The Social Sense

I: On Top of the World

WebEarth.org image

I’ve always wanted to save the world.  When I was younger, and more messianic, I thought I might have to do it all myself.  As the world knocked sense into me, I began to see salvation as a shared project, a communal task.  I have always had a special vision for that project, one that came to me when I first started working in virtual reality, twenty years ago.  I knew that it would someday be possible for us to ‘see’ the entire world, to apprehend it as a whole.

Virtual reality, and computer visualization in general, is very good at revealing things that we can’t normally see, either because they’re too big, or we’re too large, or they’re too fast, or we’re too quick.  The problem of scale is one at the center of human being: man is the measure of all things.  But where that measuring rod falls short, leaving us unable to apprehend the totality of experience, we live in shadow, part of the truth forever beyond our grasp.

The computer has become microscope, telescope, ultra-high-speed and time-lapse camera.  Using little more than a sharpened needle, we can build atomic-force microscopes, feeling our way across the edges of individual atoms.  Using banks of supercomputers, we crunch through microwave data, painting a picture of the universe in its first microseconds.  We can simulate chemical reactions so fast we had always assumed them to be instantaneous.  And we can speed the ever-so-gradual movement of the continents, making them seem like a dance.

Twenty years ago, when this was more theoretical than commonplace, I realized that we would someday have systems to show us the Earth, just as it is, right in this moment.  I did what I could with the tools I had at my disposal to create something that pointed toward what I imagined, but I have this persistent habit of being ahead of the curve.  What I created – WebEarth – was a dim reflection of what I knew would one day be possible.

In the middle of 1995 I was invited to be a guest of honor at the Interactive Media Festival in Los Angeles.  The festival showcased a number of very high-end interactive projects, including experiments in digital evolution, artificial life, and one project that stopped me in my tracks, a work that changed everything for me.

On 140cm television screen, I saw a visualization of Earth from space.  Next to the screen, I saw a trackball – inflated to the size of a beachball.  I put my hand on the trackball and spun it around; the Earth visualization followed it, move for move.  That’s nice, I thought, but not really terrifically interesting.  There was a little console with a few buttons arrayed off to one side of the trackball.  When you pressed one of those buttons, you began to zoom in.  Nothing special there, but as you zoomed in, the image began to resolve itself, growing progressively more detailed as you dived down from outside the orbit of the Moon, landing at street level in Berlin, or Tokyo, or Los Angeles.

This was T_Vision, and if it all sounds somewhat unexceptional today, sixteen years ago it took a half-million-dollar graphics supercomputer to create the imagery drawn across that gigantic display, and a high-speed network link to keep it fed with all the real-time data integrated into its visualizations.  T_Vision could show you weather information from anywhere it had been installed, because each installation spoke to the others across the still-new-and-shiny Internet, sharing local data.  The goal was to have T_Vision installations in all of the major cities around the world, so that any T_Vision would be able to render a complete picture of the entire Earth, at it is, in the moment.

That never happened; half a million dollars per city was too big an ask.  But I knew that I’d seen my vision realized in T_Vision, and I expected that it would become the prototype for systems to follow.  I wrote about T_Vision in my book The Playful World, because I knew that these simulations of Earth would be profoundly important in the 21st century: they provide an ideal tool for understanding the impacts of our behavior.

Our biggest problems arise when we fail to foresee the long-term consequences of our actions.  Native Americans once considered ‘the seventh generation’ when meditating on their actions, but long-term planning is difficult in a world of every-increasing human complexity.  So much depends on so much, everything interwoven into everything else, it almost seems as though we only have two options: frozen in a static moment which admits no growth, or, blithely ignorant, charging ahead, and devil take the hindmost.

Two options, until today.  Because today we can pop Google Earth onto our computers or our mobiles and zoom down from space to the waters of Lake Crackenback.  We can integrate cloud cover and radar and rainfall.  And we can do this all on computers that cost just a few hundreds of dollars, connected to a global Internet with sensors near and far, bringing us every bit of data we might desire.

We have this today, but we live in the brief moment between the lightning and the thunder.  The tool has been given to us, but we have not yet learned how to use it, or what its use will mean.  This is where I want to begin today, because this is a truly new thing: we can see ourselves and our place within the world.  We were blind, but now can see.  In this light we can put to rights the mistakes we made while we lived in darkness.

 

II: All Together Now

A lot has transpired in the past sixteen years.  Computers double in speed or halve in cost every twenty-four months, so the computers of 2011 are a fifty times faster, and cost, in relative terms, a quarter the price.  Nearly everyone uses them in the office, and most homes have at least one, more often than not connected to high-speed broadband Internet, something that didn’t exist sixteen years ago.  Although this is all wonderful and has made modern life a lot more interesting, it’s nothing next to the real revolution that’s taken place.

In 1995, perhaps fifteen or twenty percent of Australians owned mobiles.  They were bulky, expensive to own, expensive to use, yet we couldn’t get enough of them.  By the time of my first visit to Australia, in 1997, just over half of all Australians owned mobiles.  A culture undergoes a bit of a sea-change when mobiles pass this tipping point.  This was proven during an evening I’d organized with friends at Sydney’s Darling Harbour.  Half of us met at the appointed place and time, the rest were nowhere to be found.  We could have waited them to arrive, or we could have gone off on our own, fragmenting the party.  Instead we called, and told them to meet us at a pub on Oxford Street.  Problem solved.  It’s this simple social lubrication (no one is late anymore, just delayed) which makes mobiles intensely desirable.

In 2011, the mobile subscription rate in Australia is greater than 115%.  This figure seems ridiculous until you account for the number of individuals who have more than one mobile (one for work and one for personal use), or some other device – such as an iPad – that connects to wireless 3G broadband.  Children don’t get their first mobile until around grade 3 (or later), and a lot of seniors have skipped the mobile entirely.  But the broad swath of the population between 8 and 80 all have a mobile or two, and more.

Life in Australia is better for the mobile, but doesn’t hold a candle to its impact in the developing world.  From fishermen on the Kerala coast of India, to vegetable farmers in Kenya, to barbers in Pakistan, the mobile creates opportunities for every individual connected through it, opportunities which quickly translate into economic advantage.  Economists have definitively established a strong correlation between the aggregate connectivity of nation and its growth.  Connected individuals earn more; so do connected nations.

Because the mobile means money, people have eagerly adopted it.  This is the real transformation over the last sixteen years.  Over that time we went from less than a hundred million mobile subscribers to somewhere in the range of six billion.  There’s just under seven billion people on Earth, and even accounting for those of us who have more than one subscription, this means three quarters all of humanity Earth now use a mobile.  As in Australia, the youngest and the very oldest are exempt, but as we become a more urban civilization – over half of us now live in cities – the pace and coordination of urban life is set by the mobile.

 

III:  I, Spy

The lost iPad, found

We live in a world of mobile devices.  They’re in hand, tucked in a pocket, or tossed into a handbag, but sometimes we leave them behind.  At the end of long business trip, on a late night flight back to Sydney, I left my iPad in the seatback pocket of an aircraft.  I didn’t discover this for eighteen hours, until I unpacked my bags and noted it had gone missing.  “Well, that’s it,” I thought.  “It’s gone for good.”  Then I remembered that Apple offers a feature on their iPhones and iPads, through their Me.com website, that lets you locate lost devices.  I figured I had nothing to lose, so I launched the site, waited a few moments, then found my iPad.  Not just the city, or the suburb, but down to the neighborhood and street and house – even the part of the house!  There it was, on Google’s high-resolution satellite imagery, phoning home.

What to do?  The neighborhood wasn’t all that good – next to Mount Druitt in Sydney’s ‘Wild West’ – so I didn’t fancy ringing the bell and asking politely.  Instead I phoned the police, who came by to take a report.  When they asked how I knew where my iPad was, I showed them the website.  They were gobsmacked.  In their perfect world, no thief can ever make away with anything, because it’s telling its owner and the police about its every movement.

I used another feature of ‘Find my iPad’ to send a message to its display: “Hello, I’m lost!  Please return me for a reward.’  About 36 hours later I received an email from the fellow who had ended up with my iPad (his mother cleans aircraft), offering to return it.  The next day, in a scene straight from a Cold War-era spy movie, we met on a street corner in Ultimo.  He handed me my iPad, I thanked him and handed him a reward, then we each went our separate ways.

Somewhere in the middle of this drama, I realized that I possessed the first of what will be many intelligent and trackable devices to follow.  In the beginning they’ll look like mobiles, like tablets and computers, but they’ll begin to look like absolutely anything you like.  This is the kind of high-technology favored by ‘Q’ in James Bond movies and by the CIA in covert operations, but it has always been expensive.  Now it’s cheap and easy-to-use and tiny.

I tend to invent things after I have that kind of brainwave, so I immediately dreamed up a ‘smart’ luggage tag, that you’d clip onto your baggage when you check in at the terminal.  If your baggage gets lost, it can ‘phone home’ to let you know just where it’s ended up – information you can give to your airline.  Or you can put one into your car, so you can figure out just where you left it in that vast parking lot.  Or hang one onto your child as you go out into a crowded public place.  A group of very smart Sydney engineers had already shown me something similar – Tingo Family – which uses the tracking capabilities of smartphones to create that sort of capability.  But smartphones are expensive, and overkill; couldn’t this cost a lot less?

I did some research on my favorite geek websites, and found that I could build something similar from off-the-shelf parts for about $150.  That sounds expensive, but that’s because I’m purchasing in single-unit quantities.  When you purchase 10,000 of something electronic, they don’t cost nearly as much.  I’m sure something could be put together for less than fifty dollars that would have the two necessary components: a GPS receiver, and a 3GSM mobile broadband connection.  With those two pieces, it becomes possible to track anything, anywhere you can get a signal – which, in 2011, is most of the planet.

To track something – and talk to it – costs fifty dollars today, but, like clockwork, every twenty-four months that cost falls by fifty percent.  In 2013, it’s $25.00, in 2015 it’s $12.50, and so on, so that ten years from now it’s only a bit more than a dollar.  Eventually it becomes almost free.

This is the world we will be living in.  Anything of any importance to us – whether expensive or cheap as chips – will be sensing, listening, and responding.  Everything will be aware of where it is, and where it should be.  Everything will be aware of the temperature, the humidity, the light level, the altitude, its energy consumption, and the other things around it which are also aware of the temperature, humidity, light level, altitude, energy consumption, and other things around them.

This is the sensor revolution, which is sometimes called ‘the Web of things’ or ‘Web3.0’.  We can see it coming, even if we can’t quite see what happens once it comes.  We didn’t understand that mobiles would help poor people earn more money until everyone, everywhere got a mobile.  These things aren’t easy to predict in advance, because they are the product of complex interactions between people and circumstances.  Even so, we can start to see how all of this information provided by our things feeds into our most innate human characteristic – the need to share.

 

IV: Overshare

Last Thursday I was invited to the launch of the ‘Imagine Cup’, a Microsoft-sponsored contest where students around the world use technology to develop solutions for the big problems facing us.  At the event I met the winners of the 2008 Imagine Cup, two Australians – Ed Hooper and Long Zheng.  They told me about their winning entry, Project SOAK.  That stands for Smart Operational Agriculture Kit.  It’s essentially a package of networked sensors and software that a farmer can use to know precisely when land needs water, and where.  Developed in the heart of the drought, Project SOAK is an innovative answer to the permanent Australian problem of water conservation.

I asked them how much these sensors cost, back in 2008.  To measure temperature, rainfall, dam depth, humidity, salinity and moisture would have cost around fifty dollars.  Fifty dollars in 2008 is about one dollar in 2020.  At that price point, a large farm, with thousands of hectares, could be covered with SOAK sensors for just a few tens of thousands of dollars, but would save the farmer water, time, and money for many years to come.  The farmer would be able to spread eyes over all of their land, and the computer, eternally vigilant, would help the farmer grind through the mostly-boring data spat out by these thousands of eyes.

That’s a snapshot of the world of 2020, a snapshot that will be repeated countless times, as sensors proliferate throughout every part of our planet touched by human beings: our land and our cities and our vehicles and our bodies.  Everything will have something listening, watching, reporting and responding.

We can already do this, even without all of this cheap sensing, because our connectivity creates a platform where we as ‘human sensors’ can share the results of our observations.  Just a few weeks ago, a web-based project known as ‘Safecast’ launched.  Dedicated to observing and recording radiation levels around the Fukushima nuclear reactor – which melted down following the March 11 2011 earthquake and tsunami – Safecast invites individuals throughout Japan to take regular readings of the ‘background’ radiation, then post them to the Safecast website.  These results are ‘mashed up’ with Google Maps, and presented for anyone to explore, both as current results, and as a historical path of radiation levels through time in a particular area.

Safecast exists because the Japanese government has failed to provide this information to its own people (perhaps to avoid unduly alarming them), filling a gap in public knowledge by ‘crowdsourcing’ the sensing task across thousands of willing participants.  People, armed with radiation dosimeters and Geiger counters, are the sensors.  People, typing their observations into computers, are the network.  Everything that we will soon be able to do automatically we can already do by hand, if there is sufficient need.

Necessity is the mother of invention; need is the driver for innovation.  In Japan they collect data about soil and water radiation, to save themselves from cancer.  In the United States, human sensors collect data about RBT checkpoints, to save themselves from arrest.  You can purchase a smartphone app that allows anyone to post the location of an RBT checkpoint to a crowdsourced database.  Anyone else with the app can launch it and see how to avoid being caught drink driving.  Although we may find the morality disagreeable, the need is there, and an army of human sensors set to work to meet that need.

Now that we’re all connected, we’ve found that connectivity is more than just keeping in touch with family, friends and co-workers.  It brings an expanded awareness, as each of us shares the points of interest peculiar to our tastes.  In the beginning, we shared bad jokes, cute pictures of kittens, and chain letters.  But we’ve grown up, and as we’ve matured, our sharing has taken on a focus and depth that gives it real power: people share what they know to fill the articles of Wikipedia, read their counters and plug results into Safecast, spot the coppers and share that around too – as they did in the central London riots in February.

It’s uncontrollable, it’s ungovernable, but all this sharing serves a need.  This is all human potential that’s been bottled up, constrained by the lack of connectivity across the planet.  Now that this barrier is well and truly down, we have unprecedented capability to pool our eyes, ears and hands, putting ourselves to work toward whatever ends we might consider appropriate.

Let’s give that some thought.

 

V:  Mother Birth

To recap: six billion of us now have mobiles, keeping us in close connection with one another.  This connectivity creates a platform for whatever endeavors we might choose to pursue, from the meaningless, to the momentary, to the significant and permanent.  We are human sensors, ready to observe and report upon anything we find important; chances are that if we find something important, others will as well.

All of that human activity is colliding head-on with the sensor revolution, as electronics become smaller and smarter, leading eventually to a predicted ‘smart dust’ where sensors become a ubiquitous feature of the environment.  We are about to gain a certain quality of omnipresence; where our sensors are, our minds will follow.   We are everywhere connected, and soon will be everywhere aware.

This awareness grants us the ability to see the consequences of our activities.  We can understand why burning or digging or watering here has an effect there, because, even in a complex ecosystem, we can trace the delicate connections that outline our actions.  The computer, with its infinitely patient and infinitely deep memory, is an important partner in this task, because it helps us to detect and illustrate the correlations that become a new and broader understanding of ourselves.

This is not something restricted to the biggest and grandest challenges facing us.  It begins more humbly and approachably with the minutiae of every day life: driving the car, using the dishwasher, or organizing a ski trip.  These activities no longer exist in isolation, but are recorded and measured and compared: could that drive be shorter, that wash cooler, that ski trip more sustainable?  This transition is being driven less by altruism than by economics.  Global sustainability means preserving the planet, but individual sustainability means a higher quality of life with lower resource utilization.  As that point becomes clear – and once there is sufficient awareness infrastructure to support it – sustainability becomes another ‘on tap’ feature of the environment, much as electricity and connectivity are today.

This will not be driven by top-down mandates.  Although our government is making moves toward sustainability, market forces will drive us to sustainability as the elements of the environment become continually more precious.  Intelligence is a fair substitute for almost any other resource – up to a point.  A car won’t run on IQ alone, but it will go a lot further on a tank of petrol if intelligently designed.

We can do more than act as sensors and share data:  we can share our ideas, our frameworks and solutions for sustainability.  We have the connectivity – any innovation can spread across the entire planet in a matter of seconds.  This means that six billion minds could be sharing – should be sharing – every tip, every insight, every brainwave and invention – so that the rest of us can have a go, see if it works, then share the results, so others can learn from our experiences. We have a platform for incredibly rapid learning, something that can springboard us into new ways of working.  It works for fishermen in India and farmers and Africa, so why not for us?

Australia is among the least sustainable nations on the planet.  Our vast per-person carbon footprint, our continual overuse of our limited water supplies, and our refusal to employ the bounty of renewable resources which nature has provided us with makes our country a bit of an embarrassment.  We have created a nation that is, in most respects, the envy of the world.  But as we have built that nation on unsustainable practice, this nation has built its house on sand, and within a generation or two, it will stand no longer.

Australia is a smart nation, intelligent and well-connected.  There’s no problem here we can not solve, no reach toward sustainability which is beyond our grasp.  We now have the tools, all we need is the compelling reason to think anew, revisiting everything we know with fresh eyes, eyes aided by many others, everywhere, and many sensors, everywhere, all helping us to understand, and from that understanding, to act, and from those actions, to learn, and from that learning, to share.

We are the sharing species; the reason we can even worry about a sustainable environment is because our sharing made us so successful that seven billion of us have begun to overwhelm the natural world.  This sharing is now opening an entirely new and unexpected realm, where we put our mobiles to our ears and put our heads together to have a good think, to share a thought, or tell a yarn.  Same as it ever was, but completely different, because this is no tribe, or small town, or neighborhood, but everybody, everywhere, all together now.  Where we go from here is entirely in our own hands.

Everywhere

I.

Sydney looks very little different from the city of Gough Whitlam’s day. Although almost forty years have passed, we see most of the same concrete monstrosities at the Big End of town, the same terrace houses in Surry Hills and Paddington, the same mile-after-mile of brick dwellings in the outer suburbs. Sydney has grown a bit around the edges, bumping up against the natural frontiers of our national parks, but, for a time-traveler, most things would appear nearly exactly the same.

That said, the life of the city is completely different. This is not because a different generation of Australians, from all corners of the world, inhabit the city. Rather, the city has acquired a rich inner life, an interiority which, though invisible to the eye, has become entirely pervasive, and completely dominates our perceptions. We walk the streets of the city, but we swim through an invisible ether of information. Just a decade ago we might have been said to have jumped through puddles of data, hopping from one to another as a five year-old might in a summer rainstorm. But the levels have constantly risen, in a curious echo of global warming, until, today, we must swim hard to stay afloat.

The individuals in our present-day Sydney stride the streets with divided attention, one eye scanning the scene before them, and another almost invariably fiddling with a mobile phone: sending a text, returning a call, using the GPS satellites to locate an address. Where, four decades ago, we might have kept a wary eye on passers-by, today we focus our attentions into the palms of our hands, playing with our toys. The least significant of these toys are the stand-alone entertainment devices; the iPods and their ilk, which provide a continuous soundtrack for our lives, and which insulate us from the undesired interruptions of the city. These are pleasant, but unimportant.

The devices which allow us to peer into and sail the etheric sea of data which surrounds us, these are the important toys. It’s already become an accepted fact that a man leaves the house with three things in his possession: his wallet, his keys, and his mobile. I have a particular pat-down I practice as the door to my flat closes behind me, a ritual of reassurance that tells me that yes, I am truly ready for the world. This behavioral transformation was already well underway when I first visited Sydney in 1997, and learned, from my friends’ actions, that mobile phones acted as a social lubricant. Dates could be made, rescheduled, or broken on the fly, effortlessly, without the painful social costs associated with standing someone up.

This was not a unique moment; it was simply the first in an ever-increasing series of transformations of human behavior, as the social accelerator of continuous communication became a broadly-accepted feature of civilization. The transition to frictionless social intercourse was quickly followed by a series of innovations which removed much of the friction from business and government. As individuals we must work with institutions and bureaucracies, but we have more ways to reach into them – and they, into us – than ever before. Businesses, in particular, realized that they could achieve both productivity gains and cost savings by leveraging the new facilities of communication. This relationship between commerce and the consumer produced an accelerating set of feedbacks which translated the very physical world of commerce into an enormous virtual edifice, one which sought every possible advantage of virtualization, striving to reach its customers through every conceivable mechanism.

Now, as we head into the winter of 2008, we live in a world where a seemingly stable physical environment is entirely overlaid and overweighed by a virtual world of connection and communication. The physical world has, in large part, lost its significance. It’s not that we’ve turned away from the physical world, but rather, that the meaning of the physical world is now derived from our interactions within the virtual world. The conversation we have, between ourselves, and with the institutions which serve us, frame the world around us. A bank is no longer an imposing edifice with marble columns, but an EFTPOS swipe or a statement displayed in a web browser. The city is no longer streets and buildings, but flows of people and information, each invisibly connected through pervasive wireless networks.

It is already a wireless world. That battle was fought and won years ago; truly, before anyone knew the battle had been joined, it was effectively over. We are as wedded to this world as to the physical world – perhaps even more so. The frontlines of development no longer concern themselves with the deployment of wireless communications, but rather with their increasing utility.

II.

Utility has a value. How much is it worth to me to be able to tell a mate that I’m delayed in traffic and can’t make dinner on time? Is it worth a fifty-cent voice call, or a twenty-five cent text (which may go through several iterations, and, in the end, cost me more)? Clearly it is; we are willing to pay a steep price to keep our social relationships on an even keel. What about our business relationships? How much is it worth to be able to take a look at the sales brochure for a store before we enter it? How much is it worth to find it on a map, or get directions from where we are? How much is it worth to send an absolutely vital email to a business client?

These are the economics that have ruled the tariff structures of wireless communications, both here in Australia and in the rest of the world. Bandwidth, commonly thought of as a limited resource, must be paid for. Infrastructure must be paid for. Shareholders must receive a fair return on their investments. All of these points, while valid, do not tell the whole story. The tariff structure acts as a barrier to communication, a barrier which can only be crossed if the perceived value is greater than the costs incurred. In the situations outlined above, this is often the case, and is thus the basis for the wireless telelcomms industry. But there are other economics at work, and these economics dictate a revision to this monolithic ordering of business affairs.

Chris Anderson, the editor of WIRED magazine, has been writing a series of essays in preparation for the publication of his next book, Free: Why $0.00 is the Future of Business. In his first essay – published in WIRED magazine, of course – Anderson takes a look at Moore’s Law, which promises a two-fold decrease in transistor cost every eighteen months, a rule that’s proven continuously true since Intel co-founder Gordon Moore proposed it, back in 1965. Somewhere around 1973, Anderson notes, Carver Mead, the father of VLSI, realized that individual transistors were becoming so small and so cheap as to be essentially free. Yes, in aggregates of hundreds of millions, transistors cost a few tens of dollars. But at the level of single circuits, these transistors are free, and can be “wasted” to provide some additional functionality at essentially zero additional cost. When, toward the end of the 1970s, the semiconductor industry embraced Mead’s design methodology, the silicon revolution began in earnest, powered by ever-cheaper transistors that could, as far as the designer was concerned, be considered entirely expendable.

Google has followed a similar approach to profitability. Pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a distributed, networked architecture which crawls and indexes the Web, Google provides its search engine for free, in the now-substantiated belief that something made freely available can still generate a very decent profit. Google designed its own, cheap computers, its own, cheap operating system, and fit these into its own, expensive data centers, linked together with relatively inexpensive bandwidth. Yahoo! and Microsoft – and Baidu and Facebook and MySpace – have followed similar paths to profitability. Make it free, and make money.

This seems counterintuitive, but herein is the difference between the physical and virtual worlds; the virtual world, insubstantial and pervasive, has its own economies of scale, which function very differently from the physical world. In the virtual world, the more a resource is shared, the more valuable it becomes, so ubiquity is the pathway to profitability.

We do not think of bandwidth as a virtual resource, one that can simply be burned. In Australia, we think of bandwidth as being an expensive and scarce resource. This is not true, and has never been particularly true. Over the time I’ve lived in this country (four and a half years) I’ve paid the same fixed amount for my internet bandwidth, yet today I have roughly six times the bandwidth, and seven times the download cap. Bandwidth is following the same curve as the transistor, because the cost of bandwidth is directly correlated to the cost of transistors.

Last year I upgraded to a 3G mobile handset, the Nokia N95, and immediately moved from GPRS speeds to HSDPA speeds – roughly 100x faster – but I am still spending the same amount for my mobile, on a monthly basis. I know that some Australian telcos see Vodafone’s tariff policy as sheer lunacy. But I reckon that Vodafone understands the economics of bandwidth. Vodafone understands that bandwidth is becoming free; the only way they can continue to benefit from my custom is if they continuously upgrade my service – just like my ISP.

Telco tariffs are predicated on the basic idea that spectrum is a limited resource. But spectrum is not a limited resource. Allocations are limited, yes, and licensed from the regulatory authorities for many millions of dollars a year. But spectrum itself is not in any wise limited. The 2.4 Ghz band is proof positive of this. Just that tiny slice of spectrum is responsible for more revenue than any other slice of spectrum, outside of the GSM and 3G bands. Why is this? Because the 2.4 Ghz band is unregulated, engineers and designers have had to teach their varied devices to play well with one another, even in hostile environments. I can use a Bluetooth headset right next to my WiFi-enabled MacBook, and never experience any problems, because these devices use spread-spectrum and spectrum-hopping to behave politely. My N95 can use WiFi and Bluetooth networking simultaneously – yet there’s never interference.

Unlicensed spectrum is not anarchy. It is an invitation to innovate. It is an open door to the creative engines of the economy. It is the most vital part of the entire wireless world, because it is the corner of the wireless world where bandwidth already is free.

III.

And so back to the city outside the convention center walls, crowded with four million people, each eagerly engaged in their own acts of communication. Yet these moments are bounded by an awareness of the costs of this communication. These tariffs act as a fundamental brake on the productivity of the Australian economy. They fetter the means of production. And so they must go.

I do not mean that we should nationalize the telcos – we’ve already been there – but rather, that we must engage in creating a new generation of untarriffed networks. The technology is already in place. We have cheap and durable mesh routers, such as the Open-Mesh and the Meraki, which can be dropped almost anywhere, powered by sun or by mains, and can create a network that spans nearly a quarter kilometer square. We can connect these access points to our wired networks, and share some small portion of our every-increasing bandwidth wealth with the public at large, so that no matter where they are in this city – or in this nation – they can access the wireless world. And we can secure these networks to prevent fraud and abuse.

Such systems already exist. In the past eight months, Meraki has given their $50 WiFi mesh routers to any San Franciscan willing to donate some of their ever-cheaper bandwidth to a freely available municipal network. When I started tracking the network, it had barely five thousand users. Today, it has over seventy thousand – that’s about one-tenth of the city. San Francisco is a city of hills and low buildings – it’s hard to get real reach from a wireless signal. In Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth – which are all built on flats – a little signal goes a long, long way. From my flat in Surry Hills I can cover my entire neighborhood. If another of my neighbors decides to contribute, we can create a mesh which reaches further into my neighborhood, where it can link up with another volunteer, further in the neighborhood, and so on, and so on, until the entirety of my suburb is bathed in freely available wireless connectivity.

While this may sound like a noble idea, that is not the reason it is a good idea. Free wireless is a good idea because it enables an entirely new level of services, which would not, because of tariffs, make economic sense. This type of information has value – perhaps great value, to some – but no direct economic value. This is where the true strength of free wireless shows itself: it enables a broad participation in the electronic life of the city by all participants – individuals, businesses, and institutions – without the restraint of economic trade-offs.

This unlicensed participation has no form as yet, because we haven’t deployed the free wireless network beyond a few select spots in Australia’s cities. But, once the network has been deployed, some enterprising person will develop the “killer app” for this network, something so unexpected, yet so useful, that it immediately becomes apparent that the network is an incredibly valuable resource, one which will improve human connectivity, business productivity, and the delivery of services. Something that, once established, will be seen as an absolutely necessary feature in the life of the city.

Businessmen hate to deal in intangibles, or wild-eyed “science projects.” So instead, let me present you with a fait accompli: This is happening. We’re reaching a critical mass of Wifi devices in our dense urban cores. Translating these devices into nodes within city-spanning mesh networks requires only a simple software upgrade. It doesn’t require a hardware build-out. The transformation, when it comes, will happen suddenly and completely, and it will change the way we view the city.

The question then, is simple: are you going to wait for this day, or are you going to help it along? It could be slowed down, fettered by lawsuits and regulation. Or it could be accelerated into inevitability. We’re at a transition point now, between the tariffed networks we have lived with for the last decade, and the new, free networks, which are organically popping up in Australia and throughout the world. Both networks will co-exist; a free network actually increases the utility of a tariffed mobile network.

So, do you want to fight it? Or do you want to switch it on?

World as Database

I.

The idea that the world is a database has a more distinguished provenance than just Google Earth. Back in the 1960s, R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fully proposed the Geosphere, a scale model of the world, 500m in diameter, and thus big enough that anyone could look onto it and make out their home.

The idea, Fuller thought, was to contextualize man in his environment. In doing that, he believed we would have a greater sense of the web of relationships into which we are embedded.

Even the natural world is a database of sorts, just ask a botanist or zoologist; each area has its own climate, soils, flora and fauna. All of this information is there, in some sense, but, for now, is revealed only to those with the education to keep the facts close at hand. That education could reside in the mind of an indigenous person, or in the mind of a dedicated scientist. (And lets not forget the amateurs, who often excel in one area or another.)

Here’s a basic problem: knowledge resident inside grey matter – or locked away within books, and lacking geo-context – is just too hard for us to grasp, search or absorb.

What is needed is an interface to this information; like the “cathedrals of memory” which served the ancient poets, we need an interface which can remind us of the thing itself, keeping all this information neatly at hand.

If we could walk through a landscape, and have this information presented to us, because it had been stored by geo-context (GPS and GPRS would do this, and the new generation of 3G mobile handsets provide both) we would have an immediate experience of knowledge; in other words, a moment of understanding within the environment.

That’s what Fuller wanted, and that’s what’s now possible.

II

The world of man is wholly artificial, in that everything within it is an artifact, a product of human activity. Civilization is entirely artificial. And, more often than not, when we travel, we journey from the comfortable artifice of home into an artifice created by other hands, other minds, and other cultures. Travel broadens the mind because it exposes us to other possibilities, other ways that the cultural norms could be, given different initial conditions.

What we need, as human beings, when we journey into foreign norms, are “handholds’, the points which can serve as translation between the world-as-we-know-it and the world-as-it-is-around us. That’s what a good travel guide, or good travel book does. That traveling companion is like the parent who holds your hand as you step into the deep end of the pool. The benefit of experience is that it bolsters the traveler’s self-confidence.

We can’t always afford a travel guide; we can always have a travel book, but the trouble with a travel book is that it’s often obsolete by the time it reaches publication. The world is dynamic; a book is anything but. Thus travel books progressively diverge from reality, sometimes with hilarious (or tragic) consequences. Books are also of fixed size; you can’t carry around with you a book that would tell you everything you might need to know about the United States, or California, or even San Francisco. There’s just too much there there. This means that the travel book is the equivalent of a photograph, with the same lack of dimensionality. You can possess one view of a moment in time, but there is no depth, nothing behind it.

So the Web comes along, which promises us something more, something dynamic (if not quite portable), and infinitely extensible. A website can be as deep an dense as required – just look at Wikipedia. It can reflect instantaneous changes in the outside world. It can be created collaboratively. And it can be accessed, instantaneously, from almost anywhere on Earth.

This set of characteristics sounds nearly perfect, and it is, with one big, important exception – the Web is not portable. Most people will not travel with an entire database in their laptop, updated minute by minute. Most people will not rush into an Internet café at every single opportunity to keep apprised of the latest developments in travel space or to post their own critiques. It’s too much work and too much bother, for too little gain. This means that the best efforts – such as Thorne Tree – are still essentially static entities; someone gets in front of a computer, uses the service, and keeps a snapshot of what they’ve read in their own head as they travel. It’s better than nothing, but it’s hardly good enough. Travel is about mobility; why should travel services be any different?

III.

All of this work is converging, as it inevitably must, on the mobile telephone. Already there are more mobile telephones in the world than Internet-attached computers; there are more mobile phones in use in China than there are people in the United States. And the Chinese are probably buying a quarter billion mobile telephones a year. (Many of these are used models, as people sell old handsets to buy new ones.)

The modern mobile handset has about as much computing power as a computer of the mid-1990s; that may seem insubstantial by the standards of today, but mobile handsets are evolving far more rapidly than personal computers; within a decade there won’t be much difference between them. Already the mobile handset is Internet connected, via GPRS or 3G packet-switched networks. I have a “Mega Cap” plan from Vodafone AU, which gives me about 3 1/2 hours of GPRS access per day, at a fixed price. I never even come close to using it, but I’m working on services which I hope will start to eat into that enormous data budget. In a few years it won’t seem enormous at all; it might even seem a bit stingy. But for the moment I can have a taste of the future.

Devices like the ever-connected, ultra-powerful, mobile telephone are what the traveler of the next decade will be carrying with them. Already I can run Google Earth on my mobile. Given the amount of processing it takes to run Google Earth – it chugs along on my G4 iBook – it does a fine job. If my mobile had an integral GPS or Galileo receiver, my mobile Google Earth could track my movements in real time. (This can’t be very far away; I’d be altogether surprised if someone hasn’t done that already.)

Google Earth is not just a visualization of the earth; it is, in fact, integrated into Google’s planetary database. The integration is relatively loose right now, but that will only grow with time. It is the place to place everything about place. And travel is all about place.

The 21st century traveler travels with a mobile phone; the growth of GSM/GPRS networks – even the US has them, finally – means that one handset will work everywhere (though not necessarily inexpensively). The mobile is not the preferred interface to the Internet, though this is more of an interface issue than anything else; this is why Google Earth Mobile is so very interesting. Google Earth presents an interface which is intuitive, and which provides a front-end to the nearly-infinite Google database. When people learn how to put these two together, blend the database and make it mobile, we’ll have the first “killer app” for the mobile. And it’s a traveler’s essential, as much as a phrase book, or traveler’s checks.