The Connected City

I

During my first visit to Sydney, in 1997, I made arrangements to catch up with some friends living in Drummoyne.  I was staying at the Novotel Darling Harbour, so we arranged to meet in front of the IMAX theatre before heading off to drinks and dinner.  I arrived at the appointed time, as did a few of my friends.  We waited a bit more, but saw no sign of the missing members of our party.  What to do?  Should we wait there – for goodness knows how long – or simply go on without them?

As I debated our options – neither particularly palatable – one of my friends took a mobile out of his pocket, dialed our missing friends, and told them to meet us at an Oxford Street pub.  Crisis resolved.

Nothing about this incident seems at all unusual today – except for my reaction to the dilemma of the missing friends.  When someone’s not where they should be, where they said they would be, we simply ring them.  It’s automatic.

In Los Angeles, where I lived at the time, mobile ownership rates had barely cracked twenty percent.  America was slow on the uptake to mobiles; by the time of my trip, Australia had already passed fifty percent.  When half of the population can be reached instantaneously and continuously, people begin to behave differently.  Our social patterns change.  My Sydneysider friends had crossed a conceptual divide into hyperconnectivity, while I was mired in an old, discrete and disconnected conception of human relationships.

We rarely recall how different things were before everyone carried a mobile.  The mobile has become such an essential part of our kit that on those rare occasions when we leave it at home or lose track of it, we feel a constant tug, like the phantom pain of a missing limb.  Although we are loath to admit it, we need our mobiles to bring order to our lives.

We can take comfort in the fact that all of us feel this way.  Mobile subscription rates in Australia are greater than one hundred and twenty percent – more than one mobile per person, and one of the highest rates in the world.  We have voted with our feet, with our wallets and with our attention.  The default social posture in Sydney – and London and Tokyo and New York – is face down, absorbed in the mobile.  We stare at it, toy with it, play on it, but more than anything else, we reach through it to others, whether via voice calls, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare or any of an constantly-increasing number of ways.

The mobile takes the vast, anonymous and unknowable City, and makes it pocket-sized, friendly and personal.  If you ever run into a spot of bother, you can bring resources to hand – family, friends, colleagues, even professional fixers like lawyers and doctors – with the press of ten digits.  We give mobiles to our children and parents so they can call us – and so we can track them.  The mobile is the always-on lifeline, a different kind of 000, for a different class of needs.

Yet these connections needn’t follow the well-trodden paths of family-friends-neighbors-colleagues.  Because everyone is connected, we can connect to anyone we wish.  We can ignore protocol and reach directly into an organization, or between silos, or from bottom to top, without obeying any of the niceties described on org charts or contact sheets.  People might choose to connect in an orderly fashion – when it suits them.  Otherwise, they will connect to their greatest advantage, whether or not that suits your purposes, protocols, or needs.  When people need a lifeline, they will find it, and once they’ve found it, they will share it with others.

How does the City connect to its residents?  Now that everyone in the City – residents and employees and administrators and directors – are hyperconnected, how should the City structure its access policies?  Is the City a solid wall with a single door?  Connection is about relationship, and relationships grow from a continuity of interactions.  Each time a resident connects to the City, is that a one-off, an event with no prior memory and no future impact?

It is now possible to give each resident of the City their own, custom phone number which they could use to contact the City, a number which would encompass their history with the city.  If they use an unblocked mobile, they already provide the City with a unique number.  Could this be the cornerstone of a deeper and more consistent connection with the City?

II

Connecting is an end in itself – smoothing our social interactions, clearing the barriers to commerce and community – but connection also provides a platform for new kinds of activities.  Connectivity is like mains power: once everywhere, it becomes possible to have a world where people own refrigerators and televisions.

When people connect, their first, immediate and natural response is to share.  People share what interests them with people they believe share those interests.  In early days that sharing can feel very unfocused.  We all know relatives or friends who have gone online and suddenly started to forward us every bad joke, cute kitten or chain letter that comes their way.  (Perhaps we did these things too.)  Someone eventually tells the overeager sharer to think before they share.  They learn the etiquette of sharing.  Life gets easier – and more interesting – for everyone.

Once we have learned who wants to know what, we have integrated ourselves into a very powerful network for the dissemination of knowledge.  In the 21st century, news comes and finds us.  If it’s important to us, the things we need to know will filter their way through our connections, shared from person to person, delivered via multiple connections.  Our process of learning about the world has become multifocal; some of it comes from what we see and those we meet, some from what we read or watch, and the rest from those we connect with.

The connected world, with its dense networks, has become an incredibly rapid platform for the distribution of any bit of knowledge – honest truth, rumor, and outright lies.  Anything, however trivial, finds its way to us, if we consider it important.   Hyperconnectivity provides a platform for a breadth of ‘situational awareness’ beyond even the wildest imaginings of MI6 or ASIO.

In a practical sense, sharing means every resident of the City can now possess detailed awareness of the City.  This condition develops naturally and automatically simply by training one’s attention on the City.  The more one looks, the more one sees how to connect to those sharing matters of importance about the City.

This means the City is no longer the authoritative resource about itself.  Networks of individuals, sharing information relevant to them, have become the channel through which information comes to residents.  This includes information supplied by the City, as one element among many – but this information may be recontextualized, edited, curated or twisted to suit the aims of those doing the sharing.

This leads to a great deal of confusion: what happens when official and shared sources of information differ?  In general, individuals tend to trust their networks, granting them greater authority than statutory authorities.  (This is why rumors are so hard to defeat.)  Multiple, reinforcing sources of information offer the City a counterbalance to the persuasive power of the network.  These interconnected sources constitute a network in themselves, and as people connect to the network of the City, this authoritative information will be shared widely through their networks.

The City needs to evaluate all of the information it provides to its residents as shared resources.  Can they be divided, edited, and mashed-up?  Can these resources be taken out of context?  The more useful the City can make its information – more than just words on a page, or figures, or the static image of a floor plan –  the more likely it will be shared.  How can one resident share a City resource with another resident?  If you make sharing easy, it is more likely your own resources will be shared.  If you make sharing difficult, residents will create their own shared resources which may not be as accurate as those offered by the City.  On the other hand, if your resources are freely available but inaccurate, residents will create their own.

Sharing is not a one-way street.  Just as the City offers up its resources to its residents, the City should be connected to these sharing communities, ready to recognize and amplify networks that share useful information.  The City has the advantage of a ‘bully pulpit’: when the City promotes something, it achieves immediate visibility.  Furthermore, when the City recognizes a shared resource, it relieves the City of the burden of providing that resource to its residents.  Although connecting to the residents of the City is not free – time and labour are required – that cost is recovered in savings as residents share resources with one another.  The City need not be a passive actor in such a situation; the City can sponsor competitions or promotions, setting its focus on specific areas it wants residents to take up for themselves.

III

We begin by sharing everything, but as that becomes noisy (and boring), we focus on sharing those things which interest us most.  We forge bonds with others interested in the same things.  These networks of sharing provide an opportunity for anyone to involve themselves fully within any domain deemed important – or at least interesting.  The sharing network becomes a classroom of sorts, where anyone expert in any area, however peculiar, becomes recognized, promoted, and well-connected.  If you know something that others want to know, they will find you.

By sharing what we know, we advertise our expertise.  It follows us where ever we go.  In addition to everything else, we are each a unique set of knowledge, experience and capabilities which, in the right situation, proves uniquely valuable.  Because this information is mostly hidden from view, it is impossible for us to look at one another and see the depth that each of us carries within us.

Every time we share, we reveal the secret expert within ourselves.  Because we constantly share ourselves with our friends, family and co-workers, they come to rely on what we know.  But what of our neighbors, our co-residents in the City?  We walk the City’s streets with little sense of the expertise that surrounds us.

Before hyperconnectivity, it was difficult to share expertise.  You could reach a few people – those closest to you – but unless your skills were particularly renowned or valuable, that’s where it stopped.  For good or ill, our experience and knowledge now  extend far beyond the circle of those familiar to us.

With its millions of residents, the City represents a pool of knowledge and experience beyond compare, which, until this moment, lay tantalizingly beyond reach.  Now that we can come together around what we know – or want to learn – we find another type of community emerging, a community driven by expertise.  Some of these communities are global and diffuse: just a few people here, a few more there.  Other communities are local and dense, because they organize themselves around the physical communities where they live.  Every city is now becoming such a community of knowledge, with the most hyperconnected cities – like San Francisco, Tokyo, and Sydney – leading the way.

The resident of the connected city shares their expertise about the city.  This sharing brings them into community with other residents who also share, or want to benefit from that expertise.  Residents recognize that it is possible to learn as much as they need to know, simply by focusing on those who already know what they need to learn.

Seen this way, the City is a knowledge network composed of its residents.  This network emerges naturally from the sharing activities of those residents, and necessarily incorporates the City as an element in that network.  Residents refer to one another’s expertise in order to make their way in the City, and much of this refers back to the City itself.

How does this City situate itself within these networks of knowledge and expertise?  How can the City take these hidden reservoirs of knowledge and bring them to the surface?  These sorts of tasks are commonplace on digital social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, but both emphasise the global reach of cyberspace, not the restricted terrain of a suburb.  How can I learn who in my neighborhood has worked with Sydney’s development authorities, so I can get some advice on my own application?  How can I share with others what I have learned through a development application process?

This is the idea at the core of the connected city.  We have connected but remain in darkness, blind to one another.  As the lights come up, we immediately see who knows what.  We ourselves are illuminated by what we know.  As we transition from sharing into learning, we gain the knowledge of the brightest, and the expertise of the most experienced.  We don’t even need to go looking: because it is important, this knowledge comes and finds us.

Long before 2030, everyone in the City will have the full advantage of the knowledge and experience of every other resident of the City.  The City will be nurturing residents who are all as smart and capable as the smartest and most capable among them.  When residents put that knowledge to work, they will redefine the City.

IV

For as long as there have been cities, people have quit their villages and migrated to them.  Two hundred years ago, peasants headed into the great cities of London and Manchester, walking into a hellhole of disease and misery, knowing their chances for a good life were measurably better.  They learned this from their brothers, sisters and cousins who had made the move – and the statistics bear this out.  As dangerous and dirty as London might have been, life on the farm was worse.  With our understanding of sanitation and public health, this is even more true today:  even if you end up in a slum in Mumbai, Lagos or Rio, you and your children will live lives filled with opportunities not available back in the village.

As of 2008, fifty percent humanity lived in cities — a revolution ten thousand years in the marking, yet only half complete.  That migration has accompanied the greatest rise in human lifespan since the birth of our species.  We thrive in cities.  We are meant to be urban animals.

The transition from village to city is a move across both space and time, a traumatic leap across an abyss.  The headspace of the city is very, very different from the village.  In the village, everyone knows you.  In the city you are anonymous.  In the village you are ruled by custom, in the city, governed by law.  You arrive in the city knowing none of its ways, thriving only if you master them.

When my great-grandparents left their Sicilian villages for the industrial city of Boston, Massachusetts, they knew of other relatives who had undertaken the same journey, brothers and sisters who had made their own way in America, and who would be their safe haven when they arrived.  Family and friends have always helped new arrivals get settled in the big city.  This is the reason for the ethnic communities and ghettos we associate with immigration.  As the largest city in a nation with an active and aggressive immigration policy, Sydney has scores of these communities.  It has always been this way, everywhere, in every city, because the immigrant community is a network of knowledge that connects to new arrivals in order to give them a leg up.

Something similar happened to me eight years ago, when I moved to Sydney from Los Angeles.  I knew a few people, who became my entry point into the community: my first job, my first flat, and my first mobile all manifested through the auspices of these friends.  They shared what they knew in order to propel me into success.

These immigrant knowledge networks have always existed, informally.  The most successful immigrants inevitably have strong networks of knowledge backing them up – people, more than facts.  It’s not what you know, but who, because who you know is what you know.  The more you know, the more effective you can be.  An immigrant learns how to get a good job, a good flat, a good education for their children, because they are in connection with those who share their experiences, good and bad, with them.

The immigrant’s path to success also works for the rest of us.  Our capabilities can be measured by our networks of connections.  As the City reveals itself as a human network, where residents connect, share, and learn, we each become as capable as the most capable among us when we put what we have learned into practice.  This is the endpoint of the new urban revolution of the connected city: radical empowerment for every resident.

Consider: Everyone resident of the City you work with now brings with them the collective experience of every resident, past and present.  Only a few of them know how to put that knowledge to work.  As they learn, they share that knowledge, and it spreads, until every resident of the City has mastery of the wealth of human resources now available to each resident.

From one point of view, this is an amazing boon: City residents will know exactly how to have their local needs met.  They will have almost perfect knowledge about the right way to get things done.  That takes a burden off the City, and distributes it among the residents – where it should be, but where it never could be, before hyperconnectivity.  Residents will do the work for themselves.  You will be there to facilitate, to maintain, and mediate.

Yet this is no urban utopia.  Residents who know how to get their way will grow accustomed to having their way.  When they can not get it – when you can not give it to them – they will go to war.  Everything everyone has ever learned about how to fight City Hall is available to every resident of the City.  Dangerous capabilities, that might have been reserved for the most dire conflicts, will begin to pop up in the most ridiculous and ephemeral situations.   The residents of the City will be able to act like five year-olds who have been equipped with thermonuclear weapons.

We are all becoming vastly more capable.  Nothing can stop that.  It is a direct consequence of connection.  If the residents of the City grow too powerful, too quickly, the social fabric of the City will rip apart.  To counter this, the City must grow its capabilities in lockstep with its residents.  The City must connect, share, and learn, not just (or even first) with its residents, but with its employees.  When every City employee has the full knowledge and experiential resources of all of the employees of the City, the City will be able to confront an army of impetuous and empowered residents on its own terms.

That’s where you need to go.  That’s how you need to frame employee development, knowledge sharing, and capacity building.  Everyone who works for the City must become an expert in the whole of the City.  Yes, people will continue to specialize, and those specialties must become the shared elements that form the backbone of the City’s knowledge networks.  Everyone who works for the City must learn how to create and use these networks to increase the City’s capability.  They are the connected city.

CONCLUSION

The year 2030 is just a bit more than half a billion heartbeats away.  Most of the processes I have described are already well developed, and will complete long before 2030.  The future is already here, in bits and pieces that grow more widespread every day.  We have connected, we are sharing and learning, turning what we know into what we can do.

You have the opportunity to foster an urban environment where residents work together in close coordination to make the City an even better place to live.  Or, petty wars could flame up across our neighborhoods, as we fight one another every step of the way.  The City can not just stand by. It must step up and join the fray, using all of the resources at its disposal to shape the sharing and learning going on all around us in a way that benefits the City’s residents.  The City which does that becomes irresistible, not just to its own residents, but to everyone.  A Connected City is the envy of the world.

Smoke Signals

[ Please note that this essay uses some rough language.]

Introduction: The First Billion Seconds

In a few days time, it will be exactly thirty-two years – a bit more than a billion seconds – since I learned to code.  I was lucky enough to attend a high school with its own DEC PDP 11/45, and lucky that it chose to offer computer science courses on a few VT-52 video terminals and a DECWriter attached to it.   My first OS was RSTS/E, and my first programming language was – of course – BASIC.

A hundred million seconds before this, a friend dragged me over to a data center his dad managed, sat me down at a DECWriter, typed ‘startrek’ at the prompt, and it was all over.  The damage had been done.  From that day, all I’ve ever wanted to do is play with computers.

I’ve pretty much been able to keep to that.

Oddly, the only time I didn’t play with computers was at MIT.  After MIT, when I began work as a software engineer, I got to play and get paid for it.  I’ve written code for every major microprocessor family (with the exception of the 6502), all the common microcontrollers, and every OS from CP/M to Android.  I’ve even written a batch-executed RPG II program, typed up on punched cards, exectuted on an IBM 370 mainframe.

(Shudder, shudder.)

At Christmas 1990, I sat down and read a novel published a few years before, by an up-and-coming science fiction writer.  That novel – Neuromancer – changed my life.  It gave me a vision that I would pursue for an entire decade: a three-dimensional, immersive, visualized Internet.  Cyberspace.  I dropped everything, moved myself to San Francisco – epicenter of all work in virtual reality – and founded a startup to design and market an inexpensive immersive videogaming console.  It was hard work, frequently painful, and I managed to pour my life savings into the company before it went belly up.  But I can’t say that any of the other VR companies faired any better.  A few of them still exist, shadows of their former selves, selling specialty products into the industrial market.

These companies failed because each of them – my own among them – coveted the whole prize.  With the eyes of a megalomaniac, each firm was going to ‘rule the world’.  Each did lots of inventing, holding onto every scrap of invention with IP agreements and copyrights and all sorts of patents.  I invented a technology very much similar to that seen in the Wiimote, but fourteen years before the Wiimote was introduced.  It’s all patented.  I don’t own it.  After my company collapsed the patent went through a series of other owners, until eventually I found myself in a lawyer’s office, being deposed, because my patent – the one I didn’t actually own – was involved in a dispute over priority, theft of intellectual property, and other violations.

Lovely.

With the VR industry in ruins, I set about creating my own networked VR protocol, using a parser donated by my friend Tony Parisi, building upon work from a coder over in Switzerland, a bloke by the name of Tim Berners-Lee, who’d published reams and reams of (gulp) Objective-C code, preprocessed into ANSI C, implementing his new Hypertext Transport Protocol.  I took his code, folded it into my own, and rapidly created a browser for three-dimensional scenes attached to Berners-Lee’s new-fangled World Wide Web.

This happened seventeen years ago this week.  Half a billion seconds ago.

When I’d gotten my 3D browser up and running, I was faced with a choice: I could try to hold it tight, screaming ‘Mine! Mine! Mine!’ and struggle for attention, or I could promiscuously share my code with the world.  Being the attention-seeking type that I am, the choice was easy.  After Dave Raggett – the father of HTML – had christened my work ‘VRML’, I published the source code.  A community began to form around the project.  With some help from an eighteen year-old sysadmin at WIRED named Brian Behlendorf, I brought Silicon Graphics to the table, got them to open their own code, and we had a real specification to present at the 2nd International Conference on the World Wide Web.  VRML was off and running, precisely because it was open to all, free to all, available to all.

It took about a billion seconds of living before I grokked the value of open source, the penny-drop moment I realized that a resource shared is a resource squared.  I owe everything that came afterward – my careers as educator, author, and yes, panelist on The New Inventors – to that one insight.  Ever since then, I’ve tried to give away nearly all of my work: ideas, articles, blog posts, audio and video recordings of my talks, slide decks, and, of course, lots of source code.  The more I give away, the richer I become – not just or even necessarily financially.  There are more metrics to wealth than cash in your bank account, and more ways than one to be rich.  Just as there is more than one way to be good, and – oh yeah – more than one way to be evil.

Which brings us to my second penny-drop moment, which came after I’d been programming computers for almost a billion seconds…

I: ZOMFG 574LLm4N W45 r19H7!

Sometimes, the evil we do, we do to ourselves.  For about half a billion seconds between the ages of nineteen and thirty nine, I smoked tobacco, until I realized that anyone who smokes past the age of forty is either a fool or very poorly informed.  So I quit.  It took five years and many, many, many boxes of nicotine chewing gum, but I’m clean.

A few years ago, Harvard researcher Dr. Nicholas Christakis published some interesting insights on how the behavior of smoking spreads.  It’s not the advertising – that’s mostly banned, these days – but because we take cues from our peers.  If our friends start smoking, we ourselves are more likely to start smoking.  There’s a communicative relationship, almost an epidemiological relationship at work here.  This behavior is being transmitted by mimesis – imitation.  We’re the imitating primates, so good at imitating one another that we can master language and math and xkcd.  When we see our friends smoking, we want to smoke.  We want to fit in.  We want to be cool.  That’s what it feels like inside our minds, but really, we just want to imitate.  We see something, and we want to do it.  This explains Jackass.

Mimesis is not restricted to smoking.  Christakis also studied obesity, and found that it showed the same ‘network’ effects.  If you are surrounded by the obese people, chances are greater that you will be obese.  If your peers starts slimming, chances are that you will join them in dieting.  The boundaries of mimesis are broad: we can teach soldiers to kill by immersing them in an environment where everyone learns to kill; we can teach children to read by immersing them in an environment where everyone learns to read; we can stuff our faces with Maccas and watch approvingly as our friends do the same.  We have learned to use mimesis to our advantage, but equally it makes us its slaves.

Recent research has shown something disturbing: divorce spreads via mimesis.  If you divorce, its more likely that your friends will also split up.  Conversely, if your friends separate, it’s more likely that your marriage will dissolve.  Again, this makes sense – you’re observing the behavior of your peers and imitating it, but here it touches the heart, the core of our being.

Booting up into Homo Sapiens Sapiens meant the acquisition of a facility for mimesis as broadly flexible as the one we have for language.  These may even be two views into the same cognitive process.  We can imitate nearly anything, but what we choose to imitate is determined by our network of peers, that set of relationships which we now know as our ‘social graph’.

This is why one needs to choose one’s friends carefully.  They are not just friends, they are epidemiological vectors.  When they sneeze, you will catch a cold.  They are puppet masters, pulling your strings, even if they are blissfully unaware of the power they have over you – or the power that you have over them.

All of this is interesting, but little of it has the shock of the new.  Our mothers told us to exercise caution when selecting our friends.  We all know people who got in with the ‘wrong crowd’, to see their lives ruined as a consequence.  This is common knowledge, and common sense.

But things are different today.  Not because the rules have changed – those seem to be eternal – but because we have extended ourselves so suddenly and so completely.  Our very new digital ‘social networks’ recapitulate the ones between our ears, in one essential aspect – they become channels for communication, channels through which the messages of mimesis can spread.  Viral videos – and ‘viral’ behavior in general – are good examples of this.

Digital social networks are instantaneous, ubiquitous and can be vastly larger than the hundred-and-fifty-or-so limit imposed on our endogenous social networks, the functional bandwidth of the human neocortex.  Just as computers can execute algorithms tens of millions of times faster than we can, digital social networks can inflate to elephantine proportions, connecting us to thousands of others.

Most of us keep our social graphs much smaller; the average number of friends on any given user account on Facebook is around 35.  That’s small enough that it resembles your endogenous social network, so the same qualities of mimesis come into play.  When your connections start talking about a movie or a song or a television series, you’re more to become interested in it.

If this is all happening on Facebook – which it normally is – there is another member of your social graph, there whether you like it or not: Facebook itself.  You choose to build your social graph by connecting to others within Facebook, store your social graph on Facebook’s servers, and communicate within Facebook’s environment.  All of this has been neatly captured, providing an opening for Facebook to do what they will with your social graph.

You have friended Mark Zuckerberg, telling him everything about yourself that you have ever told to any of your friends.  More, actually, because an analysis of your social graph reveals much about you that you might not want to ever reveal to anyone else: your sexual preference and fetishes, your social class, your income level – everything that you might choose to hide is entirely revealed because you need to reveal it in order to make Facebook work.  Because you do not own it.  Because you do not have access to the source code, or the databases.  Because it is closed.

Your social graph is the most important thing you have that can be represented in bits.  With it, I can manipulate you.  I can change your tastes, your attitudes, even your politics.  We now know this is possible – and probably even easy.  But to do this, I need your social graph.  I need you to surrender it to me before I can use it to fuck you over.

We didn’t understand any of this a quarter billion seconds ago, when Friendster went live.  Now we have a very good idea of the potency of the social graph, but we find ourselves almost pathetically addicted to the amplified power of communication provided by Facebook.  We want to quit it, but we just don’t know how.  Just as with tobacco, going cold turkey won’t be easy.

On 28 May 2010, I killed my Facebook profile and signed off once and for all.  There is a cost – I’m missing a lot of the information which exists solely within the walled boundaries of Facebook – but I also breathe a bit easier knowing that I am not quite the puppet I was.  When someone asks why I quit – an explanation which has taken me over a thousand words this morning – they normally just close down the conversation with, “My grandmother is on Facebook.  I have to be there.”

That may be our epitaph.

We are so fucked.  We ended up here because we surrendered our most vital personal details to a closed-source system.  We should have known better.

And that’s only the half of it.

So much has happened in the last eight weeks that we’ve almost forgotten that before all of this disaster and tragedy afflicted Queensland, we were obsessed with another sort of disaster, rolling out in slow-motion, like a car smash from inside the car.  On 29 November 2010, Wikileaks, in conjunction with several well-respected newspapers, began to release the first few of a quarter million cables, written by US State Department officials throughout the world.  The US Government did its best to laugh these off as inconsequential, but one has already led more-or-less directly to a revolution in Tunisia.  We also know that Hilary Clinton has requested credit card numbers and DNA samples for all of the UN ambassadors in New York City, presumably so she can raise up a clone army of diplomats intent on identity theft.  Not a good look.

In early December, as the first cables came to light, and their contents ricocheted through the mediasphere, the US government recognized that it had to act – and act quickly – to staunch the flow of leaks.  The government had some help, because an individual seduced by the United States’ projection of power decided to mount a Distributed Denial of Service attack against the Wikileaks website.  In the name of freedom.  Or liberty.  Or something.

Wikileaks went down, but quickly relocated its servers into Amazon.com’s EC2 cloud.  This lasted until US Senator Joseph Lieberman started making noises.  Wikileaks was quickly turfed out of EC2, with Amazon claiming newly discovered violations of its Terms of Service.  Another ‘discovery’ of a violation followed in fairly short order with Wikileaks’ DNS provider, everyDNS.  For the coup de gras, PayPal had a look at their own terms of service – and, quelle horreur! – found Wikileaks in violation, freezing Wikileaks accounts, which, at that time, must have been fairly overflowing with contributions.

Deprive them of servers, deprive them of name service, deprive them of funds: checkmate.  The Powers That Be must have thought this could dent the forward progress of Wikileaks.  In fact, it only caused the number of copies of the website and associated databases to multiply.  Today, nearly two thousand webservers host mirrors of Wikileaks.  Like striking at a dandelion, attacking it only causes the seed to spread with the winds.

Although Wikileaks successfully resumed its work releasing the cables, the entire incident proved one ugly, mean, nasty point: the Internet is fundamentally not free.  Where we thought we breathed the pure air of free speech and free thought, we instead find ourselves severely caged.  If we do something that upsets our masters too much, they bring the bars down upon us, leaving us no breathing room at all.  That isn’t liberty.  That is slavery.

This isn’t some hypothetical.  This isn’t a paranoid fantasy.  This is what is happening. It will happen again, and again, and again, whenever the State or forces in collusion with the State find themselves threatened.  None of it is secure.  None of it belongs to us.  None of it is free.

This is why we are so truly and wholly fucked.  This is why we must stop and rethink everything we are doing.  This is why we must consider ourselves victims of another kind of disaster, another tragedy, and must equally and bravely confront another kind of rebuilding.  Because if we do not create something new, if we do not restore what is broken, we surrender to the forces of control.

I will not surrender.  I will not serve.

II: Life During Wartime (with A Design Guide for Anarchists)

Like it or not, we find ourselves at war.  It’s not a war we asked for.  It’s not a war we wanted.  But war is upon us, the last great gasp of the forces of control as they realize that when they digitized, in pursuit of greater efficiency, profit, or extensions of their own power, whatever they once held onto became so fluid it now drains away completely.

That’s one enemy, the old enemy, the ones whom history has already ruled irrelevant.  But there’s the other enemy, who seeks to exteriorize the interior, to make privacy difficult and therefore irrelevant.  Without privacy there is no liberty.  Without privacy there is no individuality.  Without privacy there is only the mindless, endless buzzing of the hive.    That’s the new enemy.  Although it announces itself with all of the hyperbole of historical inevitability, this is just PR aimed at extending the monopoly power of these forces.

We need weapons.  Lots of weapons.  I’m not talking about the Low Orbit Ion Cannon.  Rather, I’m recommending a layered defensive strategy, one which allows us to carry on with our business, blithely unmolested by the forces which seek to constrain us.

Here, then, is my ‘Design Guide for Anarchists’:

Design Principle One: Distribute Everything

The recording industry used the courts to shut down Napster because they could.  Napster had a single throat they could get their legal arms around, choking the life out of it.  In a display of natural selection that would have brought a tear to Alfred Russel Wallace’s eye, the selection pressure applied by the recording industry only led to the creation of Gnutella, which, through its inherently distributed architecture, became essentially impossible to eradicate.  The Day of the Darknet had begun.

Break everything upBreak it all down.  When you have these components, make them all independentReplicate them widely.  Allow them to talk to one another.  Allow them to search one another, share with one another, so that together they will create a whole greater than a simple sum of parts.  Then you will never be rid of them, because if one part should be cut down, there will be two others to take its place.

This is an extension of the essential UNIX idea of simple programs which can be piped together to do useful things.  ‘Small pieces, loosely joined.’  But these pieces shouldn’t live within a single process, a single processor, a single computer, or a single subnet.  They must live everywhere they can live, in every compatible environment, so that they can survive any of the catastrophes of war.

Design Principle Two: Transport Independence

The inundation of Brisbane and its surrounding suburbs brought a sudden death to all of its networks: mobile, wired, optic.  All of these networks are centralized, and for that reason they can all be turned off – either by a natural disaster, or at the whim of The Powers That Be.  Just as significantly, they require the intervention of those Powers to reboot them: government and telcos had to work hand-in-hand to bring mobile service back to the worst-affected suburbs.  So long as you are in the good graces of the government, it can be remarkably efficient.  But if you find yourself aligned against your government, or your government is afflicted with corruption, as simple a thing as a dial tone can be almost impossible to manifest.

We have created a centralized communications infrastructure.  Lines feed into trunks, which feed into central offices, which feed into backbones.  This seems the natural order of things, but it is entirely an echo of the commercial requirements of these networks.  In order to bill you, your communications must pass through a point where they can be measured, metered and tariffed.

There is another way.  Years before the Internet came along, we used UUCP and FidoNet to spread mail and news posts throughout a far-flung, only occasionally connected global network of users.  It was slower than we’re used to these days, but no less reliable.  Messages would forward from host to host, until they reached their intended destination.  It all worked if you had a phone line, or an Internet connection, or, well, pretty much anything else.  I presume that a few hardy souls printed out a UUCP transmission on paper tape, physically carried it from one host to another, and fed it through.

A hierarchy is efficient, but the price of that efficiency is vulnerability.  A rhizomatic arrangement of nodes within a mesh is slow, but very nearly invulnerable.  It will survive flood, fire, earthquake and revolution.  To abolish these dangerous hierarchies, we must reconsider everything we believe about ‘the right way’ to get bits from point A to point B.  Every transport must be considered – from point-to-point laser beams to wide-area mesh networks using unlicensed spectrum down to semaphore and smoke signals.  Nothing is too slow, only too unreliable.  If we rely on TCP/IP and HTTP exclusively, we risk everything for the sake of some speed and convenience.  But this is life during wartime, and we must shoulder this burden.

Design Principle Three: Secure Everything

Why would any message traverse a public network in plaintext?  The bulk of our communication occurs in the wide open – between Web browsers and Web servers, email servers and clients, sensors and their recorders.  This is insanity. It is not our job to make things easy to read for ASIO or the National Security Agency or Google or Facebook or anyone else who has some need to know what we’re saying and what we’re thinking.

As a baseline, everything we do, everywhere, must be transmitted with strong encryption.  Until someone perfects a quantum computer, that’s our only line of defense.

We need a security approach that is more comprehensive than this.  The migration to cloud computing – driven by its ubiquity and convenience, and baked into Google’s Chrome OS – deprives us of any ability to secure our own information.  When we use Gmail or Flickr or Windows Live or MobileMe or even Dropbox (which is better than most, as it stores everything encrypted), we surrender our security for a little bit of simplicity.  This is a false trade-off.  These systems are insecure because it benefits those who offer these systems to the public.  There is value in all of that data, so everything is exposed, leaving us exposed.

If you do not know where it lives, if you do not hold the keys to lock it or release it, if it affects to be more pretty than useful (because locks are ugly), turn your back on it, and tell the ones you love – who do not know what you know – to do the same.  Then, go and build systems which are secure, which present nothing but a lock to any prying eyes.

Design Principle Four: Open Everything

I don’t need to offer any detailed explanation for this last point: it is the reason we are here.  If you can’t examine the source code, how can you really trust it?  This is an issue beyond maintainability, beyond the right to fork; this is the essential element that will prevent paranoia.  ‘Transparency is the new objectivity’, and unless any particular program is completely transparent, it is inherently suspect.

Open source has the additional benefit that it can be reused and repurposed; the parts for one defensive weapon can rapidly be adapted to another one, so open source accelerates the responses to new threats, allowing us to stay one step ahead of the forces who are attempting to close all of this down.  There’s a certain irony here: in order to compete effectively with us, those who oppose us will be forced to open their own source, to accelerate their own responses to our responses.  On this point we must win, simply because open source improves selection fitness.

When all four of these design principles are embodied in a work, another design principle emerges: resilienceSomething that is distributed, transport independent, secure and open is very, very difficult to subvert, shut down, or block. It will survive all sorts of disasters.  Including warfare.  It will adapt at lightning speed.  It makes the most of every possible selection advantage.  But nothing is perfect.  Systems engineered to these design principles will be slower than those built purely for efficiency.  The more immediacy you need, the less resilience you get.  Sometimes immediacy will overrule other design principles.  Such trade-offs must be carefully thought through.

Is all of this more work?  Yes.  But then, building an automobile that won’t kill its occupants at speed is a lot more work than slapping four wheels and a gear train on a paper mache box.  We do that work because we don’t want our loved ones hurtling toward their deaths every time they climb behind the wheel.  Freedom ain’t free, and ‘extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.’

Let me take a few minutes to walk you through the design of my own open-source project, so you can see how these design principles have influenced my own work.

III:  Plexus

When I announced I would quit Facebook, many of my contacts held what can only be described as an ‘electronic wake’ for me, in the middle of my Facebook comment stream.  As if I were about to pass away, and they’d never see me again.  I kept pointing them to my Posterous blog, but they simply ignored the links, telling me how much I’d be missed once I departed.  ‘But why can’t you just come visit me on Posterous?’ I asked.  One contact answered for the lot when he said, ‘That’s too hard, Mark.  With Facebook I can check on everyone at once.  I don’t need to go over there for you, and over here for someone else, and so on and so on.  Facebook makes it easy.’

That’s another epitaph.  Yet it precipitated a penny-drop moment.  The reason Facebook has such lock-in with its users is because of a network effect: as more people join Facebook, its utility value as a human switchboard increases.  It is this access to the social graph which is Facebook’s ‘flypaper’, the reason it is so sticky, and surpassing Google as the most visited site on the Internet.

That social graph is the key thing; it’s what the address book, the rolodex and the contacts database have morphed into, and it forms the foundation for a project that I have named Plexus.  Plexus is a protocol for the social web, ‘plumbing’ that allows all social web components to communicate: from each, according to their ability, to each, according to their need.  Some components of the social web – Facebook comes to mind – are very poor communicators.  Others, like Twitter, have provided every conceivable service to make them easy to talk to.

Plexus provides a ‘meta-API’, based on RFC2822 messaging, so that each service can feed into or be fed by an individual’s social graph.  This social graph, the heart of Plexus, is what we might call the ‘Web2.0 address book’.  It’s not simply a static set of names, addresses, telephone numbers and emails, but, rather, an active set of connections between services, which you can choose to listen to, or to share with.  This is the switchboard, where the real magic takes place, allowing you listen to or be listened to, allowing you to share, or be shared with.

Plexus is agnostic; it can talk to any service, and any service can talk to it.  It is designed to ‘wire everything together’, so that we never have to worry about going hither and yon to manage our social graph, but neither need we be chained in one place.  Plexus gives us as much flexibility as we require.  That’s the vision.

Just after New Year, I had an insight.  I had originally envisioned Plexus as a monolithic set of Python modules.  It became clear that message-passing between the components – using an RFC2822 protocol – would allow me to separate the components, creating a distributed Plexus, parts of which could run anywhere: on a separate process, on a separate subnet, or, really, anywhere.  Furthermore, these messages could easily be encrypted and signed using RSA encryption, creating a strong layer of security.  Finally, these messages could be transmitted by any means necessary: TCP/IP, UUCP, even smoke signals.  And of course, all of it is entirely open.  Because it’s a protocol, the pieces of Plexus can be coded in any language anyone wants to use: Python, Node.js, PHP, Perl, Haskell, Ruby, Java, even shell.  Plexus is an agreement to speak the same language about the things we want to share.

I could go into mind-numbing detail about the internals of Plexus, but I trust those of you who find Plexus intriguing will find me after I leave the stage this morning.  I’m most interested in what you know that could help move this project forward: what pieces already exist that I can rework and adapt for Plexus?  I need your vast knowledge, your insights and your critiques.  Plexus is still coming to life, but a hundred things must go right for it to be a success.  With your aid, that can happen.

When it does – well, let me share one of my favorite quotes, from one of my favorite novels, Illuminatus!, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson:

The Chinese Taoist laughs at civilization and goes elsewhere.
The Babylonian Chaoist sets termites to the foundations.

Plexus is a white ant set to the imposing foundations of Facebook and every other service which chooses to take the easy path, walling its users in, the better to control them.  There is another way.  When the network outside the walls has a utility value greater than the network within, the forces of natural selection come into play, and those walls quickly tumble.  We saw it with AOL.  We saw it with MSN.  We’ll see it again with Facebook.  We will build the small and loosely-coupled components that individually do very little but altogether add up to something far more useful than anything on offer from any monopolist.

We need to see this happen.  This is not just a game.

Conclusion: The Next Billion Seconds

A billion seconds ago, Linux did not exist.  The personal computer was an expensive toy.  The Internet – well, one of my friends is the sysadmin who got HP onto UUCP – this was before the Internet became pervasive – and he remembers updating his /etc/hosts file weekly – by hand.  Every machine on the Internet could be found within a single file, that could be printed out on two sheets of greenbar.  A billion seconds later, and we’re a few days away from IPocalypse, the total allocation of the IPv4 number space.

Something is going on.

I’m not as teleological as Kevin Kelly.  I do not believe that there is evidence to support a seventh class of life – the technium – which is striving to come into its own.  I don’t consider technology as something in any way separate from us.  Other animals may use tools, but we have gone further, becoming synonymous with them.  Our social instinct for imitation, our language instinct for communication, and our technological instinct for tool using all seem to be reaching new heights.  Each instinct reinforces the others, creating a series of rising feedbacks that has only one possible end: the whole system overloads, overflows all its buffers, and – as you might expect – knocks the supervisor out of the box.

Call this a Singularity, if you like.  I simply refer to it as the next billion seconds.

The epicenter of this transition, where all three streams collide, sits in the palm of our hands, nearly all the time.  The mobile is the most pervasive technology in human history.  People who do not have electricity or indoor plumbing or literacy or agriculture have mobiles.  Perhaps five and a half billion of the planet’s seven billion souls possesses one; that’s everyone who earns more than one dollars a day.  Countless studies shows that individuals with mobiles improve their economic fitness:  they earn more money.  Anything that improves selection fitness – and economic fitness is a big part of that – spreads rapidly, as humans imitate, as humans communicate, as humans take the tool and further it, increasing its utility, amplifying its ability to amplify economic fitness.  The mobile becomes even more useful, more essential, more indispensable.  A billion seconds ago, no one owned a mobile.  Today, nearly everyone does.

Hundreds of billions of dollars are being invested to make the mobile more useful, more pervasive, and more effective.  The engines of capital are reorganizing themselves around it, just as they did, three billion seconds ago, for the automobile, and a billion seconds ago for the integrated circuit.  But unlike the automobile or the IC, the mobile is quintessentially a social technology, a connective fabric for humanity.  The next billion seconds will see this fabric become more tangible and more tightly woven, as it becomes increasingly inconceivable to separate ourselves from those we choose to share our lives with.

Call this a Hive Mind, if you like.  I simply refer to it as the next billion seconds.

This is starting to push beneath our skins the way it has already colonized our attention.  I don’t know that we will literally ‘Borg’ ourselves.  But the strict boundaries between ourselves, our machines, and other humans are becoming blurred to the point of meaninglessness.  Organisms are defined by their boundaries, by what they admit and what they refuse.  In this billion seconds, we are rewriting the definition of homo sapiens sapiens, irrevocably becoming something else.

Do we own that code? Are parts of that new definition closed off from us, fenced in by the ramparts of privilege or power or capital or law?  Will we end up with something foreign inside each of us, a potency unnamed, unobserved, and unavoidable?  Will we be invaded, infected, and controlled?   This is the choice that confronts us in the next billion seconds, a choice made even in its abrogation.  Freedom is not just an ideal.  Liberty is not some utopian dream.  These must form the baseline human experience in our next billion seconds, or all is lost.  We ourselves will be lost.

We have reached the decision point.  Our actions today – here, in this room – define the future we will inhabit, the transhumanity we are emerging into.  We’ve had our playtime, and it’s been good.  We’ve learned a lot, but mostly we’ve learned how to discern right from wrong.  We know what to do: what to build up, and what to tear down.  This transition is painful and bloody and carries with it the danger of complete loss.  But we have no choice.  We are too far down within it to change our ways now.  ‘The way down is the way up.’

Call it a birth, if you like.  It awaits us within the next billion seconds.

The slides for this talk (in OpenOffice.org Impress format) are available here.  They contain strong images.

How Not To Be Seen

I: The Comfy Chair

Back in 1978 – when I was just fifteen – I begged my parents to let me enroll in a course at the local community college (the equivalent of TAFE) so that I could take ‘Data Processing with RPG II’.  I wrote my first computer program in RPG II.  I typed that program onto a series of punched cards, one statement per punched card.  Once I’d completed typing the deck of cards which comprised my program, I dropped them off at the college’s data processing center, where they went into the batch queue.  You returned in 24 hours and were returned your deck of punched cards, along with a long string of ‘green-bar’ paper, which printed the results (or errors) in your program.  If you’d made a mistake on one of the cards – a spelling error, or a syntactical no-no, you’d be forced to repeat the process, as needed, until you got it right.

Woohoo.  Sign me up.

From around 1980 – when I went off to MIT to study computer science – computers have been my constant companions.  I’ve owned cheap ones (Commodore’s VIC-20), expensive ones (one of the first Macintosh IIs to roll off the assembly line), tiny ones (iPhone), and big ones (SparcStation 3).  I have never owned a computer that I have not written code for.  In my mind, the computer and the act of programming are inseparable.

Programming languages are something one acquires, like computers; but you don’t put those languages in the bin – mostly.  In preparation for this talk, I made up a list of all the programming languages I’ve learned over the years, beginning with RPG II – which I’ve since forgotten.  BASIC came next, and I thought it a wonderful, useful, incredible language, my true starting point.

I spent many years programming in assembly language on a variety of systems – CP/M, MS-DOS, embedded microcontrollers.  I bought a cheap C compiler in 1982, a copy of Kernighan & Ritchie, learned pointer arithmetic, and crashed my computer repeatedly in the process.  Now that was fun.

I did take up C++ when it was still new, when Stroustrup was still implementing features of the language.  (Oh, wait, he’s still doing that, isn’t he?)  Buried myself in class designs and object hierarchies and delegation models.  I can probably still program in C++.  If someone were to threaten me with a taser.

In the 1990s along came the Web and LINUX, the open computing platform.  Suddenly a language was more useful for its ability to communicate with other entities than for its raw processing power.

I sat down at the 3rd International World Wide Web conference with a few folks from SUN Microsystems, who were touting this new, portable programming language they’d invented, which they called ‘Oak‘.  I wonder whatever became of that?

Each new language is supposed to conquer the world.  Each new language is meant to subdue all before it.  And I have to admit that I had my share of fun with PERL – the bastard child of BASIC and C – and, later PHP.  I’ve written a lot of JavaScript, because that’s the programming language of choice that brings VRML to life.  Oh, and that’s right: along the way I invented a language, a portable language for interactive 3D computer graphics, a language that now, with WebGL about to become part of HTML5, looks less a damp squib than fifteen years ahead of its time.

Oh well.

Just a few years ago I decided that I needed to learn Python.  I don’t remember the reason.  I don’t even know that there was a reason.  Python was there, and that was enough.

It didn’t take long to learn – Python isn’t a difficult language – but for just that little bit of learning I got so much power, well – I don’t have to explain it to you.  You understand.  It’s a bit like crack, Python is.  Once you’ve had that first hit, you’re never quite the same again.

I put Python on everything: on my Macs, on my servers, on my mobile – everything I owned got a Python install.  I didn’t know exactly what I’d do with all this Python, but somehow that seemed unimportant.  Just get it everywhere.  You’ll figure something out.

In some ways discovering Python was very frustrating.  By my early 40s I’d basically stopped programming; not because I hated coding, but because my life had turned in other directions.  I teach, I research, I lecture, I write, I do a little TV on the side.  None of that has anything to do with coding.  I had the best tool for a grand bit of hackery, and no time to do anything with it, nor any real reason to drive me to make time.

My biggest Python project (before last week) was a simple script to create a video used in the opening of my 2008 WebDirections South keynote.  I wanted to show the ‘cloud’ of Twitter followers I had started to accumulate – around 1500.  Not just a ‘wall’ of different faces, but a film, an animation, where each person I followed on Twitter had their moment in the sun.  The script retrieved the list of people I follow, then iterated through this list, getting profile information for each individual, extracting from that the URL for the user’s avatar, which it then retrieved, Using Python Imaging Library, it then embossed the user’s handle onto the image.  After that it was a basic drag-and-drop operation into Adobe Premiere.  Presto! – I had a movie.  Thank you, Python.

For half a decade I’ve been thinking about social networks.  This little film project allowed me to tie my research together with my desire to have a pleasant excuse to hack. When I sat back and watched the film I’d algorithmically pieced together, I began to get a deeper sense of the value of my ‘social graph’.  That’s a new phrase, and it means the set of human relationships we each carry with us.  Until just a few years ago, these relationships lived wholly between our ears; we might augment our memories with an address book or a Rolodex, but these paper trails were only ever a reflection of our embodied relationships.  Ever since Friendster, these relationships have exteriorized, leaped out of our heads (like Athena from Zeus) and crawled into our computers.

This makes them both intimately familiar and eerily pluripotent.  We are wired from birth to connect with one another: to share what we know, to listen to what others say.  This is what we do, a knowledge so essential, so foundational, it never needs to be taught.  When this essential feature of being human gets accelerated by the speed of the computer, then amplified by a global network that now connects about five billion people (counting both  mobile or Internet), all sorts of unexpected things begin to happen.  The entire landscape of human knowledge – how we come to know something, how we come to share what we know – has been utterly transformed over the last decade.  Were we to find a convenient TARDIS and take ourselves back to the world of 1999, it would be almost unrecognizable.  The media landscape was as it always had been, though the print component had hesitatingly migrated onto the Web.  To learn about the world around us, we all looked up – to the ABC, to the New York Times, to the BBC World Service.

Then the world exploded.

We don’t look up anymore. We look around – we look to one another – to learn what’s going on.  Sometimes we share what we hear on the ABC or the Times or the World Service.  But what’s important is that we share it.  There is no up, there is no centre.  There is only a vast sea of hyperconnected human nodes.

The most alluring and seductive of all of the hyperconnecting services is unquestionably Facebook.  In three years it has grown from just fifteen million to nearly half a billion users.  It might be the most visited website in the world, just now surpassing Google.  Facebook has become the nexus, the connecting point for one person in every fourteen on Earth.  Facebook is the place where the social graph has come to life, where the potency of sharing and listening can be explored in depth.  But it is a life lived out in public.  Facebook is not really geared toward privacy, toward the intimacies that we expect as a necessary quality of our embodied relationships.  Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is on the record talking about ‘the end of privacy’, and how he sees it that a side-effect of Facebook’s mission ‘to give people the power to share, and make the world more open and connected’.

A world more open could be a good thing, but only if the openness is wholly multilateral.  We don’t want to end up in a world where our secrets as individuals have been revealed, while those who have the concentrations of capital and power, and their supporting organizations and networks, manage to continue to remain obscure and occult.  This kind of ‘privacy asymmetry’ will only work against the individuals who have surrendered their privacy.

This is precisely where we seem to be headed.  Facebook wants us to connect and share and reveal, but – particularly around privacy, user confidentiality, and the way they put that vast amount of user-generated data to work for themselves and their advertisers – Facebook’s business practices are entirely opaque.  Openness must be met with openness, sharing with sharing.  Anything else creates a situation where one side is – quite literally – holding all the cards.

I have been pondering the power of social networks for six years, so I am peculiarly conscious of the price you pay for participation in someone else’s network.  I’ve come to realized your social graph is your most important possession.  In a very real way, your social graph is who you are.  Until a few years ago we never gave this much thought because we carried our graphs with us everywhere, inside our heads.  But now that these graph live elsewhere – under the control of someone else – we’re confronted with a dilemma :we want to turbocharge our social graphs, but we don’t want anyone else having any access to something so fundamental and intimate.  If the CIA and NSA use social graphs to find and combat terrorists, if smoking, obesity and divorce spread through social graphs, why would we hand something so personal and so potent to anyone else?  What kind of value would we receive for surrendering our crown jewels?

By the end of last month it was clear that Facebook had become dangerous.  Something had to be done.  People had to be warned.  In a Melbourne hotel room, I drafted a manifesto.  Here’s how I closed it:

There is only one solution.  We must take the thing which is inalienable from us – our presence – and remove it from those who would use that presence for their own gain.  We must move, migrate, become digital refugees, fleeing a regime which seeks only its own best interests, to the detriment of our own… We may be the first, but we will not be the last.  We must map the harbors, clear the woods, and make virgin lands inviting enough that it will be an easy decision for those who will come to join us in this new country, where freedom goes hand-in-hand with presence, where privacy is not a dirty word, and where the future knows no bounds.

So I quit.  But I didn’t do it suddenly or rashly.  I’d been using Facebook to share media – links and articles and videos – so I set up a Posterous account, where I could do exactly the same kind of sharing.  Over the course of two weeks, I posted a series of Facebook updates, telling everyone in my social graph that I’d be quitting Facebook – beginning by posting that manifesto – and giving them the link to my Posterous account.  I did this on five separate occasions in the week leading up to my account deletion.

The responses were interesting.  Most of the folks in my social graph who bothered to respond were in various stages of mourning.  My own aunt – whom I’ve been corresponding with via email for twenty years – wrote how much she’d miss me.  Another individual expressed regret at my leave-taking, given that we’d only just reconnected after many years.  “But,” I responded, “I’ve shown you how we can stay in touch.  Just follow the link.”  “That’s too hard,” he replied, “I like that Facebook gives me everyone in one place.  I don’t have to remember to check here for you, or over there for someone else.  This is just easy.”

I can’t fault his logic: Facebook is just like the comfy chair.  It’s a pleasant place to be – even when surrounded by Inquisitors.  Facebook users are simply so grateful that such an amazing service is on offer – seemingly for free – that they haven’t thought through the price of their participation.  And unless something else comes along that’s as powerful and easy as Facebook, things will go on just as are.  Unless a disruptive innovation upends all the apple carts.

This is when I had a brainwave.

II:  And Now For Something Completely Different

What is the social graph?  At its essence, it is a set of connections, connections which define certain flows of information.  These connections are both figurative and literal.  If I say that I am connected to someone, I mean that we have some sort of relationship.  But I also means that we have established protocols for communication, channels that can be used to send messages back and forth.  For the last three hundred years this has been embodied in the ‘visiting card’, presented at all occasions when there is an invitation to connect.  The ‘visiting card’ evolved into the ‘business card’ we share freely and promiscuously when there’s money to be made, or a connection to be had.  The business card of 2010 must provide four significant pieces of information: a) the name of the caller; b) the address of the caller; c) the telephone number(s) of the caller; and d) the email address of the caller.  Other information can be provided on the card – and often is – but if a card is missing any of these four essentials, it is incomplete.  Each item represents a separate sphere of connectivity: the name is the necessary prerequisite for social connectivity; the address for postal connectivity; the telephone number and email addresses are self-explanatory.  Each entry has a one-to-one correspondence with some form of connectivity.  When we exchange business cards, we are providing the information necessary to establish connectivity.

We now have digital versions of the business card; we hand out vCards, or provide QR Codes that can be scanned and translated into a pointer to a vCard.  Yet what we do with these  digital versions of the business card not has changed: we stuff them into ‘address books’, or into the contact lists on our mobiles.  If we have the right tools, we can upload them to Plaxo or LinkedIn.  There they sit, static and essentially useless.  A database with no applications.

That’s kind of weird, isn’t it?  I mean, here we are, each of us walking around with a few hundred contacts on our mobiles, and essentially doing nothing with them unless we need to make a phone call or send an email.  It doesn’t make sense.  Somehow we’ve lost sight of the  fact that the digital item is active in a way the physical object is not.   Facebook understands this.  Facebook takes your ‘calling card’ – the profile that you loaded up with your personal information – and makes it the foundation of your social graph.  Everyone connects to your profile (which is you), and these connections become the cornerstone of fully bilateral sharing relationships.  Anyone connected to you can send you a message, or initiate a chat, or look at the photos you uploaded of your holiday in the fleshpots of Bangkok.   That one connection becomes the cornerstone for a whole range of opportunities to share media – text, images, video, links, music, events, etc. – and equally an opportunity to listen to what others are sharing.  That’s what Facebook is, really, a giant, centralized switchboard which connects its members to one another.  That’s all any social network is.

It’s easy – really easy – to connect together.  We have so many ways to do so, through so many mechanisms, that really we’re drowning in choice, rather than a poverty of options.  Instead of a monolithic solution, the Internet, like nature, tends to favor diversity and heterogeneity.  Diversity creates the space for play and exploration; a tolerance for heterogeneity allows that there is no right answer, no one way to play the game.  Is it possible to design an architecture for human connectivity which favors diversity and heterogeneity.

For the past few weeks those of you following me on Twitter have seen me tweet about ‘Project Thunderware’, which was the silliest code-name I could think up for a project that is actually entirely serious.  The real name is Plexus.  Plexus is design for a second-generation social network.  It is personal – everyone runs their own Plexus.  It is portable – written entirely in Python so you can drop it onto a USB key (if you want), and take it with you anywhere you can get Python running.  It is private – no one else has access to your Plexus, unless you want them to.  It’s completely open and completely modular.  Plexus is designed to take the passive social graph we’ve all got tucked away in our various devices, translating it into something active, vital, and essential.

There are three components within Plexus.  First and most important is the social graph, a database of connections known as the ‘Plex’.  Each of these connections, like a business card, comes with a list of connection points.  These connection points can be outgoing – ‘this is how I will speak to you’, or incoming – ‘this is how I will listen to you’.  They can be unilateral or bilateral.  They can be based on standard protocols – such as SMTP or XMPP, or the APIs of the rapidly-multiplying set of social services already available in the wilds of the Internet, or they can be something entirely home-grown and home-brewed.  They can be wide open, or encrypted with GPG.  Everything is negotiable.  That’s the point: something’s in the Plex because there’s an active connection and relationship between two parties.

The Plex is only a database.  To bring that database to life, two other components are required.  The first of these is the ‘Sharer’.  The Sharer, as the name implies, makes sure that something to be shared – be it a string of text, or a link, or a video, or a blog post, or whatever – ends up going out over the negotiated channels.  The Sharer is built out of a set of Python modules, with each particular sharing service handled by its own module.  This means that there is no limit or artificial constraint on what kinds of services Plexus can share with.

Conversely, the third component, the Listener, monitors all of the negotiated channels for any activity by any of the connections in the Plex.  When the Listener hears something, it sends that to the user – to be displayed or saved or ignored according to the needs of the moment.  Like the Sharer, the Listener is also a set of Python modules, with each monitored service handled by its own module.  The Listener should be able to listen to anything that has a clearly defined interface.

When Plexus starts up, it reads through the Plex, instancing the appropriate Sharer and Listener objects on a connection-by-connection basis.  Everything after initialization is event-driven: the Plexus user shares something, or the Listener hears something and offers that to the Plexus user.

That’s it.  That’s the whole of the design.  As always, the devil is in the details, but the essential architecture will probably remain unchanged.  Plexus creates your own, self-managed social network, both entirely self-contained, and also acts as a connected node within a broader network.  Because Plexus functions as plumbing – wiring together social services that haven’t been designed to talk to one another – it performs a service that is badly needed, filling a growing void.  Plexus is your own plumbing, under your own control.

Let’s talk through a use case.  I give a lot of lectures, and I make sure to put my contact details – email, blog and Twitter – on my slides.  I meet two people at a lecture – we’ll call one of them Nick, and the other one Anthony.  (Those names just came to me.)  Nick is an affable person, he just wants to be able to follow all of my output, as I put it out.  He needs are a list of the dozen-or-so public contact points where I present myself.  That’d be my name, the six or seven blogs I write, my Twitter feed, my Posterous, my YouTube account, and Viddler account, and so forth.  He gets that nugget of data off of markpesce.com/markpesce.plx – it’s basically a nice little bit of JSON (I don’t care for XML, but you can microformat to your heart’s content) that he can drop directly into Plexus, where it will go into the Plex.  As the Plex digests it, this nugget instances the necessary Listeners.  Now, whenever I say anything – anywhere – Nick knows about it.  Which makes Nick happy.

Anthony is a different story.  He’s a l33t user, and doesn’t want to be forced to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi at any of the normal social web services.  Instead, Anthony wants to get a personally-addressed email from me every time I have something to share.  Apparently he’s developed some excellent email filtering and management tools, so that even if I get quite chatty, it won’t clog up his inbox.  So, he negotiates with me – Plexus-to-Plexus – and goes into my Plex as a contact, so that when I instance my Sharers, one is specifically set up to send him anything I share via SMTP.  He doesn’t have to do anything to his Plexus, because he’s not using his Plexus to listen to me.

Use cases are all the more meaningful when they’re backed up by working code.  Hence, I went back to the code mines last weekend – with a spring in my step and a song in my heart – and created a very, very embryonic version of Plexus.  In just a little over two days, I created Sharer modules for Twitter, Posterous, Tumblr and SMTP, and Listener modules for Twitter and RSS.  I reckoned that would be sufficient for the purposes of a demonstration – though if I’d had more time I could easily have wired in a few hundred other web social services.

[ To see the demo, go here. ]

There you go.  That’s Plexus.  The project is open source – after all, why would you trust a social network when you can’t inspect the code?

III:  How Not To Be Seen

Plexus is grass-roots, bottom-up, and radically decentralized.  That means the big boys will probably try to ignore it.  Social media isn’t about the people, after all.  It’s about humungous accumulations of capital going hand-in-hand with impossibly large collections of data, and, somewhere in the background, all the spooks, reading the paper trail.  Social media is an instrument of control, the latest and the greatest.  Sit still, read your feed, and comply.

But what if we refuse to comply?  Is that even an option?  Is it possible to be disconnected and influential?  That’s the Faustian bargain being offered to us: join with the collective and you will be heard.  And managed.  And herded.  Or suit yourself, and weep and gnash your teeth in the outer darkness.  But in that Interzone, outside the smooth functioning of power, what happens when we connect there?

Reflect back on March of 2000.  Napster, the centralized filesharing network, had recently be shut down by court order.  A different crew created a decentralized filesharing tool, known as Gnutella, releasing both the tool and the source code to the world on March 14th.  When AOL/TimeWarner – parent company of the folks who wrote Gnutella – found out about and put a stop to the source code release, it was too late.  It couldn’t be recalled.  The bomb couldn’t be un-invented.  The music industry is more authentic than it was a decade ago, more open to innovation, to outsiders, to diversity and heterogenetity.  All because a few hackers decided to change the way people share their music.

History never repeats, but it does rhyme.  We share everything now; we worry that we overshare.  Now it’s time to take our sharing to the next level.  We need a social2.0, something that reflects what we’ve learned in the past half-dozen years.  That’s not just a slew of new services.  That’s an attitude change.  Consider: the wiki was invented in 1995.  It’s Precambrian web tech.  But we didn’t start using wikis until after 2001, when Wikipedia began to take off.  Why?  It took us a while – and a lot of interactions – to understand how to use the tools on offer.  Social technology is uniquely potent – so much so that we’ll be learning its strengths and weakness for a decade or more.  The time has come to step out, seize the means of communication, and make them our own.

I reckon you can now understand why Python was such an obvious choice for Plexus.  In no other language, with no other community, is the idea of sharing so much at the core.  There is a Python module or code sample to do nearly every task under the sun, precisely because sharing is a core ethic of the Python community.  Python is the language of the Web because it lends itself to the same sharing that the Web fosters.  Python is the language of Plexus because Plexus needs to inherit all of Python’s best qualities, needs to be straightforward and open and flexible and extensible and easily shared.  I need to be able to drop a Plexus module into an email and know, at the other end, that it will just work.  ‘Take this,’ I’ll say, ‘and feed it to your Plexus.’  You’ll do that, and suddenly you’ll find that we have a secure, obscure and nearly invisible means of sharing – a darknet, how not to be seen – that can be as private and personal or open and public as we agree it should be.  And you can turn around, think up something else, and mail that to me, or to someone else, or to the world.

The social web must be a social project, an opportunity to embody exactly what we’re trying to create as we are creating it.  It’s the ultimate dogfooding.  Success requires a willing surrender that rejoices in cooperation.

So here it is.  This is the best I can do.  It may be the best that I will ever do.  I place it before you this morning, a humble offering, written in a language that I barely know, but which I’ve used to express my highest aspirations.  Plexus is naked, newborn, and needs help.  It will only benefit from your input, comments, recommendations, pointers and critiques.  It is an idea that can only grow and mature as it is shared.  That’s what this is all about.  It always has been.

The slides for this presentation can be found here.

Helicopter Lessons

I: The Drive to Connect

Recently I spent a weekend in Melbourne visiting my good friends Darren and Leah, whom I’ve known since I first moved to Australia.  Last December they conceived, and in early September Leah will give birth to their first child.  They’re excited and a bit scared – just like most first-time parents. Knowing it would be my last visit before their lives changed irrevocably, we enjoyed our weekend all the more, and talk inevitably shifted to The Right Way To Raise A Child.  There are theories upon theories, everything from controlled crying, to cosleeping, to carrying the child continuously for its first eighteen months of life, to teaching preverbal children sign language, to Steiner’s theories about the acquisition of reading and writing skills, and on and on.  For as long as there have been parents, there have been theories about the right way to raise a child.  We look back upon our grandparents and they seem almost barbarians to us: corporal punishment, children seen and not heard, spare the rod and spoil the child, everything that modern behavioral psychology tells us can warp and damage a child, turn them from positive and loving into neurotic and perpetually unhappy individuals.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, for some of us, this process of beggars maiming their own children so they can be better beggars came to a stop.  We wised up, stopped hitting our children, and started to respond to them as beautiful and unique individuals.  This is rather interesting in itself because, on occasion – and sometimes more than just on occasion – children are monsters.  They are self-centered, narcissistic, greedy, unthinking, unfeeling, controlling, manipulative, and ugly.  Yet this is as it should be; we accept behavior from children that would be shunned in an adult precisely because they are children.  We teach them the bounds of acceptable behavior, and we do this by interacting with them.  Alone a child will never learn self-control, or courtesy, or any affection for others.  It is only because we are social that we can impart the social graces.

That social part of us goes back far beyond our origin as a species, up the family tree at least ten million years, to Proconsul, the common ancestor of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and humans.  Our ancient forbears had social graces of their own; we know this because all of the species descended from them have unique social capabilities.  This social capacity has been the cornerstone of our success.  Humans hunt in groups, forage in groups, share childbirth and childcare.  It is nearly impossible for a single adult to give birth and raise a child entirely on their own.  Our socialization is the safety net that allows humans to be children far longer than any other species, acquiring the enormous range of knowledge required to be wholly functional and well-integrated participants in civilization.  It’s a self-reinforcing loop: we spend a long time as children so we can become productive members of a culture whose offspring spend a long time as children.  Natural selection in action.

Our social capacity is the one thing that natural selection has always worked to optimize.  The most effectively socialized people have been able to use their social skills to make their way in the world, ensuring that they would live to pass those skills along to their children.  Nature has made us naturals.

In early September, when Leah gives birth, her child will know what to do without being taught, without being shown: that child will begin to form a deepening connection with the one person in her universe – Leah.  That bond will set the tone for all of the other human connections that follow.  Attachment theory – yet another of the popular theories of childhood development – rests the entire psychosexual development of the adult on this bond.  If it is interrupted, or corrupted, or simply does not exist, the child has little hope of normal development.  The connection to the mother is the primary connection.  As only makes sense.

As that child grows into a consciousness greater than that of the mother-child relationship, she recognizes the presence of her father.  This relationship will never have the same essential depth of her first relationship, but it represents the first echo; its form betrays the patterns of intimacy between mother and child.  Even if this relationship is fraught with difficulties, if the primary relationship is secure, the child will survive emotionally intact.  But should this relationship also prove secure, it will reinforce the child’s sense of emotional security.

And so it goes.  The child’s world will expand to encompass grandmother and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, and – with a bit of luck & time – siblings.  Each of these bonds will echo the primary bond, with opportunities within each of them for the child to explore her ever-increasing capability to connect, to communicate, to collaborate.  We know that these bonds are fundamental to our nature, that they sit within the prefrontal cortex, the newest part of our brains, the part which is freakishly bigger than in chimpanzees or gorillas.  We have a lot of room for these bonds, so as she grows up they come to fill her head.  In a very real sense, she carries around within her a miniature, interactive version of each person she has made a connection with.  We are finite, and these miniatures are terrifically rich and complex creations, so we can only find space between our ears for about 150 people, a physical limit known as ‘Dunbar’s Number’, after the anthropologist who discovered this rule nearly 20 years ago.  We can know more than 150 people, but we won’t know them well.

At least, that’s how it used to be.  For all of human history, until about three years ago, we were fundamentally constrained by our biology.  Now, with the rise of ‘social networks’ – which, I want to remind you, are not new in any way – we’ve accelerated our innate capabilities with the speed and power of computers, and amplified them with the reach of a global network which, in both Internet and mobile versions, touches nearly five billion people.  We can maintain some form of connection with several hundred – even thousands – of others.  This isn’t easy; it requires care and attention that could be directed to other, often more important things – such as driving a car, or listening to your partner at dinner, or doing your homework.  Nothing comes for free, and just because we can establish connections with thousands of others doesn’t mean we can manage those connections meaningfully.

This is the knife-edge of the present, because many of us – and certainly many of your students – are establishing far-flung networks of connections, but don’t wholly understand the cost/benefit relationship that comes with these networks.  We can give ourselves a pass on this – after all, this sort of thing simply wasn’t possible just a few years ago – but it’s a dilemma that will become a permanent fixture of 21st century life.  We want to be able to ‘multitask’, to do everything at once, with everyone, everywhere, but studies show that the divided mind is incapable of depth.  We want to be connected, but we don’t want to be interrupted.  We want to be the life of the party, but we also want time to think.

This is the world of 2010.  This is how children present themselves as they enter secondary school.  And it’s only going to become more connected.  Leah’s child will grow up in a world which has begun to fetishize human connection.  We will manage those connections digitally, from the time we’re born until the moment we shuffle off this mortal coil.  This means that each child you encounter is not just one child, but the visible representative of an entire network that surrounds them, stretching outward, connecting them to friends and classmates and family, and finally, at the core, to mom.  This has always been the case, but it has always been implicit and inferred rather than explicit and immediately present.  Given that a child acquires their first mobile sometime between grade 3 and grade 7 (and that age is dropping) that network is always at arms reach, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.

How will these connections be used?  We have only the dimmest sense of that.  This is all so new and so raw there are no protocols, no learned behaviors, nothing that can be passed down from parent to child, or teacher to student, about the right way to behave, the right way to put all of this connectivity to work.  What we have now is chaos, as we cross a turbulent boundary between the calm but disconnected and internal world of the ‘before time’, and the unexpected, hyperconnected and immediate world of the present.

II: Call Centre

At the beginning of June, the London-based National Literacy Trust released a report with a stunning finding: kids were more likely to own a mobile (86%) than a book (73%).  I personally believe this finding highly suspect – all the children I know own tens or hundreds of books, that being how they learned to read – but it does point to the scale of the transformation underway, and how frightened we have become.  Another segment of the public is debating the death of the printed book, you are beginning to distribute textbooks in electronic form on your student’s laptops, and all of that is contributing more to the disappearance of the book than anything that might be caused by the sudden multiplication in human connectivity.

That multiplication begins somewhere between year 3 (on the low end) and year 10 (at the high end), when a child acquires their first mobile.  The age at which the child receives the handset frames the experience for the child: in year 3 the mobile is nearly always used to call mommy or daddy for a ride home from soccer practice, or a pickup from a friend’s party, or in case of emergencies.  It is not yet a fully realized social tool because these children don’t yet think in those terms.  But the device itself has a catalyzing effect on the bond between the child and her parents.

The maturation of the child into an adult can be characterized as a movement from complete dependence to complete independence.  Along the way the child explores all sorts of strategies to assert and maintain independence, starting with the ‘terrible twos’ and coming to a conclusion (one hopes) with the final send-off to university.  In the beginning, the child doesn’t want to be left alone, except on her terms.  By the teenage years, a hypersensitivity to embarrassment causes the child to flee from the parent in many public situations.  Underneath all of it, the strong, healthy, nurturing bond between parent and child gives her the belief that she can explore her freedom in safety.

That bond has been amplified and accelerated by the presence of the mobile.  Where the child would formerly have to ‘go it alone’, now she can turn to mom or dad with the press of a few buttons.  Any situation she finds confronting can instantly be elevated.  The cavalry is always on call, always available to come to the rescue.

Child psychologist and researcher Sherry Turkle recently made a cogent argument that this ‘tethered’ relationship leads to an extended period of infantilization in the child.  Always connected, the child never fully individuates, never ‘cuts the cord’ which binds the parent to the child.  I can see Turkle’s point – I even agree with it – but I would like to suggest that this entire process of individuation is very recent, an artifact of the last hundred years.  Before that, most families lived in close quarters for most of their lives.  Mom and dad were always available to solve a problem because they were always nearby.  In this sense, the mobile handset has retrieved a state of affairs which our highly mobile era of automobiles and jet travel had pushed into obsolescence.  And even more so: in the village the child could still wander some distance from the home; in 2010, home is no further away than the time it takes to dial mom.

The connectivity of the mobile is bilateral, and reinforces the relationship on both sides.  Parents have never before had the ability to stay continuously connected to their children, so we have no frame to help guide them into a healthy expression for this newfound capacity.  For some parents the lure of this connectivity is so strong it overwhelms whatever instinct they might have to allow their children to individuate naturally.  They become the child’s constant companion, ‘hovering’ nearby, either physically or virtually.  This phenomenon – ‘helicopter parenting’ – has become a topic of conversation in the United States, where it was first noticed, and where it is appearing with increasing frequency.  The helicopter parent manages the child’s life more-or-less completely, using a combination of strategies – some physical, and some virtual – to place the child within a protective cocoon.  The vicissitudes of the real world never impinge on that cocoon; the child is safe and protected every moment of the day.

Why would anyone opt for such a parenting strategy?  Here I’ll go out on a bit of a limb, and propound a theory in the absence of any proof – but a theory which can be put to the test.  The new field of sociobiology attempts to map observed behaviors in the animal kingdom to strategies for reproductive success.  For instance, it tackles the thorny problem of altruism – which vexed Darwin a hundred and fifty years ago – by observing that altruistic behavior tends to favor closely-related individuals.  Your genes may receive no immediate benefit from your selfless acts, but the genes of your sisters and their offspring probably will.  Sociobiology explains why a population of sterile worker bees will toil until mortally exhausted for their queen.

One of the key concepts in sociobiology is the idea of ‘genetic investment’; the greater the genetic investment, the stronger the relationship between parent and offspring.  Fish have tens of thousands of offspring, and release them to their fates.  Humans have just a handful – generally just one at a time – and consequently have a huge genetic investment.  I strongly suspect that the observed cases of helicopter parenting are, in the largest part, the parents of a single child.  The entire genetic investment is being wagered on a single throw of the dice.  This would naturally amplify any tendency toward the expression of highly protective behaviors – preserving the genetic investment.  When that becomes coupled to and amplified by the mobile, we get the world of 2010, where parents are now so tethered to their children that Forbes magazine recently reported on another and somewhat more disturbing phenomenon: Parents are now making follow-up calls to recruiters who have interviewed their children.  Some children even bring mom along on the job interview.

I’m not making that up.

We may be amused by these sorts of excesses, but they’re to be expected.  They’re a natural outcome of two intersecting trends: the decline in fertility, and the rise of hyperconnectivity.  When you have everything riding on a single child, you’re willing to assume a lot of the risk yourself.

This also means that the parent-child connection has assumed an immediacy and potency never before possible.  It is as if the child has the parent with them at all times, in every situation.  This is changing the nature of all of the child’s relationships, in particular those within the classroom.  A story related to me last year by a Victorian school administrator sums up this state of affairs perfectly: one day a teacher was giving one of her students a hard time because that student hadn’t completed his homework assignment.  During this verbal chewing out, the student carefully took his mobile out of his backpack, then dialed it.  He said hello to his parent, and then just after he said, “You listen to the bitch,” held the handset next to the teacher’s mouth.

I’m not making that up, either.

In that moment, the entire power relationship in the classroom, in the school, in the culture gets short-circuited.  That’s what networks do – they find a way around any neat systems or hierarchies or rules that they have no use for.  If that network happens to belong to a fourteen year-old with poor study habits and an attitude problem, then the fact that the homework assignment wasn’t completed is suddenly no longer his problem.  It has been elevated.  It has burst out of the cozy confines of the teacher-student relationship, and overflowed into all of the other connections that student chooses to invoke: parents, siblings, relatives, friends, and so on.  It is as if every student walks into the classroom equipped with a panic button which can instantly bring the educational process to a screaming halt.  If that panic button is connected to a parent already neurotically hypersensitive to anything which could disrupt the careful cocooning of the child, the educational process will break down from stresses it was not designed to accept.

That is the world we have walked into.

Many of you have specific policies in your schools regarding the use of mobiles, protocols over where and how and when and why they can empower students.  Some of you even ban mobiles outright.  Let me be clear: all of your policies are for naught.  All of your protocols mean nothing.  Any child who tastes the empowerment that comes with the network will not ever willingly surrender that empowerment.  If you try to suppress it, you will simply ensure that it will show up somewhere else, in a form that you can not control.

Your only solution is to make peace with the network, to embrace it and the new power relationships which it engenders.  In order to do that we must have a good think about how the network can be used to tame the network, about how you can empower yourselves.  You’re going to need to fight fire with fire.

III: Cry Havoc

So what do we do?  Issue teachers with mobiles and press them to sign up for Facebook accounts?  If only it were that straightforward.  If it were, I could send you out of here with marching orders, a battle plan that would bring a certain, sweet victory.  But this is not that kind of war.  This is a guerilla conflict, where progress is measured in inches and only after a long, hard slog.

By the time a student lands on your doorstep, they will have been connected – hyperconnected, really – for several years.  They will have forged and strengthened the bonds that tie them to their parents and their peers.  They bring that into every interaction with you, a classic example of asymmetric warfare.  You’re outmatched, outgunned and outwitted, not because you’re weak or dull, but because there are a lot more of them than there are of you.  They’re starting to recognize this, and put it to work.

You can not ban the mobile.  It’s here to stay, and it’s increasingly indispensable.  You can not sever the connections that come with the mobile, or Facebook, or Twitter, or text messaging, or whatever flavour-of-the-month gets invented tomorrow afternoon.  You can’t even reasonably hope to downplay their influence within the classroom.  They’re becoming too potent, and they will leak into your pedagogical spaces by any means necessary.

You must engage.  But we can not hand you a teenager and ask you to suddenly engage with them.  That simply won’t work.  Building the bond takes time; it’s a labour of love and an exercise in trust-building.  The best mentors and teachers know this and practice it within their classrooms.  But the classroom is suddenly everywhere.  The network has swept in, swept through, and blown down the classroom walls.  Educators and students are immersed in an ‘educational field’, something like a magnetic field, where amazing educational resources lie at tip of fingers, at the end of our hands.  We may worry about the accuracy of Wikipedia, but no one argues about its impact.  Anyone who has seen iTunes University, or downloaded an educational podcast knows about this ‘educational field’.  Education is freely available.  That is not in short supply.  What is in short supply – and always has been – is that moment of human contact, the connection which produces the transfer of insight, of skills, and understanding that won’t come from any webpage, however brilliant, or any podcast, however well-produced.

Students are connected as never before, but few of those connections lead to understanding.  This is the failure and the challenge of our generation.  It is a failure because we let the school grow up outside of the network, where we should have been binding the two together at every point.  It is our challenge because unless we do begin the hard work to knit these two together, we will see formal education become increasingly irrelevant in the presence of an ever-more-potent educational field.

Because the network is everywhere, the school is everywhere.  Because the school is everywhere, the hard-and-fast boundaries between school and the rest of life, as we live it in modern-day Australia, must collapse.  The idea that school is something that happens ‘over here’, while the rest of life is lived ‘over there’ doesn’t make sense anymore.  Given that the connections a child establishes from her earliest years persist throughout her lifetime, shouldn’t some of those connections – arguably, the second most important, after family – be to educators and educational resources?  These connections would become the core of the mentoring bond, which rises to work in partnership with the parental bond, a constant nurturing force throughout the passage into adulthood.

This is not the way we think of education today.  It’s not the way we think of culture today.  Yet it is the way culture is being practiced.  Helicopter parents are proof positive of this.  They represent a leading edge of a new wave of cultural forms which are the consequential result of hyperconnectivity.  Plug people together and they will behave differently.  Plug institutions into people and the people will transform those institutions.

We must begin somewhere.  Giving kids laptops is interesting and important but entirely insufficient.  We must give kids a reason to connect, something beyond pure sociality (which is also important but outside of the task at hand).  We must give them a reason to connect with knowledge.

We’re very lucky, because just at this moment in time, the Commonwealth has gifted us with the best reason we’re ever likely to receive – the National Curriculum.  Now that every student, everywhere across Australia, is meant to be covering the same materials, we have every reason to connect together – student to student, teacher to teacher, school to school, state to state.  The National Curriculum is thought of as a mandate, but it’s really the architecture of a network.  It describes how we all should connect together around a body of knowledge.  If we know that we should be teaching calculus or Mandarin or the Eureka Stockade rebellion, we have an opportunity to connect together, pool our knowledge and our ignorance, and work together.  We can use our hyperconnectivity to hyperempower our ability to work toward understanding.

Again, this is not the way we’re used to working.  We ask kids to collaborate on their projects, but a broader collaboration – which doesn’t end with the student, or the classroom, or the school, or the state – has remained frustratingly beyond our grasp.  It doesn’t even have a location in time; collaboration is not something that has temporal boundaries.  We collaborate while we have a need to do so, not because it’s ‘collaboration time’.  The network intrudes everywhere and everywhen.

Collaboration begins as soon as the child can communicate, though it is informal and ad-hoc.  As educators we need to think about how to begin the process of formal collaboration in pre-kindy.  At first, collaboration is a network between parents and carers and educators, but as the child progresses through the educational system, that network extends to other educators, other students, and other resources as the child has need.  The network constructs itself around the child at the same time the child is busily building her own network.

If we build an educational system which can do this (and I honestly don’t know that there’s any educational system, anywhere in the world thinking in these terms) we will have solved the problem of hyperconnective asymmetry.  We will be as connected as our students, we will be connected to them from long before they become our students, and will remain connected with them long after they have been our students.  School will not be a boundary.  It will be a gradient through which children move on their passage to adulthood, and, even then, will not leave them behind, because these connections open the doorway to lifelong learning.

Let me leave you with a warning, and a promise.  First the warning: If we simply try to make the teacher the locus of all of this hyperconnectivity, they will collapse from the over-connectivity.  Teachers are not switchboards; it is not up to them to hear every problem, arbitrate every dispute, or make every opening.  In a network the burden should be distributed – to other students, other teachers, other mentors, other parents, and other schools.  That means that power is going to be distributed very differently in the classroom.  It won’t always be clear who has the power.  That may look like chaos, but it will be a fecund chaos, where real learning takes place.

The helicopter parent is a herald of a new type of connectivity, which both empowers and infantilizes in equal measure.  As we come to embrace this more comprehensive connection, we will find ourselves both hyperempowered and disempowered.  Some things will not work, others will work far better than before.  It all comes back to the child, who always has the drive to connect.  It is in her genes.  It is all she is about.  If we can harness that drive to connect to the desire to learn, we will have comprehensively solved the problem of education in the 21st century.  We will have created a platform for life-long learning, for a cradle-to-grave immersion in the educational field.  It’s worth working toward.  It restores the balance we lost as soon as we began to hyperconnect.  We’re near enough now to see the goal.  We have the vision.  All we need now are the will and the persistence to reach toward that promise.

Hyperconnected Health

I: My Cloud

This is the age of networks, and we are always connected.  If that seems fanciful, ask yourself how often you are parted from your mobile, and for how long?  All of our hours – even as we sleep – the mobile is within arm’s reach for almost all of us.  A few months ago a woman asked me when we might expect to have implants, to close the loop, and make the connection permanent.  “We’re already there,” I responded.  “It’s wedded to the palm of your hand.”  In a purely functional sense this is the truth, and it has been the case for several years.

Connection to the network is neither an instantaneous nor absolute affair.  It takes time to establish the protocols for communication.  We understand many of these protocols without explanation: we do not telephone someone at three o’clock in the morning unless vitally important.  Three o’clock in the afternoon, however, is open season.  Lately, there are newer, technologically driven protocols: I can look at a caller’s number, and decide whether I want to take that call or direct it to voice mail.  The caller has no idea I’ve made any decision.  From their point of view, it’s simply a missed call.  Similarly, I have friends I can not text before 10 AM unless it’s quite urgent, and I ask my friends not to text me after 10 PM for the same reason.  We set our boundaries with technology, boundaries which determine how we connect.  We can choose to be entirely connected, or entirely disconnected.  We can let the batteries run flat on our mobile, or simply turn it off and put it away.  But there’s a price to be paid.  Absence from connection incurs a cost.  To be disconnected is to cede your ability to participate in the flow of affairs.  Thus, the modern condition is a dilemma, where we balance the demands of our connectedness against the desire to be free from its constraints.

Connectedness is not simply a set of pressures; it is equally a range of capabilities.  As our connectedness grows, so our capabilities grow in lock-step.  What we could achieve with the landline was immeasurably beyond what was possible with the post, yet doesn’t compare with what we can do with email, mobile voice, SMS, or, now, any of a hundred thousand different sorts of activities, from banking to dating to ordering up a taxi.  The device has become a platform, a social nexus, the point where we find ourselves attached to the universe of others.  Consider the address book that lives on your mobile.  Mine has about 816 entries.  Those are all connections that were made at some point in my life.  (Admittedly, I haven’t been weeding them out as vigorously as I should, so some of those contact are duplicates or no longer accurate.)  That’s just what’s on my mobile.  If I go out to Twitter, I have rather more connections in my ‘social graph’ – about 6700.  These connections aren’t quiescent, waiting to be dialed, but are constantly listening in to what I have to say, just as I am constantly listening to them.

No one can give their full-time attention to that sort of cacophony of human voices.  Some are paid more attention, others, rather less.  Sometimes there’s no spare attention to be given to any of these voices, and what they say is lost to me.  Yet, on the whole, I can maintain some form of continuous partial attention with this ‘cloud’ of others.  They are always with me, and I with them.  This is a new thing (I view myself as a sort of guinea pig in a lab experiment) and it has produced some rather unexpected results.

At the end of last year I went on a long road trip with a friend from the US.  On our first day, we struck out from Sydney and drove to Canberra, arriving, tired and hungry at quarter to six.  Where do you eat dinner in a town that closes down at 5 pm?  I went online and put the question out to Twitter, then ducked into the shower.  By the time I’d dried off, I had a whole suite of responses from native Canberrans, several of whom pointed me to the Civic Asian Noodle House.  Thirty minutes later, my American friend was enjoying his first bowl of seafood laksa – which was among the best I’ve had in Australia.

A few days later, at the end of the road trip, when we’d reached the Barossa Valley, I put another question out to Twitter: what wineries should we visit?  The top five recommendations were very good indeed.  Each of these ‘cloud moments’, by themselves, seems relatively trivial.  Both together begin to mark the difference between an ordinary holiday and a most excellent one.

Another case in point: two weeks ago today, my washing machine gave up the ghost.  What to replace it with?  I asked Twitter.  Within a few hours, and some back-and-forth, I decided upon a Bosch.  Some of that was based on direct input from Bosch owners, some of that came from a CHOICE survey of washing machine owners.  I was pointed to that survey by someone on Twitter.

As I experiment, and learn how to query my cloud, I have sbecome more dependent upon the good advice it can provide.  My cloud extends my reach, my experience and my intelligence, making me much more effective as some sort of weird ‘colony individual’ than I could be on my own.   I have no doubt that within a few years, as the tools improve, nearly every decision I make will be observed and improved upon by my cloud.  Which is wonderful, incredible, and – to quote Tony Abbott – very confronting.

Let me turn things around a bit, to show another side of the cloud, specifically the cloud of my good friend Kate Carruthers.  Last year Kate found herself in Far North Queensland on a business trip and discovered that her American Express card credit limit had summarily been cut in half – with no advance warning – leaving her far away from home and potentially caught in a jam.  When she called American Express to make an inquiry – and found that their consumer credit division closed at 5 pm on a Friday evening – she lost her temper.  The 7500 people who follow Kate on Twitter heard a solid rant about the evils of American Express, a rant that they will now remember every time they find an American Express invitation letter in the post, or even when they decide which credit card to select while making a purchase.

Hollywood has been forced to take note of the power of these clouds.  There’s a direct correlation between the speed at which a motion picture bombs and the rise in the number of users of Twitter.  It used to take a few days for word-of-mouth to kill a movie’s box office:  now it takes a few minutes.  As the first showing ends, friends text friends, people post to Twitter and Facebook, and the news spreads.  After the second or third showing, the crowds have dropped off: word has gotten out that the film stinks.  Where just a few years ago a film could coast for an entire weekend, now the Friday matinee has become a make-or-break affair.  An opinion, multiplied by hundreds or thousands of connections, carries a lot of weight.

That amplification effect has been particularly visible to me over the last week.   I’ve been participating in a ‘social review program’ sponsored by Telstra, who sought reviewers for the handset du jour, the HTC Desire.  I received a free handset – worth about $800 – in exchange for a promise to do a thorough, but honest review.  This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, and when I started to post my thoughts to Twitter, I immediately got a big pushback.  Some of my cloud considered it an unacceptable commercialization of a space they consider essentially private and personal.  I spruik The New Inventors on Twitter every Wednesday.  That’s just as commercial, but Telstra is held out for particular contempt by a broad swath of the Australian public, so any association with them carries it own opprobrium.  I’ve come to realize that I’ve tarred myself with the same brush that others use for Telstra.  Although I did this accidentally and innocently, some of that tar will continue to stick to me.  I have suffered the worst fate that can befall anyone who lives life with a cloud: reputational damage.  Some people have made it perfectly clear that they will never again regard me with the same benevolence.  That damage is done.  All I can do is learn from it, and work to not repeat the same mistakes.

This marked the first time that I’d been ‘chastised’ by my cloud.  I’ve always operated within the bounds of propriety – the protocols of civilized behavior – but in this case I found I’d stumbled into a minefield, a danger zone filled with obstacles that I’d created for myself by presenting myself not just as Mark Pesce, but as Telstra.  I’ve learned new limits, new protocols, and, for the first time, I can begin to sense the constraints that come hand-in-hand with my new capabilities.  I can do a lot, but I can not do as I please.

II: Share the Health

Social networks are nothing new.  We’ve carried them around inside our heads from a time long before we were recognizably human.  They are the secret to our success, and always have been.  We’re the most social of all the of the mammals, and while the bees may put us to shame, we also have big brains to develop distinct personalities and unique strengths, which we have always shared, so that our expertise becomes an asset to the whole of society, whether that is a tribe, a city, or a nation.

Others have been studying these ‘old-school’ human social networks, and they’ve learned some surprising things.  Harvard internist and social scientist Dr. Nicholas Christakis has published a series of papers that illustrate the power of the connection.  In his first paper, he studied how smoking behaviors – both starting and quitting – spread through social networks.  It turns out that if a sufficient number of your friends start to smoke, you’re more likely to begin yourself.  Conversely, if enough of your friends quit, you’re more likely to quit.  This makes sense when you consider the reinforcing nature of social relationships; we each send one another a forest of subtle cues about the ‘right’ way to behave, fit in, and get along.  Those cues shape our choices and behaviors.  Hang out with smokers and you’re more likely to smoke.  Hang out with non-smokers, and you’re likely to quit smoking.

Dr. Christakis also found that the same phenomenon appears to hold true for obesity.  Again, people look to one another for cues about body image.  If all of your peers are obese, you are more likely to be obese yourself.  If your peers are thin, you’re more likely to be thin.  And if your peers go on a diet, you’re likely to join them in slimming.  The connections between us are also the transmitters of behavior.  (It may be the secret to the success of other groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.)  This is a powerful insight, one which caused me to have a bit of a brainwave, a few months ago, as I began planning this talk: what happens when we take what we know about our human social networks as behavioral transmitters and apply that to our accelerated, amplified digital selves?

I can take any bit of data I like and share it out through Twitter to 6700 connections, and I frequently do.  I post articles I’ve read, interesting films I’ve watched, photographs I’ve taken, and so forth.  My cloud is an opportunity to share what I encounter in my life.  Probably many of you do precisely the same thing.  But let’s take it a step further.  Let’s say that my doctor wants me to lose 15 kilos, in order to help me lower my blood pressure.  I agree to his request, and perhaps see a nutritionist, but after that I’m pretty much own my own.  I could spend some money to join a ‘group’ like Weight Watchers or whatnot; essentially purchasing a peer group with whom I will connect.  That will work for the duration of the weight loss, but once the support ends, the weight comes piles on.

Instead of this (or, perhaps, in addition to it), what I need to do is to bind my cloud to my intention to lose weight. I need to share this information, but I need to do it meaningfully.  This is more than simply saying, ‘Hey, I need to drop some pounds.’  More than posting the weekly weigh-in figures.  It means using the cloud intelligently, sharing with the cloud what can and should be shared – that is, what I eat and what exercise I get.

When I say ‘my cloud’ in this context, I doubt that I’m speaking about the full complement of 6700 souls.  Although all of them wish me well, this sort of detail is simply noise to many of them.  Instead, I need to go to a smaller cohort: my close friends, and those within my cloud who share a similar affinity – who are also working to lose weight.  These connections – a cloud within my cloud – are the ones who will be best served by my sharing.  I now keep track of what I eat and how I exercise, using some collaborative tool developed an some enterprising entrepreneur to track it all, and everyone sees what kind of progress I’m making toward my goal.  I also see everyone else’s progress toward their own goals.  We reinforce, we reassure, we share both new-found strengths and our moments of weakness.  As we share, we grow closer.  The network is reinforced.  All along, my friends (and my GP) are looking in, monitoring, happy to see that I’m on track toward my goal.

None of this is rocket science.  It’s good social science, and plain common sense.  It needs to be supported by tools.  At this point, I began to think about the kinds of tools that would be useful.  First and most useful would be a food diary.   Rather than a text-based listing of everything eaten, I reckon this will be a bit more up-to-date; there’ll be photographs, taken with my mobile, of everything that goes into my mouth.  As a bit of an experiment, I tried photographing everything I ate from the beginning of this month.  I always got breakfast, mostly lunch, and by dinner had forgotten completely.  My records are incomplete.  That wouldn’t do for any sharing system like this, and it points to the fact that technology is no substitute for effective habits, and those habits don’t develop overnight.  They require some peer support.

As I was beginning to think through the requirements of such a hypothetical system – so that I could share that system with you– I learned that someone had already implemented a real-world system along similar lines.  Jon Cousins, an entrepreneur from Cambridgeshire recently launched a website known as Moodscope.  This site allows individuals who have mood disorders to track their moods daily, and then shares those daily updates with a circle of up to five trusted individuals.

It’s known that individuals with mood disorders can be supported by a network – if that network is kept abreast of that individual’s changes in mood.  I decided to give Moodscope a try, and have been charting my daily moods (which average around the baseline of 50%) for the past 26 days, sharing those results with a close friend.  Although it’s early days, Moodscope is showing promise as a tool that can support people in their struggle for mood regulation and overall mental health, and might even do so better than some pharmaceutical treatments.

In these two examples – one imaginary and one wholly real – we have a pattern for health care in the 21st century, a model which doesn’t supplant the existing systems, but rather, works alongside them to improve outcomes and to keep patient care costs down, by spreading the burden of care throughout a community.  This model could be repeated to cover diabetics, or hypertensives, or asthmatics, or arthritics, and so on.  It is a generic model which can be applied to every patient and each disorder.

We’ve already seen the birth of ‘Wikimedicine’, where individuals connect together to try to learn more about their diseases than their treating physicians.  This is sometimes a recipe for disaster, but that’s because this is all so new.  Within a few years, doctors, nurse practitioners and patients will be connected through dense networks of knowledge and need.  The doctor and nurse practitioner will help guide the patient into knowledge using the wealth of online resources.  That’s not often happening at present, and this means that patients fall prey to all sorts of bad information.  In our near future, medical knowledge isn’t simply locked away in the physician’s head; it’s shared through a connected community for the benefit of all.  The doctor still treats, while the patient – and the patient’s connections – learn.  From that learning comes the lifestyle changes and reinforcements in behavior that lead to better outcomes.

We have the networks in place, both human and virtual.  We merely need to institute some new practices to reap the benefit of our connections.  As the population ages, these sorts of innovations will seem both natural – relying on others is an essentially human characteristic – and cost-effective.  The population will adopt these measures because they find them empowering (and because their GPs will recommend them), while governments and insurance companies will adopt them because they keep a lid on medical costs.  The forces of culture and technology are converging on a shared, hyperconnected future which aims to keep us as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

III:  The Ministry of Love

I have a good friend who was diagnosed with a mood disorder sixteen years ago.  A few months ago he decided his psychiatric medication was doing him more harm than good, and took himself off of it.  Although it’s been a difficult process, so far he’s been reasonably stable.  When I found Moodscope, I told him about it.  “Sounds good,” he responded, “I can’t wait until they have it as a Facebook app.”  I hadn’t thought about that, but it does make perfect sense: your social graph is already right there, embedded into Facebook, and Facebook applications have access to your social graph: why not create a version of Moodscope that ties the two together?  It sounds very compelling, a sure winner.

But do you really want Facebook to have access to highly privileged medical information, information about your mental state?  That information can be used to help you, but it could also be used against you.   Sydney teenager Nona Belomesoff was lured to her death by a man who used information gleaned from Facebook to befriend her.  Consider: If someone wanted to cause my friend some distress, they could use that shared mood data as a key indicator which would guide them to time their destabilizing efforts for maximum effectiveness.  They could kick him when he was down, and make sure he stayed down.  Giving someone insight into our emotional state gives them the upper hand.

Were that not dangerous enough, just last Friday the Wall Street Journal reported the results of an investigation, which revealed that Facebook was sharing confidential user data with advertisers – data which they’d legally agreed to hold in closest confidence.  The advertisers themselves had no idea that this information was provided illegally.  Facebook, the supreme collector of marketing data, simply didn’t know when or even how to restrain itself.

With that in mind, let’s imagine a situation bound to happen sometime in the next few years.  You and your Facebook friends decide that you want to quit smoking.  It’s too expensive, it’s too hard to find a smoking area, your clothes stink, and you’re starting to get a hacking cough in the mornings.  Enough.  So you tell your friends – over Facebook – that you’re thinking of quitting.  And they think that’s a great idea.  They want to quit, too.  So you all set a date to quit.  That’s all well and good, but then an invitation arrives to a very swanky party in the City, an exclusive affair.  You go, and find that the whole space is a smoking area!  All of these elegant people, puffing away.  Because smoking is glamorous.  And you begin to reconsider.  Your resolve begins to weaken.

Or you want to lose weight.  You even add the Facebook ‘Drop the Fat’ app to your account, to help you achieve your weight loss goals.  But, just as soon as you do that, you start seeing lots more Facebook advertisements for biscuits and ice cream and fresh pizzas.  That has an effect.  It weakens your willpower, and makes those slightly-hungry hours seem more unbearable.

This is the friendly version of ‘Room 101’ from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In that room, you met your greatest fear.  In this one, you meet your greatest weakness.  When a tobacco company has access to a social network which is trying to quit smoking, it will be tempted to disrupt that network.  When a soft drink company has access to a social network which is trying to lose weight, it will be tempted to disrupt that network.  Our social networks are too potent and too powerful to leave exposed to anyone, for any reason whatsoever.  Yet we leave them lying around, open to public inspection, and we allow Facebook to own them outright, to exploit them as it sees fit, to its own ends, and for its own profit.  Hopefully that will come to an end, unless we’re too far down the rabbit hole to pull out of Facebook and into something else that preserves the integrity of our social graph while granting us control over how we share our inmost selves.

This is where you come in.  You’re the policy folks, and I’ve just thrown a whopper into your lap.  Securing the safety and prosperity of our social future means that we need to establish clear guidelines on how these networks can be used, by whom, and to what ends.  As I’ve explained, there is enormous potential for these networks to lead to breakthroughs in public health, disease prevention, and medical cost management.  That’s just the beginning.  These same networks can organize toward political ends.  We got just a taste of that in the Obama presidential campaign, but the next decade will see its full flower, whether in America or in Iran or in Australia.  As social networks become identified with power networks, all of the conservative and power-seeking interests of culture will work to interfere with them as a means of control.

As public servants and policy makers, you will see the politicians, the doctors, and the advertisers come to you crying, ‘Can’t we do something?’  All of them will want you to weaken the protections for social networks, in order to make them more permeable and less resilient.  In this present moment, and with our current laws, social networks have no protections whatsoever.  They used to live inside our heads, where they needed few protections.  Now they live in public, and with every day that passes we come to understand that they are perhaps our most important possession, the doorway to ourselves.  First you must protect.  Then you must defend.

Protection is not enough.  It’s not clear that any commercial interest can be trusted with the social graphs of a community.  There’s too much potential for mischief, particularly right now, when everything is so new and so raw.  Government must play a role in this revolution, encouraging government-affiliated NGOs and other not-for-profits to foster networks of connections to spring up around communities which need the empowerment that comes with hyperconnectivity.  In the absence of this sort of gardening, the ground will be ceded to commercial forces which may not have the best interests of the citizenry foremost in mind.  By doing nothing, we lay the foundation for a new generation of grifters, criminals, and brainwashers.  But if these networks are built securely – by people who believe in them, and believe in what is possible with them – they become hyper-potent, capable of transforming the lives of everyone connected to them.  It’s a short path from hyperconnectivity to hyperempowerment, a path which will be well-trodden in the coming years.

The 21st century will look very different from the century just passed.  Instead of big wars and major powers, we’ll see different ‘gangs’ of hyperempowered social networks having a rumble, networks that look a lot like families, towns, or nations.  We’ll all be connected by similar principles, for similar reasons, and we will use similar tools to rally together and mobilize our strengths.  As is the nature of power, power will seek to use power to undermine the power of others.  Facebook is already doing this, though they seem to have stumbled into it.  The next time it happens it will be more deliberate, and more diabolical.

That’s it.  The future is much bigger than hyperconnected health, but as someone who will be a senior in just 20 years, hyperconnected health means more to me than whatever might happen to politics or business.  I need the support that will keep me healthy long into my sunset years, and I will join with others to build those systems.  If we build from corruption, corruption will be the fruit.  We must be honest with ourselves, acknowledge the dangers even as we laud the benefits, and build ourselves systems which do not play into human weaknesses, or avarice, or megalomania.  This is a project fit for a culture, a project worthy of a nation, a people who understand that together we can accomplish whatever we set our sights upon, if we build from a foundation of trust, respect and privacy.

Calculated Risks

I:  Baby Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II:  Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire

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

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

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

Some more examples, drawn from my own experience, will help illuminate this transformation.  In December I found myself in Canberra for a few days.  Where to eat dinner in a town that shuts down at 5 pm?  I asked Twitter, and forty-five minutes later I was enjoying some of the best seafood laksa I’ve had in Australia.  A few days later, in the Barossa Valley, I asked Twitter which wineries I should visit – and the top five recommendations were very good indeed.  In the moment these can seem like trivial affairs, but both together begin to mark the difference between an ordinary holiday and an awesome one.  Imagine this stretching out, minute after minute, throughout our lives.  We’re not used to thinking in such terms.  But just twenty years ago we weren’t used to the idea that we could reach anyone else instantly from wherever we were, or be reached by anyone else, anywhere.  Then the mobile came along, and now that’s an accepted part of our reality.  We’d find it difficult to go back to a time before the mobile became such an essential tool in our lives.  This is the same transition we’re in the midst of right now with social networks.  We look at Twitter and Facebook and find them charming ways to stay in touch and while away some empty time.  A social network isn’t charming, and it certainly isn’t a waste of time.  We are like children, playing with very powerful weapons.  And sometimes they go off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III:  Threat Assistment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2)    Do not undermine your effectiveness at work;

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

4)    Do not disclose confidential information obtained through work.

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

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

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

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

The slides for this talk can be found here.

The Unfinished Project: Exploration, Learning and Networks

I: The Educational Field

We live today in the age of networks.  Having grown from nothing just fifteen years ago, the network has become one of the principal influences in our lives.  We trust the network; we depend on the network; we use the network to make ourselves more effective.  This state of affairs did not develop gradually; rather, we have passed through a series of unpredicted and non-linear shifts in the fabric of culture.

The first of these shifts was coincident with the birth of the Web itself, back in the mid-1990s.  From its earliest days the Web was alluring because it represented all things to all people: it could serve as both resource and repository for anything that might interest us, a platform for whatever we might choose to say.  The truth of those earliest days is that we didn’t really know what we wanted to say; the stereotype of the page where one went on long and lovingly about one’s pussy carries an echo of that search for meaning.   The lights were on, but nobody was home.

Drawing the curtain on this more-or-less vapid era of the Web, the second shift began with the collapse of the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s.  The undergrowth cleared away, people could once again focus on the why of the Web.  This was when the Web came into its own as an interactive medium.  The Web could have been an interactive medium from day one – the technology hadn’t changed one bit – but it took time for people to map out the evolving relationship between user and experience.  The Web, we realized, is not a page to read, but rather, a space for exploration, connection and sharing.

This is when things start to get interesting, when ideas like Wikipedia begin to emerge.  Wikipedia is not a technology, at least, it’s not a specific technology.  Wikis have been around since 1995, nearly as old as the Web itself.  Databases are older than the Web, too.  So what is new about Wikipedia?  Simply this: the idea of sharing.  Wikipedia invites us all to share from our expertise, for the benefit of one another.  It is an agreement to share what we know to collectively improve our capability.  If you strip away all of the technology, and all of the hype – both positive and negative –from Wikipedia, what you’re left with is this agreement to share.  In the decade since Wikipedia’s launch we’ve learned to share across a broad range of domains.  This sharing supported by technology is a new thing, and dramatically increases the allure of the network.  What was merely very interesting back in 1995 became almost overpowering in the years since the turn of the millennium.  It has consistently become harder and harder to imagine a life without the network, because the network provides so much usefulness, and so much utility.

The final shift occurred in 2007, as Facebook introduced F8, its plug-in architecture which opened its design – and its data – to outside developers.  Facebook exploded from a few million users to over four hundred million: the third largest nation in the world.  Social networks are significant because they harness and amplify our innate human desire and capability to connect with one another.  We constantly look to our social networks – that is, our real-world networks – to remind us who we are, where we are, and what we’re doing.  These social network provide our ontological grounding.  When translated into cyberspace, these social networks can become almost impossibly potent – which is why, when they’re used to bully or harass someone, they can lead to such disastrous results.  It becomes almost too easy, and we become almost too powerful.

A lot of what we’ll see in this decade is an assessment of what we choose to do with our new-found abilities.  We can use these social networks to transmit pornographic pictures of one another back and forth at such frequency and density that we simply numb ourselves into a kind of fleshy hypnosis.  That is one possible direction for the future.  Or, we could decide that we want something different for ourselves, something altogether more substantial and meaningful.  But in order to get that sort of clarity, we need to be very clear on what we want – both direction and outcome.  At this point we are simply playing around – with a loaded weapon – hoping that it doesn’t accidentally go off.

Of course it does; someone sets up a Facebook page to memorialize a murdered eight year-old, but leaves the door open to all comers (believing, unrealistically, that others will share their desire to mourn together), only to see the overflowing sewage of the Internet spill bile and hatred and psychopathology onto a Web page.  This happens again and again; it happened several times in one week in February.  We are not learning the lesson we are meant to learn.  We are missing something.  Partly this is because it is all so new, but partly it is because we do not know what our own intentions are.  Without that, without a stated goal, we can not winnow the wheat from the chaff.  We will forget to close the windows and lock the doors.  We will amuse ourselves to death.

I mention this because, as educators, it is up to all of us to act as forces for the positive moral good of the culture as a whole.  Cultural values are transmitted by educators; and while parents may be a bigger influence, teachers have their role to play.  Parents are simply overwhelmed by all of this novelty – the Web wasn’t around when they were children, and social networks weren’t around even five years ago.  So, right at this moment in time, educators get to be the adult cultural vanguard, the vital mentoring center.

If we had to do this ourselves, alone, as individuals – or even as individual institutions – the project would almost certainly fail.  After all, how could we hope to balance all of the seductions ‘out there’ against the sense which needs to be taught ‘in here’?  We would simply be overwhelmed – our current condition.  Fortunately, we are as well connected, at least in potential, as any of our students.  We have access to better resources.  And we have more experience, which allows us to put those resources to work.  In short, we are far better placed to make use of social media than our charges, even if they seem native to the medium while we profess to be immigrants.

One thing that has changed, because of the second shift, the trend toward sharing, is that educational resources are available now as never before.  Wikipedia led the way, but it is just small island in a much large sea of content, provided by individuals and organizations throughout the world.  iTunes University, YouTube University, the numberless podcasts and blogs that have sprung up from experts on every subject from macroeconomics to the history of Mesoamerica – all of it searchable by Google, all of it instantaneously accessible – every one of these points to the fact that we have clearly entered a new era, where we are surrounded by and saturated with an ‘educational field’ of sorts.  Whatever you need to know, you’re soaking in it.

This educational field is brand-new.  No one has made systematic use of it, no teacher, no institution, no administration.  But that doesn’t lessen its impact.  We all consult Wikipedia when we have some trivial question to answer; that behavior is the archetype for where education is headed in the 21st century – real-time answers on-demand, drawn from the educational field.

Paired with the educational field is the ability for educators to establish strong social connections – not just with other educators, but laterally, through the student to the parents, through the parents to the community, and so on, so that the educator becomes ineluctably embedded in a web of relationships which define, shape and determine the pedagogical relationship.  Educators have barely begun to make use of the social networking tools on offer; just to have a teacher ‘friend’ a student in Facebook is, to some eyes, a cause for concern – what could possibly be served by that relationship, one which subverts the neat hierarchy of the 19th century classroom?

The relationship is the essence of the classroom, that which remains when all the other trivia of pedagogy are stripped away.  The relationship between the teacher and the student is at the core of the magical moment when knowledge is transmitted between the generations.  We now have the greatest tool ever created by the hand of man to reinforce and strengthen that relationship.  And we need to use it, or else we will all sink beneath a rising tide of noise and filth and distraction.

But how?

II: The Unfinished Project

The roots of today’s talk lie in a public conversation I had with Dr. Evan Arthur, who manages the Digital Education Revolution Group within the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.  As part of this conversation, I asked him about educational styles, and, in particular, Constructivism.  As conceived by Jean Piaget and his successors across the 20th century, Constructivism states that the child learns through play – or rather, through repeated interactions with the world.  Schema are created by the child, put to the test, where they either succeed or fail.  Failed schema are revised and re-tested, while successful schema are incorporated into ever-more-comprehensive schema.  Through many years of research we know that we learn the physics of the real world through a constant process of experimentation.  Every time a toddler dumps a cup of juice all over himself, he’s actually conducting an investigation into the nature of the real.

The basic tenets of Constructivism are not in dispute, although many educators have consistently resisted the underlying idea of Constructivism – that it is the child who determines the direction of learning.  This conflicts directly with the top-down teacher-to-student model of education which we are all intimate familiar with, which has determined the nature of pedagogy and even the architecture of our classrooms.  This is the grand battle between play and work; between ludic exploration and the hard grind of assimilating the skills that situate us within an ever-more-complex culture.

At the moment, this trench warfare has frozen us in a stalemate located, for the most part, between year two and year three.  In the first two years education has a strong ludic component, and students are encouraged to explore.  But in year three the process becomes routinized, formalized and very strict.  Certainly, eight-year-olds are better able to understand restrictions than six-year-olds.  They’re better at following the rules, at colouring within the lines.  But it seems as though we’ve taken advantage of the fact that an older child is a more compliant one.  It is true that as we advance in years, our ludic nature becomes tempered by an adult’s sensibility.  But humans retain the urge to play throughout their lives – to a greater degree than any other species we know of.  It could very well be that our ability to learn is intimately tied to our desire to play.

If we are prepared to swallow this bitter pill, and acknowledge that play is an essential part of the learning process, we have no choice but to follow this idea wherever it leads us.  Which leads me back to my conversation with Dr. Arthur.  I asked him about the necessity of play, and he framed his response by talking about “The Unfinished Constructivist Project”.  It is a revolution trapped in mid-stride, a revelation that, somehow, hasn’t penetrated all the way through our culture.  We still insist that instruction is the preferred mechanism for education, when we have ample evidence to suggest this simply isn’t true.  Let me be clear: instruction is not the same thing as guidance.  I am not suggesting that children simply do as they please.  The more freedom they have, the more need they have for a strong, stabilizing force to guide them as they explore.  This may be the significant (if mostly hidden) objection to the Constructivist project: it is simply too expensive.  The human resources required to give each child their own mentor as they work their way through the corpus of human knowledge would simply overwhelm any current educational model, with the exception of homeschooling.  I don’t know what the student-teacher ratio would need to be in a fully realized Constructivist educational system, but I doubt that twenty-to-one would be sufficient.  That’s the level needed to maintain a semblance of order, more a peacekeeping force than an army of mentors.

There have been occasional attempts to create a fully Constructivist educational system, but these, like the manifold utopian communities which have been founded, flourish briefly, then fade or fracture, and do not survive the test of time.  The level of dedication and involvement required from both educator/mentors and parents is simply too big an ask.  This is the sort of thing that a hunter-gatherer culture has no trouble with: the entire world is the classroom, the child explores it, and an adult is always there to offer an explanation or story to round out the child’s knowledge.  We live in an industrial culture (at least, our classrooms do), where there is strict differentiation between ‘education’ and the other activities in life, where adults are ‘educators’ or they are not, where everything is highly formal, almost ritualized.  (Consider the highly regulated timings of the school day – equal parts order from chaos, and ritual.)  There could never be enough support within such a framework to sustain a Constructivist model.  This is why we have the present stalemate; we know the right thing to do, but, heretofore, we have lacked the resources to actualize this knowledge.

That has now changed.

The educational field must be recognized as the key element which will power the unfinished Constructivist revolution.  The educational field does not recognize the boundaries of the classroom, the institution, or even the nation.  It is simply pervasive, ubiquitous and available as needed.  Within that field, both students and educator/mentors can find all of the resources needed to make the Constructivist project a continuing success.  There need be no rupture between years two and three, no transformation of educational style from inward- to outward-directed.  Instead, there can and should be a continual deepening of the child’s exploration of the corpus of knowledge, under the guidance of a network of mentors who share the burden.  We already have most of the resources in place to assure that the child can have a continuous and continually strengthening relationship with knowledge: Wikipedia, while not perfect, points toward the kinds of knowledge sharing systems which will become both commonplace and easily created throughout the 21st century.

Sharing needs to become a foundational component in a modern educational system.  Every time a teacher finds a resource to aid a student in their exploration, that should be noted and shared broadly.  As students find things on their own – and they will be far better at it than most educators – these, too, should be shared.  We should be creating a great, linked trail behind us as we learn, so that others, when exploring, will have paths to guide them – should they choose to follow.  We have systems that can do this, but we have not applied these systems to education – in large part because this is not how we conceive of education.  Or rather, this is not how we conceive of education in the classroom.  I do a fair bit of corporate consulting, and this sort of ‘knowledge capture’ and ‘knowledge management’ is becoming essential to the operation of a 21st century business.  Many businesses are creating their own, ad-hoc systems to share knowledge resources among their staff, as they understand how important this is for professional development.

This is a new battle line opened up in the war between the unfinished constructivist project and the older, more formal methods of education.  The corporate world doesn’t have time for methodologies which have become obsolete.  Employees must be constantly up-to-date.  Professionals – particularly doctors and lawyers – must remain continuously well-informed about developments in their respective fields.  Those in management need real-time knowledge streams in order recognize and solve problems as they emerge.  This is all much more ludic than formal, much more self-directed than guided, much more juvenile than adult – even though these are all among the most adult of all activities.  This disjunction, this desynchronization between the needs of the world-at-large and the delivery capabilities of an ever-more-obsolete educational system is the final indictment of things-as-they-are.  Things will change; either education will become entirely corporatized, or educators will wholly embrace the unfinished Constructivist project.  Either way the outcome will be the same.

Fortunately, the educational field has something else to offer educators beyond the near-infinite supply of educational resources.  It is a network of individuals.  It is a social network, connected together via bonds of familiarity and affinity.  The student is embedded in a network with his mentors; the mentors are connected to other students, and to other mentors; everyone is connected to the parents, and the community.  In this sense, the formal space of the ‘classroom’ collapses, undone by the pressure provided by the social network, which has effectively caused the classroom walls to implode.  The outside world wants to connect to what happens within the crucible of the classroom, or, more specifically, with the magical moment of knowledge transference within the student’s mind.  This is what we should be building our social networks to support.  At present, social networks like Facebook and Twitter are dull, unsophisticated tools, capable of connecting together, but completely inadequate when it comes to shaping that connection around a task – such as mentoring, or exploring knowledge.  A second generation of social networks is already reaching release.  These tools display a more sophisticated edge, and will help to support the kinds of connections we need within the educational field.

None of this, as wonderful as it might sound (and I admit that it may also seem pretty frightening) is happening in a vacuum.  There are larger changes afoot within Australia, and no vision for the future of education in Australia could ignore them.  We must find a way to harmonize those changes with the larger, more fundamental changes overtaking the entire educational system.

III: The National Curriculum

Underlying fear of a Constructivist educational project is that it would simply give children an excuse to avoid the tough work of education.  There is a persistent belief that children will simply load up on educational ‘candy’, without eating their all-so-essential ‘vegetables’, that is, the basic skills which form the foundation for future learning.  Were children left entirely to their own devices, there might be some danger of this – though, now that we live in the educational field, even that possibility seems increasingly remote.  Children do not live in isolation: they are surrounded by adults who want them to grow into successful adults.  In prehistoric times, adults simply had to be adults around children for the transference of life-skills to take place.  Children copied, imitated, and aped adults – and still do.  This learning-by-mimesis is still a principle factor in the education of the child, though it is not one which is often highlighted by the educational system.  Industrial culture has separated the adult from the child, putting one into the office, the other into the school.  That separation, and the specialization which is the hallmark of the Industrial Age, broke the natural and persistent mentorship of parenting into discrete units: this much in the home, this much in the school.  If we do not trust children to consume a nourishing diet of knowledge, it is because we do not trust ourselves to prepare it for them.  The separation by function led to a situation where no one is responsible for the whole thread of the life.  Parents look to teachers.  Teachers look to parents.  Everyone, everywhere, looks to authority for responsible solutions.

There is no authority anywhere.  Either we do this ourselves, or it will not happen.  We have to look to ourselves, build the networks between ourselves, reach out and connect from ourselves, if we expect to be able to resist a culture which wants to turn the entire human world into candy.  This is not going to be easy; if it were, it would have happened by itself.  Nor is it instantaneous.  Nothing like this happens overnight.  Furthermore, it requires great persistence.  In the ideal situation, it begins at birth and continues on seamlessly until death.  In that sense, this connected educational field mirrors and is a reflection of our human social networks, the ones we form from our first moments of awareness.  But unlike that more ad-hoc network, this one has a specific intent: to bring the child into knowledge.

Knowledge, of course, is very big, very vague, mostly undefined.  Meanwhile, there are specific skills and bodies of knowledge which we have nominated as important: the ability to read and write; to add and subtract, multiply and divide; a basic understanding of the physical and living worlds; the story of the nation and its peoples.  These have very recently been crystallized in a ‘National Curriculum’, which seeks to standardize the pedagogical outcomes across Australia for all students in years 1 through 10.  Parents and educators have already begun to argue about the inclusion or exclusion of elements within that curriculum.  I was taught phonics over forty years ago, but apparently it’s still a matter of some debate.  The teaching of history is always going to be contentious, because the story we tell ourselves about who we are is necessarily political.  So the adults will argue it out – year after year, decade after decade – while the educators and students face this monolithic block of text which seems to be the complete antithesis of the Constructivist project.  And, looked at one way, the National Curriculum is exactly the type of top-down, teacher-to-student, sit-down-and-shut-up sort of educational mandate which is no longer effective in the business world.

All of which means its probably best that we avoid viewing up the National Curriculum as a validation, encouraging us to continue on with things as they are.  Instead, it should be used as mandate for change.  There are several significant dimensions to this mandate.

First, putting everyone onto the same page, pedagogically, opens up an opportunity for sharing which transcends anything before possible.  Teachers and students from all over Australia can contribute to or borrow from a wealth of resources shared by those who have passed before them through the National Curriculum.  Every teacher and every student should think of themselves as part of a broader collective of learners and mentors, all working through the same basic materials.  In this sense, the National Curriculum isn’t a document so much as it is the architecture of a network.  It is the way all things educational are connected together.  It is the wiring underneath all of the pedagogy, providing both a scaffolding and a switchboard for the learning moment.

Is it possible to conceive of a library organized along the lines of the National Curriculum?  Certainly a librarian would have no problem configuring a physical library to meet the needs of the curriculum.  It’s even easier to organize similar sorts of resources in cyberspace.  Not only is it easy, there’s now a mandate to do so.  We know what sorts of resources we’ll need, going forward.  Nothing should be stopping us from creating collective resources – similar to an Australian Wikipedia, and perhaps drawing from it – which will serve the pedagogical requirements of the National Curriculum.  We should be doing this now.

Second, we need to think of the National Curriculum as an opportunity to identify all of the experts in all of the areas covered by the curriculum, and, once they’ve been identified, we must create a strong social network, with them inside, giving them pride of place as ‘nodes of expertise’.  Knowledge is not enough; it must be paired with mentors who have been able to put that knowledge into practice with excellence.  The National Curriculum is the perfect excuse to bring these experts together, to make them all connected and accessible to everyone throughout the nation who could benefit from their wisdom.

Here, once again, it is best to think of the National Curriculum not as a document but as a network – a way to connect things, and people, together.  The great strength of the National Curriculum is, as Dr. Evan Arthur put it, that it is a ‘greenfields’.  Literally anything is possible.  We can go in any direction we choose.  Inertia would have us do things as we’ve always done them, even as the centrifugal forces of culture beyond the classroom point in a different direction.  Inertia can not be a guiding force.  It must be resisted, at every turn, not in the pursuit of some educational utopia or false revolution, but rather because we have come to realize that the network is the educational system.

Moving from where we are to where need to be seems like a momentous transition.  But the Web saw repeated momentous transitions in its first fifteen years and we managed all of those successfully.  We can absorb huge amounts of change and novelty so long as the frame which supports us is strong and consistent.  That’s the essence of the parent-child relationship: so long as the child feels it is being cared for, it can endure almost anything.  This means that we shouldn’t run around freaking out.  The sky is not falling.  The world is not ending.  If anything, we are growing closer together, more connected, becoming more important to one another.  It may feel a bit too close from time to time, as we learn how to keep a healthy distance in these new relationships, but that closeness supports us all.  It can keep children from falling through the net of opportunity.  It can see us advance into a culture where every child has the full benefit of an excellent education, without respect to income or circumstance.

That is the promise.  We have the network.  We live in the educational field.  We now have the National Curriculum to wire it all together.  But can we marry the demands of the National Curriculum with the ludic call of Constructivism?  Can we create a world where literally we play into learning?  This is more than video games that have math drills embedded into them.  It’s about capturing the interests of a child and using that as a springboard for the investigation of their world, their nation, their home.  That can only happen if mentors are deeply involved and embedded in the child’s life from its earliest years.

I don’t have any easy answers here.  There is no magic wand to wave over this whole uncoordinated mess to make it all cohere.  No one knows what’s expected of them anymore – educators least of all.  Are we parents?  Are we ‘friends’?  Where do we stand?  I know this: we stand most securely when we stand connected.

Everything Old is New Again

I.  My, How Things Have Changed

When I came to Australia six years ago, to seek my fame and fortune, business communications had remained largely unchanged for nearly a century.  You could engage in face-to-face conversation – something humans have been doing since we learned to speak, countless thousands of years ago – or, if distance made that impossible, you could drop a letter into the post.  Australia Post is an excellent organization, and seems to get all of the mail delivered within a day or two – quite an accomplishment in a country as dispersed and diffuse as ours.

In the twentieth century, the telephone became the dominant form of business communication; Australia Post wired the nation up, and let us talk to one another.  Conversation, mediated by the telephone, became the dominant mode of communication.  About twenty years ago the facsimile machine dropped in price dramatically, and we could now send images over phone lines.

The facsimile translates images into data and back into images again.  That’s when the critical threshold was crossed: from that point on, our communications have always centered on data.  The Internet arrived in 1995, and broadband in 2001.  In the first years of Internet usage, electronic mail was both the ‘killer app’ and the thing that began to supplant the telephone for business correspondence.  Electronic mail is asynchronous – you can always pick it up later.  Email is non-local, particularly when used through a service such as Hotmail or Gmail – you can get it anywhere.  Until mobiles started to become pervasive for business uses, the telephone was always a hit-or-miss affair.  Electronic mail is a hit, every time.

Such was the business landscape when I arrived in Australia.  The Web had arrived, and businesses eagerly used it as a publishing medium – a cheap way of getting information to their clients and customers.  But the Web was changing.  It had taken nearly a decade of working with the Web, day-to-day, before we discovered that the Web could become a fully-fledged two-way medium: the Web could listen as well as talk.  That insight changed everything.  The Web morphed into a new beast, christened ‘Web 2.0’, and everywhere the Web invited us to interact, to share, to respond, to play, to become involved.  This transition has fundamentally changed business communication, and it’s my goal this morning to outline the dimensions of that transformation.

This transformation unfolds in several dimensions.  The first of these – and arguably the most noticeable – is how well-connected we are these days.  So long as we’re in range of a cellular radio signal, we can be reached.  The number of ways we can be reached is growing almost geometrically.  Five years ago we might have had a single email address.  Now we have several – certainly one for business, and one for personal use – together with an account on Facebook (nearly eight million of the 22 million Australians have Facebook accounts), perhaps another account on MySpace, another on Twitter, another on YouTube, another on Flickr.  We can get a message or maintain contact with someone through any of these connections.  Some individuals have migrated to Facebook for the majority of their communications – there’s no spam, and they’re assured the message will be delivered.  Among under-25s, electronic mail is seen as a technology of the ‘older generation’, something that one might use for work, but has no other practical value.  Text messaging and messaging-via-Facebook have replaced electronic mail.

This increased connectivity hasn’t come for free.  Each of us are now under a burden to maintain all of the various connections we’ve opened.  At the most basic level, we must at least monitor all of these channels for incoming messages.  That can easily get overwhelming, as each channel clamors for attention.

But wait.  We’ve dropped Facebook and Twitter into the conversation before I even explained what they are and how they work.  We just take them as a fact of life these days, but they’re brand new.  Facebook was unknown just three years ago, and Twitter didn’t zoom into prominence until eighteen months ago.  Let’s step back and take a look at what social networks are.  In a very real way, we’ve always known exactly what a social network is: since we were very small we’ve been reaching out to other people and establishing social relationships with them.  In the beginning that meant our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers.  As we grew older that list might grow to include some of the kids in the neighborhood, or at pre-kindy, and then our school friends.  By the time we make it to university, that list of social relationships is actually quite long.  But our brains have limited space to store all those relationships – it’s actually the most difficult thing we do, the most cognitively all-encompassing task.  Forget physics – relationship are harder, and take more brainpower.

Nature has set a limit of about one hundred and fifty on the social relationships we can manage in our heads.  That’s not a static number – it’s not as though as soon as you reach 150, you’re done, full.  Rather, it’s a sign of how many relationships of importance you can manage at any one time.  None of us, not even the most socially adept, can go very much beyond that number.  We just don’t have the grey matter for it.

Hence, fifty years ago mankind invented the Rolodex – a way of keeping track of all the information we really should remember but can’t possibly begin to absorb.  A real, living Rolodex (and there are few of them, these days) are a wonder to behold, with notes scribbled in the margins, business cards stapled to the backs of the Rolodex cards, and a glorious mess of information, all alphabetically organized.  The Rolodex was mankind’s first real version of the modern, digital, social network.  But a Rolodex doesn’t think for itself; a Rolodex can not draw out the connections between the different cards.  A Rolodex does not make explicit what we know – we live in a very interconnected world, and many of our friends and associates are also friends and associates with our friends and associates.

That is precisely what Facebook gives us.  It makes those implicit connections explicit.  It allows those connections to become conduits for ever-greater-levels of connection.  Once those connections are made, once they become a regular feature of our life, we can grow beyond the natural limit of 150.  That doesn’t mean you can manage any of these relationships well – far from it.  But it does mean that you can keep the channels of communication open.  That’s really what all of these social networks are: turbocharged Rolodexes, which allow you to maintain far more relationships than ever before possible.

Once these relationships are established, something beings to happen quite naturally: people begin to share.  What they share is often driven by the nature of the relationship – though we’ve all seen examples where individuals ‘over-share’ inappropriately, confusing business and social channels of communication.  That sort of thing is very easy to do with social networks such as Facebook, because it doesn’t provide an easy method to send messages out to different groups of friends.  We might want a social network where business friends might get something very formal, while close friends might that that photo of you doing tequila shots at last weekend’s birthday party.  It’s a great idea, isn’t it?  But it can’t be done.  Not on Facebook, not on Twitter.  Your friends are all lumped together into one undifferentiated whole.  That’s one way that those social networks are very different from the ones inside our heads.  And it’s something to be constantly aware of when sharing through social networks.

That said, this social sharing has become an incredibly potent force.  More videos are uploaded to YouTube every day than all television networks all over the world produce in a year.  It may not be material of the same quality, but that doesn’t matter – most of those videos are only meant to be seen among a small group of family or friends.  We send pictures around, we send links around, we send music around (though that’s been cause for a bit of trouble), we share things because we care about them, and because we care about the people we’re sharing with.  Every act of sharing, business or personal, brings the sharer and the recipient closer together.  It truly is better to give than receive.  On the other hand, we’re also drowning in shared material.  There’s so much, coming from every corner, through every one of these social networks, there’s no possible way to keep up.  So, most of us don’t.  We cherry-pick, listening to our closest friends and associates: the things they share with us are the most meaningful.  We filter the noise and hope that we’re not missing anything very important.  (We usually are.)

In certain very specific situations, sharing can produce something greater than the sum of its parts.  A community can get together and decide to pool what it knows about a particular domain of knowledge, can ‘wise up’ by sharing freely.  This idea of ‘collective intelligence’ producing a shared storehouse of knowledge is the engine that drives sites like Wikipedia.  We all know Wikipedia, we all know how it works – anyone can edit anything in any article within it – but the wonder of Wikipedia is that it works so well.  It’s not perfectly accurate – nothing ever is  – but it is good enough to be useful nearly all the time.  Here’s the thing: you can come to Wikipedia ignorant and leave it knowing something.  You can put that knowledge to work to make better decisions than you would have in your state of ignorance.  Wikipedia can help you wise up.

Wikipedia isn’t the only example of shared knowledge.  A decade ago a site named TeacherRatings.com went online, inviting university students to provide ratings of their professors, lecturers and instructors.  Today it’s named RateMyProfessor.com, is owned by MTV Networks, and has over ten million ratings of one million instructors.  This font of shared knowledge has become so potent that students regularly consult the site before deciding which classes they’ll take next semester at university.  Universities can no longer saddle student with poor teachers (who may also be fantastic researchers).  There are bidding wars taking place for the lecturers who get the highest ratings on the site.  This sharing of knowledge has reversed the power relationship between a university and its students which stretches back nearly a thousand years.

Substitute the word ‘business’ for university and ‘customers’ for students and you see why this is so significant.  In an era where we’re hyperconnected, where people share, and share knowledge, things are going to work a lot differently than they did before.  These all-important relationships between businesses and their customers (potential and actual) have been completely rewritten.  Let’s talk about that.

II.  Linked Out

Of all the challenges you face in your professional practice, the greatest of them comes from a website that, at first glance, seems completely innocuous.  LinkedIn is the “professional” social network, where individuals re-create their C.V. online, and, entry by entry, link their profiles to other people they have worked with over the years.

Just that alone is something entirely new and very potent.  When a potential employer sees a C.V., they don’t see the network of connections the candidate created at every position – a network which tells the employer much of what they need to know about the suitability of the candidate.  Suddenly, all of this implicit information has been revealed explicitly.  An employer can ‘walk the chain’ of associations, long before a candidate submits any references.  The LinkedIn profile is the reference, quite literally.

This means that a LinkedIn profile is more valuable than any hand-crafted C.V., because it is, on the whole, a more accurate read of the candidate.  A candidate’s connections tell you everything about who the candidate is.  They certainly tell you more than a list of hand-picked referees ever could.  LinkedIn is simply a better way of doing business.

This means that LinkedIn has caught on like a bushfire in Big End of town.  Throughout the nation, employers look for the LinkedIn profile of potential candidates, and these profiles carry more weight than any words from the candidate, or a recruiter, or, really, anyone else.  This transformation happened suddenly over the last 12 months, as businesspeople reached a critical mass of involvement with LinkedIn.  LinkedIn benefits from the ‘network effect’: the more people who create profiles on LinkedIn, the more valuable the service becomes – because it’s more likely you’ll find someone’s profile there.  That, in turn, makes it more likely another individual will create a LinkedIn profile, making it more valuable, etc.  It also means that any candidate without a LinkedIn profile is immediately suspect – what’s he or she trying to hide?

LinkedIn become the new standard in recruiting.  But don’t look too closely, or you’ll get scared.  LinkedIn takes one of the things the recruiter brings to the table – an extensive and wide-ranging set of contacts – and reproduces that electronically in such a way that anyone can take advantage of them.  In other words, everyone is now on a much more equal footing.  The time and energy you have dedicated to building up those networks can now be matched by someone spending a lot less time on it – someone who is employing the latest tools.

The big worry, from here forward, is that recruiters as we have known them will be obsolesced by social networking technologies.  As we get further into the social media revolution, and these tools become more refined, many of the functions of the recruiter-as-networker, recruiter-as-matchmaker, and recruiter-as-talent-finder will be subsumed into these social networks.  Already I can dial and tune searches on LinkedIn to give me, say, a list of electrical engineers who work in Melbourne.  That’s a list I can work from, if I’m doing a personnel search.  I can message those folks through LinkedIn, to find out if they’re interested in a conversation about a potential opportunity.  The platform provides the basic set of capabilities to amplify my effectiveness – without any substantial investment.

People will begin to ask why they need recruiters.  People are already beginning to ask this question, as they see the social network providing the same capabilities – and for free.  This is something that should scare you a little bit, because it shows you that recruiting, as we’ve known it, has about as much life expectancy as a buggy-whip maker did in 1915.  There are still a few years left in which recruiting will be a profitable business, but after that it will simply be overwhelmed by social networking tools which can amplify the powers of the average person so effectively that recruiting simply becomes another task on offer, like sending a message or posting a photo.

As people are drawn together over social networks, they get a better sense of the talents of those around them.  This talent-spotting used to be the sine qua non of the recruiter.  Now that each of us can manage connections far beyond the natural limit of 150, we each learn our respective strengths.  We use systems like LinkedIn to help us keep tally of those strengths.  We use the tools to deploy those strengths.  Everything happens because the tools empower us.  But will they empower us so much that recruiters become redundant?

You need to have a good think about your business, and about the way you practice your business.  You need to have a good look at the tools – particularly LinkedIn, but also Twitter and Facebook.  You’ll learn that these tools are good at some things, and lousy at others.  Here’s the question: are you good at the things the tools aren’t?  Tools are no substitute for relationships.  Even though the tools give us some false sense of relationship, it’s not the real thing.  Recruiting is the real thing.  But, is that enough?

III.  Social Media Gods

In times long past – and by this, I mean just five years ago – recruiters were the masters of the Rolodex.  You survived and thrived by knowing everybody, everywhere, with talent, and everybody, everywhere, who needed that talent.  That in itself is quite a talent.  But that talent is no longer enough.  It is, however, the springboard to get you to the next level.

Fasten your seatbelts.  You’re about to get launched headlong into the future.  I want you to imagine a time – let’s say, tomorrow afternoon – when the average person now has quite extraordinary Rolodex capabilities, courtesy of the social networks, and where you, the masters, have gone beyond that into regions undreamed of.  Imagine being able to take each of your contacts, and use those as starting points for new contacts within new networks.  You’d have an inner ring of close contacts – just as you do today, but multiplied by the capabilities of the tools to support and nurture these contacts.  Outside that inner ring, you’d have consecutive rings of contacts-to-contacts, and contacts-to-contacts-to-contacts, and so on, all the way out until the network simply becomes too diffuse and too difficult to maintain.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it echoes the famed ‘six degrees of separation’, a theorem that provides that we are all just six people away from any other person on the planet.  Australia is a lot smaller than the world; within any particular domain of expertise, there’s really only one or two degrees of separation, whether that’s in filmmaking, medicine, or software engineering.  There just aren’t that many of us.  Fortunately, that means that our networks aren’t deep: we can more-or-less know everyone involved in our field, with the help of a good Rolodex.

You have more than a good Rolodex.  You have the new tools; you can build a Rolodex of Rolodexes, one Rolodex per discipline, and use that to track everybody, everywhere, who matters.  In this future, that is really tomorrow afternoon, you’ve so leveraged your network resources that each of you sits in the middle of a vast web, and each time there’s a twitch upon a thread, you know about it, because that information is shared throughout your networks, and finds its way toward your receptive ears.

You’re going to need good tools to make this ambitious project a reality, and you’re going to need them for two entirely contradictory reasons: first, to be able to listen to everything going on everywhere, and second, because that chaotic din will deafen you.  You need tools to help you find out what’s going on, but, more significantly, you need tools to help you winnow the wheat from the chaff.  Being well-connected means bearing the burden of drowning in pointless information.  Without the right tools, as you grow your networks you will simply sink under the noise.

What tools?  They barely exist today.  Google Alerts is one tool that will help keep you abreast of news as it is created on the net.  Within the next few months, Google will begin to digest the endless ‘feeds’ created by Facebook and Twitter users, and you’ll be able to search through those as well.  But again, there’s just too much there.  You likely need a more professional tool, such as Sydney’s own PeopleBrowsr, to sift through the wealth of information that will be generated by your ever-more-encompassing networks of networks.

I should point out – for the more entrepreneurial among you – there is now a market for tools that recruiters need to become better recruiters: tools that harness the networks.  Such tools will need to be designed by someone who understands the recruiting business and the network. That means it could be one of you.  You could partner with a Google or a PeopleBrowsr, or strike out on your own.  If you don’t do it, one of your competitors – either in Australia or overseas – certainly will.

The first half of my advice is simply this: build your networks.  Build them out to unimaginable reaches.  Use the tools to leverage your capabilities.  Use the tools as if your livelihood depended upon it.  Because it does.  Behind you are a new generation, unafraid to use the tools to build their networks up.  When you go head-to-head against them, those with the best networks – and the best tools – will tend to win.  That’s what the next decade looks like, as we transition from the Rolodex to the social network: more and more business will go to the well-networked.  So really, there is no choice: adapt or die.

There’s another face to this, one that turns itself outward.  Sure, you’ve created this vast and nationwide network to feed you information.  But you’ve got to do more than listen.  You must present yourself within the network.  You must be present.  Many people and most companies think that they can use social media as an advertising medium.  Plenty of firms set up Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and post lots of advertising messages to an ever-decreasing number of followers.

People don’t want to get spammed.  They don’t want to hear your marketing messages over a communications channel that they consider personal.  So please, don’t make this mistake.  In fact, I’ll go even further – don’t think of the Web as an advertising medium.  Sure, it had a few good years where a business presence online was simply a great way to get your marketing materials out there inexpensively, but those days are over.  Today everything is about engagement.  Engagement begins with conversation.

Conversation is a tricky thing: on the one hand it’s the most natural of human capabilities; on the other hand, it’s fraught with disaster.  Social media amplifies both sides of this equation.  There are more places for more conversations than ever before, and more opportunities for these conversations to run off the rails.  Here are some simple rules of thumb which should keep you out of trouble:

  1. Only go where you’re invited.  No one likes a salesman who sticks their foot in the door.
  2. Participate in a conversation from a place of authenticity.  Let people know who you are and why you’re there.
  3. Spend time building relationships.  Social media is a lot like friendship – it takes time and investment and a bit of love to make it work.
  4. Be consistent.  Invest time every single day, or at least with regularity.  If you can’t do that, it’s probably better you do nothing at all.

Where are these conversations happening?  All around you: on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and YouTube and Flickr and thousand blogs.  They’re happening all the time, everywhere.  You probably want to spend some time investigating these conversations before you participate.  That’s known as ‘lurking’, and it’s the foundation of successful net relationships.  Having an appreciation and an understanding of a community before you participate within it shows respect.  Respect will be reciprocated.

That’s about it for today – and frankly, that’s quite a lot.  I’ve asked you to re-invent yourselves for the mid-21st century.  I’ve asked you to become the gods of social media, to translate your natural role as connectors and facilitators into a greatly amplified form, just so you can remain competitive.  I’m not saying that this transition will happen overnight.  You have at least a few years to become adept with the tools, and a few more to build out those nationwide networks.  But I can promise this: at the close of the 2nd decade of the 21st century, recruiting will look entirely different.

Every social network has a few individuals who are ‘superconnected’, who have many more connections than their peers within the network.  Those individuals are the glue who keep the network held together.  This is your natural role.  The challenge, moving forward, is to remain extraordinary when everyone around you becomes superconnected themselves.  It will take some work, and some time, but it can be done.  Good luck.

Nexus

I: Sharing

This is the era of sharing. When the histories of our time are written a hundred years from now, sharing is the salient feature which historians will focus upon. The entirety of culture, from 1999 forward, looks like a gigantic orgy of sharing.

This morning I want to take a look at this phenomenon in some detail, and tie it into some Australian educational ‘megatrends’ – forces which are altering the landscape throughout the nation. Sharing can be used as an engine to power these forces, but that will only happen if we understand how sharing works.

At some level, sharing is totally familiar to us – we’ve been sharing since we’ve been very small. But sharing, at least in the English language, has two slightly different meanings: we can share things, or we can share thoughts. We adults spend a lot of time teaching children the importance of sharing their things; we never need to teach them to share their thoughts. The sharing of things is a cultural behavior, valued by our civilization, whereas the sharing of thoughts is an innate behavior – probably located somewhere deep in our genes.

Fifteen years ago, Nicholas Negroponte characterized this as the divide between bits and atoms. We have to teach children to share their atoms – their toys and games – but they freely share their bits. In fact, they’re so promiscuous with their bits that this has produced its own range of problems.

It was only a decade ago that Shawn Fanning released a program which he’d written for his mates at Boston’s Northeastern University. Napster allowed anyone with a computer and a broadband internet connection to share their MP3 music files freely. Within a few months, millions of broadband-connected college students were freely trading their music collections with one another – without any thought of copyright or ownership. Let me reiterate: thoughts of copyright or piracy simply didn’t enter into their thinking. To them, this was all about sharing.

This act of sharing was a natural consequence of the ‘hyperconnectivity’ these kids had achieved via their broadband connections. When you connect people together, they will begin to share the things they care about. If you build a system that allows them to share the music they care about, they’ll share that. If you build a system that allows them to share the videos they care about, they’ll share that. If you build a system that allows them to share the links they care about, they’ll share them.

Clever web developers and entrepreneurs have built all of these systems, and many, many more. For the first time we can use technology to accelerate and amplify the innate human desire to share bits, and so, in a case of history repeating itself, we have amplified our social and sharing systems the way the steam engine amplified our physical power two hundred years ago.

In the earliest years of this sharing revolution, people shared the objects of culture: music, videos, jokes, links, photos, writing, and so on. Just this alone has had an enormous impact on business and culture: the recording industries, which were flying high a decade ago, have been humbled. Television networks have gotten in front of the Internet distribution of their own shows, to take the sting out of piracy. Newspapers, caught in the crossfire between a controlled system of distribution and a world where everyone distributes everything, have begun to disappear. And this is just the beginning.

In 2001, another experiment in sharing started in earnest: Wikipedia encouraged a small community of contributors to add their own entries to an ever-expanding encyclopedia. In this case contributors were asked to share their knowledge – however specific or particular – to a greater whole. Although it grew slowly in its earliest days, after about 2 years Wikipedia hit an inflection point and began to grow explosively.

Knowledge seems to have a gravitational quality; when enough of it is gathered together in one place, it attracts more knowledge. That’s certainly the story of Wikipedia, which has grown to encompass more than three million articles in English, on nearly every topic under the sun. Wikipedia is only the most successful of many efforts to produce a ‘collective intelligence’ out of the ‘wisdom of crowds’. There are many others – including one I’ll come to shortly.

One of the singular features of Wikipedia – one that we never think about even though it’s the reason we use Wikipedia – is simply this: Wikipedia makes us smarter. We can approach Wikipedia full of ignorance and leave it knowing a lot of facts. Facts need to be put into practice before they can be transformed into knowledge, but at least with Wikipedia we now have the opportunity to load up on the facts. And this is true globally: because of Wikipedia every single one of us now has the opportunity to work with the best possible facts. We can use these facts to make better decisions, decisions which will improve our lives. Wikipedia may seem innocuous, but it’s really quite profound.

How profound? If we peel away all of the technology behind Wikipedia, all of the servers and databases and broadband connections of the world’s sixth most popular website, what are we left with? Only this: an agreement to share what we know. It’s that agreement, and not the servers or databases or bandwidth which makes Wikipedia special, and it’s that agreement historians will be writing about in a hundred years. That agreement will endure – even if, for some bizarre reason, Wikipedia should cease to exist – because that agreement is one of the engines driving our culture forward.

Another example of sharing, just as relevant to educators, comes from a site which launched back in 1999 as TeacherRatings.com. Like Wikipedia, it grew slowly, and went through ownership changes, emerging finally as RateMyProfessors.com, which is owned by MTV, and which now boasts ten million ratings of one million professors, lecturers and instructors. This huge wealth of ratings came about because RateMyProfessors.com attached itself to the innate desire to share. Students want to share their experiences with their instructors, and RateMyProfessors.com gives them a forum to do just that.

Just as is the case with Wikipedia, anyone can become smarter by using RateMyProfessors.com. You can learn which instructors are good teachers, which grade easily, which will bore you to tears, and so forth. You can then put that information to work to make your life better – avoiding the professors (or schools) which have the worst teachers, taking courses from the instructors who get the highest scores.

That shared knowledge, put to work, changes the power balance within the university. For the last six hundred years, universities have been able to saddle students with lousy instructors – who might happen to be fantastic researchers – and there wasn’t much that students could do about it except grumble. Now, with RateMyProfessors.com, students can pass their hard-won knowledge down to subsequent generations of students. The university proposes, the student disposes. Worse still, the instructors receiving the highest ratings on RateMyProfessors.com have been the subjects of bidding wars, as various universities try to woo them, and add them to their faculties. All of this has given students a power they’ve never had, a power they never could have until they began to share their experiences, and translate that shared knowledge into action.

Sharing is wonderful, but sharing has consequences. We can now amplify and accelerate our sharing so that it can cross the world in a matter of moments, copied and replicated all the way. The power of the network has driven us into a new era. Sharing culture, knowledge, and power has destabilized all of our institutions. Businesses totter and collapse; universities change their practices; governments create task forces to get in front of what everyone calls ‘something-2.0’. It could be web2.0, education2.0, or government2.0. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that something big is happening, and it’s all driven by our ability to share.

OK, so we can share. But why? How does it matter to us?

II: Greenfields

Before we can look at why sharing matters so much in this particular moment, we need to spend some time examining the three big events which will revolutionize education in Australia over the next decade. Each of them are entirely revolutionary in themselves; their confluence will result in a compressed wave of change – a concrescence – that will radically transform all educational practice.

The first of these events will affect all Australians equally. At this moment in time, Australia lives with medium-to-low-end broadband speeds, and most families have broadband connections which, because of metering, fundamentally limit their use. This is how it’s been since the widespread adoption of the Internet in the mid-1990s, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine that things could be different. The hidden lesson of the last fifteen years is that the Internet is something that needs to be rationed carefully, because there’s not enough to go around.

The Government wants us to adopt a different point of view. With the National Broadband Network (NBN), they intend to build a fibre-optic infrastructure which will deliver at least 100 megabit-per-second connections to every home, every school, and every business in Australia. Although no one has come out and said it explicitly, it’s clear that the Government wants this connection to be unmetered – the Internet will finally be freely available in Australia, as it is in most other countries.

How this will change our usage of the Internet is anyone’s guess. And this is the important point – we don’t know what will happen. We have critics of the NBN claiming that there’s no good reason for it, that Australians are already adequately served by the broadband we’ve already got, but I regularly hear stories of schools which block YouTube – not because of its potentially distracting qualities, but because they can’t handle the demand for bandwidth.

That, writ large, describes Australia in 2009. Broadband is the oxygen of the 21st century. Australia has been subjected to a slow strangulation. Once we can breathe freely, new horizons will open to us. We know this is true from history: no one really knew what we’d do with broadband once we got it. No one predicted Napster or YouTube or Skype, no one could have predicted any of them – or any of a thousand other innovations – before we had widespread access to broadband. Critics who argue there’s no need for high-speed broadband have simply failed to learn the lessons of history.

Now, before you think that I’m carrying the Government’s water, let me find fault with a few things. I believe that the Government isn’t thinking big enough – by the time the NBN is fully deployed, around 2017, a hundred megabit-per-second connection will simply be mid-range among our OECD peers. The Government should have accepted the technical challenge and gone for a gigabit network. Eventually, they will. Further, I believe the NBN will come with ‘strings attached’, specifically the filtering and regulatory regime currently being proposed by Senator Conroy’s ministry. The Government wants to provide the nation a ‘clean feed’, sanitized according to its interpretation of the law; when everyone in Australia gets their Internet service from the Commonwealth, we may have no choice in the matter.

The next event – and perhaps the most salient, in the context of this conference – is the Government’s commitment to provide a computer to every student in years 9 through 12. During the 2007 election, the Prime Minister talked about using computers for ‘math drills’ and ‘foreign language training’. The line about providing computers in the classroom was a popular one, although it is now clear that the Government’s ministers didn’t think through the profound effect of pervasive computing in the classroom.

First, it radically alters the power balance in the classroom. Most students have more facility with their computers than their teachers do. Some teachers are prepared to work from humility and accept instruction from their students. For other teachers, such an idea is anathema. The power balance could be righted somewhat with extensive professional development for the teachers – and time for that professional development – but schools have neither the budget nor the time to allow for this. Instead, the computers are being dumped into the classroom without any thought as to how they will affect pedagogy.

Second, these computers are being handed to students who may not be wholly aware of the potency of these devices. We’ve seen how a single text message, forwarded endlessly, can spark a riot on a Sydney beach, or how a party invitation, posted to Facebook, can lead to a crowd of five hundred and a battle with the police. Do teenagers really understand how to use the network to their advantage, how to reinforce their own privacy and protect themselves? Do they know how easy it is to ruin their own lives – or someone else’s – if they abuse the power of the network, that amplifier and accelerator of sharing?

Teachers aren’t the only ones who need some professional development. We need to provide a strong curriculum in ‘digital citizenship’; just as teenagers get instruction before they get a driver’s license, so they need instruction before they get to ‘spin the wheels’ of these ubiquitous educational computers.

This isn’t a problem that can be solved by filtering the networks at the schools. Students are surrounded by too many devices – mobiles as well as computers – which connect to the network and which require a degree of caution and education. This isn’t a job that the schools should be handling alone; this is an opportunity for all of the adult voices of culture – parents, caretakers, mentors, educators and administrators – to speak as one about the potentials and pitfalls of network culture.

Finally, what is the goal here? Right now the students and teachers are getting their computers. Next year the deployment will be nearly complete. What, in the end, is the point? Is it simply to give Kevin Rudd a tick on his ‘promises fulfilled’ list when he goes up for re-election? Or is this an opening to something greater? Is this simply more of the same or something new? I haven’t seen any educator anywhere present anything that looks at all like an integrated vision of what these laptops mean to students, teachers or the classroom. They’re bling: pretty, but an entirely useless accessory. I’m not saying that this is a bad initiative – indeed, I believe the Government should be lauded for its efforts. But everything, thus far, feels only like a beginning, the first meter around a very long course.

Now we come to the most profound of the three events on the educational horizon: the National Curriculum. Although the idea of a national curriculum has been mooted by several successive governments, it looks as though we’ll finally achieve a deliverable curriculum sometime in the early years of the Rudd Government. There’s a long way to go, of course – and a lot of tussling between the states and the various educational stakeholders – but the process is well underway. It’s expected that curricula in ‘English, Mathematics, the Sciences and History’ will be ready for implementation in the start of 2011, not very far away. As these are the core elements in any school curriculum, they will affect every school, every teacher, and every student in Australia.

A few weeks ago I got the opportunity to share the stage with Dr. Evan Arthur, the Group Manager of the Digital Education Group at the Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. During a ‘fireside chat’, when I asked him a series of questions, the topic turned to the National Curriculum. At this point Dr. Arthur became rather thoughtful, and described the National Curriculum as a “greenfields”. He went on to describe the curriculum documents, when completed, as a set of ‘strings’ which could be handled almost as if they were a Christmas tree, ready to have content hung all over them. The National Curriculum means that every educator in Australia is, for the first time, working to the same set of ‘strings’.

That’s when I became aware that Dr. Arthur saw the National Curriculum as an enormous opportunity to redraw the possibilities for education. We are all being given an opportunity to start again – to throw out the old rule book and start over with another one. But in order to do this we’ll have to take everything we’ve covered already – about sharing, the National Broadband Network, the Digital Education Revolution and the National Curriculum, then blend them together. Together they produce a very potent mix, a nexus of possibilities which could fundamentally transform education in Australia.

III: At The Nexus

Our future is a future of sharing; we’ll be improving constantly, finding better and better ways to share with one another. To this I want to add something more subtle; not a change in technology – we have a lot of technology – but rather, a change of direction and intent. We could choose to see the National Curriculum as simply another mandate from the Federal government, something that will make the educational process even more formal, rigorous, and lifeless. That option is open to us – and, to many of us, that’s the only option visible. I want to suggest that there is another, wildly different path open before us, right next to this well-trodden and much more prosaic laneway. Rather than viewing the National Curriculum as a done deal, wouldn’t it be wiser if we consider it as an open invitation to participation and sharing?

After all, the National Curriculum mandates what must be taught, but says little to nothing about how it gets taught. Teachers remain free to pursue their own pedagogical ends. That said, teachers across Australia will, for the first time, be pursing the same ends. This opens up a space and a rationale for sharing that never existed before. Everyone is pulling in the same direction; wouldn’t it make sense for teachers, students, administrators and parents to share the experience?

Let’s be realistic: whether or not we seek to formalize this sharing of experience, it will happen anyway, on BoredOfStudies.org, RateMyTeachers.com, a hundred other websites, a thousand blogs, a hundred thousand Facebook profiles, and a million tweets. But if it all happens out there, informally, we miss an enormous opportunity to let sharing power our transition to into the National Curriculum. We’d be letting our greatest and most powerful asset slip through our fingers.

So let me turn this around and project us into a future where we have decided to formalize our shared experience of the National Curriculum. What might that look like? A teacher might normally prepare their curriculum and pedagogical materials at the beginning of the school term; during that preparation process they would check into a shared space, organized around the National Curriculum (this should be done formally, through an organization such as Education.AU, but could – and would – happen informally, via Google) to find out what other educators have created and shared as curriculum materials. Educators would find extensive notes, lesson plans, probably numerous recorded podcasts, links to materials on Wikipedia and other online resources, and so forth – everything that an educator might need to create an effective learning experience. Furthermore, educators would be encourage to share and connect around any particular ‘string’ in the National Curriculum. The curriculum thus becomes a focal point for organization and coordination rather than a brute mandate of performance.

Students, already well-connected, will continue to use informal channels to communicate about their lessons; the National Curriculum gives the educational sector (and perhaps some enterprising entrepreneur) an opportunity to create a space where those curriculum ‘strings’ translate into points of contact. Students working through a particular point in the curriculum would know where they are, and would know where to gather together for help and advice. The same wealth of materials available to educators would be available to students. None of this constitutes ‘peeking at the answers’, but rather is part of an integrated effort to give students every advantage while working their way through the National Curriculum. A student in Townsville might be able to gain some advantage from a podcast of a teacher in Albany, might want to collaborate on research with students from Ballarat, might ask some questions of an educator in Lismore. The student sits in the middle of an nexus of resources designed to offer them every opportunity to succeed; if the methodology of their own classroom is a poor fit to their learning style, chances are high that they’ll find someone else, somewhere else, who makes a better match.

All of this sounds a lot like an educational utopia, but all of it is within our immediate grasp. It is because we live at the confluence of a broadly sharing culture, and within a nation which is getting ubiquitous high-speed broadband, students and educators who now have pervasive access to computers, and a National Curriculum to act as an organizing principle. It is precisely because the stars are aligned so auspiciously that we can dream big dreams. This is the moment when anything is possible.

This transition could simply reinforce the last hundred years of industrial era education, where one-size-fits-all, where the student enters ‘airplane mode’ when they walk into the classroom – all devices disconnected, eyes up and straight ahead for the boredom of a fifty-minute excursion through some meaningless and disconnected body of knowledge. Where the computer simply becomes an electronic textbook for the distribution of media, rather than a portal for the exploration of the knowledge shared by others. Where the educator finds themselves increasingly bound to a curriculum which limits their freedom to find expression and meaning in their work. And all of this will happen, unless we recognize the other path that has opened before us. Unless we change direction, and set our feet on that path. Because if we keep on as we have been, we’ll simply end up with what we have today. And that would be a big mistake.

It needn’t be this way. We can take advantage of our situation, of the concrescence of opportunities opening to us. It will take some work, some time and some money. But more than anything else it requires a change of heart. We must stop thinking of the classroom as a solitary island of peace and quiet in the midst of a stormy sea, and rather think of it as a node within a network, connected and receptive. We must stop thinking of educators as valiant but solitary warriors, and transform them into a connected and receptive army. And we must recognize that this generation of students are so well connected on every front that they outpace us in every advance. They will be teaching us how to make this transition seem effortless.

Can we do this? Can we screw our courage up and take a leap into a great unknown, into an educational future which draws from our past, but is not bound to it? With parents and politicians crying out for metrics and endless assessments, we are losing the space to experiment, to play, to explore. Next year, the National Curriculum will land like a ton of bricks, even as it presents the opportunity for a Great Escape. The next twelve months will be crucial. If we can only change the way we think about what is possible, we will change what is possible. It’s a big ask. It’s the challenge of our times. Will we rise to meet it? Can we make an agreement to share what we know and what we do? That’s all it takes. So simple and so profound.

Slides for this talk are available here.

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