Fluid Learning

I: Out of Control

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

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

It’s all about control.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II: Do It Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III: All and Everything

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

Recommendation #1: Capture Everything

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

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

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

Recommendation #2: Share Everything

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

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

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

Recommendation #3: Open Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation #4: Only Connect

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

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

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

This, That, and the Other


If a picture paints a thousand words, you’ve just absorbed a million, the equivalent of one-and-a-half Bibles. That’s the way it is, these days. Nothing is small, nothing discrete, nothing bite-sized. Instead, we get the fire hose, 24 x 7, a world in which connection and community have become so colonized by intensity and amplification that nearly nothing feels average anymore.

Is this what we wanted? It’s become difficult to remember the before-time, how it was prior to an era of hyperconnectivity. We’ve spent the last fifteen years working out the most excellent ways to establish, strengthen and multiply the connections between ourselves. The job is nearly done, but now, as we put down our tools and pause to catch our breath, here comes the question we’ve dreaded all along…

Why. Why this?

I gave this question no thought at all as I blithely added friends to Twitter, shot past the limits of Dunbar’s Number, through the ridiculous, and then outward, approaching the sheer insanity of 1200 so-called-“friends” whose tweets now scroll by so quickly that I can’t focus on any one saying any thing because this motion blur is such that by the time I think to answer in reply, the tweet in question has scrolled off the end of the world.

This is ludicrous, and can not continue. But this is vital and can not be forgotten. And this is the paradox of the first decade of the 21st century: what we want – what we think we need – is making us crazy.

Some of this craziness is biological.

Eleven million years of evolution, back to Proconsul, the ancestor of all the hominids, have crafted us into quintessentially social creatures. We are human to the degree we are in relationship with our peers. We grew big forebrains, to hold banks of the chattering classes inside our own heads, so that we could engage these simulations of relationships in never-ending conversation. We never talk to ourselves, really. We engage these internal others in our thoughts, endlessly rehearsing and reliving all of the social moments which comprise the most memorable parts of life.

It’s crowded in there. It’s meant to be. And this has only made it worse.

No man is an island. Man is only man when he is part of a community. But we have limits. Homo Sapiens Sapiens spent two hundred thousand years exploring the resources afforded by a bit more than a liter of neural tissue. The brain has physical limits (we have to pass through the birth canal without killing our mothers) so our internal communities top out at Dunbar’s magic Number of 150, plus or minus a few.

Dunbar’s Number defines the crucial threshold between a community and a mob. Communities are made up of memorable and internalized individuals; mobs are unique in their lack of distinction. Communities can be held in one’s head, can be tended and soothed and encouraged and cajoled.

Four years ago, when I began my research into sharing and social networks, I asked a basic question: Will we find some way to transcend this biological limit, break free of the tyranny of cranial capacity, grow beyond the limits of Dunbar’s Number?

After all, we have the technology. We can hyperconnect in so many ways, through so many media, across the entire range of sensory modalities, it is as if the material world, which we have fashioned into our own image, wants nothing more than to boost our capacity for relationship.

And now we have two forces in opposition, both originating in the mind. Our old mind hews closely to the community and Dunbar’s Number. Our new mind seeks the power of the mob, and the amplification of numbers beyond imagination. This is the central paradox of the early 21st century, this is the rift which will never close. On one side we are civil, and civilized. On the other we are awesome, terrible, and terrifying. And everything we’ve done in the last fifteen years has simply pushed us closer to the abyss of the awesome.

We can not reasonably put down these new weapons of communication, even as they grind communities beneath them like so many old and brittle bones. We can not turn the dial of history backward. We are what we are, and already we have a good sense of what we are becoming. It may not be pretty – it may not even feel human – but this is things as they are.

When the historians of this age write their stories, a hundred years from now, they will talk about amplification as the defining feature of this entire era, the three hundred year span from industrial revolution to the emergence of the hyperconnected mob. In the beginning, the steam engine amplified the power of human muscle – making both human slavery and animal power redundant. In the end, our technologies of communication amplified our innate social capabilities, which eleven million years of natural selection have consistently selected for. Above and beyond all of our other natural gifts, those humans who communicate most effectively stand the greatest chance of passing their genes along to subsequent generations. It’s as simple as that. We talk our partners into bed, and always have.

The steam engine transformed the natural world into a largely artificial environment; the amplification of our muscles made us masters of the physical world. Now, the technologies of hyperconnectivity are translating the natural world, ruled by Dunbar’s Number, into the dominating influence of maddening crowd.

We are not prepared for this. We have no biological defense mechanism. We are all going to have to get used to a constant state of being which resembles nothing so much as a stack overflow, a consistent social incontinence, as we struggle to retain some aspects of selfhood amidst the constantly eroding pressure of the hyperconnected mob.

Given this, and given that many of us here today are already in the midst of this, it seems to me that the most useful tool any of us could have, moving forward into this future, is a social contextualizer. This prosthesis – which might live in our mobiles, or our nettops, or our Bluetooth headsets – will fill our limited minds with the details of our social interactions.

This tool will make explicit that long, Jacob Marley-like train of lockboxes that are our interactions in the techno-social sphere. Thus, when I introduce myself to you for the first or the fifteen hundredth time, you can be instantly brought up to date on why I am relevant, why I matter. When all else gets stripped away, each relationship has a core of salience which can be captured (roughly), and served up every time we might meet.

I expect that this prosthesis will come along sooner rather than later, and that it will rival Google in importance. Google took too much data and made it roughly searchable. This prosthesis will take too much connectivity and make it roughly serviceable. Given that we primarily social beings, I expect it to be a greater innovation, and more broadly disruptive.

And this prosthesis has precedents; at Xerox PARC they have been looking into a ‘human memory prosthesis’ for sufferers from senile dementia, a device which constantly jogs human memories as to task, place, and people. The world that we’re making for ourselves, every time we connect, is a place where we are all (in some relative sense) demented. Without this tool we will be entirely lost. We’re already slipping beneath the waves. We need this soon. We need this now.

I hope you’ll get inventive.


Now that we have comfortably settled into the central paradox of our current era, with a world that is working through every available means to increase our connectivity, and a brain that is suddenly overloaded and sinking beneath the demands of the sum total of these connections, we need to ask that question: Exactly what is hyperconnectivity good for? What new thing does that bring us?

The easy answer is the obvious one: crowdsourcing. The action of a few million hyperconnected individuals resulted in a massive and massively influential work: Wikipedia. But the examples only begin there. They range much further afield.

Uni students have been sharing their unvarnished assessments of their instructors and lecturers. Ratemyprofessors.com has become the bête noire of the academy, because researchers who can’t teach find they have no one signing up for their courses, while the best lecturers, with the highest ratings, suddenly find themselves swarmed with offers for better teaching positions at more prestigious universities. A simply and easily implemented system of crowdsourced reviews has carefully undone all of the work of the tenure boards of the academy.

It won’t be long until everything else follows. Restaurant reviews – that’s done. What about reviews of doctors? Lawyers? Indian chiefs? Politicans? ISPs? (Oh, wait, we have that with Whirlpool.) Anything you can think of. Anything you might need. All of it will have been so extensively reviewed by such a large mob that you will know nearly everything that can be known before you sign on that dotted line.

All of this means that every time we gather together in our hyperconnected mobs to crowdsource some particular task, we become better informed, we become more powerful. Which means it becomes more likely that the hyperconnected mob will come together again around some other task suited to crowdsourcing, and will become even more powerful. That system of positive feedbacks – which we are already quite in the midst of – is fashioning a new polity, a rewritten social contract, which is making the institutions of the 19th and 20th centuries – that is, the industrial era – seem as antiquated and quaint as the feudal systems which they replaced.

It is not that these institutions are dying, but rather, they now face worthy competitors. Democracy, as an example, works well in communities, but can fail epically when it scales to mobs. Crowdsourced knowledge requires a mob, but that knowledge, once it has been collected, can be shared within a community, to hyperempower that community. This tug-of-war between communities and crowds is setting all of our institutions, old and new, vibrating like taught strings.

We already have a name for this small-pieces-loosely-joined form of social organization: it’s known as anarcho-syndicalism. Anarcho-Syndicalism emerged from the labor movements that grew in numbers and power toward the end of the 19th century. Its basic idea is simply that people will choose to cooperate more often than they choose to compete, and this cooperation can form the basis for a social, political and economic contract wherein the people manage themselves.

A system with no hierarchy, no bosses, no secrets, no politics. (Well, maybe that last one is asking too much.) Anarcho-syndicalism takes as a given that all men are created equal, and therefore each have a say in what they choose to do.

Somewhere back before Australia became a nation, anarcho-syndicalist trade unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (or, more commonly, the ‘Wobblies’) fought armies of mercenaries in the streets of the major industrial cities of the world, trying get the upper hand in the battle between labor and capital. They failed because capital could outmaneuver labor in the 19th century. Today the situation is precisely reversed. Capital is slow. Knowledge is fast, the quicksilver that enlivens all our activities.

I come before you today wearing my true political colors – literally. I did not pick a red jumper and black pants by some accident or wardrobe malfunction. These are the colors of anarcho-syndicalism. And that is the new System of the World.

You don’t have to believe me. You can dismiss my political posturing as sheer radicalism. But I ask you to cast your mind further than this stage this afternoon, and look out on a world which is permanently and instantaneously hyperconnected, and I ask you – how could things go any other way? Every day one of us invents a new way to tie us together or share what we know; as that invention is used, it is copied by those who see it being used.

When we imitate the successful behaviors of our hyperconnected peers, this ‘hypermimesis’ means that we are all already in a giant collective. It’s not a hive mind, and it’s not an overmind. It’s something weirdly in-between. Connected we are smarter by far than we are as individuals, but this connection conditions and constrains us, even as it liberates us. No gift comes for free.

I assert, on the weight of a growing mountain of evidence, that anarcho-syndicalism is the place where the community meets the crowd; it is the environment where this social prosthesis meets that radical hyperempowerment of capabilities.

Let me give you one example, happening right now. The classroom walls are disintegrating (and thank heaven for that), punctured by hyperconnectivity, as the outside world comes rushing in to meet the student, and the student leaves the classroom behind for the school of the world. The student doesn’t need to be in the classroom anymore, nor does the false rigor of the classroom need to be drilled into the student. There is such a hyperabundance of instruction and information available, students needs a mentor more than a teacher, a guide through the wilderness, and not a penitentiary to prevent their journey.

Now the students, and their parents – and the teachers and instructors and administrators – need to find a new way to work together, a communion of needs married to a community of gifts. The school is transforming into an anarcho-syndicalist collective, where everyone works together as peers, comes together in a “more perfect union”, to educate. There is no more school-as-a-place-you-go-to-get-your-book-learning. School is a state of being, an act of communion.

If this is happening to education, can medicine, and law, and politics be so very far behind? Of course not. But, unlike the elites of education, these other forces will resist and resist and resist all change, until such time as they have no choice but to surrender to mobs which are smarter, faster and more flexible than they are. In twenty years time they all these institutions will be all but unrecognizable.

All of this is light-years away from how our institutions have been designed. Those institutions – all institutions – are feeling the strain of informational overload. More than that, they’re now suffering the death of a thousand cuts, as the various polities serviced by each of these institutions actually outperform them.

You walk into your doctor’s office knowing more about your condition than your doctor. You understand the implications of your contract better than your lawyer. You know more about a subject than your instructor. That’s just the way it is, in the era of hyperconnectivity.

So we must band together. And we already have. We have come together, drawn by our interests, put our shoulders to the wheel, and moved the Earth upon its axis. Most specifically, those of you in this theatre with me this arvo have made the world move, because the Web is the fulcrum for this entire transformation. In less than two decades we’ve gone from physicists plaything to rewriting the rules of civilization.

But try not to think about that too much. It could go to your head.


Back in July, just after Vodafone had announced its meager data plans for iPhone 3G, I wrote a short essay for Ross Dawson’s Future of Media blog. I griped and bitched and spat the dummy, summing things up with this line:

“It’s time to show the carriers we can do this ourselves.”

I recommended that we start the ‘Future Australian Carrier’, or FAUC, and proceeded to invite all of my readers to get FAUCed. A harmless little incitement to action. What could possibly go wrong?

Within a day’s time a FAUC Facebook group had been started – without my input – and I was invited to join. Over the next two weeks about four hundred people joined that group, individuals who had simply had enough grief from their carriers and were looking for something better. After that, although there was some lively discussion about a possible logo, and some research into how MVNOs actually worked, nothing happened.

About a month later, individuals began to ping me, both on Facebook and via Twitter, asking, “What happened with that carrier you were going to start, Mark? Hmm?” As if somehow, I had signed on the dotted line to be chief executive, cheerleader, nose-wiper and bottle-washer for FAUC.

All of this caught me by surprise, because I certainly hadn’t signed up to create anything. I’d floated an idea, nothing more. Yet everyone was looking to me to somehow bring this new thing into being.

After I’d been hit up a few times, I started to understand where the epic !FAIL! had occurred. And the failure wasn’t really mine. You see, I’ve come to realize a sad and disgusting little fact about all of us: We need and we need and we need.

We need others to gather the news we read. We need others to provide the broadband we so greedily lap up. We need other to govern us. And god forbid we should be asked to shoulder some of the burden. We’ll fire off a thousand excuses about how we’re so time poor even the cat hasn’t been fed in a week.

So, sure, four hundred people might sign up to a Facebook group to indicate their need for a better mobile carrier, but would any of them think of stepping forward to spearhead its organization, its cash-raising, or it leasing agreements? No. That’s all too much hard work. All any of these people needed was cheap mobile broadband.

Well, cheap don’t come cheaply.

Of course, this happens everywhere up and down the commercial chain of being. QANTAS and Telstra outsource work to southern Asia because they can’t be bothered to pay for local help, because their stockholders can’t be bothered to take a small cut in their quarterly dividends.

There’s no difference in the act itself, just in its scale. And this isn’t even raw economics. This is a case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Carve some profit today, spend a fortune tomorrow to recover. We see it over and over and over again (most recently and most expensively on Wall Street), but somehow the point never makes it through our thick skulls. It’s probably because we human beings find it much easier to imagine three months into the future than three years. That’s a cognitive feature which helps if you’re on the African savannah, but sucks if you’re sitting in an Australian boardroom.

So this is the other thing. The ugly thing that no one wants to look at, because to look at it involves an admission of laziness. Well folks, let me be the first one here to admit it: I’m lazy. I’m too lazy to administer my damn Qmail server, so I use Gmail. I’m too lazy to setup WebDAV, so I use Google Docs. I’m too lazy to keep my devices synced, so I use MobileMe. And I’m too lazy to start my own carrier, so instead I pay a small fortune each month to Vodafone, for lousy service.

And yes, we’re all so very, very busy. I understand this. Every investment of time is a tradeoff. Yet we seem to defer, every time, to let someone else do it for us.

And is this wise? The more I see of cloud computing, the more I am convinced that it has become a single-point-of-failure for data communications. The decade-and-a-half that I spent as a network engineer tells me that. Don’t trust the cloud. Don’t trust redundancy. Trust no one. Keep your data in the cloud if you must, but for goodness’ sake, keep another copy locally. And another copy on the other side of the world. And another under your mattress.

I’m telling you things I shouldn’t have to tell you. I’m telling you things that you already know. But the other, this laziness, it’s built into our culture. Socially, we have two states of being: community and crowd. A community can collaborate to bring a new mobile carrier into being. A crowd can only gripe about their carrier. And now, as the strict lines between community and crowd get increasingly confused because of the upswing in hyperconnectivity, we behave like crowds when we really ought to be organizing like a community.

And this, at last, is the other thing: the message I really want to leave you with. You people, here in this auditorium today, you are the masters of the world. Not your bosses, not your shareholders, not your users. You. You folks, right here and right now. The keys to the kingdom of hyperconnectivity have been given to you. You can contour, shape and control that chaotic meeting point between community and crowd. That is what you do every time you craft an interface, or write a script. Your work helps people self-organize. Your work can engage us at our laziest, and turn us into happy worker bees. It can be done. Wikipedia has shown the way.

And now, as everything hierarchical and well-ordered dissolves into the grey goo which is the other thing, you have to ask yourself, “Who does this serve?”

At the end of the day, you’re answerable to yourself. No one else is going to do the heavy lifting for you. So when you think up an idea or dream up a design, consider this: Will it help people think for themselves? Will it help people meet their own needs? Or will it simply continue to infantilize us, until we become a planet of dummy-spitting, whinging, wankers?

It’s a question I ask myself, too, a question that’s shaping the decisions I make for myself. I want to make things that empower people, so I’ve decided to take some time to work with Andy Coffey, and re-think the book for the 21st century. Yes, that sounds ridiculous and ambitious and quixotic, but it’s also a development whose time is long overdue. If it succeeds at all, we will provide a publishing platform for people to share their long-form ideas. Everything about it will be open source and freely available to use, to copy, and to hack, because I already know that my community is smarter than I am.

And it’s a question I have answered for myself in another way. This is my third annual appearance before you at Web Directions South. It will be the last time for some time. You people are my community; where I knew none of you back in 2006; I consider many of you friends in 2008. Yet, when I talk to you like this, I get the uncomfortable feeling that my community has become a crowd. So, for the next few years, let’s have someone else do the closing keynote. I want to be with my peeps, in the audience, and on the Twitter backchannel, taking the piss and trading ideas.

The future – for all of us – is the battle over the boundary between the community and the crowd. I am choosing to embrace the community. It seems the right thing to do. And as I walk off-stage here, this afternoon, I want you to remember that each of you holds the keys to the kingdom. Our community is yours to shape as you will. Everything that you do is translated into how we operate as a culture, as a society, as a civilization. It can be a coming together, or it can be a breaking apart. And it’s up to you.

Not that there’s any pressure.

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!