Power vs People(Now look what YOU made me do!)

*

In the beginning, there is perfect Power, Power with a Thousand Faces: pharaoh, padishah, emperor, king, Lord Protector, Generalissimo, El Presidente.   Power pure and uninterrupted.  We have but to think the word and it is so.  We are in a world apart, protected by G*d, by ritual, by blades and dumb muscle.  Nothing enters save by Our permission, and then only when stripped naked, bound, and bowing.  This is the perfect relation of perfect power: absolute and absolutely asymmetric.

While we have him questioned, Our leading economist relates a report, recently received, tying the wealth of nations to their connectivity.  The people need no one else, he tells Me with his dying breath, but We need the money.  He spoke the truth: We need the instruments of Power to reinforce Our reality, and these do not come cheaply.  Our remaining advisers, chastened and respectful, suggest beginning with television – projecting Our Presence into the homes of Our people – and an auction (to Our most loyal friends) of radio spectrum suitable for mobile communication.

Our eyes, downcast, unable to look upon the Power except in its perfect portraits, had never seen the frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command that cameras captured, passions read and broadcast: a heart that mocked us, a hand always raised in reproach, as if we, ungrateful children, needed the constant admonition of the rod.  This plain as nakedness: all the smooth words of newscasters, commentators, spokespeople and ministers could not remove that stain from Power.  Each thought ourselves alone in this treason, and quickly burying it beneath other, safer thoughts.

Hidden truths undermine us in our humour, moments of lèse majesté, whispered giggles hidden behind our hands, scribbled graffiti above the pissoir, so shocking they made us gasp, and then, thereafter, we knew them as truth.  Other lines joined them, more foul, funny, shocking and true, a vast fabric of written rebellion, expressions of everything we had always known.  On the day the first text message arrives, with a joke that could get us killed, we delete it – though not before we forward it along to a few of our friends, who send it along, who send it along.  Suddenly the secret insult is common knowledge.

**

Those who mock Us seek to destroy Us.  Those loyal to Us scrub treasonous filth from walls and streets.  We secure and question anyone nearby, their confessions Our entry points into a hidden nest of radicals, revolutionaries, and anarchists.  These We monitor closely, tapping their mobiles, looking to whom they contact, building a map from these connections, tracing the outlines of their conspiracies.  Our friends who own the telcos willingly hand over the information which spell out comings and goings of these traitors.  In one sudden strike we take them, whole, to summary judgement.  Treason troubles us no more.

They came in the night, roused us from sleep, and took him away.  We never saw him again.  Without a body, how could we mourn?  How could we bury our grief?  We could not speak of it, lest we ourselves disappear.  Someone – we know not whom – set up a memorial on Facebook, inviting those who knew him to share themselves.  We stayed away, but were told that one, then two, five, ten, fifteen, fifty, hundreds and finally uncountable thousands came to share; those who knew him, and those who only knew what he believed in.  We were afraid, but content.

Those who love traitors are traitors themselves.  We have no love for them, but We are thankful for their foolishness.  Facebook reveals them to Us, and everyone they know.  Treason breeds treason.  Traitors hang together.  We friend, and listen, and draw another map of another conspiracy until the picture, finely detailed, demands action.  Another night of gathering, judgement and cleansing.  This ends that.  There are not even whispers against Us.

Internet dating – has there been a greater invention?  Men and women who would not normally find one another can seek each other out in the privacy of their own homes.  Here, this one is pretty.  Such lovely green eyes.  And what a lovely green jacket.  And beautiful fingers, held up in such an attractive pose, count them: one, two.  And the photo, taken in the Capitol Square?  How interesting.  I’ll tell all my friends that I have a date, a Green Date, in Capitol Square, on the 2nd.  Yes.  I’ll tell them all.  They’ll want a date as well.

***

Inconceivable! They gather in My capitol, in My square, in their tens of thousands, to make demands. Impudence!  They should thank the heavens for their homes and daily bread.  Ingratitude!  By what witchcraft have they come together?  We tapped the phones, blocked the websites, and still they come, in their hundreds of thousands.  Some advise it must all be unplugged – at once – but others tell Us we have grown too dependent on the network.  Flip the switch, and We blind Ourselves, dragging Our loyal subjects into darkness, Our economy into ruin.  But the storm must be stopped, the plug pulled.

It didn’t surprise us when the network failed: half amazed it took so long. We found ourselves thrown back into another time: before instantly, before everywhere, before all-at-once.  But lessons learned lingered, taking on different forms: graffiti in hidden places, posters in public, chalk laid out on the sidewalk so anyone could add their own voice, so we could to move together, in unity.  This grew into a code: jumbled letters and numbers in text messages and spray painted street signs, which told us where and when.

And still they keep coming, in their millions.  How?  Without eyes to see and ears to hear, how do they know?  Our friends grow concerned, see Us sinking beneath this rising storm, but We apprehend the root of Our troubles, and will root it out.  This all began when We foolishly permitted our people to connect.  That must now stop, to preserve Us. Against the wishes of My friends – who will lose their fortunes so We might maintain control – We have mobile networks shut down, and wait for the inevitable collapse, as those against Us lose contact.

It took a few moments to realize that these handheld lifelines had become useless lumps of silicon and plastic.  It seemed like silence had descended in the midst of the crowd.  Then someone said, ‘Here, take this’, and gave me something that brought my mobile back to life, allowed it to connect with everyone else in the crowd, and to the world beyond.  In lieu of thanks I was asked to pass it along, and did, with the same instruction, so it spread like wildfire.  We could see around the tanks, around the police, around everything, moving faster, moving everywhere, moving NOW.

The guards join with us as we storm the palace.

****

We The People, in order to form a more perfect union, choose from amongst ourselves those fit to represent our franchise.  The elections, free, fair and hard-fought, divide, inevitably, along a spectrum from left to right.  But whatever ideology, no one argues the need to reframe power as governance, making a mystery of the obvious, placing it beyond reproach. Power – however dressed – draws those who lust for it, who benefit from the application of it, and this, too obvious, would ruin everything, igniting another Revolution.  In secrecy and silence, safety.

You can only be told ‘No!’ so many times before the blood begins to boil and overflows into action.  They’ll let us march in the streets now, but leave us impotent at the seats of government, demanding ‘process’ and ‘decorum’.  How can we be polite as our future is stolen away? This shell of democracy – perfect in form but crowded with corruption – needs to be punctured, so the rot beneath the skin can be exposed and excised.  Thankfully, someone with conscience – sick to death with the stench of power – comes forward with evidence enough to condemn everyone, bringing them down.

Madness!  How can anything be stable when everything is exposed? How can we guide the nation into prosperity with saboteurs underfoot? Incredible. The government will go on, will nail down roof nearly shorn off by these ‘revelations’.  We will ensure those who work for the government remain true to it: by oath and affirmation, surveillance and monitoring, force of law and pain of imprisonment.  Only when guaranteed privacy can we work to preserve the continued security of the nation.  It’s in these moments our democracy proves itself supple enough to meet the challenges of our times.  We can all congratulate ourselves on a crisis successfully overcome.

They threw him in jail – of course – claiming espionage, charging treason, crying for his head.  The message was clear, and silence descended, a curtain protecting them from us.  Behind it, they grow deaf and arrogant, manufacturing a managed dissent, bringing their full power down upon on anything else.  Still, a friend showed me something: a magic box.  Anything placed into that box finds finds its way to magazine editors and newspaper reporters and bloggers and loudmouthed radicals, no questions asked, in perfect anonymity.  That could prove irresistible.

*****

If secrets they want, secrets they shall have, by the hundreds of thousands, a tsunami broken silences, signifying nothing.  All of the effluvia and trivia of state, dressed up as meaning, each item seeming significant, demanding more attention than even a planet of mischief-makers, continuously clicking through pages, could possibly hope to digest.  Let them chew on that as the government draws these paranoids closer, tantalizing them with the shadows of conspiracies, just beyond the horizons of reason, yet believable enough that they will inevitably overreach into folly.  As they implode in a ruin of accusations and mistrust, the government will step in, bringing order to chaos, carrying on as before.

Do I know you?  How do I know you?  Who knows you that I know?

We have two choices before us: closely bound, connected at a thousand points of past and presence; or atomized, invisible, and ANONYMOUS.  On one hand, the tribe; on the other, legion.  The tribe is loyal, safe and steadfast, the legion strong, but mercurial and diffident.  We can subvert from within, or pervert from without.  In the right circumstances, we might even do both at once.  We might not always get our way, but we can resist, redirect, repurpose, and sometimes win.  Success is our greatest threat: the enemy learns, and nothing works twice.

Credentials, please.  Access granted.  You are now logged into the government.  You will need to re-authorize your credentials every fifteen minutes to prevent unauthorized access.  Today’s status report: sixty-five percent of systems are functioning normally; twenty percent are undergoing integrity checks, ten percent are under persistent attack, and five percent are compromised.  As a security measure your access has been temporarily restricted.  Please confine your activities to the indicated systems.  WARNING: There has been an intrusion detection. All system access has been restricted until further notice.  Thank you and have a nice day!

I ask for a password.  It comes along a few hours later, buried in the back-end bits of a cute little image of a wet kitten.  That’s a start, enough to log in.  But what then, as the network watches my every move, measuring me against the real person behind this account?  How should I behave? I whisper. Just above the throbbing dubstep soundtrack of this shooter, my fellow players feed me replies which could be actions within the gameworld – or something else entirely.  I make my moves, as advised, and when I see WARNING: There has been an intrusion detection, I know we have won.

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.

People Power

Introduction: Magic Pudding

To effect change within governmental institutions, you need to be conscious of two important limits.  First, resources are always at a premium; you need to work within the means provided.  Second, regulatory change is difficult and takes time.  When these limitations are put together, you realize that you’ve been asked to cook up a ‘magic pudding’.  How do you work this magic?  How do you deliver more for less without sacrificing quality?

In any situation where you are being asked to economize, the first and most necessary step is to conduct an inventory of existing assets.  Once you know what you’ve got, you gain an insight into how these resources could be redeployed.  On some occasions, that inventory returns surprising results.

There’s a famous example, from thirty years ago, involving Disney.  At that time, Disney was a nearly-bankrupt family entertainment company.  Few went to see their films; the firm’s only substantial income came from its theme parks and character licensing.  In desperation, Disney’s directors brought on Michael J. Eisner as CEO.  Would Eisner need to sell Disney at a rock-bottom price to another entertainment company, or could it survive as an independent firm? First things first: Eisner sent his right-hand man, Frank Wells, off to do an inventory of the company’s assets.  There’s a vault at Disney, where they keep the master prints of all of the studio’s landmark films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Bambi, A Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, and so on.  When Wells walked into the Vault, he couldn’t believe his eyes.  Every few minutes he called Eisner at his desk to report, “I’ve just found another hundred million dollars.”

Disney had the best library of family films created by any studio – but kept them locked away, releasing them theatrically at multi-year intervals designed to keep them fresh for another generation of children.  That worked for forty years, but by the mid-1980s, with the VCR moving into American homes, Eisner knew more money could be made by taking these prize assets and selling them to every family in the nation – then the world.  That rediscovery of locked-away assets was the beginning of the modern Disney, today the most powerful entertainment brand on the planet.

When I began to draft this essay, I felt as constrained as Disney, pre-Eisner.  How do you bake a magic pudding?  Eventually, I realized that we actually have incredible assets at our disposal, ones which didn’t exist just a few years ago. Let’s go on a tour of this hidden vault.  What we now have available to us, once we learn how to use it, will change everything about the way we work, and the effectiveness of our work.

 

I: What’s Your Number?

The latest surveys put the mobile subscription rate in Australia between 110-115%.  Clearly, this figure is a bit misleading: we don’t give children mobiles until they’re around eight years old, nor the most senior of seniors own them in overwhelming numbers.  The vast middle, from eight to eighty, do have mobiles.  Many of us have more than one mobile – or some other device, like an iPad, which uses a mobile connection for wireless data.  This all adds up.  Perhaps one adult in fifty refuses to carry a mobile around with them most of the time, so out of a population of nearly 23 million, we have about 24 million mobile subscribers.

This all happened in an instant; mobile ownership was below 10% in 1993, but by 1997 Australia had passed 50% saturation.  We never looked back.  Today, everyone has a number – at least one number – where they can be reached, all the time.  Although Australia has had telephones for well over a hundred years, a mobile is a completely different sort of device.

A landline connects you to a place: you ring a number to a specific telephone in a specific location.  A mobile connects you to a person. On those rare occasions when someone other than a mobile’s owner answers it, we experience a moment of great confusion.  Something is deeply disturbing about this, a bit like body-snatching.  The mobile is the person; the person is the mobile. When we forget the mobile at home – rushed or tired or temporarily misplaced – we feel considerably more vulnerable.

The mobile is the lifeline which connects us into our community: our family, our friends, our co-workers.  This lifeline is pervasive and continuous.  All of us are ‘on call’ these days, although nearly all of the time this feels more like a relief than a burden.  When the phone rings at odd hours, it’s not the boss, but a friend or family member who needs some help.  Because we’re continuously connected, that help is always there, just ten digits away. We’ve become very attached to our mobiles, not in themselves, but because they represent assistance in its purest form.

As a consequence, we are away from our mobiles less and less; they spend the night charging on our bedstands, and the days in our pockets or purses.

Last year, a young woman approached me after a talk, and said that she couldn’t wait until she could have her mobile implanted beneath her skin, becoming a part of her.  I asked her how that would be any different than the world we live in today.

This is life in modern Australia, and we’re not given to think about it much, except when we ponder whether we should be texting while we drive, or feel guilty about checking emails when we should really be listening to our partner.  This constant connectivity forms a huge feature of the landscape, a gravitational body which gently lures us toward it.

This connectivity creates a platform – just like a computer’s operating system – for running applications.  These applications aren’t software, they’re ‘peopleware’.  For example, fishermen off of India’s Kerala coast call around before they head into port, looking for the markets most in need of their catch.  Farmers in Kenya make inquiries to their local markets, looking for the best price for their vegetables. Barbers in Pakistan post a sign with their mobile number, buy a bicycle, and go clipper their clients in their homes.  The developing world has latched onto the mobile because it makes commerce fluid, efficient, and much more profitable.

If the mobile does that in India and Kenya and Pakistan, why wouldn’t it do the same thing for us, here in Australia?  It does lubricate our social interactions: no one is late anymore, just delayed.  But we haven’t used the platform to build any applications to leverage the brand-new fact of our constant connectivity.  We can give ourselves a pass, because we’ve only just gotten here.  But now that we are here, we need to think hard about how to use what we’ve got.  This is our hundred-million dollar moment.

 

II: Sharing is Daring

A few years ago, while I waited at the gate for a delayed flight out of San Francisco International Airport, I grew captivated with the information screens mounted above the check-in desks.  They provided a wealth of information that wasn’t available from airline personnel; as my flight changed gates and aircraft, I learned of this by watching the screen.  At one point, I took my mobile out of my pocket and snapped a photo of the screen, sharing the photo with my friends, so they could know all about my flying troubles.  After I’d shot a second photo, a woman approached me, and carefully explained that she was talking to another passenger on our delayed flight, a woman who worked for the US Government, and that this government employee thought my actions looked very suspicious.

Taking photos in an airport is cause for alarm in some quarters.

After I got over my consternation and surprise, I realized that this paranoid bureaucrat had a point. With my mobile, I was breaching the security cordon carefully strung around America’s airports.  It pierced the veil of security which hid the airport from the view of all except those who had been carefully screened.  We see this same sensitivity at the Immigration and Customs facilities at any Australian airport – numerous signs inform you that you’re not allowed to use your mobile.  Communication is dangerous.  Connecting is forbidden.

We tend to forget that sharing information is a powerful act, because it’s so much a part of our essential nature as human beings.

In November, Wikileaks shared a massive store of information previously held by the US State Department; just one among a quarter million cables touched off a revolt in Tunisia, leading to revolutions in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Jordan.  Sharing changes the world.  Actually, sharing is the foundation of the human world.  From the moment we are born, we learn about the world because everyone around us shares with us what they know.

Suddenly, there are no boundaries on our sharing.  All of us, everywhere – nearly six billion of us – are only a string of numbers away.  Type them in, wait for an answer, then share anything at all.  And we do this.  We call our family to tell them we’re ok, our friends to share a joke, and our co-workers to keep coordinated.  We’ve achieved a tremendously expanded awareness and flexibility that’s almost entirely independent of distance.  That’s the truth at the core of this hundred-million dollar moment.

All of your clients, all of your patients, all of your stakeholders – and all of you – are all unbelievably well connected.  By the standards of just a generation ago, we are all continuously available.  Yet we still organize our departments and deliver our services as if everyone were impossibly far-flung, hardly ever in contact.

Still, the world is already busy, reorganizing itself to take advantage of all this hyperconnectivity.

I’ve already mentioned the fishermen and the farmers, but as I write this, I’ve just read an article titled “US Senators call for takedown of iPhone apps that locate DUI (RBT) checkpoints.”  You can buy a smartphone app which allows you to report on a checkpoint, posting that report to a map which others can access through the app.  You could conceivably evade the long arm of the law with such an app, drink driving around every checkpoint with ease.

Banning an app like this simply won’t work. There are too many ways to do this, from text messages to voice mail to Google Maps to smartphone apps.  There’s no way to shut them all down.  If the Senate passes a law to prevent this sort of thing – and they certainly will try – they’ll find that they’ve simply moved all of this connectivity underground, into ‘darknets’ which invisibly evade detection.

This is how potent sharing can be.  We all want to share.  We have a universal platform for sharing.  We must decide what we will share.  When people get onto email for the first time, they tend to bombard their friends and family with an endless stream of bad jokes and cute photographs of kittens and horribly dramatic chain letters.  Eventually they’ll back off a bit – either because they’ve learned some etiquette, or because a loved one has told them to buzz off.

You also witness that exuberant sharing in teenagers, who send and receive five hundred text messages a day.  When this phenomenon was spotted, in Tokyo, a decade ago, many thought it was simply a feature peculiar to the Japanese.  Today, everywhere in the developed world, young people send a constant stream of messages which generally say very little at all.  For them, it’s not important what you share; what is important is that you share it.  You are the connections, you are the sharing.

That’s great for the young – some have suggested that it’s an analogue to the ‘grooming’ behavior we see in chimpanzees – but we can wish for more than a steady stream of ‘hey’ and ‘where r u?’  We can share something substantial and meaningful, something salient.

That salience could be news of the nearest RBT checkpoint, or, rather more helpfully, it might be a daily audio recording of the breathing of someone suffering with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.  It turns out that just a few minutes listening to the sufferer – at home, in front of a computer, or, presumably their smartphone – will cut their hospitalizations in half, because smaller problems can be diagnosed and treated before they become life-threatening.  A trial in Tasmania demonstrated this conclusively; it’s clear that using this connection to listen to the patient can save lives, dollars, and precious time.

This is the magic pudding, the endless something from nothing.  But nothing is ever truly free.  There is a price to be paid to realize the bounty of connectivity.  Our organizations and relations are not structured to advantage themselves in this new environment, and although it costs no money and requires no changes to the law, transforming our expectations of our institutions – and of one another – will not be easy.

 

III:  Practice Makes Perfect

To recap: Everyone is connected, everyone has a mobile, everyone uses them to maintain continuous connections with the people in their lives.  This brand-new hyperconnectivity provides a platform for applications.

The first and most natural application of connectivity is sharing, an activity beginning with the broad and unfocused, but moves to the specific and salient as we mature in our use of the medium.  This maturation is both individual and institutional, though at the present time individuals greatly outpace any institution in both their agility with and understanding of these new tools.

Our lives online are divided into two separate but unequal spheres; this is a fundamental dissonance of our era.  Teenagers send hundreds of text messages a day, aping their parents, who furiously respond to emails sent to their mobiles while posting Twitter updates.  But all of this is happening outside the institution,  or, in a best practice scenario, serves to reinforce the existing functionality of the institution.  We have not rethought the institution – how it works, how it faces its stakeholders and serves its clients – in the light of hyperconnectivity.

This seems too alien to contemplate – even though we are now the aliens.  We live in a world of continuous connection; it’s only when we enter the office that we temper this connection, constraining it to meet the needs of organizational process.

If we can develop techniques to bring hyperconnectivity into the organization, to harness it institutionally, we can bake that magic pudding.  Hyperconnectivity provides vastly greater capability at no additional cost.  It’s an answer to the problem.  It requires no deployment, no hardware, no budgeting or legislative mandates.  It only requires that we more fully utilize everything we’ve already got.

To do that, we must rethink everything we do.

Service delivery in health is something that is notoriously not scalable.  You must throw more people at a service to get more results.  All the technology and process management in the world won’t get you very far.  You can make systems more efficient, but you can’t make them radically more effective.  This has become such a truism in the health care sector that technology has become almost an ironic punchline within the field.  So much was promised, and so much of it consistently under-delivered, that most have become somewhat cynical.

There are no magic wands to wave around, to make your technology investments more effective.  This isn’t a technology-led revolution, although it does require some technology.  This is a revolution in relationship, a transformation from clients and customers into partners and participants. It’s a revolution in empowerment, led by highly connected people sharing information of vital importance to them.

How does this work in practice?  The COPD ‘Pathways‘ project in Tasmania points the way toward one set of services, which aim at using connectivity to monitor progress and wellness. Could this be extended to individuals with chronic asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, or severe arthritis?  If one is connected, rather than separate, if one is in constant communication, rather than touching base for widely-spaced check-ins, then there will be a broad awareness of patient health within a community of carers.

The relationship is no longer one way, pointing the patient only to the health services provider.  It becomes multilateral, multifocal, and multiparticpatory.  This relationship becomes the meeting of two networks: the patient’s network of family, friends and co-afflicted, meeting the health network of doctors and nurses, generalists and specialists, clinicians and therapists.  The meeting of these two continuous always-on networks forms another continuity, another always-on network, focused around the continuity of care.

If we tried to do something like this today, with our present organizational techniques, the health service providers would quickly collapse under the burden of the additional demands on their time and connectivity required to offer such continuity in patient care.  Everything currently points toward the doctor, who is already overworked and impossibly time-poor.  Amplifying the connection burden for the doctor is a recipe for disaster.

We must build upon what works, while restructuring these relationships to reflect the enhanced connectivity of all the parties within the healthcare system.  Instead of amplifying the burden, we must use the platform of connectivity to share the load, to spread it out across many shoulders.

For example, consider the hundreds of thousands of carers looking after Australians with chronic illnesses and disabilities.  These carers are the front line.  They understand the people in their care better than anyone else – better even than the clinicians who treat them.  They know when something isn’t quite right, even though they may not have the language for it.

At the moment Australia’s carers live in a world apart from the various state health care systems, and this means that an important connection between the patient and that system is lacking.  If the carer were connected to the health care system – via a service that might be called CarerConnection – there would be better systemic awareness of the patient, and a much greater chance to catch emerging problems before they require drastic interventions or hospitalizations.

These carers, like the rest of Australia, already have mobiles.  Within a few years, all those mobiles will be ‘smart’, capable of snapping a picture of a growing rash, or a video of someone’s unsteady gait, ready to upload it to anyone prepared to listen.  That’s the difficult part of this equation, because at present the health care system can’t handle inquiries from hundreds of thousands of carers, even if it frees up doctor’s surgeries and hospital beds.

Perhaps we can employ nurses on their way to a gradual retirement – in the years beyond age 65 – to connect with the carers, using them to triage and elevate or reassure as necessary.  In this way Australia empowers its population of carers, creating a better quality of life for those they care for, and moves some of the burden for chronic care out of the health care system.

That kind of innovative thinking – which came from workshops in Bendigo and Ballarat – which shows the real value of connectivity in practice.  But that’s just the beginning.  This type of innovation would apply equally effectively to substance abuse recovery programs or mesothelioma or cystic fibrosis.  Beyond health care, it applies to education and city management as well as health service delivery.

This is good old-fashioned ‘people power’ as practiced in every small town in Australia, where everyone knows everyone else, looks out for everyone else, and is generally aware of everyone else.  What’s new is that the small town is now everywhere, whether in Camperdown or Bendigo or Brunswick, because the close connectivity of the small town has come to us all.

The aging of the Australian population will soon force changes in service delivery.  Some will see this as a clarion call for cutbacks, a ‘shock doctrine‘, rather than an opportunity to re-invent the relationships between service providers and the community.   This slowly unfolding crisis provides our generation’s best chance to transform practices to reflect the new connectivity.

It’s not necessary to go the whole distance overnight.  This is all very new, and examples on how to make connectivity work within healthcare are still thin on the ground.  Experimentation and sharing are the orders of the day.  If each regional area in Victoria started up one experiment – a project like CasConnect – then shared the results of that experiment with the other regions, there’d soon be a virtual laboratory of different sorts of approaches, with the possibility of some big successes, and, equally, the chance of some embarrassing failures.  Yet the rewards greatly outweigh any risks.

If this is all done openly, with patients and their community fully involved and fully informed, even the embarrassments will not sting – very much.

In order to achieve more with less, we must ask more of ourselves, approaching our careers with the knowledge that our roles will be rewritten.  We must also ask more of those who come forward for care.  They grew up in the expectation of one sort of relationship with their health services providers, but they’re going to live their lives in another sort of arrangement, which blurs boundaries and which will feel very different – sometimes, more invasive.  Privacy is important, but to be cared for means to surrender, so we must come to expect that we will negotiate our need for privacy in line with the help we seek.

The magic pudding isn’t really that magic. The recipe calls for a lot of hard work, a healthy dash of risk taking, a sprinkle of experiments, and even a few mistakes.  What comes out of the oven of innovation (to stretch a metaphor beyond its breaking point) will be something that can be served up across Victoria, and perhaps across the nation.  The solution lies in people connected, transformed into people power.

The New Toolkit

This article will be published in the Blackwell Companion to New Media Dynamics.

Introduction: The Age of Connection

Anthropologists have appropriated the word ‘toolkit’ to describe the suite of technologies that accompanies a particular grouping of humans.  Fifty thousand years ago, this toolkit would have encompassed stone implements of various sorts, together with items fashioned from bone, and perhaps some early fabrics.  By five thousand years ago, the toolkit had exploded with innovations in agriculture, urbanization, transport and culture.  Five hundred years ago, this toolkit begins to look recognizably modern, with the printing press, gunpowder, steel, and massive warships.  Fifty years ago we could find much of our common culture within that toolkit, with one notable exception, an innovation that doesn’t begin to appear in any numbers until just five years ago.  Identified by the decidedly vague words ‘new media’ (justifying McLuhan’s observation that the first content of a new medium is the medium it obsolesces1, down to its name) this newest toolkit promises to restructure human cultural relations as broadly as agriculturalization, urbanization, or industrialization.

The roots of the current transformation lie within the Urban Revolution, the gathering of humanity into cities, a process nearly ten thousand years old, yet only halfway complete.  The tribal model of human organization – coeval with the emergence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens – likely began to fracture under the stresses introduced by the emergence of agricultural practices.  Agriculture leads toward sedentary populations with higher birth rates, producing greater concentrations of humanity than had theretofore been sustainable.  These population centers rapidly transcended the human capability for modeling peer behavior as expressed in Dunbar’s Number2, and in so doing drove innovations in the human toolkit intended to conserve stability and safety within an environment of strangers.  Before the Urban Revolution, human culture is ruled by custom; afterward, it is ruled by law, and all that law implies: law-giving authorities, law-enforcing police, courts, jails and lawyers.  This gap between custom and law is the most visible discontinuity between hunter-gatherer cultures and agricultural-urban civilization, forming a source of constant irritation between them.

Marshal McLuhan first noted the retribalizing effect of electric technologies3; they collapse space to a point, effectively recreating the continuous, ambient (aural) awareness of the tribe.  The tribe is completely connected.  All of its members have direct access to one another; there is little hierarchy, instead, there is an intricate set of social relations.  Everyone thoroughly understands one’s own place, and that position is constantly reinforced by the other members of the tribe.  Tribal society is static, which is to say stable, over long stretches of time – at least tens of thousands of years.

Urban society is dynamic; the principle actor is the individual (often backed by an extended family unit), who works to build and extend a set of social relations which improve his own circumstances (in the language of sociobiology, selection fitness).  As a consequence of the continuous actions of a dynamic network of actors, the history of the city is the history of crisis.  Only a very few civilizations have maintained any sort of stability for a period of a more than a few hundred years.  Egypt, China, India, Rome, Maya and Inca each experienced dizzying climbs to power and terrifying collapses into ruin.  The uncertainties of the Postmodern period, with its underlying apocalyptic timbre, reflect several thousand years of inevitable, unavoidable rise and fall.

The Age of Connection now takes its place alongside these earlier epochs in humanity’s story.  We are being retribalized, in the midst of rising urbanization.  The dynamic individuality of the city confronts the static conformity of the tribe.  This basic tension forms the fuel of 21st century culture, and will continue to generate both heat and light for at least the next generation.  Human behavior, human beliefs and human relations are all reorganizing themselves around connectivity.  It is here, therefore, that we must begin our analysis of the toolkit.

I:  Hyperconnectivity

How many people can any given person on Earth reach directly?  Before the Urban Revolution that value had a strict upper bound in Dunbar’s Number.  This number sets an functional limit on the troupe (tribe) size of Homo Sapiens Sapiens.  Human units larger than this fragment and bifurcate along lines of relation and communication.  One tribe grows from stability into instability, and fissions into two.  In the transition to the city, humanity developed other mechanisms for communication to compensate for our lack of cognitive capacity; the birth of writing proceeds directly from the informational and connective pressure of dense communities.

The city is as much a network as a residence, perhaps even more so.  The city is comprised of neighborhoods – recapitulating the tribal within the urban – which, grouped together, form the larger conurbation of the metropolis.  Each of these neighborhoods are tightly connected (the older the city, the older the neighborhood, the more likely this is to be true), and each maintains connectivity with near neighborhoods and the greater urban whole.  Where one might have direct and immediate connectivity to a hundred and fifty members of a tribe, one has some degree of mediated connectivity to thousands or tens of thousands within a city.  It is possible to get a message to the other side of town, through a chain of intermediaries, the ‘degrees of separation’ explored by Stanley Milgram4.

Until the modern era, human connectivity stopped at the city’s gates.  Only a very few powerful individuals or institutions, able to afford their own messengers, could expect to have connectivity beyond the confines of a given urban area.  Postal services extended this connectivity within the boundaries of then-emerging nation-states, at a price that made connectivity affordable to the new working classes.  The telegraph gave connectivity global reach, and collapsed the time for message transmission from months to minutes.  Yet the telegraph was highly centralized; until the widespread adoption of the telephone, about fifty years later, direct and instantaneous person-to-person communication remained impractical.

The landline telephone provided direct, instantaneous, global connectivity, but to a place, not a person.  If you are not in range of a landline telephone, you gain no benefit from its connectivity.  Even so, the lure of that connectivity was enough that it drew the landline into nearly a billion offices and dwellings throughout the 20th century.  The landline telephone colonized all of the Earth’s surface where its infrastructure could be afforded.  This created a situation (reflective of so many others) where there were connected ‘haves’ and un-connected ‘have nots’.

The mobile telephone spreads connectivity directly to the person.  The mobile creates the phenomenon of direct human addressability.  The mobile is an inherently personal device; each mobile and SIM is associated with a single person.  With this single innovation, the gap is spanned between tribal and urban organizational forms.  Everyone is directly connected, as in the tribe, but in unknowably vast numbers, as in the city.

The last decade has seen an accelerating deployment of direct human addressability.  As of June 2011, there are roughly six billion mobile subscribers5.  Roughly ten percent of these individuals have more than one subscription, a phenomenon becoming commonplace in the richer corners of the planet.  This means that there are roughly 5.4 billion directly addressable individuals on the planet, individuals who can be reached with the correct series of numbers.

The level of direct human addressability of the species in toto can be calculated as the ratio of total number of subscribers versus the total world population: 5,400,000,000 / 6,900,000,000 or 0.7826.  As we move deeper into the 21st century, this figure will approach 1.0: all individuals, rich or poor, young or old, post-graduate or illiterate, will be directly connected through the network.  This type of connectivity is not simply unprecedented, nor just a unique feature in human history, this is the kind of qualitative change that leads to a fundamental reorganization in human culture.  This, the logical culmination in the growth in human connectivity from the aural tribe to the landline telephone, can be termed hyperconnectivity, because it represents the absolute amplification of all the pre-extant characteristics in human communication, extending them to ubiquity and speed-of-light instantaneity.

Every person now can connect directly with well over three-quarters of the human race.  We may not choose to do so, but our networks of human connections overlap (as Milgram demonstrated), so we always have the option of jumping through our network of connections, short circuiting the various degrees-of-separation, to make contact.  Or we can simply wait as this connectivity, coursing through the networks, brings everyone in the world to us.

II: Hyperdistribution

What happens after we are all connected?  For an answer to this, we must look back to the original human network, language.  Our infinitely flexible linguistic capability allows us to put words and descriptions to anything real or imagined, transmitting experience from mind to mind.  Language allows us to forge, maintain and strengthen social bonds6 in a mechanism analogous to the ‘grooming behaviors’ of other primates.  The voices of others remind us that we belong to a cohesive social unit, that we are safe and protected.

Most mammals have a repertoire of vocal signals they use to signal danger.  Humans can be incredibly precise, and although this is important in moments of immediate peril, language serves principally as the vehicle of human cultural transmission: don’t eat this plant; don’t walk across this river; don’t talk with your mouth full.  This linguistic transmission gives human culture a depth unknown in other animals.  Language is a distribution medium, a mechanism to replicate the experience of one person throughout a community.

This replication activity confers an enormous selection advantage: communities who share what they know will have increased their selection fitness versus communities that do not, so this behavioral tendency toward sharing becomes an epigenetic marker of the human species, persistent and conserved throughout its entirety.  As a consequence, any culture which develops effective new mechanisms for knowledge sharing will have greater selection fitness than others that do not, forcing those relatively less fit cultures to either adopt the innovation, in order to preserve themselves, or find themselves pushed to the extreme margins of human existence.

As a result, two selection pressures push humans toward linguistic connectivity: the desire of individuals to connect for their own safety; and the desire of the community to increase its group selection fitness7, for its own long-term viability.  These twin selection pressures makes humans extraordinarily social, the ‘social instinct’ part of the essential human template.  Humans do not need to be taught to share knowledge of the world around them.  This comes freely and instinctively.  Socialization places normative constraints around this sharing.  Such constraints are both amplified and removed in the presence of hyperconnectivity.

Where humans are hyperconnected via mobile, a recapitulation of primate ‘grooming behaviors’ appears almost immediately.  Mizuko Ito, in Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, noted the behavior of Japanese teenagers8, sending hundreds of text messages a day to a close circle of friends, messages lacking significant extrinsic meaning, serving simply as a reassurance of presence, even at distance, a phenomenon she termed ‘co-presence’.  The behavior Ito observed among Japanese teenagers is now ubiquitous among teenagers within the developed world: American teenagers send well over 3000 text messages per month.

Hyperconnected via mobile and perhaps via electronic mail, we repeatedly witness a familiar phenomenon: someone new to the medium begins to ‘overshare’, sending along bad jokes, cute photographs of furry animals, and the occasional chain letter.  This is the sharing instinct, caught up and amplified by hyperconnectivity, producing the capability to send something everywhere, instantaneously: hyperdistribution.

Embarrassing photographs and treacherous text messages, ‘sexting’ and damaging audio recordings, forwarded over and over through all the mechanisms of hyperconnectivity, are examples of hyperdistribution.  When any digital artifact encounters a hyperconnected human, that artifact is disseminated through their network, unless it is so objectionable that it is censored, or so pedestrian it provokes no response.  The human instinct is to share that which piques our interest with those to whom we are connected, to reinforce our relations, and to increase our credibility within our networks of relations, both recapitulations of the dual nature of the original human behaviors of sharing.

The instinctual sharing behavior of humans remains as strong as ever before, but has extended to encompass communities beyond those within range of our voices.  We share without respect to distance.  Our voices can be heard throughout the world, provided what we say provokes those we maintain relations with.  Provocation carries with it the threat of ostracism; if a provocation proves unwarranted, relations will be damaged, and further provocations ignored.  This functions as a selection pressure on hyperconnected sharing, which over time tends toward ever-greater salience.

III: Hyperintelligence

As far back as we can look into prehistory, concentrated acts of knowledge sharing within a specific domain have been framed by ritual practices.  Indigenous Australians continue the Paleolithic traditions of “women’s business” and “men’s business”, which refer to ritually-constrained bodies of knowledge, intended to be shared only within the context of a specific community of ritually purified (and thereby connected) individuals.  These domains characteristically reflect gender-specific cultural practices: typically, women communicate knowledge of plants and gathering practices, while men invest themselves in the specifics of navigation and the hunt.  These two knowledge domains are strongly defended by taboo; ‘secret women’s business’ is forbidden to men (or ritually impure women), and vice versa.

The association between domain knowledge and ritual has persisted through to the present day.  From at least the Late Antique period, a system of guilds carefully guarded access to specific knowledge domains.  Venetian glassblowers, Japanese bladesmiths, and Chinese silk weavers all protected their knowledge domains – and consequent monopolies – with a combination of legal and ritual practices, law and custom.  In pre-urban cultures, knowledge creates capability; in urban cultures, that capability is multiplied.  Those who possess knowledge also hold power.  The desire to conserve that power led the guilds to become increasingly zealous in the defense of their knowledge domains, their ‘secrets of the craft’.

The advent of Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing press made it effectively impossible to keep secrets in perpetuity.  One individual could pen a single, revealing text, and within a few months all of Europe would learn what they knew.  Secrets were no longer enough to preserve the sanctity of various knowledge domains.  Ritual cast a longer shadow, and in this guise, as the modern protector of the mysteries, the university becomes the companion to the professional association, indoctrinating then licensing candidates for entry into the professions.  The professions of medicine, law, engineering, architecture, etc., emerged from this transition from the guilds into modernity.  These professional associations exist for one reason: they assign place, either within the boundaries of the organization, or outside of it.  An unlicensed doctor, a lawyer who has not ‘passed the bar’, an uncredentialed architect all represent modern instances of violations of ritual structures that have been with us for at least fifty thousand years.

Hyperconnectivity does not acknowledge the presence of these ritual structures; humans connect directly, immediately and pervasively, without respect to any of the cultural barriers to contact.  There is neither inside nor outside.  The entire space of human connection collapses to a point, as everyone connects directly to everyone else, without mediation.  This hyperconnectivity leads to hyperdistributed sharing, first at random, then with ever-increasing levels of salience.

This condition tends to produce a series of feedbacks: hyperdistribution of salient information increases the potential and actual effectiveness of any individual within the network of hyperdistribution, which increases their reliance on these networks.  These networks of hyperdistributed knowledge-sharing tend to reify as a given network’s constituents put these hyperdistributed materials to work.  Both Kenyan farmers and Kerala fishermen9 quickly became irrevocable devotees of the mobile handset that provided them accurate and timely information about competing market prices for their goods.  Once hyperdistribution acquires a focal point, and becomes synonymous with a knowledge domain, it crosses over into hyperintelligence: the dedicated, hyperconnected hyperdistribution of domain-specific knowledge.

In a thoroughly hyperconnected environment, behaviors are pervasively observed.  If these behaviors are successful, they will be copied by others, who are also pervasively observed.  The behavior itself hyperdistributes throughout the network. This is a behavioral analog to hyperintelligence: hypermimesis.  The development of ‘SMS language’ is one example of hypermimesis; as terms are added to the language (which may be specific to a subculture), they are propagated pervasively, and are adopted almost immediately.

IV: Hyperempowerment

A group of hyperconnected individuals choosing to hyperdistribute their knowledge around an identified domain can engender hyperintelligence.  That hyperintelligence is not a static actor.  To be in relation to a hyperintelligence necessarily means using the knowledge provided by that hyperintelligence where, when and as needed.  The more comprehensive the hyperintelligence, the greater the range of possible uses and potential effects.

Perhaps the outstanding example of a hyperintelligence, Wikipedia provides only modest advantages in those developed parts of the world with ready access to knowledge.  Yet in South Africa or India, where such knowledge resources did not exist, Wikipedia catapults individuals into a vastly expanded set of potential capabilities.  Actions which would have been taken in ignorance are now wholly informed by the presence of hyperintelligence, and are, as a consequence, different and likely more effective.  This is a perfect echo of the introduction of mobile telephony: in the developed world the mobile remains nice but rarely essential; in the developing world it is the difference between thriving and subsistence.  Hyperintelligence is a capability amplifier.

Individuals are not alone in their relationship to a hyperintelligence; it is the product of the hyperdistribution activities of a hyperconnected network of people.  These activities tend to improve through time, as the network amplifies its own capabilities.  These two levels of hyperintelligence, individual and collective, produce radical transformations in both individual power and the power of hyperconnected individuals as a network.  This hyperempowerment is hyperintelligence in action, the directed application of the knowledge and capabilities provided via hyperintelligence.

Hyperempowered individuals and networks are asymmetrically empowered relative to any individual or group of individuals (whether as a collective, an organization, or an institution) not similarly hyperempowered.  In any exchange, hyperempowered actors will always be more effective in achieving their aims, because in every situation they know more, and know better how to act on what they know.  The existence of hyperempowerment simultaneously creates a new class of selection pressure; as various social and cultural configurations interact with hyperempowered individuals and networks, they will be selected against unless they themselves use the techniques of hyperconnectivity, hyperdistribution and hyperintelligence to engender their own hyperempowerment.  Once any one actor achieves hyperempowerment, all who interact with that actor must either hyperempower themselves or face extinction. This leads to a cascading series of hyperempowerments, as hyperempowered networks interact with networks which are not hyperempowered, and force those networks toward hyperempowerment.

Hyperconnectivity, hyperdistribution, hyperintelligence and hyperempowerment have propelled human culture to the midst of a psychosocial phase transition, similar to a crystallization phase in a supersaturated solution, a ‘revolution’ making the agricultural, urban and industrial revolutions seem, in comparison, lazy and incomplete.  Twenty years ago none of this toolkit existed nor was even intimated.  Twenty years from now it will be pervasively and ubiquitously distributed, inextricably bound up in our self-definition as human beings.  We have always been the product of our relationships, and now our relationships are redefining us.

Footnotes

  1. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1964).
  2. Robin Dunbar, Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates (Journal of Human Evolution 22, June 1992) pp. 469-493.
  3. Op. Cit., McLuhan.
  4. Stanley Milgram, “The Small World Problem”, (Psychology Today, May 1967) pp 60 – 67.
  5. Wireless Intelligence, Global connections surpass 5 billion milestone, https://www.wirelessintelligence.com/print/snapshot/100708.pdf (June 2010)
  6. Robin Dunbar, Gossip, Grooming and the Evolution of Language (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1998).
  7. The author is aware that group selection is a hotly debated topic within the field of sociobiology, but contends that it is impossible to understand highly social species such as Homo Sapiens Sapiens without the principle of group selection.
  8. Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, Misa Matsuda (ed.), Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2000).
  9. The Economist, “To Do With The Price of Fish”, http://www.economist.com/node/9149142?story_id=9149142 (10 May 2007).

Hyperdemocracy

For the past three hundred years, the relationship between the press and the state has been straightforward: the press tries to publish, the state uses its various mechanisms to thwart those efforts.  This has produced a cat-and-mouse steady-state, a balance where selection pressures kept the press tamed and the state – in many circumstances – somewhat accountable to the governed.  There are, as always, exceptions.

In the last few months, the press has become hyperconnected, using that hyperconnectivity to pierce the veil of secrecy which surrounds the state; using the means available to it to hyperdistribute those secrets.  The press has become hyperempowered, an actor unlike anything ever experienced before.

Wikileaks is the press, but not the press as we have known it.  This is the press of the 21st century, the press that comes after we’re all connected.  Suddenly, all of the friendliest computers have become the deadliest weapons, and we are fenced in, encircled by threats – which are also opportunities.

This threat is two sided, Janus-faced.  The state finds its ability to maintain the smooth functioning of power short-circuited by the exposure of its secrets.  That is a fundamental, existential threat.  In the same moment, the press recognizes that its ability to act has been constrained at every point: servers get shut down, domain names fail to resolve, bank accounts freeze.  These are the new selection pressures on both sides, a sudden quickening of culture’s two-step.  And, of course, it does not end there.

The state has now realized the full cost of digitization, the price of bits.  Just as the recording industry learned a decade ago, it will now have to function within an ecology which – like it or not – has an absolutely fluid quality.  Information flow is corrosive to institutions, whether that’s a record label or a state ministry.  To function in a hyperconnected world, states must hyperconnect, but every point of connection becomes a gap through which the state’s power leaks away.

Meanwhile, the press has come up against the ugly reality of its own vulnerability.  It finds itself situated within an entirely commercial ecology, all the way down to the wires used to carry its signals.  If there’s anything the last week has taught us, it’s that the ability of the press to act must never be contingent upon the power of the state, or any organization dependent upon the good graces of the state.

Both sides are trapped, each with a knife to the other’s throat.  Is there a way to back down from this DEFCON 1-like threat level?  The new press can not be wished out of existence.  Even if the Internet disappeared tomorrow, what we have already learned about how to communicate with one another will never be forgotten.  It’s that shared social learning – hypermimesis – which presents the continued existential threat to the state.  The state is now furiously trying to develop a response in kind, with a growing awareness that any response which extends its own connectivity must necessarily drain it of power.

There is already a movement underway within the state to shut down the holes, close the gaps, and carry on as before.  But to the degree the state disconnects, it drifts away from synchronization with the real.  The only tenable possibility is a ‘forward escape’, an embrace of that which seems destined to destroy it.  This new form of state power – ‘hyperdemocracy’ – will be diffuse, decentralized, and ubiquitous: darknet as a model for governance.

In the interregnum, the press must reinvent its technological base as comprehensively as Gutenberg or Berners-Lee.  Just as the legal strangulation of Napster laid the groundwork for Gnutella, every point of failure revealed in the state attack against Wikileaks creates a blueprint for the press which can succeed where it failed.  We need networks that lie outside of and perhaps even in opposition to commercial interest, beyond the reach of the state.  We need resilient Internet services which can not be arbitrarily revoked.  We need a transaction system that is invisible, instantaneous and convertible upon demand.  Our freedom madates it.

Some will argue that these represent the perfect toolkit for terrorism, for lawlessness and anarchy.  Some are willing to sacrifice liberty for security, ending with neither.  Although nostalgic and tempting, this argument will not hold against the tenor of these times.  These systems will be invented and hyperdistributed even if the state attempts to enforce a tighter grip over its networks.  Julian Assange, the most famous man in the world, has become the poster boy, the Che for a networked generation. Script kiddies everywhere now have a role model.  Like it or not, they will create these systems, they will share what they’ve learned, they will build the apparatus that makes the state as we have known it increasingly ineffectual and irrelevant. Nothing can be done about that.  This has already happened.

We face a choice.  This is the fork, in both the old and new senses of the word.  The culture we grew up with has suddenly shown its age, its incapacity, its inflexibility.  That’s scary, because there is nothing yet to replace it.  That job is left to us.  We can see what has broken, and how it should be fixed.  We can build new systems of human relations which depend not on secrecy but on connectivity.  We can share knowledge to develop the blueprint for our hyperconnected, hyperempowered future.  A week ago such an act would have been bootless utopianism.  Now it’s just facing facts.

The Blueprint

With every day, with every passing hour, the power of the state mobilizes against Wikileaks and Julian Assange, its titular leader.  The inner processes of statecraft have never been so completely exposed as they have been in the last week.  The nation state has been revealed as some sort of long-running and unintentionally comic soap opera.  She doesn’t like him; he doesn’t like them; they don’t like any of us!  Oh, and she’s been scouting around for DNA samples and your credit card number.  You know, just in case.

None of it is very pretty, all of it is embarrassing, and the embarrassment extends well beyond the state actors – who are, after all, paid to lie and dissemble, this being one of the primary functions of any government – to the complicit and compliant news media, think tanks and all the other camp followers deeply invested in the preservation of the status quo.  Formerly quiet seas are now roiling, while everyone with any authority everywhere is doing everything they can to close the gaps in the smooth functioning of power.  They want all of this to disappear and be forgotten.  For things to be as if Wikileaks never was.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic cables slowly dribble out, a feed that makes last year’s MP expenses scandal in the UK seem like amateur theatre, an unpracticed warm-up before the main event.  Even the Afghan and Iraq war logs, released by Wikileaks earlier this year, didn’t hold this kind of fascination.  Nor did they attract this kind of upset.  Every politican everywhere – from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Vladimir Putin to Julia Gillard has felt compelled to express their strong and almost visceral anger.  But to what?  Only some diplomatic gossip.

Has Earth become a sort of amplified Facebook, where an in-crowd of Heathers, horrified, suddenly finds its bitchy secrets posted on a public forum?  Is that what we’ve been reduced to?  Or is that what we’ve been like all along?  That could be the source of the anger.  We now know that power politics and statecraft reduce to a few pithy lines referring to how much Berlusconi sleeps in the company of nubile young women and speculations about whether Medvedev really enjoys wearing the Robin costume.

It’s this triviality which has angered those in power.  The mythology of power – that leaders are somehow more substantial, their concerns more elevated and lofty than us mere mortals, who must not question their motives – that mythology has been definitively busted.  This is the final terminus of aristocracy; a process that began on 14 July 1789 came to a conclusive end on 28 November 2010.  The new aristocracies of democracy have been smashed, trundled off to the guillotine of the Internet, and beheaded.

Of course, the state isn’t going to take its own destruction lying down.  Nothing is ever that simple.  And so, over the last week we’ve been able to watch the systematic dismantling of Wikileaks.  First came the condemnation, then, hot on the heels of the shouts of ‘off with his head!’ for ‘traitor’ Julian Assange, came the technical attacks, each one designed to amputate one part of the body of the organization.

First up, that old favorite, the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, which involves harnessing tens of thousands of hacked PCs (perhaps yours, or your mom’s, or your daughter’s) to broadcast tens of millions of faux requests for information to Wikileaks’ computers.  This did manage to bring Wikileaks to its knees (surprising for an organization believed to be rather paranoid about security), so Wikileaks moved to a backup server, purchasing computing resources from Amazon, which runs a ‘cloud’ of hundreds of thousands of computers available for rent.  Amazon, paranoid about customer reliability, easily fended off the DDoS attacks, but came under another kind of pressure.  US Senator Joe Lieberman told Amazon to cut Wikileaks off, and within a few hours Amazon had suddenly realized that Wikileaks violated their Terms of Service, kicking them off Amazon’s systems.

You know what Terms of Service are?  They are the too-long agreements you always accept and click through on a Website, or when you install some software, etc.  In the fine print of that agreement any service provider will always be able to find some reason, somewhere, for terminating the service, charging you a fee, or – well, pretty much whatever they like.  It’s the legal cudgel that companies use to have their way with you.  Do you reckon that every other Amazon customer complies with its Terms of Service?  If you do, I have a bridge you might be interested in.

At that point, Assange & Co. could have moved the server anywhere willing to host them – and Switzerland had offered.  But the company that hosts Wikileaks’ DNS record – everyDNS.com – suddenly realized that Wikileaks was in violation of its terms of service, and it too, cut Wikileaks off.  This was a more serious blow.  DNS, or Domain Name Service, is the magic that translates a domain name like markpesce.com or nytimes.com into a number that represents a particular computer on the Internet.  Without someone handling that translation, no one could find wikileaks.org.  You would be able to type the name into your web browser, but that’s as far as you’d get.

So Wikileaks.org went down, but Wikileaks.ch (the Swiss version) came online moments later, and now there are hundreds of other sites which are all mirroring the content on the original Wikileaks site.  It’s a little bit harder to find Wikileaks now – but not terrifically difficult.  Score one for Assange, who – if the news media are to be believed – is just about to be taken into custody by the UK police, serving a Swedish arrest warrant.

Finally, just a few hours ago, the masterstroke.  Wikileaks is financed by contributions made by individuals and organizations.  (Disclosure: I’m almost certain I donated $50 to Wikileaks in 2008.)  These contributions have been handled (principally) by the now-ubiquitous PayPal, the financial services arm of Internet auction giant eBay.  Once again, the fine folks at PayPal had a look at their Terms of Service (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) and – oh, look! those bad awful folks at Wikileaks are in violation of our terms! Let’s cut them off from their money!

Wikileaks has undoubtedly received a lot of contributions over the last few days.  As PayPal never turns funds over immediately, there’s an implication that PayPal is holding onto a considerable sum of Wikileaks’ donations, while that shutdown makes it much more difficult to to ‘pass the hat’ and collect additional funds to keep the operation running.   Checkmate.

A few months ago I wrote about how confused I was by Julian Assange’s actions.  Why would anyone taking on the state so directly become such a public figure?  It made no sense to me.  Now I see the plan.  And it’s awesome.

You see, this is the first time anything like Wikileaks has been attempted.  Yes, there have been leaks prior to this, but never before have hyperdistribution and cryptoanarchism come to the service of the whistleblower.  This is a new thing, and as well thought out as Wikileaks might be, it isn’t perfect.  How could it be?  It’s untried, and untested.  Or was.  Now that contact with the enemy has been made – the state with all its powers – it has become clear where Wikileaks has been found wanting.  Wikileaks needs a distributed network of servers that are too broad and too diffuse to be attacked.  Wikileaks needs an alternative to the Domain Name Service.  And Wikileaks needs a funding mechanism which can not be choked off by the actions of any other actor.

We’ve been here before.  This is 1999, the company is Napster, and the angry party is the recording industry.  It took them a while to strangle the beast, but they did finally manage to choke all the life out of it – for all the good it did them.  Within days after the death of Napster, Gnutella came around, and righted all the wrongs of Napster: decentralized where Napster was centralized; pervasive and increasingly invisible.  Gnutella created the ‘darknet’ for filesharing which has permanently crippled the recording and film industries.  The failure of Napster was the blueprint for Gnutella.

In exactly the same way – note for note – the failures of Wikileaks provide the blueprint for the systems which will follow it, and which will permanently leave the state and its actors neutered.  Assange must know this – a teenage hacker would understand the lesson of Napster.  Assange knows that someone had to get out in front and fail, before others could come along and succeed.  We’re learning now, and to learn means to try and fail and try again.

This failure comes with a high cost.  It’s likely that the Americans will eventually get their hands on Assange – a compliant Australian government has already made it clear that it will do nothing to thwart or even slow that request – and he’ll be charged with espionage, likely convicted, and sent to a US Federal Prison for many, many years.  Assange gets to be the scapegoat, the pinup boy for a new kind of anarchism.  But what he’s done can not be undone; this tear in the body politic will never truly heal.

Everything is different now.  Everything feels more authentic.  We can choose to embrace this authenticity, and use it to construct a new system of relations, one which does not rely on secrets and lies.  A week ago that would have sounded utopian, now it’s just facing facts. I’m hopeful.  For the first time in my life I see the possibility for change on a scale beyond the personal.  Assange has brought out the radical hiding inside me, the one always afraid to show his face.  I think I’m not alone.