Blue Skies

I: Cloud People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II: Eyjafjallajökull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III: Services With a Smile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Ever Happened to the Book?

For Ted Nelson

I: Centrifugal Force

We live in the age of networks.  Wherever we are, five billion of us are continuously and ubiquitously connected.  That’s everyone over the age of twelve who earns more than about two dollars a day.  The network has us all plugged into it.  Yet this is only the more recent, and more explicit network.  Networks are far older than this most modern incarnation; they are the foundation of how we think.  That’s true at the most concrete level: our nervous system is a vast neural network.  It’s also true at a more abstract level: our thinking is a network of connections and associations.  This is necessarily reflected in the way we write.

I became aware of this connectedness of our thoughts as I read Ted Nelson’s Literary Machines back in 1982.  Perhaps the seminal introduction to hypertext, Literary Machines opens with the basic assertion that all texts are hypertexts.  Like it or not, we implicitly reference other texts with every word we write.  It’s been like this since we learned to write – earlier, really, because we all crib from one another’s spoken thoughts.  It’s the secret to our success.  Nelson wanted to build a system that would make these implicit relationships explicit, exposing all the hidden references, making text-as-hypertext a self-evident truth.  He never got it.  But Nelson did influence a generation of hackersSir Tim Berners-Lee among them – and pushed them toward the implementation of hypertext.

As the universal hypertext system of HTTP and HTML conquered all, hypertext revealed qualities as a medium which had hitherto been unsuspected.  While the great strength of hypertext is its capability for non-linearity – you can depart from the text at any point – no one had reckoned on the force (really, a type of seduction) of those points of departure.  Each link presents an opportunity for exploration, and is, in a very palpable sense, similar to the ringing of a telephone.  Do we answer?  Do we click and follow?  A link is pregnant with meaning, and passing a link by necessarily incurs an opportunity cost.  The linear text is constantly weighed down with a secondary, ‘centrifugal’ force, trying to tear the reader away from the inertia of the text, and on into another space.  The more heavily linked a particular hypertext document is, the greater this pressure.

Consider two different documents that might be served up in a Web browser.  One of them is an article from the New York Times Magazine.  It is long – perhaps ten thousand words – and has, over all of its length, just a handful of links.  Many of these links point back to other New York Times articles.  This article stands alone.  It is a hyperdocument, but it has not embraced the capabilities of the medium.  It has not been seduced.  It is a spinster, of sorts, confident in its purity and haughty in its isolation.  This article is hardly alone.  Nearly all articles I could point to from any professional news source portray the same characteristics of separateness and resistance to connect with the medium they employ.  We all know why this is: there is a financial pressure to keep eyes within the website, because attention has been monetized.  Every link presents an escape route, and a potential loss of income.  Hence, links are kept to a minimum, the losses staunched.  Disappointingly, this has become a model for many other hyperdocuments, even where financial considerations do not conflict with the essential nature of the medium.  The tone has been set.

On the other hand, consider an average article in Wikipedia.  It could be short or long – though only a handful reach ten thousand words – but it will absolutely be sprinkled liberally with links.  Many of these links will point back into Wikipedia, allowing someone to learn the meaning of a term they’re unfamiliar with, or explore some tangential bit of knowledge, but there also will be plenty of links that face out, into the rest of the Web.  This is a hyperdocument which has embraced the nature of medium, which is not afraid of luring readers away under the pressure of linkage.  Wikipedia is a non-profit organization which does not accept advertising and does not monetize attention.  Without this competition of intentions, Wikipedia is itself an example of another variety of purity, the pure expression of the tension between the momentum of the text and centrifugal force of hypertext.

Although commercial hyperdocuments try to fence themselves off from the rest of the Web and the lure of its links, they are never totally immune from its persistent tug.  Just because you have landed somewhere that has a paucity of links doesn’t constrain your ability to move non-linearly.  If nothing else, the browser’s ‘Back’ button continually offers that opportunity, as do all of your bookmarks, the links that lately arrived in email from friends or family or colleagues, even an advertisement proffered by the site.  In its drive to monetize attention, the commercial site must contend with the centrifugal force of its own ads.  In order to be situated within a hypertext environment, a hyperdocument must accept the reality of centrifugal force, even as it tries, ever more cleverly, to resist it.  This is the fundamental tension of all hypertext, but here heightened and amplified because it is resisted and forbidden.  It is a source of rising tension, as the Web-beyond-the-borders becomes ever more comprehensive, meaningful and alluring, while the hyperdocument multiplies its attempts to ensnare, seduce, and retain.

This rising tension has had a consequential impact on the hyperdocument, and, more broadly, on an entire class of documents.  It is most obvious in the way we now absorb news.  Fifteen years ago, we spread out the newspaper for a leisurely read, moving from article to article, generally following the flow of the sections of the newspaper.  Today, we click in, read a bit, go back, click in again, read some more, go back, go somewhere else, click in, read a bit, open an email, click in, read a bit, click forward, and so on.  We allow ourselves to be picked up and carried along by the centrifugal force of the links; with no particular plan in mind – except perhaps to leave ourselves better informed – we flow with the current, floating down a channel which is shaped by the links we encounter along the way.  The newspaper is no longer a coherent experience; it is an assemblage of discrete articles, each of which has no relation to the greater whole.  Our behavior reflects this: most of us already gather our news from a selection of sources (NY Times, BBC, Sydney Morning Herald and Guardian UK in my case), or even from an aggregator such as Google News, which completely abstracts the article content from its newspaper ‘vehicle’.

The newspaper as we have known it has been shredded.  This is not the fault of Google or any other mechanical process, but rather is a natural if unforeseen consequence of the nature of hypertext.  We are the ones who feel the lure of the link; no machine can do that.  Newspapers made the brave decision to situate themselves as islands within a sea of hypertext.  Though they might believe themselves singular, they are not the only islands in the sea.  And we all have boats.  That was bad enough, but the islands themselves are dissolving, leaving nothing behind but metaphorical clots of dirt in murky water.

The lure of the link has a two-fold effect on our behavior.  With its centrifugal force, it is constantly pulling us away from wherever we are.  It also presents us with an opportunity cost.  When we load that 10,000-word essay from the New York Times Magazine into our browser window, we’re making a conscious decision to dedicate time and effort to digesting that article. That’s a big commitment.  If we’re lucky – if there are no emergencies or calls on the mobile or other interruptions – we’ll finish it.  Otherwise, it might stay open in a browser tab for days, silently pleading for completion or closure. Every time we come across something substantial, something lengthy and dense, we run an internal calculation: Do I have time for this?  Does my need and interest outweigh all of the other demands upon my attention?  Can I focus?

In most circumstances, we will decline the challenge.  Whatever it is, it is not salient enough, not alluring enough.  It is not so much that we fear commitment as we feel the pressing weight of our other commitments.  We have other places to spend our limited attention.  This calculation and decision has recently been codified into an acronym: “tl;dr”, for “too long; didn’t read”.  It may be weighty and important and meaningful, but hey, I’ve got to get caught up on my Twitter feed and my blogs.

The emergence of the ‘tl;dr’ phenomenon – which all of us practice without naming it – has led public intellectuals to decry the ever-shortening attention span.  Attention spans are not shortening: ten year-olds will still drop everything to read a nine-hundred page fantasy novel for eight days.   Instead, attention has entered an era of hypercompetitive development.  Twenty years ago only a few media clamored for our attention.  Now, everything from video games to chatroulette to real-time Twitter feeds to text messages demand our attention.  Absence from any one of them comes with a cost, and that burden weighs upon us, subtly but continuously, all figuring into the calculation we make when we decide to go all in or hold back.

The most obvious effect of this hypercompetitive development of attention is the shortening of the text.  Under the tyranny of ‘tl;dr’ three hundred words seems just about the right length: long enough to make a point, but not so long as to invoke any fear of commitment.  More and more, our diet of text comes in these ‘bite-sized’ chunks.  Again, public intellectuals have predicted that this will lead to a dumbing-down of culture, as we lose the depth in everything.  The truth is more complex.  Our diet will continue to consist of a mixture of short and long-form texts.  In truth, we do more reading today than ten years ago, precisely because so much information is being presented to us in short form.  It is digestible.  But it need not be vacuous.  Countless specialty blogs deliver highly-concentrated texts to audiences who need no introduction to the subject material.  They always reference their sources, so that if you want to dive in and read the lengthy source work, you are free to commit.  Here, the phenomenon of ‘tl;dr’ reveals its Achilles’ Heel:  shorter the text, the less invested you are.  You give way more easily to centrifugal force.  You are more likely to navigate away.

There is a cost incurred both for substance and the lack thereof.  Such are the dilemmas of hypertext.

II:  Schwarzschild Radius

It appears inarguable that 2010 is the Year of the Electronic Book.  The stars have finally aligned: there is a critical mass of usable, well-designed technology, broad acceptance (even anticipation) within the public, and an agreement among publishers that revenue models do exist. Amazon and its Kindle (and various software simulators for PCs and smartphones) have proven the existence of a market.  Apple’s recently-released iPad is quintessentially a vehicle for iBooks, its own bookstore-and-book-reader package.  Within a few years, tens of millions of both devices, their clones and close copies will be in the hands of readers throughout the world.  The electronic book is an inevitability.

At this point a question needs to be asked: what’s so electronic about an electronic book?  If I open the Stanza application on my iPhone, and begin reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, I am presented with something that looks utterly familiar.  Too familiar.  This is not an electronic book.  This is ‘publishing in light’.  I believe it essential that we discriminate between the two, because the same commercial forces which have driven links from online newspapers and magazines will strip the term ‘electronic book’ of all of its meaning.  An electronic book is not simply a one-for-one translation of a typeset text into UTF-8 characters.  It doesn’t even necessarily begin with that translation.  Instead, first consider the text qua text.  What is it?  Who is it speaking to?  What is it speaking about?

These questions are important – essential – if we want to avoid turning living typeset texts into dead texts published in light.  That act of murder would give us less than we had before, because the published in light texts essentially disavow the medium within which they are situated.  They are less useful than typeset texts, purposely stripped of their utility to be shoehorned into a new medium.  This serves the economic purposes of publishers – interested in maximizing revenue while minimizing costs – but does nothing for the reader.  Nor does it make the electronic book an intrinsically alluring object.  That’s an interesting point to consider, because hypertext is intrinsically alluring.  The reason for the phenomenal, all-encompassing growth of the Web from 1994 through 2000 was because it seduced everyone who has any relationship to the text.  If an electronic book does not offer a new relationship to the text, then what precisely is the point?  Portability?  Ubiquity?  These are nice features, to be sure, but they are not, in themselves, overwhelmingly alluring.  This is the visible difference between a book that has been printed in light and an electronic book: the electronic book offers a qualitatively different experience of the text, one which is impossibly alluring.  At its most obvious level, it is the difference between Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia.

Publishers will resist the allure of the electronic book, seeing no reason to change what they do simply to satisfy the demands of a new medium.  But then, we know that monks did not alter the practices within the scriptorium until printed texts had become ubiquitous throughout Europe.  Today’s publishers face a similar obsolescence; unless they adapt their publishing techniques appropriately, they will rapidly be replaced by publishers who choose to embrace the electronic book as a medium,.  For the next five years we will exist in an interregnum, as books published in light make way for true electronic books.

What does the electronic book look like?  Does it differ at all from the hyperdocuments we are familiar with today?  In fifteen years of design experimentation, we’ve learned a lot of ways to present, abstract and play with text.  All of these are immediately applicable to the electronic book.  The electronic book should represent the best of 2010 has to offer and move forward from that point into regions unexplored.  The printed volume took nearly fifty years to evolve into its familiar hand-sized editions.  Before that, the form of the manuscript volume – chained to a desk or placed upon an altar – dictated the size of the book.  We shouldn’t try to constrain our idea of what an electronic book can be based upon what the book has been.  Over the next few years, our innovations will surprise us.  We won’t really know what the electronic book looks like until we’ve had plenty of time to play with them.

The electronic book will not be immune from the centrifugal force which is inherent to the medium.  Every link, every opportunity to depart from the linear inertia of the text, presents the same tension as within any other hyperdocument.  Yet we come to books with a sense of commitment.  We want to finish them.  But what, exactly do we want to finish?  The electronic book must necessarily reveal the interconnectedness of all ideas, of all writings – just as the Web does.  So does an electronic book have a beginning and an end?  Or is it simply a densely clustered set of texts with a well-defined path traversing them?  From the vantage point of 2010 this may seem like a faintly ridiculous question.  I doubt that will be the case in 2020, when perhaps half of our new books are electronic books.  The more that the electronic book yields itself to the medium which constitutes it, the more useful it becomes – and the less like a book.  There is no way that the electronic book can remain apart, indifferent and pure.  It will become a hybrid, fluid thing, without clear beginnings or endings, but rather with a concentration of significance and meaning that rises and falls depending on the needs and intent of the reader.  More of a gradient than a boundary.

It remains unclear how any such construction can constitute an economically successful entity.  Ted Nelson’s “Project Xanadu” anticipated this chaos thirty-five years ago, and provided a solution: ‘transclusion’, which allows hyperdocuments to be referenced and enclosed within other hyperdocuments, ensuring the proper preservation of copyright throughout the hypertext universe.  The Web provides no such mechanism, and although it is possible that one could be hacked into our current models, it seems very unlikely that this will happen.  This is the intuitive fear of the commercial publishers: they see their market dissolving as the sharp edges disappear.  Hence, they tightly grasp their publications and copyrights, publishing in light because it at least presents no slippery slope into financial catastrophe.

We come now to a line which we need to cross very carefully and very consciously, the ‘Schwarzschild Radius’ of electronic books.  (For those not familiar with astrophysics, the Schwarzschild Radius is the boundary to a black hole.  Once you’re on the wrong side you’re doomed to fall all the way in.)  On one side – our side – things look much as they do today.  Books are published in light, the economic model is preserved, and readers enjoy a digital experience which is a facsimile of the physical.  On the other side, electronic books rapidly become almost completely unrecognizable.  It’s not just the financial model which disintegrates.  As everything becomes more densely electrified, more subject to the centrifugal force of the medium, and as we become more familiar with the medium itself, everything begins to deform.  The text, linear for tens or hundreds of thousands of words, fragments into convenient chunks, the shortest of which looks more like a tweet than a paragraph, the longest of which only occasionally runs for more than a thousand words.  Each of these fragments points directly at its antecedent and descendant, or rather at its antecedents and descendants, because it is quite likely that there is more than one of each, simply because there can be more than one of each.  The primacy of the single narrative can not withstand the centrifugal force of the medium, any more than the newspaper or the magazine could.  Texts will present themselves as intense multiplicity, something that is neither a branching narrative nor a straight line, but which possesses elements of both.  This will completely confound our expectations of linearity in the text.

We are today quite used to discontinuous leaps in our texts, though we have not mastered how to maintain our place as we branch ever outward, a fault more of our nervous systems than our browsers.  We have a finite ability to track and backtrack; even with the support of the infinitely patient and infinitely impressionable computer, we lose our way, become distracted, or simply move on.  This is the greatest threat to the book, that it simply expands beyond our ability to focus upon it.  Our consciousness can entertain a universe of thought, but it can not entertain the entire universe at once.  Yet our electronic books, as they thread together and merge within the greater sea of hyperdocuments, will become one with the universe of human thought, eventually becoming inseparable from it.  With no beginning and no ending, just a series of ‘and-and-and’, as the various nodes, strung together by need or desire, assemble upon demand, the entire notion of a book as something discrete, and for that reason, significant, is abandoned, replaced by a unity, a nirvana of the text, where nothing is really separate from anything else.

What ever happened to the book?  It exploded in a paroxysm of joy, dissolved into union with every other human thought, and disappeared forever.  This is not an ending, any more than birth is an ending.  But it is a transition, at least as profound and comprehensive as the invention of moveable type.  It’s our great good luck to live in the midst of this transition, astride the dilemmas of hypertext and the contradictions of the electronic book.  Transitions are chaotic, but they are also fecund.  The seeds of the new grow in the humus of the old.  (And if it all seems sudden and sinister, I’ll simply note that Nietzsche said that new era nearly always looks demonic to the age it obsolesces.)

III:  Finnegans Wiki

So what of Aristotle?  What does this mean for the narrative?  It is easy to conceive of a world where non-fiction texts simply dissolve into the universal sea of texts.  But what about stories?  From time out of mind we have listened to stories told by the campfire.  The Iliad, The Mahabharata, and Beowolf held listeners spellbound as the storyteller wove the tale.  For hours at a time we maintained our attention and focus as the stories that told us who we are and our place in the world traveled down the generations.

Will we lose all of this?  Can narratives stand up against the centrifugal forces of hypertext?  Authors and publishers both seem assured that whatever happens to non-fiction texts, the literary text will remain pure and untouched, even as it becomes a wholly electronic form.  The lure of the literary text is that it takes you on a singular journey, from beginning to end, within the universe of the author’s mind.  There are no distractions, no interruptions, unless the author has expressly put them there in order to add tension to the plot.  A well-written literary text – and even a poorly-written but well-plotted ‘page-turner’ – has the capacity to hold the reader tight within the momentum of linearity. Something is a ‘page-turner’ precisely because its forward momentum effectively blocks the centrifugal force.  We occasionally stay up all night reading a book that we ‘couldn’t put down’, precisely because of this momentum.  It is easy to imagine that every literary text which doesn’t meet this higher standard of seduction will simply fail as an electronic book, unable to counter the overwhelming lure of the medium.

This is something we never encountered with printed books: until the mid-20th century, the only competition for printed books was other printed books.  Now the entire Web – already quite alluring and only growing more so – offers itself up in competition for attention, along with television and films and podcasts and Facebook and Twitter and everything else that has so suddenly become a regular feature of our media diet.  How can any text hope to stand against that?

And yet, some do.  Children unplugged to read each of the increasingly-lengthy Harry Potter novels, as teenagers did for the Twilight series.  Adults regularly buy the latest novel by Dan Brown in numbers that boggle the imagination.  None of this is high literature, but it is literature capable of resisting all our alluring distractions.  This is one path that the book will follow, one way it will stay true to Aristotle and the requirements of the narrative arc.  We will not lose our stories, but it may be that, like blockbuster films, they will become more self-consciously hollow, manipulative, and broad.  That is one direction, a direction literary publishers will pursue, because that’s where the money lies.

There are two other paths open for literature, nearly diametrically opposed.  The first was taken by JRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.  Although hugely popular, the three-book series has never been described as a ‘page-turner’, being too digressive and leisurely, yet, for all that, entirely captivating.  Tolkien imagined a new universe – or rather, retrieved one from the fragments of Northern European mythology – and placed his readers squarely within it.  And although readers do finish the book, in a very real sense they do not leave that universe.  The fantasy genre, which Tolkien single-handedly invented with The Lord of the Rings, sells tens of millions of books every year, and the universe of Middle-earth, the archetypal fantasy world, has become the playground for millions who want to explore their own imaginations.  Tolkien’s magnum opus lends itself to hypertext; it is one of the few literary works to come complete with a set of appendices to deepen the experience of the universe of the books.  Online, the fans of Middle-earth have created seemingly endless resources to explore, explain, and maintain the fantasy.  Middle-earth launches off the page, driven by its own centrifugal force, its own drive to unpack itself into a much broader space, both within the reader’s mind and online, in the collective space of all of the work’s readers.  This is another direction for the book.  While every author will not be a Tolkien, a few authors will work hard to create a universe so potent and broad that readers will be tempted to inhabit it.  (Some argue that this is the secret of JK Rowling’s success.)

Finally, there is another path open for the literary text, one which refuses to ignore the medium that constitutes it, which embraces all of the ambiguity and multiplicity and liminality of hypertext.  There have been numerous attempts at ‘hypertext fiction’; nearly all of them have been unreadable failures.  But there is one text which stands apart, both because it anticipated our current predicament, and because it chose to embrace its contradictions and dilemmas.  The book was written and published before the digital computer had been invented, yet even features an innovation which is reminiscent of hypertext.  That work is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and it was Joyce’s deliberate effort to make each word choice a layered exploration of meaning that gives the text such power.  It should be gibberish, but anyone who has read Finnegans Wake knows it is precisely the opposite.  The text is overloaded with meaning, so much so that the mind can’t take it all in.  Hypertext has been a help; there are a few wikis which attempt to make linkages between the text and its various derived meanings (the maunderings of four generations of graduate students and Joycephiles), and it may even be that – in another twenty years or so – the wikis will begin to encompass much of what Joyce meant.  But there is another possibility.  In so fundamentally overloading the text, implicitly creating a link from every single word to something else, Joyce wanted to point to where we were headed.  In this, Finnegans Wake could be seen as a type of science fiction, not a dystopian critique like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, nor the transhumanist apotheosis of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (both near-contemporary works) but rather a text that pointed the way to what all texts would become, performance by example.  As texts become electronic, as they melt and dissolve and  link together densely, meaning multiplies exponentially.  Every sentence, and every word in every sentence, can send you flying in almost any direction.  The tension within this text (there will be only one text) will make reading an exciting, exhilarating, dizzying experience – as it is for those who dedicate themselves to Finnegans Wake.

It has been said that all of human culture could be reconstituted from Finnegans Wake.  As our texts become one, as they become one hyperconnected mass of human expression, that new thing will become synonymous with culture.  Everything will be there, all strung together.  And that’s what happened to the book.

The Power of Sharing

The Power of Sharing from Mark Pesce on Vimeo.

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

Inflection Points

I: The Universal Solvent

I have to admit that I am in awe of iTunes University. It’s just amazing that so many well-respected universities – Stanford, MIT, Yale, and Uni Melbourne – are willing to put their crown jewels – their lectures – online for everyone to download. It’s outstanding when even one school provides a wealth of material, but as other schools provide their own material, then we get to see some of the virtues of crowdsourcing. First, you have a virtuous cycle: as more material is shared, more material will be made available to share. After the virtuous cycle gets going, it’s all about a flight to quality.

When you have half a dozen or have a hundred lectures on calculus, which one do you choose? The one featuring the best lecturer with the best presentation skills, the best examples, and the best math jokes – of course. This is my only complaint with iTunes University – you can’t rate the various lectures on offer. You can know which ones have been downloaded most often, but that’s not precisely the same thing as which calculus seminar or which sociology lecture is the best. So as much as I love iTunes University, I see it as halfway there. Perhaps Apple didn’t want to turn iTunes U into a popularity contest, but, without that vital bit of feedback, it’s nearly impossible for us to winnow out the wheat from the educational chaff.

This is something that has to happen inside the system; it could happen across a thousand educational blogs spread out across the Web, but then it’s too diffuse to be really helpful. The reviews have to be coordinated and collated – just as with RateMyProfessors.com.

Say, that’s an interesting point. Why not create RateMyLectures.com, a website designed to sit right alongside iTunes University? If Apple can’t or won’t rate their offerings, someone has to create the one-stop-shop for ratings. And as iTunes University gets bigger and bigger, RateMyLectures.com becomes ever more important, the ultimate guide to the ultimate source of educational multimedia on the Internet. One needs the other to be wholly useful; without ratings iTunes U is just an undifferentiated pile of possibilities. But with ratings, iTunes U becomes a highly focused and effective tool for digital education.

Now let’s cast our minds ahead a few semesters: iTunes U is bigger and better than ever, and RateMyLectures.com has benefited from the hundreds of thousands of contributed reviews. Those reviews extend beyond the content in iTunes U, out into YouTube and Google Video and Vimeo and Blip.tv and where ever people are creating lectures and putting them online. Now anyone can come by the site and discover the absolute best lecture on almost any subject they care to research. The net is now cast globally; I can search for the best lecture on Earth, so long as it’s been captured and uploaded somewhere, and someone’s rated it on RateMyLectures.com.

All of a sudden we’ve imploded the boundaries of the classroom. The lecture can come from the US, or the UK, or Canada, or New Zealand, or any other country. Location doesn’t matter – only its rating as ‘best’ matters. This means that every student, every time they sit down at a computer, already does or will soon have on available the absolute best lectures, globally. That’s just a mind-blowing fact. It grows very naturally out of our desire to share and our desire to share ratings about what we have shared. Nothing extraordinary needed to happen to produce this entirely extraordinary state of affairs.

The network is acting like a universal solvent, dissolving all of the boundaries that have kept things separate. It’s not just dissolving the boundaries of distance – though it is doing that – it’s also dissolving the boundaries of preference. Although there will always be differences in taste and delivery, some instructors are simply better lecturers – in better command of their material – than others. Those instructors will rise to the top. Just as RateMyProfessors.com has created a global market for the lecturers with the highest ratings, RateMyLectures.com will create a global market for the best performances, the best material, the best lessons.

That RateMyLectures.com is only a hypothetical shouldn’t put you off. Part of what’s happening at this inflection point is that we’re all collectively learning how to harness the network for intelligence augmentation – Engelbart’s final triumph. All we need do is identify an area which could benefit from knowledge sharing and, sooner rather than later, someone will come along with a solution. I’d actually be very surprised if a service a lot like RateMyLectures.com doesn’t already exist. It may be small and unimpressive now. But Wikipedia was once small and unimpressive. If it’s useful, it will likely grow large enough to be successful.

Of course, lectures alone do not an education make. Lectures are necessary but are only one part of the educational process. Mentoring and problem solving and answering questions: all of these take place in the very real, very physical classroom. The best lectures in the world are only part of the story. The network is also transforming the classroom, from inside out, melting it down, and forging it into something that looks quite a bit different from the classroom we’ve grown familiar with over the last 50 years.

II: Fluid Dynamics

If we take the examples of RateMyProfessors.com and RateMyLectures.com and push them out a little bit, we can see the shape of things to come. Spearheaded by Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both of which have placed their entire set of lectures online through iTunes University, these educational institutions assert that the lectures themselves aren’t the real reason students spend $50,000 a year to attend these schools; the lectures only have full value in context. This is true, but it discounts the possibility that some individuals or group of individuals might create their own context around the lectures. And this is where the future seems to be pointing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

III: Digital Citizenship

Obviously, much of what I’ve described here in the “melting down” of the educational process applies first and foremost to university students. That’s where most of the activity is taking place. But I would argue that it only begins with university students. From there – just like Facebook – it spreads across the gap between tertiary and secondary education, and into the high schools and colleges.

This is significant an interesting because it’s at this point that we, within Australia, run headlong into the Government’s plan to provide laptops for all year 9 through year 12 students. Some schools will start earlier; there’s a general consensus among educators that year 7 is the earliest time a student should be trusted to behave responsibility with their “own” computer. Either way, the students will be fully equipped and capable to use all of the tools at hand to manage their own education.

But will they? Some of this is a simple question of discipline: will the students be disciplined enough to take an ever-more-active role in the co-production of their education? As ever, the question is neither black nor white; some students will demonstrate the qualities of discipline needed to allow them to assume responsibility for their education, while others will not.

But, somewhere along here, there’s the presumption of some magical moment during the secondary school years, when the student suddenly learns how to behave online. And we already know this isn’t happening. We see too many incidents where students make mistakes, behaving badly without fully understanding that the whole world really is watching.

In the early part of this year I did a speaking tour with the Australian Council of Educational Researchers; during the tour I did a lot of listening. One thing I heard loud and clear from the educators is that giving a year 7 student a laptop is the functional equivalent of giving them a loaded gun. And we shouldn’t be surprised, when we do this, when there are a few accidental – or volitional – shootings.

I mentioned this in a talk to TAFE educators last week, and one of the attendees suggested that we needed to teach “Digital Citizenship”. I’d never heard the phrase before, but I’ve taken quite a liking to it. Of course, by the time a student gets to TAFE, the damage is done. We shouldn’t start talking about digital citizenship in TAFE. We should be talking about it from the first days of secondary education. And it’s not something that should be confined to the school: parents are on the hook for this, too. Even when the parents are not digitally literate, they can impart the moral and ethical lessons of good behavior to their children, lessons which will transfer to online behavior.

Make no mistake, without a firm grounding in digital citizenship, a secondary student can’t hope to make sense of the incredibly rich and impossibly distracting world afforded by the network. Unless we turn down the internet connection – which always seems like the first option taken by administrators – students will find themselves overwhelmed. That’s not surprising: we’ve taught them few skills to help them harness the incredible wealth available. In part that’s because we’re only just learning those skills ourselves. But in part it’s because we would have to relinquish control. We’re reluctant to do that. A course in digital citizenship would help both students and teachers feel more at ease with one another when confronted by the noise online.

Make no mistake, this inflection point in education is going inevitably going to cross the gap between tertiary and secondary school and students. Students will be able to do for themselves in ways that were never possible before. None of this means that the teacher or even the administrator has necessarily become obsolete. But the secondary school of the mid-21st century may look a lot more like a website than campus. The classroom will have a fluid look, driven by the teacher, the students and the subject material.

Have we prepared students for this world? Have we given them the ability to make wise decisions about their own education? Or are we like those university administrators who mutter about how RateMyProfessors.com has ruined all their carefully-laid plans? The world where students were simply the passive consumers of an educational product is coming to an end. There are other products out there, clamoring for attention – you can thank Apple for that. And YouTube.

Once we get through this inflection point in the digital revolution in education, we arrive in a landscape that’s literally mind-blowing. We will each have access to educational resources far beyond anything on offer at any other time in human history. The dream of life-long learning will be simply a few clicks away for most of the billion people on the Internet, and many of the four billion who use mobiles. It will not be an easy transition, nor will it be perfect on the other side. But it will be incredible, a validation of everything Douglas Engelbart demonstrated forty years ago, and an opportunity to create a truly global educational culture, focused on excellence, and dedicated to serving all students, everywhere.

Interview: “The Alcove with Mark Molaro”

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

Many thanks to Mark for getting it up!

Collisions & Smash Repairs

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