevated and lofty than us mere mortals, who must not question their motives – that mythology has been definitively busted.  This is the final terminus of aristocracy; a process that began on 14 July 1789 came to a conclusive end on 28 November 2010.  The new aristocracies of democracy have been smashed, trundled off to the guillotine of the Internet, and beheaded.

Of course, the state isn’t going to take its own destruction lying down.  Nothing is ever that simple.  And so, over the last week we’ve been able to watch the systematic dismantling of Wikileaks.  First came the condemnation, then, hot on the heels of the shouts of ‘off with his head!’ for ‘traitor’ Julian Assange, came the technical attacks, each one designed to amputate one part of the body of the organization.

First up, that old favorite, the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, which involves harnessing tens of thousands of hacked PCs (perhaps yours, or your mom’s, or your daughter’s) to broadcast tens of millions of faux requests for information to Wikileaks’ computers.  This did manage to bring Wikileaks to its knees (surprising for an organization believed to be rather paranoid about security), so Wikileaks moved to a backup server, purchasing computing resources from Amazon, which runs a ‘cloud’ of hundreds of thousands of computers available for rent.  Amazon, paranoid about customer reliability, easily fended off the DDoS attacks, but came under another kind of pressure.  US Senator Joe Lieberman told Amazon to cut Wikileaks off, and within a few hours Amazon had suddenly realized that Wikileaks violated their Terms of Service, kicking them off Amazon’s systems.

You know what Terms of Service are?  They are the too-long agreements you always accept and click through on a Website, or when you install some software, etc.  In the fine print of that agreement any service provider will always be able to find some reason, somewhere, for terminating the service, charging you a fee, or – well, pretty much whatever they like.  It’s the legal cudgel that companies use to have their way with you.  Do you reckon that every other Amazon customer complies with its Terms of Service?  If you do, I have a bridge you might be interested in.

At that point, Assange & Co. could have moved the server anywhere willing to host them – and Switzerland had offered.  But the company that hosts Wikileaks’ DNS record – everyDNS.com – suddenly realized that Wikileaks was in violation of its terms of service, and it too, cut Wikileaks off.  This was a more serious blow.  DNS, or Domain Name Service, is the magic that translates a domain name like markpesce.com or nytimes.com into a number that represents a particular computer on the Internet.  Without someone handling that translation, no one could find wikileaks.org.  You would be able to type the name into your web browser, but that’s as far as you’d get.

So Wikileaks.org went down, but Wikileaks.ch (the Swiss version) came online moments later, and now there are hundreds of other sites which are all mirroring the content on the original Wikileaks site.  It’s a little bit harder to find Wikileaks now – but not terrifically difficult.  Score one for Assange, who – if the news media are to be believed – is just about to be taken into custody by the UK police, serving a Swedish arrest warrant.

Finally, just a few hours ago, the masterstroke.  Wikileaks is financed by contributions made by individuals and organizations.  (Disclosure: I’m almost certain I donated $50 to Wikileaks in 2008.)  These contributions have been handled (principally) by the now-ubiquitous PayPal, the financial services arm of Internet auction giant eBay.  Once again, the fine folks at PayPal had a look at their Terms of Service (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) and – oh, look! those bad awful folks at Wikileaks are in violation of our terms! Let’s cut them off from their money!

Wikileaks has undoubtedly received a lot of contributions over the last few days.  As PayPal never turns funds over immediately, there’s an implication that PayPal is holding onto a considerable sum of Wikileaks’ donations, while that shutdown makes it much more difficult to to ‘pass the hat’ and collect additional funds to keep the operation running.   Checkmate.

A few months ago I wrote about how confused I was by Julian Assange’s actions.  Why would anyone taking on the state so directly become such a public figure?  It made no sense to me.  Now I see the plan.  And it’s awesome.

You see, this is the first time anything like Wikileaks has been attempted.  Yes, there have been leaks prior to this, but never before have hyperdistribution and cryptoanarchism come to the service of the whistleblower.  This is a new thing, and as well thought out as Wikileaks might be, it isn’t perfect.  How could it be?  It’s untried, and untested.  Or was.  Now that contact with the enemy has been made – the state with all its powers – it has become clear where Wikileaks has been found wanting.  Wikileaks needs a distributed network of servers that are too broad and too diffuse to be attacked.  Wikileaks needs an alternative to the Domain Name Service.  And Wikileaks needs a funding mechanism which can not be choked off by the actions of any other actor.

We’ve been here before.  This is 1999, the company is Napster, and the angry party is the recording industry.  It took them a while to strangle the beast, but they did finally manage to choke all the life out of it – for all the good it did them.  Within days after the death of Napster, Gnutella came around, and righted all the wrongs of Napster: decentralized where Napster was centralized; pervasive and increasingly invisible.  Gnutella created the ‘darknet’ for filesharing which has permanently crippled the recording and film industries.  The failure of Napster was the blueprint for Gnutella.

In exactly the same way – note for note – the failures of Wikileaks provide the blueprint for the systems which will follow it, and which will permanently leave the state and its actors neutered.  Assange must know this – a teenage hacker would understand the lesson of Napster.  Assange knows that someone had to get out in front and fail, before others could come along and succeed.  We’re learning now, and to learn means to try and fail and try again.

This failure comes with a high cost.  It’s likely that the Americans will eventually get their hands on Assange – a compliant Australian government has already made it clear that it will do nothing to thwart or even slow that request – and he’ll be charged with espionage, likely convicted, and sent to a US Federal Prison for many, many years.  Assange gets to be the scapegoat, the pinup boy for a new kind of anarchism.  But what he’s done can not be undone; this tear in the body politic will never truly heal.

Everything is different now.  Everything feels more authentic.  We can choose to embrace this authenticity, and use it to construct a new system of relations, one which does not rely on secrets and lies.  A week ago that would have sounded utopian, now it’s just facing facts. I’m hopeful.  For the first time in my life I see the possibility for change on a scale beyond the personal.  Assange has brought out the radical hiding inside me, the one always afraid to show his face.  I think I’m not alone.

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.

Sharing Power (Global Edition)

My keynote for the Personal Democracy Forum, in New York.

Introduction: War is Over (if you want it)

Over the last year we have lived through a profound and perhaps epochal shift in the distribution of power. A year ago all the talk was about how to mobilize Facebook users to turn out on election day. Today we bear witness to a ‘green’ revolution, coordinated via Twitter, and participate as the Guardian UK crowdsources the engines of investigative journalism and democratic oversight to uncover the unpleasant little secrets buried in the MPs expenses scandal – secrets which the British government has done everything in its power to withhold.

We’ve turned a corner. We’re on the downward slope. It was a long, hard slog to the top – a point we obviously reached on 4 November 2008 – but now the journey is all about acceleration into a future that looks almost nothing like the past. The configuration of power has changed: its distribution, its creation, its application. The trouble with circumstances of acceleration is that they go hand-in-hand with a loss of control. At a certain point our entire global culture is liable to start hydroplaning, or worse, will go airborne. As the well-oiled wheels of culture leave the roadbed of civilization behind, we can spin the steering wheel all we want. Nothing will happen. Acceleration has its own rationale, and responds neither to reason nor desire. Force will meet force. Force is already meeting force.

What happens now, as things speed up, is a bit like what happens in the guts of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Different polities and institutions will smash and reveal their inner workings, like parts sprung from crashed cars. We can learn a lot – if we’re clever enough to watch these collisions as they happen. Some of these particles-in-collision will recognizably be governments or quasi-governmental organizations. Some will look nothing like them. But before we glory, Ballard-like, in the terrible beauty of the crash, we should remember that these institutions are, first and foremost, the domain of people, individuals ill-prepared for whiplash or a sudden impact with the windshield. No one is wearing a safety belt, even as things slip noticeably beyond control. Someone’s going to get hurt. That much is already clear.

What we urgently need, and do not yet have, is a political science for the 21st century. We need to understand the autopoietic formation of polities, which has been so accelerated and amplified in this era of hyperconnectivity. We need to understand the mechanisms of knowledge sharing among these polities, and how they lead to hyperintelligence. We need to understand how hyperintelligence transforms into action, and how this action spreads and replicates itself through hypermimesis. We have the words – or some of them – but we lack even an informal understanding of the ways and means. As long as this remains the case, we are subject to terrible accidents we can neither predict nor control. We can end the war between ourselves and our times. But first we must watch carefully. The collisions are mounting, and they have already revealed much. We have enough data to begin to draw a map of this wholly new territory.

I: The First Casualty of War

Last month saw an interesting and unexpected collision. Wikipedia, the encyclopedia created by and for the people, decreed that certain individuals and a certain range of IP addresses belonging to the Church of Scientology would hereafter be banned from the capability to edit Wikipedia. This directive came from the Arbitration Committee of Wikipedia, which sounds innocuous, but is in actuality the equivalent the Supreme Court in the Wikipediaverse.

It seems that for some period of time – probably stretching into years – there have been any number of ‘edit wars’ (where edits are made and reverted, then un-reverted and re-reverted, ad infinitum) around articles concerning about the Church of Scientology and certain of the personages in the Church. These pages have been subject to fierce edit wars between Church of Scientology members on one side, critics of the Church on the other, and, in the middle, Wikipedians, who attempted to referee the dispute, seeking, above all, to preserve the Neutral Point-of-View (NPOV) that the encyclopedia aspires to in every article. When this became impossible – when the Church of Scientology and its members refused to leave things alone – a consensus gradually formed within the tangled adhocracy of Wikipedia, finalized in last month’s ruling from the Arbitration Committee. For at least six months, several Church of Scientology members are banned by name, and all Church computers are banned from making edits to Wikipedia.

That would seem to be that. But it’s not. The Church of Scientology has been diligent in ensuring that the mainstream media (make no mistake, Wikipedia is now a mainstream medium) do not portray characterizations of Scientology which are unflattering to the Church. There’s no reason to believe that things will simply rest as they are now, that everyone will go off and skulk in their respective corners for six months, like children given a time-out. Indeed, the Chairman of Scientology, David Miscavidge, quickly issued a press release comparing the Wikipedians to Nazis, asking, “What’s next, will Scientologists have to wear yellow, six-pointed stars on our clothing?”

How this skirmish plays out in the months and years to come will be driven by the structure and nature of these two wildly different organizations. The Church of Scientology is the very model of a modern religious hierarchy; all power and control flows down from Chairman David Miscavidge through to the various levels of Scientology. With Wikipedia, no one can be said to be in charge. (Jimmy Wales is not in charge of Wikipedia.) The whole things chugs along as an agreement, a social contract between the parties participating in the creation and maintenance of Wikipedia. Power flows in Wikipedia are driven by participation: the more you participate, the more power you’ll have. Power is distributed laterally: every individual who edits Wikipedia has some ultimate authority.

What happens when these two organizations, so fundamentally mismatched in their structures and power flows, attempt to interact? The Church of Scientology uses lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits as a coercive technique. But Wikipedia has thus far proven immune to lawsuits. Although there is a non-profit entity behind Wikipedia, running its servers and paying for its bandwidth, that is not Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not the machines, it is not the bandwidth, it is not even the full database of articles. Wikipedia is a social agreement. It is an agreement to share what we know, for the greater good of all. How does the Church of Scientology control that? This is the question that confronts every hierarchical organization when it collides with an adhocracy. Adhocracies present no control surfaces; they are at once both entirely transparent and completely smooth.

This could all get much worse. The Church of Scientology could ‘declare war’ on Wikipedia. A general in such a conflict might work to poison the social contract which powers Wikipedia, sewing mistrust, discontent and the presumption of malice within a community that thrives on trust, consensus-building and adherence to a common vision. Striking at the root of the social contract which is the whole of Wikipedia could possibly disrupt its internal networks and dissipate the human energy which drives the project.

Were we on the other side of the conflict, running a defensive strategy, we would seek to reinforce Wikipedia’s natural strength – the social agreement. The stronger the social agreement, the less effective any organized attack will be. A strong social agreement implies a depth of social resources which can be deployed to prevent or rapidly ameliorate damage.

Although this conflict between the Church of Scientology and Wikipedia may never explode into a full-blown conflict, at some point in the future, some other organization or institution will collide with Wikipedia, and battle lines will be drawn. The whole of this quarter of the 21st century looks like an accelerating series of run-ins between hierarchical organizations and adhocracies. What happens when the hierarchies find that their usual tools of war are entirely mismatched to their opponent?

II: War is Hell

Even the collision between friendly parties, when thus mismatched, can be devastating. Rasmus Klies Nielsen, a PhD student in Columbia’s Communications program, wrote an interesting study a few months ago in which he looked at “communication overload”, which he identifies as a persistent feature of online activism. Nielsen specifically studied the 2008 Democratic Primary campaign in New York, and learned that some of the best-practices of the Obama campaign failed utterly when they encountered an energized and empowered public.

The Obama campaign encouraged voters to communicate through its website, both with one another and with the campaign’s New York staff. Although New York had been written off by the campaign (Hilary Clinton was sure to win her home state), the state still housed many very strong and vocal Obama supporters (apocryphally, all from Manhattan’s Upper West Side). These supporters flooded into the Obama campaign website for New York, drowning out the campaign itself. As election day loomed, campaign staffers retreated to “older” communication techniques – that is, mobile phones – while Obama’s supporters continued the conversation through the website. A complete disconnection between campaign and supporters occurred, even though the parties had the same goals.

Political campaigns may be chaotic, but they are also very hierarchically structured. There is an orderly flow of power from top (candidate) to bottom (voter). Each has an assigned role. When that structure is short-circuited and replaced by an adhocracy, the instrumentality of the hierarchy overloads. We haven’t yet seen the hybrid beast which can function hierarchically yet interaction with an adhocracy. At this point when the two touch, the hierarchy simply shorts out.

Another example from the Obama general election campaign illustrates this tendency for hierarchies to short out when interacting with friendly adhocracies. Project Houdini was touted as a vast, distributed GOTV program which would allow tens of thousands of field workers to keep track of who had voted and who hadn’t. Project Houdini was among the most ambitious of the online efforts of the Obama campaign, and was thoroughly tested in the days leading up to the general election. But, once election day came, Project Houdini went down almost immediately under the volley of information coming in from every quadrant of the nation, from fieldworkers thoroughly empowered to gather and report GOTV data to the campaign. A patchwork backup plan allowed the campaign to tame the torrent of data, channeling it through field offices. But the great vision of the Obama campaign, to empower the individuals with the capability to gather and report GOTV data, came crashing down, because the system simply couldn’t handle the crush of the empowered field workers.

Both of these collisions happened in ‘friendly fire’ situations, where everyone’s eyes were set on achieving the same goal. But these two systems of organization are so foreign to one another that we still haven’t seen any successful attempt to span the chasm that separates them. Instead, we see collisions and failures. The political campaigns of the future must learn how to cross that gulf. While some may wish to turn the clock back to an earlier time when campaigns respected carefully-wrought hierarchies, the electorates of the 21st century, empowered in their own right, have already come to expect that their candidate’s campaigns will meet them in that empowerment. The next decade is going to be completely hellish for politicians and campaign workers of every party as new rules and systems are worked out. There are no successful examples – yet. But circumstances are about to force a search for solutions.

III: War is Peace

As governments release the vast amounts of data held and generated by them, communities of interest are rising up to work with that data. As these communities become more knowledgeable, more intelligent – hyperintelligent – via this exposure, this hyperintelligence will translate into action: hyperempowerment. This is all well and good so long as the aims of the state are the same as the aims of the community. A community of hyperempowered citizens can achieve lofty goals in partnership with the state. But even here, the hyperempowered community faces a mismatch with the mechanisms of the state. The adhocracy by which the community thrives has no easy way to match its own mechanisms with those of the state. Even with the best intentions, every time the two touch there is the risk of catastrophic collapse. The failures of Project Houdini will be repeated, and this might lead some to argue that the opening up itself was a mistake. In fact, these catastrophes are the first sign of success. Connection is being made.

In order to avoid catastrophe, the state – and any institution which attempts to treat with a hyperintelligence – must radically reform its own mechanisms of communication. Top-down hierarchies which order power precisely can not share power with hyperintelligence. The hierarchy must open itself to a more chaotic and fundamentally less structured relationship with the hyperintelligence it has helped to foster. This is the crux of the problem, asking the leopard to change its spots. Only in transformation can hierarchy find its way into a successful relationship with hyperintelligence. But can any hierarchy change without losing its essence? Can the state – or any institution – become more flexible, fluid and dynamic while maintaining its essential qualities?

And this is the good case, the happy outcome, where everyone is pulling in the same direction. What happens when aims differ, when some hyperintelligence for some reason decides that it is antithetical to the interests of an institution or a state? We’ve seen the beginnings of this in the weird, slow war between the Church of Scientology and ANONYMOUS, a shadowy organization which coordinates its operations through a wiki. In recent weeks ANONYMOUS has also taken on the Basidj paramilitaries in Iran, and China’s internet censors. ANONYMOUS pools its information, builds hyperintelligence, and translates that hyperintelligence into hyperempowerment. Of course, they don’t use these words. ANONYMOUS is simply a creature of its times, born in an era of hyperconnectivity.

It might be more profitable to ask what happens when some group, working the data supplied at Recovery.gov or Data.gov or you-name-it.gov, learns of something that they’re opposed to, then goes to work blocking the government’s activities. In some sense, this is good old-fashioned activism, but it is amplified by the technologies now at hand. That amplification could be seen as a threat by the state; such activism could even be labeled terrorism. Even when this activism is well-intentioned, the mismatch and collision between the power of the state and any hyperempowered polities means that such mistakes will be very easy to make.

We will need to engage in a close examination of the intersection between the state and the various hyperempowered actors which rising up over next few years. Fortunately, the Obama administration, in its drive to make government data more transparent and more accessible (and thereby more likely to generate hyperintelligence around it) has provided the perfect laboratory to watch these hyperintelligences as they emerge and spread their wings. Although communication’s PhD candidates undoubtedly will be watching and taking notes, public policy-makers also should closely observe everything that happens. Since the rules of the game are changing, observation is the first most necessary step toward a rational future. Examining the pushback caused by these newly emerging communities will give us our first workable snapshot of a political science for the 21st century.

The 21st century will continue to see the emergence of powerful and hyperempowered communities. Sometimes these will challenge hierarchical organizations, such as with Wikipedia and the Church of Scientology; sometimes they will work with hierarchical organizations, as with Project Houdini; and sometimes it will be very hard to tell what the intended outcomes are. In each case the hierarchy – be it a state or an institution – will have to adapt itself into a new power role, a new sharing of power. In the past, like paired with like: states shared power with states, institutions with institutions, hierarchies with hierarchies. We are leaving this comfortable and familiar time behind, headed into a world where actors of every shape and description find themselves sufficiently hyperempowered to challenge any hierarchy. Even when they seek to work with a state or institution, they present challenges. Peace is war. In either direction, the same paradox confronts us: power must surrender power, or be overwhelmed by it. Sharing power is not an ideal of some utopian future; it’s the ground truth of our hyperconnected world.

The Power of Sharing

The Power of Sharing from Mark Pesce on Vimeo.

Inaugural address for the “What’s the Big Idea?” lecture series, at the Bundeena Bowls Club in Bundeena, a small community (pop. 3500) just south of Sydney in Royal National Park.

Fluid Learning

I: Out of Control

Our greatest fear, in bringing computers into the classroom, is that we teachers and instructors and lecturers will lose control of the classroom, lose touch with the students, lose the ability to make a difference. The computer is ultimately disruptive. It offers greater authority than any instructor, greater resources than any lecturer, and greater reach than any teacher. The computer is not perfect, but it is indefatigable. The computer is not omniscient, but it is comprehensive. The computer is not instantaneous, but it is faster than any other tool we’ve ever used.

All of this puts the human being at a disadvantage; in a classroom full of machines, the human factor in education is bound to be overlooked. Even though we know that everyone learns more effectively when there’s a teacher or mentor present, we want to believe that everything can be done with the computer. We want the machines to distract, and we hope that in that distraction some education might happen. But distraction is not enough. There must be a point to the exercise, some reason that makes all the technology worthwhile. That search for a point – a search we are still mostly engaged in – will determine whether these computers are meaningful to the educational process, or if they are an impediment to learning.

It’s all about control.

What’s most interesting about the computer is how it puts paid to all of our cherished fantasies of control. The computer – or, most specifically, the global Internet connected to it – is ultimately disruptive, not just to the classroom learning experience, but to the entire rationale of the classroom, the school, the institution of learning. And if you believe this to be hyperbolic, this story will help to convince you.

In May of 1999, Silicon Valley software engineer John Swapceinski started a website called “Teacher Ratings.” Individuals could visit the site and fill in a brief form with details about their school, and their teacher. That done, they could rate the teacher’s capabilities as an instructor. The site started slowly, but, as is always the case with these sorts of “crowdsourced” ventures, as more ratings were added to the site, it became more useful to people, which meant more visitors, which meant more ratings, which meant it became even more useful, which meant more visitors, which meant more ratings, etc. Somewhere in the middle of this virtuous cycle the site changed its name to “Rate My Professors.com” and changed hands twice. For the last two years, RateMyProfessors.com has been owned by MTV, which knows a thing or two about youth markets, and can see one in a site that has nine million reviews of one million teachers, professors and instructors in the US, Canada and the UK.

Although the individual action of sharing some information about an instructor seems innocuous enough, in aggregate the effect is entirely revolutionary. A student about to attend university in the United States can check out all of her potential instructors before she signs up for a single class. She can choose to take classes only with those instructors who have received the best ratings – or, rather more perversely, only with those instructors known to be easy graders. The student is now wholly in control of her educational opportunities, going in eyes wide open, fully cognizant of what to expect before the first day of class.

Although RateMyProfessors.com has enlightened students, it has made the work of educational administrators exponentially more difficult. Students now talk, up and down the years, via the recorded ratings on the site. It isn’t possible for an institution of higher education to disguise an individual who happens to be a world-class researcher but a rather ordinary lecturer. In earlier times, schools could foist these instructors on students, who’d be stuck for a semester. This no longer happens, because RateMyProfessors.com effectively warns students away from the poor-quality teachers.

This one site has undone all of the neat work of tenure boards and department chairs throughout the entire world of academia. A bad lecturer is no longer a department’s private little secret, but publicly available information. And a great lecturer is no longer a carefully hoarded treasure, but a hot commodity on a very public market. The instructors with the highest ratings on RateMyProfessors.com find themselves in demand, receiving outstanding offers (with tenure) from other universities. All of this plotting, which used to be hidden from view, is now fully revealed. The battle for control over who stands in front of the classroom has now been decisively lost by the administration in favor of the students.

This is not something that anyone expected; it certainly wasn’t what John Swapceinski had in mind when founded Teacher Ratings. He wasn’t trying to overturn the prerogatives of heads of school around the world. He was simply offering up a place for people to pool their knowledge. That knowledge, once pooled, takes on a life of its own, and finds itself in places where it has uses that its makers never intended.

This rating system serves as an archetype for what it is about to happen to education in general. If we are smart enough, we can learn a lesson here and now that we will eventually learn – rather more expensively – if we wait. The lesson is simple: control is over. This is not about control anymore. This is about finding a way to survive and thrive in chaos.

The chaos is not something we should be afraid of. Like King Canute, we can’t roll back the tide of chaos that’s rolling over us. We can’t roll back the clock to an earlier age without computers, without Internet, without the subtle but profound distraction of text messaging. The school is of its time, not out it. Which means we must play the hand we’ve been dealt. That’s actually a good thing, because we hold a lot of powerful cards, or can, if we choose to face the chaos head on.

II: Do It Ourselves

If we take the example of RateMyProfessors.com and push it out a little bit, we can see the shape of things to come. But there are some other trends which are also becoming visible. The first and most significant of these is the trend toward sharing lecture material online, so that it reaches a very large audience. Spearheaded by Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both of which have placed their entire set of lectures online through iTunes University, these educational institutions assert that the lectures themselves aren’t the real reason students spend $50,000 a year to attend these schools; the lectures only have full value in context. This is true, in some sense, but it discounts the possibility that some individuals or group of individuals might create their own context around the lectures. And this is where the future seems to be pointing.

When broken down to its atomic components, the classroom is an agreement between an instructor and a set of students. The instructor agrees to offer expertise and mentorship, while the students offer their attention and dedication. The question now becomes what role, if any, the educational institution plays in coordinating any of these components. Students can share their ratings online – why wouldn’t they also share their educational goals? Once they’ve pooled their goals, what keeps them from recruiting their own instructor, booking their own classroom, indeed, just doing it all themselves?

At the moment the educational institution has an advantage over the singular student, in that it exists to coordinate the various functions of education. The student doesn’t have access to the same facilities or coordination tools. But we already see that this is changing; RateMyProfessors.com points the way. Why not create a new kind of “Open University”, a website that offers nothing but the kinds of scheduling and coordination tools students might need to organize their own courses? I’m sure that if this hasn’t been invented already someone is currently working on it – it’s the natural outgrowth of all the efforts toward student empowerment we’ve seen over the last several years.

In this near future world, students are the administrators. All of the administrative functions have been “pushed down” into a substrate of software. Education has evolved into something like a marketplace, where instructors “bid” to work with students. Now since most education is funded by the government, there will obviously be other forces at play; it may be that “administration”, such as it is, represents the government oversight function which ensures standards are being met. In any case, this does not look much like the educational institution of the 20th century – though it does look quite a bit like the university of the 13th century, where students would find and hire instructors to teach them subjects.

The role of the instructor has changed as well; as recently as a few years ago the lecturer was the font of wisdom and source of all knowledge – perhaps with a companion textbook. In an age of Wikipedia, YouTube and Twitter this no longer the case. The lecturer now helps the students find the material available online, and helps them to make sense of it, contextualizing and informing their understanding. even as the students continue to work their way through the ever-growing set of information. The instructor can not know everything available online on any subject, but will be aware of the best (or at least, favorite) resources, and will pass along these resources as a key outcome of the educational process. The instructor facilitates and mentors, as they have always done, but they are no longer the gatekeepers, because there are no gatekeepers, anywhere.

The administration has gone, the instructor’s role has evolved, now what happens to the classroom itself? In the context of a larger school facility, it may or may not be relevant. A classroom is clearly relevant if someone is learning engine repair, but perhaps not if learning calculus. The classroom in this fungible future of student administrators and evolved lecturers is any place where learning happens. If it can happen entirely online, that will be the classroom. If it requires substantial darshan with the instructor, it will have a physical local, which may or may not be a building dedicated to education. (It could, in many cases, simply be a field outdoors, again harkening back to 13th-century university practices.) At one end of the scale, students will be able work online with each other and with an lecturer to master material; at the other end, students will work closely with a mentor in a specialist classroom. This entire range of possibilities can be accommodated without much of the infrastructure we presently associate with educational institutions. The classroom will both implode – vanishing online – and explode – the world will become the classroom.

This, then, can already be predicted from current trends; once RateMyProfessors.com succeeded in destabilizing the institutional hierarchies in education, everything else became inevitable. Because this transformation lies mostly in the future, it is possible to shape these trends with actions taken in the present. In the worst case scenario, our educational institutions to not adjust to the pressures placed upon them by this new generation of students, and are simply swept aside by these students as they rise into self-empowerment. But the worst case need not be the only case. There are concrete steps which institutions can take to ease the transition from our highly formal present into our wildly informal future. In order to roll with the punches delivered by these newly-empowered students, educational institutions must become more fluid, more open, more atomic, and less interested the hallowed traditions of education than in outcomes.

III: All and Everything

Flexibility and fluidity are the hallmark qualities of the 21st century educational institution. An analysis of the atomic features of the educational process shows that the course is a series of readings, assignments and lectures that happen in a given room on a given schedule over a specific duration. In our drive to flexibility how can we reduce the class into to essential, indivisible elements? How can we capture those elements? Once captured, how can we get these elements to the students? And how can the students share elements which they’ve found in their own studies?

Recommendation #1: Capture Everything

I am constantly amazed that we simply do not record almost everything that occurs in public forums as a matter of course. This talk is being recorded for a later podcast – and so it should be. Not because my words are particularly worthy of preservation, but rather because this should now be standard operating procedure for education at all levels, for all subject areas. It simply makes no sense to waste my words – literally, pouring them away – when with very little infrastructure an audio recording can be made, and, with just a bit more infrastructure, a video recording can be made.

This is the basic idea that’s guiding Stanford and MIT: recording is cheap, lecturers are expensive, and students are forgetful. Somewhere in the middle these three trends meet around recorded media. Yes, a student at Stanford who misses a lecture can download and watch it later, and that’s a good thing. But it also means that any student, anywhere, can download the same lecture.

Yes, recording everything means you end up with a wealth of media that must be tracked, stored, archived, referenced and so forth. But that’s all to the good. Every one of these recordings has value, and the more recordings you have, the larger the horde you’re sitting upon. If you think of it like that – banking your work – the logic of capturing everything becomes immediately clear.

Recommendation #2: Share Everything

While education definitely has value – teachers are paid for the work – that does not mean that resources, once captured, should be tightly restricted to authorized users only. In fact, the opposite is the case: the resources you capture should be shared as broadly as can possibly be managed. More than just posting them onto a website (or YouTube or iTunes), you should trumpet their existence from the highest tower. These resources are your calling card, these resources are your recruiting tool. If someone comes across one of your lectures (or other resources) and is favorably impressed by it, how much more likely will they be to attend a class?

The center of this argument is simple, though subtle: the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes. You extend your brand with every resource you share. You extend the knowledge of your institution throughout the Internet. Whatever you have – if it’s good enough – will bring people to your front door, first virtually, then physically.

If universities as illustrious (and expensive) as Stanford and MIT could both share their full courseware online, without worrying that it would dilute the value of the education they offer, how can any other institution hope to refute their example? Both voted with their feet, and both show a different way to value education – as experience. You can’t download experience. You can’t bottle it. Experience has to be lived, and that requires a teacher.

Recommendation #3: Open Everything

You will be approached by many vendors promising all sorts of wonderful things that will make the educational processes seamless and nearly magical for both educators and students. Don’t believe a word of it. (If I had a dollar for every gripe I’ve heard about Blackboard and WebCT, I’d be a very wealthy man.) There is no off-the-shelf tool that is perfectly equipped for every situation. Each tool tries to shoehorn an infinity of possibilities into a rather limited palette.

Rather than going for a commercial solution, I would advise you to look at the open-source solutions. Rather than buying a solution, use Moodle, the open-source, Australian answer to digital courseware. Going open means that as your needs change, the software can change to meet those needs. Given the extraordinary pressures education will be under over the next few years, openness is a necessary component of flexibility.

Openness is also about achieving a certain level of device-independence. Education happens everywhere, not just with your nose down in a book, or stuck into a computer screen. There are many screens today, and while the laptop screen may be the most familiar to educators, the mobile handset has a screen which is, in many ways, more vital. Many students will never be very computer literate, but every single one of them has a mobile handset, and every single one of them sends text messages. It’s the big of computer technology we nearly always overlook – because it is so commonplace. Consider every screen when you capture, and when you share; dealing with them all as equals will help you work find audiences you never suspected you’d have.

There is a third aspect of openness: open networks. Educators of every stripe throughout Australia are under enormous pressure to “clean” the network feeds available to students. This is as true for adult students as it is for educators who have a duty-of-care relationship with their students. Age makes no difference, apparently. The Web is big, bad, evil and must be tamed.

Yet net filtering throws the baby out with the bathwater. Services like Twitter get filtered out because they could potentially be disruptive, cutting students off from the amazing learning potential of social messaging. Facebook and MySpace are seen as time-wasters, rather than tools for organizing busy schedules. The list goes on: media sites are blocked because the schools don’t have enough bandwidth to support them; Wikipedia is blocked because teachers don’t want students cheating.

All of this has got to stop. The classroom does not exist in isolation, nor can it continue to exist in opposition to the Internet. Filtering, while providing a stopgap, only leaves students painfully aware of how disconnected the classroom is from the real world. Filtering makes the classroom less flexible and less responsive. Filtering is lazy.

Recommendation #4: Only Connect

Mind the maxim of the 21st century: connection is king. Students must be free to connect with instructors, almost at whim. This becomes difficult for instructors to manage, but it is vital. Mentorship has exploded out of the classroom and, through connectivity, entered everyday life. Students should also be able to freely connect with educational administration; a fruitful relationship will keep students actively engaged in the mechanics of their education.

Finally, students must be free to (and encouraged to) connect with their peers. Part of the reason we worry about lecturers being overburdened by all this connectivity is because we have yet to realize that this is a multi-lateral, multi-way affair. It’s not as though all questions and issues immediately rise to the instructor’s attention. This should happen if and only if another student can’t be found to address the issue. Students can instruct one another, can mentor one another, can teach one another. All of this happens already in every classroom; it’s long past time to provide the tools to accelerate this natural and effective form of education. Again, look to RateMyProfessors.com – it shows the value of “crowdsourced” learning.

Connection is expensive, not in dollars, but in time. But for all its drawbacks, connection enriches us enormously. It allows us to multiply our reach, and learn from the best. The challenge of connectivity is nowhere near as daunting as the capabilities it delivers. Yet we know already that everyone will be looking to maintain control and stability, even as everything everywhere becomes progressively reshaped by all this connectivity. We need to let go, we need to trust ourselves enough to recognize that what we have now, though it worked for a while, is no longer fit for the times. If we can do that, we can make this transition seamless and pleasant. So we must embrace sharing and openness and connectivity; in these there’s the fluidity we need for the future.

Interview: “The Alcove with Mark Molaro”

Recorded in New York City, 23 June 2008 – the day before I delivered “Hyperpolitics, American Style” at the Personal Democracy Forum. A wide-ranging discussion on hyperconnectivity, hyperpolitics, media, hyperdistribution, and lots of other fun things.

Many thanks to Mark for getting it up!

Collisions & Smash Repairs

My brief keynote to the ICT Roundtable of the TAFE Sydney Institute. Recorded on Wednesday, 13 August 2008. Many thanks to Trish James and Stephan Ridgway for arranging the audio recording!