The Connected City

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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.

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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.

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Hyperpolitics (American Style)

Part One: Hyperconnected

We have been human beings for perhaps sixty thousand years. In all that time, our genome, the twenty-five thousand genes and three billion base pairs which comprise the source code for Homo Sapiens Sapiens has hardly changed.

For at least three thousand generations, we’ve had big brains to think with, a descended larynx to speak with, and opposable thumbs to grasp with. Yet, for almost ninety percent of that enormous span of time, humanity remained a static presence.

Our ancestors entered the world and passed on from it, but the patterns of culture remained remarkably stable, persistent and conservative. This posed a conundrum for paleoanthropologists, long known as ‘the sapient paradox’: if we had the “kit” for it, why did civilization take so long to arise?

Cambridge archeologist Colin Renfrew (more formally, Baron Renfrew of Kamisthorn) recently proposed an answer. We may have had great hardware, but it took a long, long time for humans to develop software which made full use of it.

We had to pass through symbolization, investing the outer world with inner meaning (in the process, creating some great art), before we could begin to develop the highly symbolic processes of cities, culture, law, and government.

About ten thousand years ago, the hidden interiority of humanity, passed down through myths and teachings and dreamings, built up a cultural reservoir of social capacity which overtopped the dam of the conservative patterns of humanity. We booted up (as it were) into a culture now so familiar we rarely take notice of it.

In Guns, Germs and Steel, evolutionary biologist and geographer Jared Diamond presented a model which elegantly explains how various peoples crossed the gap into civilization.

Cultures located along similar climatic regions on the planet’s surface could and did share innovations, most significantly along the broad swath of land from the Yangtze to the Rhine. This sharing accelerated the development of each of the populations connected together through the material flow of plants and animals and the immaterial flow of ideas and symbols. Where sharing had been a local and generational project for fifty thousand years, it suddenly became a geographical project across nearly half the diameter of the planet. Cities emerged in Anatolia, Palestine and the Fertile Crescent, and civilization spread out, over the next five hundred generations, to cover all of Eurasia.

Civilization proved another conservative force in human culture; despite the huge increases in population, the social order of Jericho looks little different from those of Imperial Rome or the Qin Dynasty or Medieval France.

But when Gutenberg (borrowing from the Chinese) perfected moveable type, he led the way to another and even broader form of cultural sharing; literacy became widespread in the aftermath of the printing press, and savants throughout the Europe published their insights, sharing their own expertise, producing the Enlightenment and igniting the Scientific Revolution. Peer-review, although portrayed today as a conservative force, initially acted as a radical intellectual accelerant, a mental hormone which again amplified the engines of human culture, leading directly to the Industrial Age.

The conservative empires fell, replaced by demos, the people: the cogs and wheels of a new system of the world which allowed for massive cities, massive markets, mass media, massive growth in human knowledge, and a new type of radicalism, known as Liberalism, which asserted the freedom of capital, labor, and people. That Liberalism, after two hundred and fifty years of ascendancy, has become the conservative order of culture, and faces its own existential threat, the result of another innovation in sharing.

Last month, The Economist, that fountainhead of Ur-Liberalism, proclaimed humanity “halfway there.” Somewhere in the last few months, half the population of the planet became mobile telephone subscribers. In a decade’s time we’ve gone from half the world having never made a telephone call to half the world owning their own mobile.

It took nearly a decade to get to the first billion, four years to the second, eighteen months to the third, and – sometime during 2011 – over five billion of us will be connected. Mobile handsets will soon be in the hands of everyone except the billion and a half extremely poor; microfinance organizations like Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank work hard to ensure that even this destitute minority have access to mobiles. Why? Mobiles may be the most potent tool yet invented for the elimination of poverty.

To those of us in the developed word this seems a questionable assertion. For us, mobiles are mainly social accelerants: no one is ever late anymore, just delayed. But, for entire populations who have never had access to instantaneous global communication, the mobile unleashes the innate, inherent and inalienable capabilities of sociability. Sociability has always been the cornerstone to human effectiveness. Being social has always been the best way to get ahead.

Until recently, we’d seen little to correlate mobiles with human economic development. But, here again, we see the gap between raw hardware capabilities and their expression in cultural software. Handing someone a mobile is not the end of the story, but the beginning. Nor is this purely a phenomenon of the developing world, or of the poor. We had the Web for almost a decade before we really started to work it toward its potential. Wikis were invented in 1995, marking it as an early web technology; the idea of Wikipedia took another six years.

Even SMS, the true carrier of the Human Network, had been dismissed by the telecommunications giants as uninteresting, a sideshow. Last year we sent forty three billion text messages.

We have a drive to connect and socialize: this drive has now been accelerated and amplified as comprehensively as the steam engine amplified human strength two hundred and fifty years ago. Just as the steam engine initiated the transformation of the natural landscape into man-made artifice, the ‘hyperconnectivity’ engendered by these new toys is transforming the human landscape of social relations. This time around, fifty thousand years of cultural development will collapse into about twenty.

This is coming as a bit of a shock.

Part Two: Hypermimesis

I have two nephews, Alexander and Andrew, born in 2001, and 2002. Alexander watched his mother mousing around on her laptop, and – from about 18 months – reached out to play with the mouse, imitating her actions. By age three Alex had a fair degree of control over the mouse; his younger brother watched him at play, and copied his actions. Soon, both wrestled for control of a mouse that both had mastered. Children are experts in mimesis – learning by imitation. It’s been shown that young chimpanzees regularly outscore human toddlers on cognitive tasks, while the children far surpass the chimps in their ability to “ape” behavior. We are built to observe and reproduce the behaviors of our parents, our mentors and our peers.

Our peers now number three and a half billion.

Whenever any one of us displays a new behavior in a hyperconnected context, that behavior is inherently transparent, visible and observed. If that behavior is successful, it is immediately copied by those who witnessed the behavior, then copied by those who witness that behavior, and those who witnessed that behavior, and so on. Very quickly, that behavior becomes part of the global behavioral kit. As its first-order emergent quality, hyperconnectivity produces hypermimesis, the unprecedented acceleration of the natural processes of observational learning, where each behavioral innovation is distributed globally and instantaneously.

Only a decade ago the network was all hardware and raw potential, but we are learning fast, and this learning is pervasive. Behaviors, once slowly copied from generation to generation, then, still slowly, from location to location, now ‘hyperdistribute’ themselves via the Human Network. We all learn from each other with every text we send, and each new insight becomes part of the new software of a new civilization.

We still do not know much about this nascent cultural form, even as its pieces pop out of the ether all around us. We know that it is fluid, flexible, mobile, pervasive and inexorable. We know that it does not allow for the neat proprieties of privacy and secrecy and ownership which define the fundamental ground of Liberal civilization. We know that, even as it grows, it encounters conservative forces intent on moderating its impact. Yet every assault, every tariff, every law designed to constrain this Human Network has failed.

The Chinese, who gave it fair go, have conceded the failure of their “Great Firewall,” relying now on self-censorship, situating the policeman within the mind of the dissident netizen.

Record companies and movie studios try to block distribution channels they can not control and can not tariff; every attempt to control distribution only results in an ever-more-pervasive and ever-more-difficult to detect “Darknet.”

A band of reporters and bloggers (some of whom are in this room today) took down the Attorney General of the United States, despite the best attempts of Washington’s political machinery to obfuscate then overload the processes of transparency and oversight. Each of these singular examples would have been literally unthinkable a decade ago, but today they are the facts on the ground, unmistakable signs of the potency of this new cultural order.

It is as though we have all been shoved into the same room, a post-modern Panopticon, where everyone watches everyone else, can speak with everyone else, can work with everyone else. We can send out a call to “find the others,” for any cause, and watch in wonder as millions raise their hands. Any fringe (noble or diabolical) multiplied across three and a half billion adds up to substantial numbers. Amplified by the Human Network, the bonds of affinity have delivered us over to a new kind of mob rule.

This shows up, at its most complete, in Wikipedia, which (warts and all) represents the first attempt to survey and capture the knowledge of the entire human race, rather than only its scientific and academic elites. A project of the mob, for the mob, and by the mob, Wikipedia is the mob rule of factual knowledge. Its phenomenal success demonstrates beyond all doubt how the calculus of civilization has shifted away from its Liberal basis. In Liberalism, knowledge is a scarce resource, managed by elites: the more scarce knowledge is, the more highly valued that knowledge, and the elites which conserve it. Wikipedia turns that assertion inside out: the more something is shared the more valuable it becomes. These newly disproportionate returns on the investment in altruism now trump the ‘virtue of selfishness.’

Paradoxically, Wikipedia is not at all democratic, nor is it actually transparent, though it gives the appearance of both. Investigations conducted by The Register in the UK and other media outlets have shown that the “encyclopedia anyone can edit” is, in fact, tightly regulated by a close network of hyperconnected peers, the “Wikipedians.”

This premise is borne out by the unpleasant fact that article submissions to Wikipedia are being rejected at an ever-increasing rate. Wikipedia’s growth has slowed, and may someday grind to a halt, not because it has somehow encompassed the totality of human knowledge, but because it is the front line of a new kind of warfare, a battle both semantic and civilizational. In this battle, we can see the tracings of hyperpolitics, the politics of era of hyperconnectivity.

To outsiders like myself, who critique their increasingly draconian behavior, Wikipedians have a simple response: “We are holding the line against chaos.” Wikipedians honestly believe that, in keeping Wikipedia from such effluvia as endless articles on anime characters, or biographies of living persons deemed “insufficiently notable,” they keep their resource “pure.” This is an essentially conservative impulse, as befits the temperament of a community of individuals who are, at heart, librarians and archivists.

The mechanisms through which this purity is maintained, however, are hardly conservative.

Hyperconnected, the Wikipedians create “sock puppet” personae to argue their points on discussion pages, using back-channel, non-transparent communications with other Wikipedians to amass the support (both numerically and rhetorically) to enforce their dictates. Those who attempt to counter the fixed opinion of any network of Wikipedians encounter a buzz-saw of defiance, and, almost invariably, withdraw in defeat.

Now that this ‘Great Game’ has been exposed, hypermimesis comes into play. The next time an individual or community gets knocked back, they have an option: they can choose to “go nuclear” on Wikipedia, using the tools of hyperconnectivity to generate such a storm of protest, from so many angles of attack, that the Wikipedians find themselves overwhelmed, backed into the buzz-saw of their own creation.

This will probably engender even more conservative reaction from the Wikipedians, until, in fairly short order, the most vital center of human knowledge creation in the history of our species becomes entirely fossilized.

Or, just possibly, Wikipedians will bow to the inevitable, embrace the chaos, and find a way to make it work.

That choice, writ large, is the same that confronts us in every aspect of our lives. The entire human social sphere faces the increasing pressures of hyperconnectivity, which arrive hand-in-hand with an increasing empowerment (‘hyperempowerment’) by means of hypermimesis. All of our mass social institutions, developed at the start of the Liberal era, are backed up against the same buzz saw.

Politics, as the most encompassing of our mass institutions, now balances on a knife edge between a past which no longer works and a future of chaos.

Part Three: No Governor

Last Monday, as I waited at San Francisco International for a flight to Logan, I used my mobile to snap some photos of the status board (cheerfully informing me of my delayed departure), which I immediately uploaded to Flickr. As I waited at the gate, I engaged in a playful banter with two women d’un certain age, that clever sort of casual conversation one has with fellow travelers. After we boarded the flight, one of the women approached me. “I just wanted you to know, that other woman, she works for the Treasury Department. And you were making her nervous when you took those photos.”

Now here’s the thing: I wanted to share the frustrations of my journey with my many friends, both in Australia and America, who track my comings and goings on Twitter, Flickr and Facebook. Sharing makes the unpleasant endurable. In that moment of confrontation, I found myself thrust into a realization that had been building over the last four years: Sharing is the threat. Not just a threat. It is the whole of the thing.

A photo snapped on my mobile becomes instantaneously and pervasively visible. No wonder she’s nervous: in my simple, honest and entirely human act of sharing, it becomes immediately apparent that any pretensions to control, or limitation, or the exercise of power have already collapsed into shell-shocked impotence.

We are asked to believe that hyperconnectivity can be embraced by political campaigns, and by politicians in power. We are asked to believe that everything we already know to be true about the accelerating disintegration of hierarchies of all kinds – economic, academic, cultural – will somehow magically suspend itself for the political process. That, somehow, politics will be different.

Bullshit. Ladies and gentlemen, don’t believe a word of it. It’s whistling past the graveyard. It’s clapping for Tinkerbelle. Obama may be the best thing since sliced bread, but this isn’t a crisis of leadership. This is not an emergency. And my amateur photography did not bring down the curtain on the Republic.

For the first time, we have a political campaign embracing hyperconnectivity. As is always the case with political campaigns, it is a means to an end. The Obama campaign has built a nationwide social network (using lovely, old-fashioned, human techniques), then activated it to compete in the primaries, dominate in the caucuses, and secure the Democratic nomination. That network is being activated again to win the general election.

Then what? Three months ago, I put this question directly to an Obama field organizer. He paused, as if he’d never given the question any thought, before answering, “I don’t know. I don’t believe anyone’s thought that far ahead.” There are now some statements from candidate Obama about what he’d like to see this network become. They are, of course, noble sentiments. They matter not at all. The mob, now mobilized, will do as it pleases. Obama can lead by example, can encourage or scold as occasion warrants, but he can not control. Not with all the King’s horses and all the King’s men.

And yes, that’s scary.

Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a rapid descent into the Bellum omnia contra omnes, Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all.” A hyperconnected polity – whether composed of a hundred individuals or a hundred thousand – has resources at its disposal which exponentially amplify its capabilities. Hyperconnectivity begets hypermimesis begets hyperempowerment. After the arms race comes the war.

Conserved across nearly four thousand generations, the social fabric will warp and convulse as various polities actualize their hyperempowerment in the cultural equivalent of nuclear exchanges. Eventually (one hopes, with hypermimesis, rather quickly) we will learn to contain these most explosive forces. We will learn that even though we can push the button, we’re far better off refraining. At that point, as in the era of superpower Realpolitik, the action will shift to a few tens of thousands of ‘little’ conflicts, the hyperconnected equivalents of the endless civil wars which plagued Asia, Africa and Latin America during the Cold War.

Naturally, governments will seek to control and mediate these emerging conflicts. This will only result in the guns being trained upon them. The power redistributions of the 21st century have dealt representative democracies out. Representative democracies are a poor fit to the challenges ahead, and ‘rebooting’ them is not enough. The future looks nothing like democracy, because democracy, which sought to empower the individual, is being obsolesced by a social order which hyperempowers him.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously pronounced that we should “Never underestimate the ability of a small group of committed individuals to change the world.” Mead spoke truthfully, and prophetically. We are all committed, we are all passionate. We merely lacked the lever to effectively translate the force of our commitment and passion into power. That lever has arrived, in my hand and yours.

And now, the world’s going to move – for all of us.

Slides for the presentation at the Personal Democracy Forum are now available on SlideShare.

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?

Mob Rules (The Law of Fives)

Mob Rules is also available on YouTube, just click here.

Chaos

The world has changed. The world is changing. The world will change a whole lot more. We lucky few, we band of coders, bear witness to the most comprehensive transformation in human communication since the advent of language. We are embedded in the midst of this transition; we make it happen with every script we write and every page we publish and every blog we post and every video we upload. For that reason, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. No wonder it looks so crazy and chaotic.

In the mid 20th century, American philosopher H. Richard Neibur wrote that the first question of ethics is not, “What is right?”, but rather, “What is going on?” This arvo, before we retire to the Shelbourne for drinks and conversation, I’d like to take you on a tour of our very peculiar present. Something’s happening that is so unexpected, most of us don’t even know it’s going on.

Confusion: Three Billion

We begin on the shores of the Indian Ocean, in the south Indian state of Kerala. For at least a thousand years the fishermen of Kerala have sailed their sturdy dhows to sea, lowered their nets, prayed to their gods, and – if their prayers were heard – hauled in a bountiful catch. Fully laden, the fishermen set their sails to shore, to any one of the many fishing villages and fish markets which dot the Kerala coast. The selection of a port is done more or less at random, so throughout all these thousand years too many boats pulled into one port, leaving the markets oversupplied, and the fisherman selling their catch at a loss, while another market, just a few kilometers away, has no fish for sale at any price. This kept the fishermen poor, and the markets consistently either oversupplied or undersupplied.

From 1997 through 2001, as India’s rush to industrialization gathered momentum, several of India’s mobile telecoms firms strung the Kerala coast with GSM towers. GSM is a radio signal, and travels in line-of-sight, which means that, out at sea, the signal can reach 25 kilometers, the point where the curvature of the Earth blocks the view of the shore.

GSM handsets cost a month’s wages for a Kerala fishermen – imagine if a handset here cost four or five thousand dollars. (Even my Nokia N95 didn’t cost that much.) Yet, some wealthy fisherman, somewhere in Kerala, bought a GSM handset and took it to sea. At some point during a fishing voyage that fisherman had some communication with the mainland – perhaps a trivial family matter. But, in the course of that communication, he learned of a village going wanting for fish, at any price. So he made for that port and sold his catch at a tidy profit that day. The next day, perhaps, he called into shore, talking to fish sellers to the various ports, and learned which market needed fish the most – and was willing to pay for it. So it began.

Fishermen form a tight-knit community; while they might be secretive about their favorite spots to fish, they all trade technique with one another, and – within a very short period of time – all the other Kerala fishermen had learned of the power of the GSM handset, and each of them brought their own handset to sea, made calls to the markets, and sold their catch for a tidy profit. Today, the fish markets in Kerala are only rarely oversupplied with fish, and are almost never undersupplied. The network of fish sellers and fishermen have created their own bourse, a marketplace which grows organically out of an emergent web of SMS and voice calls which distribute the catch efficiently across the market. The customers are happy – there’s always fish for sale. The fish sellers are happy – they always have fish to sell, and at a good price. And the fisherman are happy – and earning so much more, these days, that a GSM handset pays for itself in two months’ time.

None of this was predicted. None of this was expected. None of this was anything but shocking to the legion of economists who are now studying this unprecedented phenomenon. To our Western eyes this doesn’t even make much sense. We think of mobile phones as a bit of bling, a technological googaw that makes our lives a bit easier – something that removes the friction from our social interactions. In the age of the mobile, you’re never late, just delayed. You can always call to say you’re sorry. (Or text to say you’ve broken up.) While they can be useful in our economic lives, they’re hardly necessary – and, given that the boss can now reach you 24 hours a day, wherever you are on Earth – they’re often more of a pain in the arse than a blessing. But at the end of the day they’re extraneous. Nice, but non-essential.

Except they’re not.

Study after study is confirming something that many were already beginning to suspect: the very poorest people on Earth – the five billion of us who earn less than a few thousand dollars a year – can benefit enormously from pervasive wireless communications. It seems counterintuitive – why would a subsistence farmer in Kenya need a mobile phone? As it turns out, that farmer – and farmers in Nigeria, and Bangladesh and Peru – will phone ahead to the markets, and learn where their produce will bring the best price. Left to their own devices, human beings with things to trade will create their own markets. When mobile communications enter the mix, their ability to trade effectively increases enormously.

Those who serve the poor – microfinance institutions like Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank – have real experience of the power of mobiles to help the poor. So many of Grameen Bank’s loans went to finance mobile handsets that they recently founded their own telecoms firm – Grameen Phone – to provide services to the poor. None of this is charity work – all of these are profit-making enterprises; but it turns out that helping the poor to communicate is one of the most effective ways to help them to improve their economic effectiveness.

That, too, wasn’t predicted by anyone. After all, don’t the poor need schools, clean water, inoculations and transparent governments? Yes, certainly they need all these things, but they also need the tools that let them help themselves. Near as anyone can tell, a mobile handset pretty much tops that list of tools. And although this singular discovery is nearly unknown in the Western world, the poor of the world know it – because they’ve been snapping up mobiles in unprecedented and unexpected numbers.

Sometime in the next 30 days, the telecoms firms of the world will have reached a new milestone – three billion subscribers. About ten percent of that number are customers who have multiple accounts, but – somewhere in the middle of 2008, half of humanity will own a mobile handset. In just a decade’s time, we’ll have gone from half the world never having made a telephone call to half the world owning a phone. Unprecedented. Unexpected. But, given what we now know, perfectly natural. And it’s not slowing down. It took a decade to get to the first billion mobile subscribers, four years to get to the second billion, and eighteen months to get to three billion. In a year, more or less, we’ll hit four billion, then things will begin to slow, as we reach the ranks of the desperately poor, the two billion who earn less than a dollar a day. Yet these are precisely the people who would most benefit from a mobile. Expect to see some big campaigns in the next few years, from Oxfam and World Vision, asking you to buy mobiles for the poor.

Nokia looked at the curves, figured out what’s going on, and created a mobile handset targeted directly at the emerging markets of the world – the Nokia 1100. It’s cheap, simple, has predictive text for just about any language with more than 10 million speakers, and – in the four years since its introduction – they’ve sold well over 200 million of them. By comparison, Nokia sold twice as many 1100s as Apple sold iPods – in half the time. The most successful consumer electronics device in history, the 1100 is the Model T of wireless networking. Put an 1100 in someone’s hands, and they’ll use it to improve their life. It’s as simple as that.

And – what’s really interesting here – these farmers and fishermen and spice traders and so forth didn’t need an eBay to help them trade. They don’t need fancy services – and wouldn’t use them. They only need to be connected to other people. That in itself is entirely sufficient. People come fully equipped to provide all the services they need. Nothing else is required. Five thousand years of civilization have seen to that. We know how to organize our own affairs – and can do so without any assistance. But now we can do so globally and instantaneously. That’s not a power restricted to the billion richest of us; it’s now within reach of half of us, and improves the lives of the poor far more than it helps us. Our innate capacity for self-organization, now extended and amplified almost infinitely, has itself produced some unpredicted and unexpected effects.

Discord: The Center Will Not Hold

In the Jurassic Era of the Internet, before the Web was more than a few hundred pages in size, and still mostly run off a series of servers in Geneva, John Gilmore, who co-founded SUN Microsystems before going off to found Cygnus Support and the EFF, recognized an inherent quality of networks: they promote the sharing of information. This was codified in what I (only half-jokingly) call Gilmore’s Law:

“The net regards censorship as a failure, and routes around it.”

At the time Gilmore made this statement, he was talking politics. Gilmore is a political animal – many of you probably know of his long-running tangle with US Homeland Security over the free right to travel within the States without having to display ID. And, for many years this aphorism was interpreted as a political maxim – that political censorship of the net was essentially impossible.

As we all know, the Chinese have tried, with their “Great Firewall of China”, but even they’ve given up. Just two months ago, Wang Guoqing, the Vice-Minister for Information in China was quoted as saying, “It has been repeatedly proved that information blocking is like walking into a dead end.”

At around the same time as that shock admission of failure, Senator Coonan introduced the Government’s latest attempt to appease its conservative base by locking down the Australian Internet, because, well, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” Turns out that’s just what the children were doing – it took a 16 year-old Australian boy 30 minutes to crack through that filter, and another 40 minutes to crack it again, after the filter was “upgraded.”

In that same week, a fifteen year-old in the United States got his hands on a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, photographed the entire text, bound it up as a PDF, and uploaded it to the Pirate Bay so that tens of thousands could use BitTorrent and download their own copy – four days before the much-hyped simultaneous international release.

Gilmore, it seems, wasn’t thinking broadly enough. He assumed that censorship necessarily has a political dimension. It doesn’t. Censorship can be driven by a wide range of motives: some are political, some are moral, some are cultural, and some are economic. In the end, it doesn’t matter. All censorship inevitably encounters Gilmore’s Law, and loses. The net finds a way around it.

Before we get all hippy-dippy and attribute agency to something that we all know is really just a collection of wires and routing boxen, we need to clarify what we mean when we use the word “net”. The wiring isn’t the network. The routers aren’t the network. The people are the network. We had social networks ten million years before we ever had a telephone exchange; we carry those networks around in our heads, they’re part of the standard “kit” of our cortical biology. We have been blessed with the biggest and best networking gear of all the hominids, but we all share the same capability. The social sharing of information has played a big part in the success of the hominids, and, in particular, human beings. We are born to plug into the network of other human beings and share information. It’s what we do.

But just now we’re facing increasingly frequent collisions between Gilmore’s Law and old-fashioned and time-tested ways of the world. We’ve long known that there are no secrets in a small town; now that same law of interpersonal relationships are being applied to businesses, to governments, to institutions of every shape and description. Consider these examples:

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica hides behind a walled garden and is subsequently obsolesced by Wikipedia;
  • Television shows and films end up on BitTorrent before they’re broadcast; the torrent for Halo 3 was posted last week. The video game was released on Monday.
  • A tight group of reporters and bloggers just brought down the US Attorney General, who attempted to stonewall all investigations into his politically-motivated firings of eight US Attorneys.
  • And – oh yeah – there’s that whole open-source movement which is, ever so slowly and carefully, eating Microsoft.

What’s happening here? What is it about the network that makes it so potent? Simply this: the network, in every form, is anathema to hierarchy. The network represents the other form of organization, not a contradiction of hierarchy, but, rather, a counterpoint to it. I’ve rewritten Gilmore’s Law to reflect this:

“The net regards hierarchy as a failure, and routes around it.”

For the fifty-five hundred years of human civilization, hierarchy has always had the upper hand. Now the network, amplified by all those wires and routers, is stronger than hierarchy, and battle has been joined. But this isn’t going to be some full-on Armageddon, a battle between the Empire and the Alliance; this is the Death of a Thousand Cuts. The network is simply kicking the legs out from under hierarchies, everywhere they exist, for as long as they exist, until they find themselves unable to rise again. What it really come down to is this: we are assuming management of our own affairs, because we are now empowered to do so. It doesn’t matter if you’re a maize farmer in Kenya or a video producer in Queensland; these mob rules apply to us mob.

Unexpected. Unprecedented.

In a future which looks increasingly like the present, there is no center anywhere, no locus of authority, no controlling power ordering our daily lives. There are no governments, no institutions, no businesses that look anything like the limited liability enterprises born in the Netherlands five hundred years ago. Instead, there are groupings, networks within the network, that come together around a project or ideology, a shared sense of salience – meaning – for that group. The product of that network could be Wikipedia – or it could be al Qaeda. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

And it’s not over yet. The network hasn’t finished changing, and it hasn’t finished changing us.

Bureaucracy: Collapse and How to Profit From It

To recap: we know where we are, and we have some idea of what is really going on. But enough of philosophy: let’s play!

But. Well. One more thing…

Although the network has done a tidy job of disassembling the hierarchies of the world, there is still one hierarchy which remains stubbornly resistant to change, which retains its top-down, command-and-control hierarchical model of authority – and has for well over a hundred years. Telcos.

I find this endlessly ironic: the firms which created the network are somehow immune to the effects of the network. And, in consequence, so are the networks themselves. In fact, you can look at any of the networks – telephone, broadband, or wireless – and see in them the physical embodiment of hierarchy. It’s curious. It’s damned interesting. It’s also over.

Four months ago, a small startup in Silicon Valley named Meraki (Greek for “doing it with love”) for unveiled a cute little device, a wireless router that they simply named the Mini. Inside it has a RISC CPU running a custom version of LINUX which handles all of the routing tasks. That’s where it gets interesting. You see, Meraki have pioneered a new technology known as “wireless mesh networking”. You can power up a Mini in anywhere you like, and if there’s another Mini within distance – and these devices can reach nearly half a kilometer, outdoors – it will connect to it, share routing information, and route packets from one to another – all without any need to configure anything at all. Add another, and another, and another, and all of a sudden you’ve created a very wide area WiFi network. Only one of the Minis needs to be connected to the Internet as a gateway; the others will find it and route traffic through it. The Minis are small – and they’re also cheap. For just $49 dollars US, you can order one complete with an Australian wall wart. That’s cheaper than most access points out there, and because of the mesh networking, it does a whole lot more.

But what does the Meraki Mini have to do with the end of the telcos? Just this: a mesh network is a network that’s been subject to the corrosive effects of a network. There is no center anywhere. There’s no hierarcy or preferred route. There’s no gatekeeper anywhere. You can have one gateway, or twenty. You can have one mesh node or a thousand. Just throw another mesh node into the mix, and it’ll all work seamlessly. And mesh networks scale: the dynamics of a network of a thousand mesh repeaters aren’t substantially different from a network with ten. Packets still find their way, with minimal delay.

What this means is that we all have the capability to create our own large-scale, low-cost wireless networks within our grasp. Meraki is already proving this in San Francisco, where Google and Earthlink had been fighting the telcos for years to get a city-wide free wireless network installed. Last week, Earthlink pulled out – they just couldn’t fight the politically power of AT&T. Meanwhile, since February, Meraki has been offering free Meraki Minis to anyone in San Francisco who wanted to donate a little of their own broadband to a free municipal WiFi network. Lately that network has been growing by leaps and bounds – no easy feat in a city which effectively broken up by a series of large hills. The “Free the Net SF” project already has almost 14,000 users – that’s nearly triple the number two months ago – and hundreds of nodes. It is proof that us mob can seize control of the spectrum and use it for our own ends.

That’s fine and dandy for San Francisco, but what about here in Australia, where we’re suffering under a decade-old peering agreement which makes us pay and pay and pay for every bit we take out of the cloud? Which costs us tens of dollars an hour if we want to use a public WiFi hotspot, or, in the case of the Sydney Convention Centre, $800 for an hour’s access? (That was the quote Maxine received when I asked if we could have public WiFi during my talk.) Internet access in Australia has always been about bending over and taking it like a man.

Or at least it was.

But for the past thirty five minutes, you’ve all been bathing in WiFi, which I’m providing to all of you, free of charge. Here’s how I did it: my Nokia N95 connects to Vodofone’s HSDPA network at a couple of megabits per second. That’s piping through the Bluetooth connection of my mate David’s MacBook Pro, which is Internet Sharing the Bluetooth connection out to his Ethernet port. That Ethernet port is connected to a Meraki Mini, which, in turn, is talking to three more Meraki Minis scattered throughout the auditorium. You’ve all got good signal, and (I hope) plenty of bandwidth to blog, or check email, or whatever you might want to do when I get boring.

But here’s the kicker – it’s all running off batteries. The Meraki Minis only use three watts, so I built some simple power supplies for them. The N95 and the MacBook Pro already have their own batteries built into them. The whole thing is good for at least four hours of fun before someone needs to go find the mains. And, because it’s both entirely battery powered and entirely wireless, I can drop it anywhere in Sydney. Were we out-of-doors, I could probably cover a square kilometer, with just these four Minis. Of course, you can always add a few more. Or a thousand more.

Ok, Mark, that’s nice, you might be saying. That’s kind of cool. But big deal. We don’t own Meraki Minis – and we don’t really plan on buying one. That’s fine, and it doesn’t matter at all. You see, a mesh network node isn’t hardware device. It’s software which runs on arbitrary hardware. You can mesh network WiFi. Or Bluetooth. Or infrared, if you wanted to be perverse. It’s software. Which means that every laptop in this room is potentially another mesh network node, listening to the traffic and passing packets along. Consider the density of laptops and desktops (equipped with WiFi adapters) in Sydney, or Melbourne. Now imagine them as nodes within a vast mesh network. That’s where we’re going – and it’s just a software update away.

When I originally composed this section of the talk, I was going to make a prediction: because mesh networks are just software, and because my Nokia N95 has built-in WiFi, I predicted we’d soon see mesh networks for mobile phones. But I don’t need to make that prediction: a Swedish start-up, TerraNet, came out of stealth mode two weeks ago to announce they were doing precisely this. With their software, the mobile doesn’t even need the carrier’s wireless network. Mobiles simply route packets between themselves until they reach their destination. You wonder why the wireless telcos fought so hard and so long to keep WiFi out of mobiles? Was it just to prevent VOIP? Hardly. The telcos have known about mesh networking for a long time. And they know it spells their doom. So watch now, as the network frees itself from the authoritarian forms of those most hierarchical of organizations, the telcos.

But I said it was time to play. And it is. It’s time to put the mob rules to work for you. Because you all need to earn a living. But this world we’re entering is so chaotic, so accidental and unplanned for, everything we believe to be absolutely true is about to be severely tested.

ONE: The mob is everywhere.

There are very few places left on Earth where you can’t receive a text. Ulaanbataar to Timbuktu, Tierra del Fuego to Vladivostok, the network is truly global, and now encompasses the majority of humanity. It’s interesting to note that within the same year that half of humanity is urbanized, half of humanity will have a mobile handset. That’s not coincidental; they’re two sides of the same process. Just as we’ve been lured out from our villages into the vitality and opportunity of the city, we’re being drawn into the unexpected and unpredictable global mob.

TWO: The mob is faster, smarter and stronger than you are.

William Gibson put this much more elegantly when he wrote, “The street finds its own use for things, uses its manufacturers never intended.” No one set out to create arbitrage markets for the fishermen of Kerala; that’s something that emerged from the mob. SMS was meant to be used for emergency messaging; now the world sends several billion texts a day. Just add mobiles, and you get a mob.

You can’t push a mob any more than you can push a rope; you can pull them, lure them, and, if you’re very lucky, dazzle them for a moment or two, but then, inevitably, they’ll move along. That’s bad news for anyone building web sites. The world of mob rules isn’t about sites; it’s about services, things that the street uses and permutes indefinitely. The idea of web sites dates from a time before the network ate hierarchy; sites are places where you go and follow the rules laid down by some information architect. Well, there’s no way to enforce those rules. The first Google Maps mashup didn’t come from Google. Or the second. Or the third. Or the hundredth. Google resisted the mashup. Claimed mashups violated their terms of use. Mashups come from the mob, the street finding its own use for things. The mob pushed on through; Google bowed down and obeyed. The most powerful institution of the Internet era, pushed around like a child’s toy. Ponder that.

THREE: Advertising is a form of censorship.

The Web of 2007 is a house built upon sand. Nearly everything online hopes to fund itself through some sort of advertising and sponsorship. Advertising is a demand that you pay attention – a demand which can no longer be enforced. But the mob doesn’t like advertisements; it either ignores them or actively filters them away. In just the last few weeks, certain sites have been blocked to Firefox because it frequently incorporates the AdBlock extension. That’s upset some institutions which built their business model on the delivery of ads – demanding the attention of the mob. But the mob doesn’t like that. Even worse, for those who are raising a hew and cry about the “theft” of their precious content, the more they scream, the more they thrash about, the stronger the mob becomes. Consider: filesharing has only grown more pervasive despite every attempt of every copyright holder to bring it to heel. Each move has been met with a counter-move. There is no safety in copyright, nor any arguing with the mob. Music and movies are freely and broadly available, and will remain so into the indefinite future. Sadly, we’re now seeing that same, sorry battle repeated in double-time as advertisers – and those dependent upon them – assert an authority they no longer possess.

FOUR: The mob does not need a business model.

But what about your precious business models? How do you get paid for all this work you’re pouring into your projects? I have to be honest with you: the mob simply doesn’t care. The mob doesn’t need a business model. Heck, the mob doesn’t even need all this lovely wireless technology. If we took the mobiles away from the Kerala fishermen, they’d develop something – semaphores, mirrors, smoke signals – to maintain the integrity of the network. Once networks are created, they can not be destroyed. Networks are intrinsically resilient against all sorts of failures, and they’ll simply find a way to route around them. So if your business goes tits up because you built it around an economic model that is not viable in the era of mob rules, it will make no difference – the mob will simply route around you and find another way to do it.

So forget your business models, and remember the golden rule, as expressed by Talking Heads, in the song “Found a Job”:

“If your work isn’t what you love, then something isn’t right.”

If you – you folks in this room, who have the mob in your hands, who play with it as if it were a toy – if you don’t wake up in the morning completely possessed by the knowledge that what you’re doing is simply the coolest thing ever, you need to quit that job and find another. You need to reach into that bucket of dreams and ambitions and pull something out to share with us mob, something that will dazzle and excite us. It might only do so for a moment, but, in that moment, your social stock will rise so high that you’ll never have to worry about putting food on the table or paying the mortgage. You may not retire a millionaire, but you’ll certainly never go hungry. The mob is a meritocracy – admittedly a very perverse and bizarre meritocracy – but it is the one place where “quality will out”. Quality only comes from the marriage of craft and obsession. You have the craft. Embrace your obsessions. You will be rewarded.

FIVE: Make networks happen.

I need to leave you with one concrete example of how this is all going to work, and for this example I’ve selected the last bastion of authority and hierarchy – after everything else has dissolved into the gray goo of the network, one thing will remain. It won’t be government – that’s half gone already. It’s medicine. Medicine is very nearly the oldest of the professions, and has been a closely held monopoly for half a thousand years – closer to a guild than anything resembling a modern profession. Why? Medicine is guarded by the twin bulwarks of complexity and mortality: medicine is rich and deep body of knowledge, and, if you screw it up, you’ll kill yourself or somebody else. While the pursuit of medical knowledge is conducted within the peer-review frameworks of science, that knowledge is closely held. That leaves all of us – as patients – in a distinctly disempowered position when it comes to medicine. But that is all going to change.

In twenty years’ time, one in four Australians will be 65 or older – and I’ll be one of them. There is no medical authority big enough to deal with such a mass of gerontology; the system will be overloaded, and it will begin to collapse. Out of that collapse, we will see those of us who grew up within the Network Era – and I’m among the oldest of that generation – begin to work the network to our own ends. We will not be alone. There will be tens of millions of us – first in the West, then throughout the world – who will be facing the same problems, and searching for the same answers. We might not get to live forever, but we’ll want to die trying. So we’ll set to work, creating a common base of collective intelligence – think Wikipedia, but with a depth of medical knowledge that it doesn’t even begin to explore – together with strong social networking tools that embeds us deep within a network of experts – who may or may not be “board qualified”. I’ll probably come to expect that my GP and other specialists are members of this network – peers who share their expertise, not experts pronouncing solutions. And this network will never leave me; in fact, it will probably watch every move I make, every breath I take, every calorie I eat, and every heartbeat. It sounds Orwellian, but I will want this – because I will see it as a profoundly empowering form of surveillance. In other words, my wellness becomes a quality of my network.

This is not a website. This is not WebMD or Healtheon or a cancer support group, or anything that looks like anything we’ve seen yet. This is a self-organizing quality of the mob, painfully aware of their own accelerating senescence, and fully empowered to do something about it. And it represents an enormous opportunity for you. In just the last paragraph I’ve dropped a half a dozen strong business ideas onto you; but they’re so different from how we’re thinking about the network today that it will probably take some time to work it all out. But the mob won’t wait forever. Remember: it is smarter and faster and stronger than you. You can try to get in front of it, and get picked up by it – I’ve given you more than enough clues to do that – or you can get run down. That choice is yours. But if I’ve learned anything from my study of mob rules, it’s that the future lies in making networks happen. If you do that, there’s a place for you with us mob.

Aftermath

We live in increasingly interesting times. Half of humanity has suddenly dropped in – uninvited and unannounced – crashing our private party, eager to participate in an exploration of the possibilities of human communication. Whatever they want, they’re going to get. That’s the way things work now. Fortunately, they want what we want: better lives for themselves and their families. How they get it – that’s in their hands. We can assist them, but they don’t really need our help. That mob will work it out for themselves. And in the process, everything will change for us, as well.

Journalist Norman Cousins wrote, “Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.” Sound advice, particularly in an time when everything is fluctuating out of control. We can’t know what to do – there’s too much uncertainty and potency in us mob for that – but we can know what not to do. For now, that will have to be enough.

Still, there is one thing I can recommend: have courage and keep moving. Standing still is not an option. The world has changed. The world is changing. The world will change a whole lot more. Good luck.

Three Billion

 
I: Give the Poor a Helping Hand(set)

For at least the past two thousand years, the traders of Arabia have built small, sturdy sailing ships – known as dhows – and set out across the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean, in search of spices, jewels, and precious metals.  The great trading city-states of the Arabian peninsula – such as Bahrain – gained their prominence as the nexus of the routes for these traders.  Throughout all of Western Asia, these cities were famed for their souks – the marketplaces where buyers and sellers from across the known world came together in profitable exchange.


Traders were humanity’s earliest version of a network; the trader carried material – atoms – from one point to another, but, far more significantly, they transmitted information – bits – in their news, rumour, craft techniques and technologies, which were as much their stock-in-trade as any pearls or cinnamon.  The earliest packet-switched network was, quite literally, composed of packet ships.  Each of the cultures which fronted on these seas and oceans learned something from the traders who came to visit; each of these cultures were influenced, in a “spooky action at a distance”, by each other.  The traders took the best of each culture, editing it down to something compact and transportable, and spread that widely.  Even the dhow evolved, as traders encountered other seafaring cultures, adapting the best improvements into their own design until the dhow itself became a potent bit of information, something that, due to their ubiquity in the seas of West and South Asia, was widely copied.

Dhows are still in widespread use today, around Arabia, and all of the coastlines touched by those traders so many years ago.  It’s a time-tested design that can be hand-built using local materials.  As such, dhows well suit the materially disadvantaged cultures of South Asia, and, in particular, the southern Indian state of Kerala.  There, fishermen have taken their dhows to sea for countless hundreds of years, dropped their nets, hauled their catch, then set their sails back to shore.  The Kerala coastline is dotted with fishing villages, each with its own fish market.  On any given day, any number of fishing dhows might dock at a particular village.  Should too many pick the same port, the market has too many fish, and, while the buyers get a bargain, the fisherman won’t even earn enough to cover the cost of taking the dhow to sea.   Meanwhile, just a few kilometers down the coast, another village has been overlooked by the dhows, and there’s no fish available at any price.  This is the way it ever was in Kerala; a chaotic market which never quite meets the needs of buyers and sellers.  

Just a decade ago, as India began its meteoric rise into industrialization, several of its wireless telecoms firms strung the Kerala coast with GSM transceivers.  Radio signals travel by line-of-sight; this means they reach out over the Indian Ocean to a distance bounded by the curvature of the Earth – around 25 kilometers.  While handsets are, in a relative sense, quite expensive for Indians – they cost about a month’s earnings for a fisherman (or the earned equivalent of nearly AUD $3000) – one relatively wealthy fisherman bought a handset and took it to sea.  At some point, during one of those trips to sea, he got a call or text from the shore – probably something family related.  In the course of that interaction, the fisherman learned that there was a fishing village completely without fish, and ready to pay almost any price for it.  That day, the fisherman headed for that port, and made a tidy profit.  Perhaps, on the next day, he made a few calls, while still out to sea, to find out which village was wanting for fish.  And so on.

This would not have gone unnoticed by the other fishermen in Kerala; they are a community, and while they compete, they also freely share information amongst themselves – that’s what communities do.  The news of this innovation would have spread among them very quickly.  And, despite the staggering cost, each of the fishermen – even the poorest among them – were soon sporting GSM handsets.  Each day, as the fishermen assess their catch, there’s a flurry of communication between these fishermen and the fish markets dotting the coast, as the fishermen learn where their catch will get the best price.  

Kerala in 2007 is a different place.  The markets always have enough fish; no market goes wanting.  But there’s always just enough fish to guarantee a good price – there are only rarely gluts in the market.  The fishermen are getting a good price for their fish; buyers and sellers are both satisfied.  And the fishermen are earning more money; so much more that a handset – as expensive as it is – will be paid for in just two month’s time.  

How did this happen?  Using wireless communications, the fishermen and fish sellers created their own market, practicing the time-honored principles of supply & demand – just like any electronic bourse in the industrialized world.  But this developed on its own, by itself.  It simply emerged, naturally, through the interaction of people and mobiles.

This was not predicted.  Nor was it predicted that farmers in Kenya would use mobiles to phone ahead to the various village and regional markets to learn the going prices for their maize and sorghum, so they too could make markets and maximize their profits.  Or that the spice traders of India and Arabia would use SMS to create far-flung auction networks, their own emergent eBay.  Yet all of these – and much, much more – are now happening.  When you add mobile communications to any culture, a now-recognizable pattern comes into play: some person, through their interaction with the handset, improves their economic fitness; this behavior is then widely copied through the culture.  It happened a thousand years ago, via the great trading cultures of Araby; it’s happening again today.  

Mimesis is the essential human condition; we have recently learned that the one thing that separates us from the chimpanzees is not our ability to use tools, but rather, our ability, from our very youngest years, to imitate behavior.  Behaviors which increase our economic fitness are strongly selected for; we adopt them quickly and pass them along to our peers and children.  

We now know, beyond any argument, that mobile communications inherently increase our economic fitness.  A paper published last month in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, titled The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector takes a look at the Kerala phenomenon in detail, and determines, through an elegant analysis:

The adoption of mobile phones by fishermen and wholesalers was associated with a dramatic reduction in price dispersion, the complete elimination of waste, and near-perfect adherence to the Law of One Price.  Both consumer and producer welfare increased.


The lesson of Kerala is not specific; there is a general economic principle at work.  It is known that the lifeblood of any market is information; when you improve the ability of participants in a market to communicate, you remove many of the inequities which plague markets everywhere.  It has now been demonstrated that such inequities are a major part of the reason why poor populations remain poor.  Simply by improving their ability to communicate, you can improve a person’s economic fitness.  This assertion doesn’t strain credulity: imagine trying to trade at a market in a foreign land; without access to the common language, you’d fail to trade, or, worse, be taken advantage of.  The development of ‘pigins’ – simplified languages – go hand-in-hand with the spread of trading cultures.  Savvy?

The phenomenon officially recognized in Kerala had already been de facto recognized by organizations which participate in microfinance.  Microfinance allows the poorest of the poor access to the minimal amounts of investment funds needed to dramatically improve their economic fitness.  These loans – which can be for as little as the equivalent of ten or twenty dollars – allow the applicant to purchase something which dramatically improves their ability to earn a living – a sewing machine, a milk cow, or – more and more – a mobile handset.  The oldest of these microfinance institutions, Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, found itself lending out so much of its funds for mobiles that it recently started its own telecoms firm, Grameen Phone.  In the first days of microfinance, a loan for a mobile handset would allow that individual to rent time on the handset to the other villages within that community, creating a pervasive, low-cost mobile phone service.  But, as we now know, interaction with the mobile handset produces a rapidly-reinforcing series of feedbacks which end, inevitably, with individuals owning their own handset.  Today, Grameen and other microfinance lenders make loans to individuals who sell new and used mobile handsets, repair broken handsets, and vend prepaid phone cards.

Sometime within the next few days, there will be three billion mobile phone subscribers.  Perhaps 10% of those are subscribers who have multiple accounts, so there are roughly 2.7 billion individual mobile subscribers at present.  It took about ten years to get to the first billion mobile subscribers; about 3 1/2 half years to get to the second billion, and about eighteen months to get to the third billion.  This process is accelerating along the all-too-familiar curve popularized in Crossing the Chasm.  We’re in the midst of an accelerating adoption of mobile communication, and soon – sometime around the middle of next year – half of humanity will own a mobile handset.  In a decade’s time we’ll have gone from half the world never having made a telephone call to half the world owning their own phone.

This is shocking on two grounds: first, there is a deeply-held belief that mobile handsets are the extraneous accessories of a consumption-oriented Western lifestyle, that they are, in short, “bling.”  The hyperbole surrounding the June launch of Apple’s iPhone makes this case convincingly.  For us, here in the West, mobiles are status symbols.  How could the expensive and unnecessary status symbols of the West be of any utility to the two thirds of the world who are, by OECD standards, poor?  Yet, against this, consider the Nokia 1100, introduced in 2003, and designed to be both very inexpensive and – with its entirely sealed case – durable: dirt, dust, and water-resistant.  Last year Nokia had sold its two hundred millionth 1100.  To put that in context, compare it to the iPod – Nokia has sold twice as many 1100s as Apple has sold iPods – in half the time.  It is, by far, the most successful consumer electronics gadget in human history.  Yet, because it is not sexy, because it doesn’t have bling, because it is aimed precisely at those emerging markets in the poor corners of the world, Nokia’s unprecedented milestone went mostly unnoticed.  In the West we are guilty of a willful ignorance; we’ve made our mind up about the value of pervasive wireless communication – that it is a toy to the rich, but worthless to the poor.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  Pervasive wireless communication is of far, far more value to the poor than the rich.

Second, and what I will focus on through the rest of this paper, this rapid deployment of pervasive wireless communication will have unprecedented and largely unpredictable effects on human culture.  We already have some sense of how little we know: we have the example of Kerala – absolutely unpredicted, though, in retrospect, it seems perfectly obvious.  It is not that we are blind to the human capacity for self-organization and emergent behavior – indeed, we practice these behaviors every day – rather, it is that we have never made a study of them, and we certainly don’t understand what happens when this capacity is amplified nearly infinitely by pervasive wireless communication.  We’re going to have to learn all of this, and learn it quickly, because along with the improvement in human economic fitness, another part of the same package, comes a new capacity for chaos, as innate human capacities for both good and bad are amplified almost beyond recognition.


Part Two: The Triumph of Netocracy

In the wake of the May 1968 riots in France, two philosophers stepped back to do an meta-analysis of the cultural processes which led to such a crisis.  France was not under threat; the previous twenty years had seen the longest and strongest sustained growth French history.  Yet the well-educated university-attending children of the bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie were out on the streets, fighting the police, burning cars, striking and shutting down these same universities which freely offered them an education.  Why?  How had this happened?  

Over the next decade, these philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guartari published a two-volume work, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which argued that the riots and youthful revolt were a reaction to a model of authority and hierarchy which the soixante-huitards rejected as inimical to their humanity.  In the first volume, Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari looked at how all structures of authority descend from ancient forms of patriarchy, and that the natural reaction to this authority is the Oedipal desire to kill the father – the archetypal authority figure.  Anti-Oedipus presented a diagnosis of the cultural illness, but it was the second volume, A Thousand Plateaus, which attempted to be prescriptive, outlining a methodology which might cure the patient.  In opposition to hierarchy and authority, which Anti-Oedipus asserted produced a “schizimogenesis”, a rift in the fabric of human being, A Thousand Plateaus asserted the value of the rhizome, the horizontal stem which sends its shoots out laterally.  The rhizome is the antithesis of hierarchy, not because it contradicts it (which is in itself an authoritative position), but rather, because the rhizome presents an alternative to it.  In a collection of rhizomes – that is, a network – there is no top, and no bottom, no master and no slave.
 
Everything and everyone exists within what Deleuze and Guattari identified as the milieu, the middle:

The middle is by no means an average; on the contrary, it is where things pick up speed. Between things does not designate a localizable relation going from one thing to another and back again, but a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle.

 
When A Thousand Plateaus was published, a quarter-century ago, it shook the foundations of philosophy.  Much of the “postmodernism” which cultural conservatives sneer at comes from the pages of the that text.  (This reaction is perfectly in keeping with the recognized conservative tendency to bow to authority, and demonize anything that represents a threat to that authority.)  Yet, although the text presented a sort of “map” of a territory free from the schizimogenic qualities of authority and hierarchy, Deleuze and Guattari were philosophers, not revolutionaries: they did not present a battle plan to manage the transition from hierarchy to milieu.  As it turns out, that roadmap proved unnecessary.  It’s not that the ideas within A Thousand Plateaus were fruitless, but rather, at just the time both philosophers passed from the world, the rhizome rose and subsumed us all into its milieu.  Where is this rhizome?  All around us, now: pervasively, wirelessly, instantly accessible to nearly half the planet.  The rhizome is the network.

This is not an original idea; it has been explored by many philosophers, though, in the earliest flourish of the network era, fifteen years ago, it received more attention than it does today.  At that time, when the frontiers of network culture were first glimpsed, anything seemed possible, including something as profound the end of authority.  But as the network was colonized by hierarchical forces – which had, in themselves, absorbed some of the lessons of the network – it seemed that, for all of its power, the network would simply recapitulate the forms of authority on an even more pervasive basis.  This assessment was premature.

Although the network provides instantaneous connectivity, network effects are not in themselves instantaneous.  These network effects are non-deterministic, and depend on the evolving interactive relationships between the individuals connected through the networks.  It takes time for people, as the loci of agency within the network, to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the network, and translate those experiential lessons into ontological frameworks which guide behavior.  Furthermore, the network is not one thing; it is a collection of things, and it is a growing collection of things.  The network of 2007 is not the same thing as the network of 1993.  This is in some small part due to the evolution of the technology of the network.  It is, more significantly, due to the development of new human behaviors and techniques for using the network.  These techniques, where proven successful, are then rapidly disseminated by the network, and which act as the catalyst for the development of other behaviors and techniques, which, when proven successful, are disseminated by the network.  This is a self-reinforcing process, which had led, in fairly short order, to an enormous and entirely real sense of acceleration around both the network and the idea of the network.
  
This acceleration, like the acceleration of bodies in space, produces its own inertial effects – “gravity,” if you will.  As acceleration increases, gravity increases, weighing down the objects which possess mass.  In this case, and in this context, the massive objects are hierarchies.  Hierarchies are being dragged down by this pseudo-gravitational force, and the life is slowly being crushed out of them.  This is not a political statement: it is a diagnosis of the present.  

Institutions, as the embodiment of hierarchies within human culture, are at this moment facing the growing threat of the network while, at the same time, their ability to move, to adapt, to maintain their self-integrity, is increasingly constrained by a force which makes them slower, heavier, and weaker.  They are more focused on breathing than doing.  This will not change.  There is no magic cure which will revivify hierarchy.  The network is too pervasive, too important, too laden with ever-increasing utility to be overcome, or forgotten.  The cultural incorporation of network ontology was the fatal crisis for hierarchy.  And that point has already passed.

Although I may have overstretched a my metaphors in the preceding paragraphs, it is easy enough to give a few of examples which illustrate my argument:

  • Wikipeida vs Britannica: the “crowdsourced” encyclopedia is now, on average, at least as accurate as the hierarchically produced, peer-reviewed production, and covers a far greater breadth of subject material than Britannica.
  • Television and film distribution: since the advent of Napster in 1999, all attempts to control the distribution of media have met with increasing resistance.  The audience now moves to circumvent any copy-restrictions as soon as they are introduced by copyright holders.
  • Politics: The Attorney General of the United States of America resigned last week, because of the efforts of a few, very dedicated bloggers.

There has never been an interaction between the network and the hierarchy which the hierarchy has won.  Not a single example.  Even the “Great Firewall of China”, which, until last month, was the sterling example for the fans of authority, has now been revealed as a failed technical and cultural project.  Wang Guoqing, the Chinese Vice-Minister for Information was quoted by Reuters, saying: “It has been repeatedly proved that information blocking is like walking into a dead end.”

All of this flows from Gilmore’s Law, which states, “The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”  In light of what we now understand about the network’s relationship to hierarchy, it should now be reframed as, “The net interprets hierarchy as damage and routes around it.

Though it long dominated the organization of human affairs, hierarchy has had its day in the sun, and is passing from the scene.  The pervasive presence of the network killed it.  We now need to focus on the forms which are rising to replace it.


III: The Dictatorship of the Wikitariat

Wikipedia is the poster child for the age of Netocracy.  Its peer-produced, user-generated, freely-editable, open-source collective intelligence hits so many of the tick boxes of the network era that it seems very nearly a miracle suddenly appeared in our midst.  In its first years, Wikipedia was more an act of faith than a useful reference tool.  The continuous efforts of a dedicated community of believers translated a vision for a commonweal of knowledge into reality.  Once it acquired sufficient content – again, best conceptualized as gravity – it began to attract readers, who, in turn, became editors and creators, adding more weight, which in turn attracted more readers, more editors and creators, more content, in a virtuous cycle of positive feedback which seemed to have no where to go but up, up, up.
 
Wikipedia Article Growth 2001 - 2007 
I have some shocking news to report: it hasn’t turned out that way.  Yes, Wikipedia is still growing, but – for at least the last year – the rate of growth has dramatically slowed down.  The acceleration is actually negative.  Wikipedia’s growth is slowing down.  Why did this happen?  Just a few weeks ago Wikipedia passed two million articles in English (all these figures concern the English-language version of Wikipedia), and yes, it will grow for some time into the future.  But the growth of articles in Wikipedia should be steadily accelerating; it should be growing faster as it grows bigger.  It was certainly doing that for several years.  What’s changed?  Is it possible that there are only two million topics of interest to the English-language users of Wikipedia?  That seems unlikely, if only because Wikipedia is the outstanding example of the power and beauty of the miscellaneous.  Yes, all the major topics have been covered, but there’s absolutely no way that two million entries can begin to explore the depth of human experience.  It’s inconceivable that this is all there is to say about Life, Culture, the Universe and Everything.  Nor do I believe it likely that we have “crossed the chasm” into the downward slope – which would imply that four million article entries would pretty much represent the sum total of the English-language experience.

The true answer is far simpler, and, in its own way, far more dire: it is getting harder to create a new article in Wikipedia.  One can still type in a topic, and be presented with an opportunity to create a page if nothing exists under that heading.  It is technically as easy as ever to create a new article in Wikipedia.  It’s what happens after that article is created that has become the sticking point, the sclerotic plaque which is afflicting Wikipedia.  Wikipedia, newly powerful, has engendered the production of its own elites, its own hierarchies – individuals and networks of individuals who have proven, through time, dedication and contribution, that their opinion matters.  These individuals – the Wikipedians – have taken on the task of keeping Wikipedia concise, correct and pure.  While each of these definitions is highly provisional and contestable, it is the last of these, purity, which is causing Wikipedia the greatest problems.  The Wikipedians themselves don’t use that term – in fact, they would object to its usage – but their increasingly dogmatic application of self-derived guidelines for the determination of the “value” or “worth” of knowledge has a nearly religious dimension.  Wikipedians, in this context, are fighting a battle between the forces of chaos, on one hand, who seek to drown the meaningful information in a sea of miscellany and meaninglessness; while on another front, Wikipedians wage a constant war against special interests who seek to shape meaning to their own ideological ends.  This continuing and ever-increasing stress has made the Wikipedians increasingly conservative.  Wikipedians are coming to rely upon themselves more and more; the networked milieu which gave them vitality is rapidly fossilizing into a hierarchy, where certain individuals and groups of individuals assert control over specific topics and articles.  These are the gatekeepers who must be appeased before an article can be approved, or an edit retained.

In the space of just six years, Wikipedia has managed to recapitulate the entire hierarchical structure which frames Britannica, albeit on a much broader basis, but to the same ends, and, in the long term, with the same results. Individuals and organizations are already forking Wikipedia and MediaWiki to produce their own works: Conservapedia, though laughable in some respects, is at least an honest attempt to right the perceived wrongs of the Wikipedians.  Citizendium has taken as its basic premise that hierarchy must be embraced; Citizendium won’t need to grow its own hierarchy, as Wikipedia did – it will have it from the very beginning. 

The drive to keep Wikipedia pure is interesting and indicative of a certain vitality, but in the long run it is also entirely pointless.  You can not censor Wikipedia; or rather, if do attempt to do so, the net will simply route around you.  The chaos and miscellany that Wikipedians reject are, in fact, the lifeblood of a universal encyclopedia.  They will find a home, somewhere: if not in Wikipedia, then in something else, which will begin to grow in ways that Wikipedia refuses to, until it becomes a gravitational center in its own right, and this thing-that-follows-Wikipedia will perform a dance on Wikipedia’s desiccated corpse, much as the Wikipedians have done with respect to Britannica.  The human desire to create order from chaos – this noble desire which is strangling Wikipedia – seems perfectly natural to us; we believe order is a prerequisite to utility.  But we longer have the luxury of thinking in those terms.  Our present and our future are all about the newly empowered netocratic forces loosed in the world.


Conclusion: The War of All Against All

An SMS forwarded through a Chinese city can result in an anti-government demonstration – even when the government censors the messages passed through the state-owned telecoms firm.  Another SMS can send a crowd of white supremacists out to foment a riot in Cronulla.  A ringtone sampled from an illegally taped telephone conversation can bring down a head of state.  A meticulously photographed copy of every page of a purloined copy of the last Harry Potter can be distributed around the world in minutes, days before its publication.  There is no control anywhere in this, no center, no authority.  Things just happen.  In all of this, like-minded individuals come together, across the networks, and, through this “spooky action at a distance,” act in a coordinated fashion even while scattered to the four corners of the Earth.  It might look like Wikipedia – or it could look like al Qaeda.  It matters not: the same forces are at work.  

As we bring individuals into the network, we grant them the perfect tool to resist authority, to hack hierarchy, to make their own way as fully empowered individuals within a globally networked body politic.  For this reason, the 21st century will look a lot like a continuous, low-level civil war.  Imagine the “flame wars” of USENET or even Wikipedia’s discussion pages, amplified and shared, globally and instantaneously.  We already live in this world: a student journalist’s encounter with a taser makes its way onto YouTube minutes after the event; a politician’s racist epithet ruins his career – even without any TV cameras to broadcast the slur; a shadowy, fragmentary, Sharia-inspired resistance cell in Iraq films its latest IED attack, and shares the results with its unknown yet equally-well-connected co-conspirators.  This is the shape of the 21st century.  It is chaotic, and no amount of hand-wringing or wishing for a strong “daddy” of an authority figure will grant any of us any safety whatsoever.  All authority has been hacked.  The Net killed Daddy.

Finally, the net itself represents the last authority, the last hierarchy.  The telecoms firms themselves, and the networks they control, are the last, best hope for hierarchy.  The physical implementation of a telecoms network – where all the end nodes flow though a series of concentrators to a central hub – is the word of hierarchy made flesh.  Although networks have engendered the collapse of hierarchy, the agents of that collapse – these telecoms firms – have been strangely resistant to these same qualities of those networks.  But not for very much longer.  With the recent advent of mesh networking, the networks themselves are now becoming as radically restructured, radically decentralized, and will, in themselves, be as chaotic as the culture they engender.  

Just as the audience seized control over both the creation and distribution of media, this planetary mob is asserting control over the bandwidth and spectrum which have, until now, been the sole province of telcos and governments.  We are gearing up to another fight, hierarchy against network (even now in its opening rounds, in the disguise of “net neutrality”), and once again, if history is any guide, the hierarchy will draw back from the field bloodied and defeated.  At that point, networks will be the physical embodiment of the process they engender.  The network is already pervasive; soon it will also be entirely rhizomic.  The triumph of the network will be complete.