The Connected City

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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.

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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).

The Soul of Web 2.0

Introduction: In The Beginning

Back in the 1980s, when personal computers mostly meant IBM PCs running Lotus 1*2*3 and, perhaps, if you were a bit off-center, an Apple Macintosh running Aldus Pagemaker, the idea of a coherent and interconnected set of documents spanning the known human universe seemed fanciful.  But there have always been dreamers, among them such luminaries as Douglas Engelbart, who gave us the computer mouse, and Ted Nelson, who coined the word ‘hypertext’.  Engelbart demonstrated a fully-functional hypertext system in December 1968, the famous ‘Mother of all Demos’, which framed computing for the rest of the 20th century.  Before man had walked on the Moon, before there was an Internet, we had a prototype for the World Wide Web.  Nelson took this idea and ran with it, envisaging a globally interconnected hypertext system, which he named ‘Xanadu’ – after the poem by Coleridge – and which attracted a crowd of enthusiasts intent on making it real.  I was one of them.  From my garret in Providence, Rhode Island, I wrote a front end – a ‘browser’ if you will – to the soon-to-be-released Xanadu.  This was back in 1986, nearly five years before Tim Berners-Lee wrote a short paper outlining a universal protocol for hypermedia, the basis for the World Wide Web.

Xanadu was never released, but we got the Web.  It wasn’t as functional as Xanadu – copyright management was a solved problem with Xanadu, whereas on the Web it continues to bedevil us – and links were two-way affairs; you could follow the destination of a link back to its source.  But the Web was out there and working for thousand of people by the middle of 1993, while Xanadu, shuffled from benefactor to benefactor, faded and finally died.  The Web was good enough to get out there, to play with, to begin improving, while Xanadu – which had been in beta since the late 1980s – was never quite good enough to be released.  ‘The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good’, and nowhere is it clearer than in the sad story of Xanadu.

If Xanadu had been released in 1987, it would have been next to useless without an Internet to support it, and the Internet was still very tiny in the 1980s.  When I started using the Internet, in 1988, the main trunk line across the United States was just about to be upgraded from 9.6 kilobits to 56 kilobits.  That’s the line for all of the traffic heading from one coast to the other.  I suspect that today this cross-country bandwidth, in aggregate, would be measured in terabits – trillions of bits per second, a million-fold increase.  And it keeps on growing, without any end in sight.

Because of my experience with Xanadu, when I first played with NCSA Mosaic – the first publicly available Web browser – I immediately knew what I held in my mousing hand.  And I wasn’t impressed.  In July 1993 very little content existed for the Web – just a handful of sites, mostly academic.  Given that the Web was born to serve the global high-energy-physics community headquartered at CERN and Fermilab, this made sense.  I walked away from the computer that July afternoon wanting more.  Hypertext systems I’d seen before.  What I lusted after was a global system with a reach like Xanadu.

Three months later, when I’d acquired a SUN workstation for a programming project, I immediately downloaded and installed NCSA Mosaic, to find that the Web elves had been busy.  Instead of a handful of sites, there were now hundreds.  There was a master list of known sites, maintained at NCSA, and over the course of a week in October, I methodically visited every site in the list.  By Friday evening I was finished.  I had surfed the entire Web.  It was even possible to keep up the new sites as they were added to the bottom of the list, though the end of 1993.  Then things began to explode.

From October on I became a Web evangelist.  My conversion was complete, and my joy in life was to share my own experience with my friends, using my own technical skills to get them set up with Internet access and their own copies of NCSA Mosaic.  That made converts of them; they then began to work on their friends, and so by degrees of association, the word of the Web spread.

In mid-January 1994, I dragged that rather unwieldy SUN workstation across town to show it off at a house party / performance event known as ‘Anon Salon’, which featured an interesting cross-section of San Francisco’s arts and technology communities.  As someone familiar walked in the door at the Salon, I walked up to them and took them over to my computer.  “What’s something you’re interested in?” I’d ask.  They’d reply with something like “Gardening” or “Astronomy” or “Watersports of Mesoamerica” and I’d go to the newly-created category index of the Web, known as Yahoo!, and still running out of a small lab on the Stanford University campus, type in their interest, and up would come at least a few hits.  I’d click on one, watch the page load, and let them read.  “Wow!” they’d say.  “This is great!”

I never mentioned the Web or hypertext or the Internet as I gave these little demos.  All I did was hook people by their own interests.  This, in January 1994 in San Francisco, is what would happen throughout the world in January 1995 and January 1996, and still happening today, as the two-billion Internet-connected individuals sit down before their computers and ask themselves, “What am I passionate about?”

This is the essential starting point for any discussion of what the Web is, what it is becoming, and how it should be presented.  The individual, with their needs, their passions, their opinions, their desires and their goals is always paramount.  We tend to forget this, or overlook it, or just plain ignore it.  We design from a point of view which is about what we have to say, what we want to present, what we expect to communicate.  It’s not that that we should ignore these considerations, but they are always secondary.  The Web is a ground for being.  Individuals do not present themselves as receptacles to be filled.  They are souls looking to be fulfilled.  This is as true for children as for adults – perhaps more so – and for this reason the educational Web has to be about space and place for being, not merely the presentation of a good-looking set of data.

How we get there, how we create the space for being, is what we have collectively learned in the first seventeen years of the web.  I’ll now break these down some of these individually.

I: Sharing

Every morning when I sit down to work at my computer, I’m greeted with a flurry of correspondence and communication.  I often start off with the emails that have come in overnight from America and Europe, the various mailing lists which spit out their contents at 3 AM, late night missives from insomniac friends, that sort of thing.  As I move through them, I sort them: this one needs attention and a reply, this one can get trashed, and this one – for one reason or another – should be shared.  The sharing instinct is innate and immediate.  We know upon we hearing a joke, or seeing an image, or reading an article, when someone else will be interested in it.  We’ve always known this; it’s part of being a human, and for as long as we’ve been able to talk – both as children and as a species – we’ve babbled and shared with one another.  It’s a basic quality of humanity.

Who we share with is driven by the people we know, the hundred-and-fifty or so souls who make up our ‘Dunbar Number’, the close crowd of individuals we connect to by blood or by friendship, or as co-workers, or neighbors, or co-religionists, or fellow enthusiasts in pursuit of sport or hobby.  Everyone carries that hundred and fifty around inside of them.  Most of the time we’re unaware of it, until that moment when we spy something, and immediately know who we want to share it with.  It’s automatic, requires no thought.  We just do it.

Once things began to move online, and we could use the ‘Forward’ button on our email clients, we started to see an acceleration and broadening of this sharing.  Everyone has a friend or two who forwards along every bad joke they come across, or every cute photo of a kitten.  We’ve all grown used to this, very tolerant of the high level of randomness and noise, because the flip side of that is a new and incredibly rapid distribution medium for the things which matter to us.  It’s been truly said that ‘If news is important, it will find me,’ because once some bit of information enters our densely hyperconnected networks, it gets passed hither-and-yon until it arrives in front of the people who most care about it.

That’s easy enough to do with emails, but how does that work with creations that may be Web-based, or similarly constrained?  We’ve seen the ‘share’ button show up on a lot of websites, but that’s not the entire matter.  You have to do more than request sharing.  You have to think through the entire goal of sharing, from the user’s perspective.  Are they sharing this because it’s interesting?  Are they sharing this because they want company?  Are they sharing this because it’s a competition or a contest or collaborative?  Or are they only sharing this because you’ve asked them to?

Here we come back – as we will, several more times – to the basic position of the user’s experience as central to the design of any Web project.  What is it about the design of your work that excites them to share it with others?  Have you made sharing a necessary component – as it might be in a multi-player game, or a collaborative and crowdsourced knowledge project – or is it something that is nice but not essential?  In other words, is there space only for one, or is there room to spread the word?  Why would anyone want to share your work?  You need to be able to answer this: definitively, immediately, and conclusively, because the answer to that question leads to the next question.  How will your work be shared?

Your works do not exist in isolation.  They are part of a continuum of other works?  Where does your work fit into that continuum?  How do the instructor and student approach that work?  Is it a top-down mandate?  Or is it something that filters up from below as word-of-mouth spreads?  How does that word-of-mouth spread?

Now you have to step back and think about the users of your work, and how they’re connected.  Is it simply via email – do all the students have email addresses?  Do they know the email addresses of their friends?  Or do you want your work shared via SMS?  A QRCode, perhaps?  Or Facebook or Twitter or, well, who knows?  And how do you get a class of year 3 students, who probably don’t have access to any of these tools, sharing your work?

You do want them to share, right?

This idea of sharing is foundational to everything we do on the Web today.  It becomes painfully obvious when it’s been overlooked.  For example, the iPad version of The Australian had all of the articles of the print version, but you couldn’t share an article with a friend.  There was simply no way to do that.  (I don’t know if this has changed recently.)  That made the iPad version of The Australian significantly less functional than its website version – because there I could at least past a URL into an email.

The more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes.  The more students use your work, the more indispensable you become to the curriculum, and the more likely your services will be needed, year after year, to improve and extend your present efforts.  Sharing isn’t just good design, it’s good business.

II: Connecting

Within the space for being created by the Web, there is room for a crowd.  Sometimes these crowds can be vast and anonymous – Wikipedia is a fine example of this.  Everyone’s there, but no one is wholly aware of anyone else’s presence.  You might see an edit to a page, or a new post on the discussion for a particular topic, but that’s as close as people come to one another.  Most of the connecting for the Wikipedians – the folks who behind-the-scenes make Wikipedia work – is performed by that old reliable friend, email.

There are other websites which make connecting the explicit central point of their purpose.  These are the social networks: Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and so on.  In essence they take the Dunbar Number written into each of our minds and make it explicit, digital and a medium for communication.  But it doesn’t end there; one can add countless other contacts from all corners of life, until the ‘social graph’ – that set of connections – becomes so broad it is essentially meaningless.  Every additional contact makes the others less meaningful, if only because there’s only so much of you to go around.

That’s one type of connecting.  There is another type, as typified by Twitter, in which connections are weaker – generally falling outside the Dunbar Number – but have a curious resilience that presents unexpected strengths.  Where you can poll your friends on Facebook, on Twitter you can poll a planet.  How do I solve this problem?  Where should I eat dinner tonight?  What’s going on over there?  These loose but far-flung connections provide a kind of ‘hive mind’, which is less precise, and knows less about you, but knows a lot more about everything else.

These are not mutually exclusive principles.  It’s is not Facebook-versus-Twitter; it is not tight connections versus loose connections.  It’s a bit of both.  Where does your work benefit from a tight collective of connected individuals?  Is it some sort of group problem-solving?  A creative activity that really comes into its own when a whole band of people play together?  Or simply something which benefits from having a ‘lifeline’ to your comrades-in-arms?  When you constantly think of friends, that’s the sort of task that benefits from close connectivity.

On the other hand, when you’re collaborating on a big task – building up a model or a database or an encyclopedia or a catalog or playing a massive, rich, detailed and unpredictable game, or just trying to get a sense of what is going on ‘out there’, that’s the kind of task which benefits from loose connectivity.  Not every project will need both kinds of connecting, but almost every one will benefit from one or the other.  We are much smarter together than individually, much wiser, much more sensible, and less likely to be distracted, distraught or depressed.  (We are also more likely to reinforce each others’ prejudices and preconceptions, but that’s another matter of longstanding which technology can not help but amplify.)  Life is meaningful because we, together, give it meaning.  Life is bearable because we, together, bear the load for one another.  Human life is human connection.

The Web today is all about connecting.  That’s its single most important feature, the one which is serving as an organizing principle for nearly all activity on it.  So how do your projects allow your users to connect?  Does your work leave them alone, helpless, friendless, and lonely?  Does it crowd them together into too-close quarters, so that everyone feels a bit claustrophobic?  Or does it allow them to reach out and forge the bonds that will carry them through?

III: Contributing, Regulating, Iterating

In January of 2002, when I had my first demo of Wikipedia, the site had barely 14,000 articles – many copied from the 1911 out-of-copyright edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.  That’s enough content for a child’s encyclopedia, perhaps even for a primary school educator, but not really enough to be useful for adults, who might be interested in almost anything under the Sun.  It took the dedicated efforts of thousands of contributors for several years to get Wikipedia to the size of Britannica (250,000 articles), an effort which continues today.

Explicit to the design of Wikipedia is the idea that individuals should contribute.  There is an ‘edit’ button at the top of nearly every page, and making changes to Wikipedia is both quick and easy.  (This leaves the door open a certain amount of childish vandalism, but that is easily reversed or corrected precisely because it is so easy to edit anything within the site.)  By now everyone knows that Wikipedia is the collaboratively created encyclopedia, representing the best of all of what its contributors have to offer.  For the next hundred years academics and social scientists will debate the validity of crowdsourced knowledge creation, but what no one can deny is that Wikipedia has become an essential touchstone, our common cultural workbook.  This is less because of Wikipedia-as-a-resource than it is because we all share a sense of pride-in-ownership of Wikipedia.  Probably most of you have made some small change to Wikipedia; a few of you may have authored entire articles.  Every time any of us adds our own voice to Wikipedia, we become part of it, and it becomes part of us.  This is a powerful logic, an attraction which transcends the rational.  People cling to Wikipedia – right or wrong – because it is their own.

It’s difficult to imagine a time will come when Wikipedia will be complete.  If nothing else, events continue to occur, history is made, and all of this must be recorded somewhere in Wikipedia.  Yet Wikipedia, in its English-language edition, is growing more slowly in 2010 than in 2005.  With nearly 3.5 million articles in English, it’s reasonably comprehensive, at least by its own lights.  Certain material is considered inappropriate for Wikipedia – homespun scientific theories, or the biographies of less-than-remarkable individuals – and this has placed limits on its growth.  It’s possible that within a few years we will regard Wikipedia as essentially complete – which is, when you reflect upon it, an utterly awesome thought.  It will mean that we have captured the better part of human knowledge in a form accessible to all.  That we can all carry the learned experience of the species around in our pockets.

Wikipedia points to something else, quite as important and nearly as profound: the Web is not ‘complete’.  It is a work-in-progress.  Google understands this and releases interminable beta versions of every product.  More than this, it means that nothing needs to offer all the answers.  I would suggest that nothing should offer all the answers.  Leaving that space for the users to add what they know – or are willing to learn – to the overall mix creates a much more powerful relationship with the user, and – counterintuitively – with less work from you.  It is up to you to provide the framework for individuals to contribute within, but it is not up to you to populate that framework with every possibility.  There’s a ‘sweet spot’, somewhere between nothing and too much, which shows users the value of contributions but allows them enough space to make their own.

User contributions tend to become examples in their own right, showing other users how it’s done.  This creates a ‘virtuous cycle’ of contributions leading to contributions leading to still more contributions – which can produce the explosive creativity of a Wikipedia or TripAdvisor or an eBay or a RateMyProfessors.com.

In each of these websites it needs to be noted that there is a possibility for ‘bad data’ to work its way into system.   The biggest problem Wikipedia faces is not vandalism but the more pernicious types of contributions which look factual but are wholly made up.  TripAdvisor is facing a class-action lawsuit from hoteliers who have been damaged by anonymous negative ratings of their establishments.  RateMyProfessors.com is the holy terror of the academy in the United States.  Each of these websites has had to design systems which allow for users to self-regulate peer contributions.  In some cases – such as on a blog – it’s no more than a ‘report this post’ button, which flags it for later moderation.  Wikipedia promulgated a directive that strongly encouraged contributors to provide a footnote linking to supporting material.  TripAdvisor gives anonymous reviewers a lower ranking.  eBay forces both buyers and sellers to rate each transaction, building a database of interactions which can be used to guide others when they come to trade.  Each of these are social solutions to social problems.

Web2.0 is not a technology.  It is a suite of social techniques, and each technique must be combined with a social strategy for deployment, considering how the user will behave: neither wholly good nor entirely evil.  It is possible to design systems and interfaces which engage the better angels of nature, possible to develop wholly open systems which self-regulate and require little moderator intervention.  Yet it is not easy to do so, because it is not easy to know in advance how any social technique can be abused by those who employ it.

This means that aWeb2.0 concept that should guide you in your design work is iteration.  Nothing is ever complete, nor ever perfect.  The perfect is the enemy of the good, so if you wait for perfection, you will never release.  Instead, watch your users, see if they struggle to work within the place you have created for then, or whether they immediately grasp hold and begin to work.  In their more uncharitable moments, do they abuse the freedoms you have given them?  If so, how can you redesign your work, and ‘nudge’ them into better behavior?  It may be as simple as a different set of default behaviors, or as complex as a set of rules governing a social ecosystem.  And although Moses came down from Mount Sinai with all ten commandments, you can not and should not expect to get it right on a first pass.  Instead, release, observe, adapt, and re-release.  All releases are soft releases, everything is provisional, and nothing is quite perfect.  That’s as it should be.

IV: Opening

Two of the biggest Web2.0 services are Facebook and Twitter.  Although they seem to be similar, they couldn’t be more different.  Facebook is ‘greedy’, hoarding all of the data provided by its users, all of their photographs and conversations, keeping them entirely for itself.  If you want to have access to that data, you need to work with Facebook’s tools, and you need to build an application that works within Facebook – literally within the web page.  Facebook has control over everything you do, and can arbitrarily choose to limit what you do, even shut you down your application if they don’t like it, or perceive it as somehow competitive with Facebook.  Facebook is entirely in control, and Facebook holds onto all of the data your application needs to use.

Twitter has taken an entirely different approach.  From the very beginning, anyone could get access to the Twitter feed – whether for a single individual (if their stream of Tweets had been made public), or for all of Twitter’s users.  Anyone could do anything they wanted with these Tweets – though Twitter places restrictions on commercial re-use of their data.  Twitter provided very clear (and remarkably straightforward) instruction on how to access their data, and threw the gates open wide.

Although Facebook has half a billion users, Twitter is actually more broadly used, in more situations, because it has been incredibly easy for people to adapt Twitter to their tasks.  People have developed computer programs that send Tweets when the program is about to crash, created vast art projects which allow the public to participate from anywhere around the world, or even a little belt worn by a pregnant woman which sends out a Tweet every time the baby kicks!  It’s this flexibility which has made Twitter a sort of messaging ‘glue’ on the Internet of 2010, and that’s something Facebook just can’t do, because it’s too closed in upon itself.  Twitter has become a building block: when you write a program which needs to send a message, you use Twitter.  Facebook isn’t a building block.  It’s a monolith.

How do you build for openness?  Consider: another position the user might occupy is someone trying to use your work as a building block within their own project.  Have you created space for your work to be re-used, to be incorporated, to be pieced apart and put back together again?  Or is it opaque, seamless, and closed?  What about the data you collect, data the user has generated?  Where does that live?  Can it be exported and put to work in another application, or on another website?  Are you a brick or are you a brick wall?

When you think about your design – both technically and from the user’s experience – you must consider how open you want to be, and weigh the price of openness (extra work, unpredictability) against the price of being closed (less useful).  The highest praise you can receive for your work is when someone wants to use it in their own. For this to happen, you have to leave the door open for them.  If you publish the APIs to access the data you collect; if you build your work modularly, with clearly defined interfaces; if you use standards such as RSS and REST where appropriate, you will create something that others can re-use.

One of my favorite lines comes from science fiction author William Gibson, who wrote, ‘The street finds its own uses for things – uses the manufacturer never imagined.’  You can’t know how valuable your work will be to someone else, what they’ll see in it that you never could, and how they’ll use it to solve a problem.

All of these techniques – sharing, connecting, contributing, regulating, iterating and opening – share a common thread: they regard the user’s experience as paramount and design as something that serves the user.  These are not precisely the same Web2.0 domains others might identify.  That’s because Web2.0 has become a very ill-defined term.  It can mean whatever we want it to mean.  But it always comes back to experience, something that recognizes the importance and agency of the user, and makes that the center of the work.

It took us the better part of a decade to get to Web2.0; although pieces started showing up in the late 1990s, it wasn’t until the early 21st century that we really felt confident with the Web as an experience, and could use that experience to guide us into designs that left room for us to explore, to play and to learn from one another.  In this decade we need to bring everything we’ve learned to everything we create, to avoid the blind traps and dead ends of a design which ignores the vital reality of the people who work with what we create.  We need to make room for them.  If we don’t, they will make other rooms, where they can be themselves, where they can share what they’ve found, connect with the ones they care about, collaborate and contribute and create.

Paperworks / Padworks

I: Paper, works

At the end of May I received an email from a senior official at the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.  DEECD was in the midst of issuing an RFP, looking for new content to populate FUSE (Find, Use, Share, Education), an important component of ULTRANET, the mega-über-supremo educational intranet meant to solve everyone’s educational problems for all time.  Or, well, perhaps I overstate the matter.  But it could be a big deal.

The respondents to the RFP were organizations who already had working relationships with DEECD, and therefore were both familiar with DEECD processes and had been vetted in their earlier relationships.  This meant that the entire RFP to submissions could be telescoped down to just a bit less than three weeks.  The official asked me if I’d be interested in being one of the external reviewers for these proposals as they passed through an official evaluation process.  I said I’d be happy to do so, and asked how many proposals I’d have to review.  “I doubt it will be more than thirty or forty,” he replied.  Which seemed quite reasonable.

As is inevitably the case, most of the proposals landed in the DEECD mailbox just a few hours before the deadline for submissions.  But the RFP didn’t result in thirty or forty proposals.  The total came to almost ninety.  All of which I had to review and evaluate in the thirty-six hours between the time they landed in my inbox and the start of the formal evaluation meeting.  Oh, and first I needed to print them out, because there was no way I’d be able to do that much reading in front of my computer.

Let’s face it – although we do sit and read our laptop screens all day long, we rarely read anything longer than a few paragraphs.  If it passes 300 words, it tips the balance into ‘tl;dr’ (too long; didn’t read) territory, and unless it’s vital for our employment or well-being, we tend to skip it and move along to the next little tidbit.  Having to sit and read through well over nine hundred pages of proposals on my laptop was a bridge too far. I set off to the print shop around the corner from my flat, to have the whole mess printed out.  That took nearly 24 hours by itself – and cost an ungodly sum.  I was left with a huge, heavy box of paper which I could barely lug back to my flat.  For the next 36 hours, this box would be my ball and chain.  I’d have to take it with me to the meeting in Melbourne, which meant packing it for the flight, checking it as baggage, lugging it to my hotel room, and so forth, all while trying to digest its contents.

How the heck was that going to work?

This is when I looked at my iPad.  Then I looked back at the box.  Then back at the iPad.  Then back at the box.  I’d gotten my iPad barely a week before – when they first arrived in Australia – and I was planning on taking it on this trip, but without an accompanying laptop.  This, for me, would be a bit of a test.  For the last decade I’d never traveled anywhere without my laptop.  Could I manage a business trip with just my iPad?  I looked back at the iPad.  Then at the box.  You could practically hear the penny drop.

I immediately began copying all these nine hundred-plus pages of proposals and accompanying documentation from my laptop to the storage utility Dropbox.  Dropbox gives you 2 GB of free Internet storage, with an option to rent more space, if you need it.  Dropbox also has an iPad app (free) – so as soon as the files were uploaded to Dropbox, I could access them from my iPad.

I should take a moment and talk about the model of the iPad I own.  I ordered the 16 GB version – the smallest storage size offered by Apple – but I got the 3G upgrade, paired with Telstra’s most excellent pre-paid NextG service.  My rationale was that I imagined this iPad would be a ‘cloud-centric’ device.  The ‘cloud’ is a term that’s come into use quite recently.  It means software is hosted somewhere out there on the Internet – the ‘cloud’ – rather than residing locally on your computer.  Gmail is a good example of a software that’s ‘in the cloud’.  Facebook is another.  Twitter, another.   Much of what we do with our computers – iPad included – involves software accessed over the Internet.  Many of the apps for sale in Apple’s iTunes App Store are useless or pointless without an Internet connection – these are the sorts of applications which break down the neat boundary between the computer and the cloud.  Cloud computing has been growing in importance over the last decade; by the end of this one it will simply be the way things work.  Your iPad will be your window onto the cloud, onto everything you have within that cloud: your email, your documents, your calendar, your contacts, etc.

I like to live in the future, so I made sure that my iPad didn’t have too much storage – which forces me to use the cloud as much as possible.  In this case, that was precisely the right decision, because I ditched the ten-kilo box of paperwork and boarded my flight to Melbourne with my iPad at my side.  I poured through the proposals, one after another, bringing them up in Dropbox, evaluating them, making some notes in my (paper) notebook, then moving along to the next one.  My iPad gave me a fluidity and speed that I could never have had with that box of paper.

When I arrived at my hotel, I had another set of two large boxes waiting for me.  Here again were the proposals, carefully ordered and placed into several large, ringed binders.  I’d be expected to tote these to the evaluation meeting.  Fortunately, that was only a few floors above my hotel room.  That said, it was a bit of a struggle to get those boxes and my luggage into the elevator and up to the meeting room.  I put those boxes down – and never looked at them again.  As the rest of the evaluation panel dug through their boxes to pull out the relevant proposals, I did a few motions with my fingertips, and found myself on the same page.

Yes, they got a bit jealous.

We finished the evaluation on time and quite successfully, and at the end of the day I left my boxes with the DEECD coordinator, thanking her for her hard work printing all these materials, but begging off.  She understood completely.  I flew home, lighter than I might otherwise have, had I stuck to paper.

For at least the past thirty years – which is about the duration of the personal computer revolution – people have been talking about the advent of the paperless office.  Truth be told, we use more paper in our offices than ever before, our printers constantly at work with letters, notices, emails, and so forth.  We haven’t been able to make the leap to a paperless office – despite our comprehensive ability to manipulate documents digitally – because we lacked something that could actually replace paper.  Computers as we’ve known them simply can’t replace a piece of paper. For a whole host of reasons, it just never worked.  To move to a paperless office – and a paperless classroom – we had to invent something that could supplant paper.  We have it now.  After a lot of false starts, tablet computing has finally arrived –– and it’s here to stay.

I can sit here, iPad in hand, and have access to every single document that I have ever written.  You will soon have access to every single document you might ever need, right here, right now.  We’re not 100% there yet – but that’s not the fault of the device.  We’re going to need to make some adjustments to our IT strategies, so that we can have a pervasively available document environment.  At that point, your iPad becomes the page which contains all other pages within it.  You’ll never be without the document you need at the time you need it.

Nor will we confine ourselves to text.  The world is richer than that.  iPad is the lightbox that contains all photographs within it, it is the television which receives every bit of video produced by anyone – professional or amateur – ever.  It is already the radio (Pocket Tunes app) which receives almost every major radio station broadcasting anywhere in the world.  And it is every one of a hundred-million-plus websites and maybe a trillion web pages.  All of this is here, right here in the palm of your hand.

What matters now is how we put all of this to work.

II: Pad, works

Let’s project ourselves into the future just a little bit – say around ten years.  It’s 2020, and we’ve had iPads for a whole decade.  The iPads of 2020 will be vastly more powerful than the ones in use today, because of something known as Moore’s Law.  This law states that computers double in power every twenty-four months.  Ten years is five doublings, or 32 times.  That rule extends to the display as well as the computer.  The ‘Retina Display’ recently released on Apple’s iPhone 4 shows us where that technology is going – displays so fine that you can’t make out the individual pixels with your eye.  The screen of your iPad version 11 will be visually indistinguishable from a sheet of paper.  The device itself will be thinner and lighter than the current model.  Battery technology improves at about 10% a year, so half the weight of the battery – which is the heaviest component of the iPad – will disappear.  You’ll still get at least ten hours of use, that’s something that’s considered essential to your experience as a user.  And you’ll still be connected to the mobile network.

The mobile network of 2020 will look quite different from the mobile network of 2010.  Right now we’re just on the cusp of moving into 4th generation mobile broadband technology, known colloquially as LTE, or Long-Term Evolution.   Where you might get speeds of 7 megabits per second with NextG mobile broadband – under the best conditions – LTE promises speeds of 100 megabits.  That’s as good as a wired connection – as fast as anything promised by the National Broadband Network!  In a decade’s time we’ll be moving through 5th generation and possibly into 6th generation mobile technologies, with speeds approaching a gigabit, a billion bits per second.  That may sound like a lot, but again, it represents roughly 32 times the capacity of the mobile broadband networks of today.  Moore’s Law has a broad reach, and will transform every component of the iPad.

iPad will have thirty-two times the storage, not that we’ll need it, given that we’ll be connected to the cloud at gigabit speeds, but if it’s there, someone will find use for the two terabytes or more included in our iPad.  (Perhaps a full copy of Wikipedia?  Or all of the books published before 1915?)  All of this still cost just $700.  If you want to spend less – and have a correspondingly less-powerful device, you’ll have that option.  I suspect you’ll be able to pick up an entry-level device – the equivalent of iPad 7, perhaps – for $49 at JB HiFi.

What sorts of things will the iPad 10 be capable of?  How do we put all of that power to work?  First off, iPad will be able to see and hear in meaningful ways.  Voice recognition and computer vision are two technologies which are on the threshold of becoming ‘twenty year overnight successes’.  We can already speak to our computers, and, most of the time, they can understand us.  With devices like the Xbox Kinect, cameras allow the computer to see the world around, and recognize bits of it.  Your iPad will hear you, understand your voice, and follow your commands.  It will also be able to recognize your face, your motions, and your emotions.

It’s not clear that computers as we know them today – that is, desktops and laptops – will be common in a decade’s time.  They may still be employed in very specialized tasks.  For almost everything else, we will be using our iPads.  They’ll rarely leave our sides.  They will become so pervasive that in many environments – around the home, in the office, or at school – we will simply have a supply of them sufficient to the task.  When everything is so well connected, you don’t need to have personal information stored in a specific iPad.  You will be able to pick up any iPad and – almost instantaneously – the custom features which mark that device as uniquely yours will be downloaded into it.

All of this is possible.  Whether any of it eventuates depends on a whole host of factors we can’t yet see clearly.  People may find voice recognition more of an annoyance than an affordance.  The idea of your iPad watching you might seem creepy to some people.  But consider this: I have a good friend who has two elderly parents: his dad is in his early 80s, his mom is in her mid-70s.  He lives in Boston while they live in Northern California.  But he needs to keep in touch, he needs to have a look in.  Next year, when iPad acquires a forward-facing camera – so it can be used for video conferencing – he’ll buy them an iPad, and install it on the wall of their kitchen, stuck on there with Velcro, so that he can ring in anytime, and check on them, and they can ring him, anytime.  It’s a bit ‘Jetsons’, when you think about it.  And that’s just what will happen next year.  By 2020 the iPad will be able to track your progress around the house, monitor what prescriptions you’ve taken (or missed), whether you’ve left the house, and for how long.  It’ll be a basic accessory, necessary for everyone caring for someone in their final years – or in their first ones.

Now that we’ve established the basic capabilities and expectations for this device, let’s imagine them in the hands of students everywhere throughout Australia.  No student, however poor, will be without their own iPad – the Government of the day will see to that.  These students of 2020 are at least as well connected as you are, as their parents are, as anyone is.  To them, iPads are not new things; they’ve always been around.  They grew up in a world where touch is the default interface.  A computer mouse, for them, seems as archaic as a manual typewriter does to us.  They’re also quite accustomed to being immersed within a field of very-high-speed mobile broadband.  They just expect it to be ‘on’, everywhere they go, and expect that they will have access to it as needed.

How do we make education in 2020 meet their expectations?  This is not the universe of ‘chalk and talk’.  This is a world where the classroom walls have been effectively leveled by the pervasive presence of the network, and a device which can display anything on that network.  This is a world where education can be provided anywhere, on demand, as called for.  This is a world where the constructivist premise of learning-by-doing can be implemented beyond year two.  Where a student working on an engine can stare at a three-dimensional breakout model of the components while engaging in a conversation with an instructor half a continent away.  Where a student learning French can actually engage with a French student learning English, and do so without much more than a press of a few buttons.  Where a student learning about the Eureka Stockade can survey the ground, iPad in hand, and find within the device hidden depths to the history.  iPad is the handheld schoolhouse, and it is, in many ways, the thing that replaces the chalkboard, the classroom, and the library.

But iPad does not replace the educator.  We need to be very clear on that, because even as educational resources multiply beyond our wildest hopes –more on that presently – students still need someone to guide them into understanding.  The more we virtualize the educational process, the more important and singular our embodied interactions become.  Some of this will come from far away – the iPad offers opportunities for distance education undreamt of just a few years ago – but much more of it will be close up.  Even if the classroom does not survive (and I doubt it will fade away completely in the next ten years, but it will begin to erode), we will still need a place for an educator/mentor to come into contact with students.  That’s been true since the days of Socrates (probably long before that), and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.  We learn best when we learn from others.  We humans are experts in mimesis, in learning by imitation.  That kind of learning requires us to breathe the same air together.

No matter how much power we gain from the iPad, no matter how much freedom it offers, no device offers us freedom from our essential nature as social beings.  We are born to work together, we are designed to learn from one another.  iPad is an unbelievably potent addition to the educator’s toolbox, but we must remember not to let it cloud our common sense.  It should be an amplifier, not a replacement, something that lets students go further, faster than before.  But they should not go alone.

The constant danger of technology is that it can interrupt the human moment.  We can be too busy checking our messages to see the real people right before our eyes.  This is the dilemma that will face us in the age of the iPad.  Governments will see them as cost-saving devices, something that could substitute for the human touch.  If we lose touch, if we lose the human moment, we also lose the biggest part of our ability to learn.

III:  The Work of Nations

We can reasonably predict that this is the decade of the tablet, and the decade of mobile broadband.  The two of them fuse in the iPad, to produce a platform which will transform education, allowing it to happen anywhere a teacher and a student share an agreement to work together.  But what will they be working on?  Next year we’ll see the rollout of the National Curriculum, which specifies the material to be covered in core subject areas in classrooms throughout the nation.

Many educators view the National Curriculum as a mandate for a bland uniformity, a lowest-common denominator approach to instruction, which will simply leave the teacher working point-by-point through the curriculum’s arc.  This is certainly not the intent of the project’s creators.  Dr. Evan Arthur, who heads up the Digital Educational Revolution taskforce in the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, publicly refers to the National Curriculum as a ‘greenfields’, as though all expectations were essentially phantoms of the mind, a box we draw around ourselves, rather than one that objectively exists.

The National Curriculum outlines the subject areas to be covered, but says very little if anything about pedagogy.  Instructors and school systems are free to exercise their own best judgment in selecting an approach appropriate to their students, their educators, and their facilities.  That’s good news, and means that any blandness that creeps into pedagogy because of the National Curriculum is more a reflection of the educator than the educational mandate.

Precisely because it places educators and students throughout the nation onto the same page, the National Curriculum also offers up an enormous opportunity.  We know that all year nine students in Australia will be covering a particular suite of topics.  This means that every educator and every student throughout the nation can be drawing from and contributing to a ‘common wealth’ of shared materials, whether they be podcasts of lectures, educational chatrooms, lesson plans, and on and on and on.  As the years go by, this wealth of material will grow as more teachers and more students add their own contributions to it.  The National Curriculum isn’t a mandate, per se; it’s better to think of it as an empty Wikipedia.  All the article headings are there, all the taxonomy, all the cross references, but none of the content.  The next decade will see us all build up that base of content, so that by 2020, a decade’s worth of work will have resulted in something truly outstanding to offer both educators and students in their pursuit of curriculum goals.
Well, maybe.

I say all of this as if it were a sure thing.  But it isn’t.  Everyone secretly suspects the National Curriculum will ruin education.  I ask that we can see things differently.  The National Curriculum could be the savior of education in the 21st century, but in order to travel the short distance in our minds between where we are (and where we will go if we don’t change our minds) and where we need to be, we need to think of every educator in Australia as a contributor of value.  More than that, we need to think of every student in Australia as a contributor of value.  That’s the vital gap that must be crossed.  Educators spend endless hours working on lesson plans and instructional designs – they should be encouraged to share this work.  Many of them are too modest or too scared to trumpet their own hard yards – but it is something that educators and students across the nation can benefit from.  Students, as they pass through the curriculum, create their own learning materials, which must be preserved, where appropriate, for future years.

We should do this.  We need to do this.  Right now we’re dropping the best of what we have on the floor as teachers retire or move on in their careers.  This is gold that we’re letting slip through our fingers. We live in an age where we only lose something when we neglect to capture it. We can let ourselves off easy here, because we haven’t had a framework to capture and share this pedagogy.  But now we have the means to capture, a platform for sharing – the Ultranet, and a tool which brings access to everyone – the iPad.  We’ve never had these stars aligned in such a way before.  Only just now – in 2010 – is it possible to dream such big dreams.  It won’t even cost much money.  Yes, the state and federal governments will be investing in iPads and superfast broadband connections for the schools, but everything else comes from a change in our behavior, from a new sense of the full value of our activities.  We need to look at ourselves not merely as the dispensers of education to receptive students, but as engaged participant-creators working to build a lasting body of knowledge.

In so doing we tie everything together, from library science to digital citizenship, within an approach that builds shared value.  It allows a student in Bairnsdale to collaborate with another in Lorne, both working through a lesson plan developed by an educator in Katherine.  Or a teacher in Lakes Entrance to offer her expertise to a classroom in Maffra.  These kinds of things have been possible before, but the National Curriculum gives us the reason to do it.  iPad gives us the infrastructure to dream wild, and imagine how to practice some ‘creative destruction’ in the classroom – tearing down its walls in order to make the classroom a persistent, ubiquitous feature of the environment, to bring education everywhere it’s needed, to everyone who needs it, whenever they need it.

This means that all of the preceding is really part of a larger transformation, from education as this singular event that happens between ages six and twenty-two, to something that is persistent and ubiquitous; where ‘lifelong learning’ isn’t a catchphrase, but rather, a set of skills students begin to acquire as soon as they land in pre-kindy.  The wealth of materials which we will create as we learn how to share the burden of the National Curriculum across the nation have value far beyond the schoolhouse.  In a nation of immigrants, it makes sense to have these materials available, because someone is always arriving in the middle of their lives and struggling to catch up to and integrate themselves within the fabric of the nation.  Education is one way that this happens.  People also need to have increasing flexibility in their career choices, to suit a much more fluid labor market.  This means that we continuously need to learn something new, or something, perhaps, that we didn’t pay much attention to when we should have.  If we can share our learning, we can close this gap.  We can bring the best of what we teach to everyone who has the need to know.

And there we are.  But before I conclude, I should bring up the most obvious point –one so obvious that we might forget it.  The iPad is an excellent toy.  Please play with it.  I don’t mean use it.  I mean explore it.  Punch all the buttons.  Do things you shouldn’t do.  Press the big red button that says, “Don’t press me!”  Just make sure you have a backup first.

We know that children learn by exploration – that’s the foundation of Constructivism – but we forget that we ourselves also learn by exploration. The joy we feel when we play with our new toy is the feeling a child has when he confronts a box of LEGOs, or new video game – it’s the joy of exploration, the joy of learning.  That joy is foundational to us.  If we didn’t love learning, we wouldn’t be running things around here.  We’d still be in the trees.

My favorite toys on my iPad are Pocket Universe – which creates an 360-degree real-time observatory on your iPad; Pulse News – which brings some beauty to my RSS feeds; Observatory – which turns my iPad into a bit of an orrery; Air Video – which allows me to watch videos streamed from my laptop to my iPad; and GoodReader – the one app you simply must spend $1.19 on, because it is the most useful app you’ll ever own.  These are my favorites, but I own many others, and enjoy all of them.  There are literally tens of thousands to choose from, some of them educational, some, just for fun.  That’s the point: all work and no play makes iPad a dull toy.

So please, go and play.  As you do, you’ll come to recognize the hidden depths within your new toy, and you’ll probably feel that penny drop, as you come to realize that this changes everything.  Or can, if we can change ourselves.

Helicopter Lessons

I: The Drive to Connect

Recently I spent a weekend in Melbourne visiting my good friends Darren and Leah, whom I’ve known since I first moved to Australia.  Last December they conceived, and in early September Leah will give birth to their first child.  They’re excited and a bit scared – just like most first-time parents. Knowing it would be my last visit before their lives changed irrevocably, we enjoyed our weekend all the more, and talk inevitably shifted to The Right Way To Raise A Child.  There are theories upon theories, everything from controlled crying, to cosleeping, to carrying the child continuously for its first eighteen months of life, to teaching preverbal children sign language, to Steiner’s theories about the acquisition of reading and writing skills, and on and on.  For as long as there have been parents, there have been theories about the right way to raise a child.  We look back upon our grandparents and they seem almost barbarians to us: corporal punishment, children seen and not heard, spare the rod and spoil the child, everything that modern behavioral psychology tells us can warp and damage a child, turn them from positive and loving into neurotic and perpetually unhappy individuals.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, for some of us, this process of beggars maiming their own children so they can be better beggars came to a stop.  We wised up, stopped hitting our children, and started to respond to them as beautiful and unique individuals.  This is rather interesting in itself because, on occasion – and sometimes more than just on occasion – children are monsters.  They are self-centered, narcissistic, greedy, unthinking, unfeeling, controlling, manipulative, and ugly.  Yet this is as it should be; we accept behavior from children that would be shunned in an adult precisely because they are children.  We teach them the bounds of acceptable behavior, and we do this by interacting with them.  Alone a child will never learn self-control, or courtesy, or any affection for others.  It is only because we are social that we can impart the social graces.

That social part of us goes back far beyond our origin as a species, up the family tree at least ten million years, to Proconsul, the common ancestor of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and humans.  Our ancient forbears had social graces of their own; we know this because all of the species descended from them have unique social capabilities.  This social capacity has been the cornerstone of our success.  Humans hunt in groups, forage in groups, share childbirth and childcare.  It is nearly impossible for a single adult to give birth and raise a child entirely on their own.  Our socialization is the safety net that allows humans to be children far longer than any other species, acquiring the enormous range of knowledge required to be wholly functional and well-integrated participants in civilization.  It’s a self-reinforcing loop: we spend a long time as children so we can become productive members of a culture whose offspring spend a long time as children.  Natural selection in action.

Our social capacity is the one thing that natural selection has always worked to optimize.  The most effectively socialized people have been able to use their social skills to make their way in the world, ensuring that they would live to pass those skills along to their children.  Nature has made us naturals.

In early September, when Leah gives birth, her child will know what to do without being taught, without being shown: that child will begin to form a deepening connection with the one person in her universe – Leah.  That bond will set the tone for all of the other human connections that follow.  Attachment theory – yet another of the popular theories of childhood development – rests the entire psychosexual development of the adult on this bond.  If it is interrupted, or corrupted, or simply does not exist, the child has little hope of normal development.  The connection to the mother is the primary connection.  As only makes sense.

As that child grows into a consciousness greater than that of the mother-child relationship, she recognizes the presence of her father.  This relationship will never have the same essential depth of her first relationship, but it represents the first echo; its form betrays the patterns of intimacy between mother and child.  Even if this relationship is fraught with difficulties, if the primary relationship is secure, the child will survive emotionally intact.  But should this relationship also prove secure, it will reinforce the child’s sense of emotional security.

And so it goes.  The child’s world will expand to encompass grandmother and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, and – with a bit of luck & time – siblings.  Each of these bonds will echo the primary bond, with opportunities within each of them for the child to explore her ever-increasing capability to connect, to communicate, to collaborate.  We know that these bonds are fundamental to our nature, that they sit within the prefrontal cortex, the newest part of our brains, the part which is freakishly bigger than in chimpanzees or gorillas.  We have a lot of room for these bonds, so as she grows up they come to fill her head.  In a very real sense, she carries around within her a miniature, interactive version of each person she has made a connection with.  We are finite, and these miniatures are terrifically rich and complex creations, so we can only find space between our ears for about 150 people, a physical limit known as ‘Dunbar’s Number’, after the anthropologist who discovered this rule nearly 20 years ago.  We can know more than 150 people, but we won’t know them well.

At least, that’s how it used to be.  For all of human history, until about three years ago, we were fundamentally constrained by our biology.  Now, with the rise of ‘social networks’ – which, I want to remind you, are not new in any way – we’ve accelerated our innate capabilities with the speed and power of computers, and amplified them with the reach of a global network which, in both Internet and mobile versions, touches nearly five billion people.  We can maintain some form of connection with several hundred – even thousands – of others.  This isn’t easy; it requires care and attention that could be directed to other, often more important things – such as driving a car, or listening to your partner at dinner, or doing your homework.  Nothing comes for free, and just because we can establish connections with thousands of others doesn’t mean we can manage those connections meaningfully.

This is the knife-edge of the present, because many of us – and certainly many of your students – are establishing far-flung networks of connections, but don’t wholly understand the cost/benefit relationship that comes with these networks.  We can give ourselves a pass on this – after all, this sort of thing simply wasn’t possible just a few years ago – but it’s a dilemma that will become a permanent fixture of 21st century life.  We want to be able to ‘multitask’, to do everything at once, with everyone, everywhere, but studies show that the divided mind is incapable of depth.  We want to be connected, but we don’t want to be interrupted.  We want to be the life of the party, but we also want time to think.

This is the world of 2010.  This is how children present themselves as they enter secondary school.  And it’s only going to become more connected.  Leah’s child will grow up in a world which has begun to fetishize human connection.  We will manage those connections digitally, from the time we’re born until the moment we shuffle off this mortal coil.  This means that each child you encounter is not just one child, but the visible representative of an entire network that surrounds them, stretching outward, connecting them to friends and classmates and family, and finally, at the core, to mom.  This has always been the case, but it has always been implicit and inferred rather than explicit and immediately present.  Given that a child acquires their first mobile sometime between grade 3 and grade 7 (and that age is dropping) that network is always at arms reach, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.

How will these connections be used?  We have only the dimmest sense of that.  This is all so new and so raw there are no protocols, no learned behaviors, nothing that can be passed down from parent to child, or teacher to student, about the right way to behave, the right way to put all of this connectivity to work.  What we have now is chaos, as we cross a turbulent boundary between the calm but disconnected and internal world of the ‘before time’, and the unexpected, hyperconnected and immediate world of the present.

II: Call Centre

At the beginning of June, the London-based National Literacy Trust released a report with a stunning finding: kids were more likely to own a mobile (86%) than a book (73%).  I personally believe this finding highly suspect – all the children I know own tens or hundreds of books, that being how they learned to read – but it does point to the scale of the transformation underway, and how frightened we have become.  Another segment of the public is debating the death of the printed book, you are beginning to distribute textbooks in electronic form on your student’s laptops, and all of that is contributing more to the disappearance of the book than anything that might be caused by the sudden multiplication in human connectivity.

That multiplication begins somewhere between year 3 (on the low end) and year 10 (at the high end), when a child acquires their first mobile.  The age at which the child receives the handset frames the experience for the child: in year 3 the mobile is nearly always used to call mommy or daddy for a ride home from soccer practice, or a pickup from a friend’s party, or in case of emergencies.  It is not yet a fully realized social tool because these children don’t yet think in those terms.  But the device itself has a catalyzing effect on the bond between the child and her parents.

The maturation of the child into an adult can be characterized as a movement from complete dependence to complete independence.  Along the way the child explores all sorts of strategies to assert and maintain independence, starting with the ‘terrible twos’ and coming to a conclusion (one hopes) with the final send-off to university.  In the beginning, the child doesn’t want to be left alone, except on her terms.  By the teenage years, a hypersensitivity to embarrassment causes the child to flee from the parent in many public situations.  Underneath all of it, the strong, healthy, nurturing bond between parent and child gives her the belief that she can explore her freedom in safety.

That bond has been amplified and accelerated by the presence of the mobile.  Where the child would formerly have to ‘go it alone’, now she can turn to mom or dad with the press of a few buttons.  Any situation she finds confronting can instantly be elevated.  The cavalry is always on call, always available to come to the rescue.

Child psychologist and researcher Sherry Turkle recently made a cogent argument that this ‘tethered’ relationship leads to an extended period of infantilization in the child.  Always connected, the child never fully individuates, never ‘cuts the cord’ which binds the parent to the child.  I can see Turkle’s point – I even agree with it – but I would like to suggest that this entire process of individuation is very recent, an artifact of the last hundred years.  Before that, most families lived in close quarters for most of their lives.  Mom and dad were always available to solve a problem because they were always nearby.  In this sense, the mobile handset has retrieved a state of affairs which our highly mobile era of automobiles and jet travel had pushed into obsolescence.  And even more so: in the village the child could still wander some distance from the home; in 2010, home is no further away than the time it takes to dial mom.

The connectivity of the mobile is bilateral, and reinforces the relationship on both sides.  Parents have never before had the ability to stay continuously connected to their children, so we have no frame to help guide them into a healthy expression for this newfound capacity.  For some parents the lure of this connectivity is so strong it overwhelms whatever instinct they might have to allow their children to individuate naturally.  They become the child’s constant companion, ‘hovering’ nearby, either physically or virtually.  This phenomenon – ‘helicopter parenting’ – has become a topic of conversation in the United States, where it was first noticed, and where it is appearing with increasing frequency.  The helicopter parent manages the child’s life more-or-less completely, using a combination of strategies – some physical, and some virtual – to place the child within a protective cocoon.  The vicissitudes of the real world never impinge on that cocoon; the child is safe and protected every moment of the day.

Why would anyone opt for such a parenting strategy?  Here I’ll go out on a bit of a limb, and propound a theory in the absence of any proof – but a theory which can be put to the test.  The new field of sociobiology attempts to map observed behaviors in the animal kingdom to strategies for reproductive success.  For instance, it tackles the thorny problem of altruism – which vexed Darwin a hundred and fifty years ago – by observing that altruistic behavior tends to favor closely-related individuals.  Your genes may receive no immediate benefit from your selfless acts, but the genes of your sisters and their offspring probably will.  Sociobiology explains why a population of sterile worker bees will toil until mortally exhausted for their queen.

One of the key concepts in sociobiology is the idea of ‘genetic investment’; the greater the genetic investment, the stronger the relationship between parent and offspring.  Fish have tens of thousands of offspring, and release them to their fates.  Humans have just a handful – generally just one at a time – and consequently have a huge genetic investment.  I strongly suspect that the observed cases of helicopter parenting are, in the largest part, the parents of a single child.  The entire genetic investment is being wagered on a single throw of the dice.  This would naturally amplify any tendency toward the expression of highly protective behaviors – preserving the genetic investment.  When that becomes coupled to and amplified by the mobile, we get the world of 2010, where parents are now so tethered to their children that Forbes magazine recently reported on another and somewhat more disturbing phenomenon: Parents are now making follow-up calls to recruiters who have interviewed their children.  Some children even bring mom along on the job interview.

I’m not making that up.

We may be amused by these sorts of excesses, but they’re to be expected.  They’re a natural outcome of two intersecting trends: the decline in fertility, and the rise of hyperconnectivity.  When you have everything riding on a single child, you’re willing to assume a lot of the risk yourself.

This also means that the parent-child connection has assumed an immediacy and potency never before possible.  It is as if the child has the parent with them at all times, in every situation.  This is changing the nature of all of the child’s relationships, in particular those within the classroom.  A story related to me last year by a Victorian school administrator sums up this state of affairs perfectly: one day a teacher was giving one of her students a hard time because that student hadn’t completed his homework assignment.  During this verbal chewing out, the student carefully took his mobile out of his backpack, then dialed it.  He said hello to his parent, and then just after he said, “You listen to the bitch,” held the handset next to the teacher’s mouth.

I’m not making that up, either.

In that moment, the entire power relationship in the classroom, in the school, in the culture gets short-circuited.  That’s what networks do – they find a way around any neat systems or hierarchies or rules that they have no use for.  If that network happens to belong to a fourteen year-old with poor study habits and an attitude problem, then the fact that the homework assignment wasn’t completed is suddenly no longer his problem.  It has been elevated.  It has burst out of the cozy confines of the teacher-student relationship, and overflowed into all of the other connections that student chooses to invoke: parents, siblings, relatives, friends, and so on.  It is as if every student walks into the classroom equipped with a panic button which can instantly bring the educational process to a screaming halt.  If that panic button is connected to a parent already neurotically hypersensitive to anything which could disrupt the careful cocooning of the child, the educational process will break down from stresses it was not designed to accept.

That is the world we have walked into.

Many of you have specific policies in your schools regarding the use of mobiles, protocols over where and how and when and why they can empower students.  Some of you even ban mobiles outright.  Let me be clear: all of your policies are for naught.  All of your protocols mean nothing.  Any child who tastes the empowerment that comes with the network will not ever willingly surrender that empowerment.  If you try to suppress it, you will simply ensure that it will show up somewhere else, in a form that you can not control.

Your only solution is to make peace with the network, to embrace it and the new power relationships which it engenders.  In order to do that we must have a good think about how the network can be used to tame the network, about how you can empower yourselves.  You’re going to need to fight fire with fire.

III: Cry Havoc

So what do we do?  Issue teachers with mobiles and press them to sign up for Facebook accounts?  If only it were that straightforward.  If it were, I could send you out of here with marching orders, a battle plan that would bring a certain, sweet victory.  But this is not that kind of war.  This is a guerilla conflict, where progress is measured in inches and only after a long, hard slog.

By the time a student lands on your doorstep, they will have been connected – hyperconnected, really – for several years.  They will have forged and strengthened the bonds that tie them to their parents and their peers.  They bring that into every interaction with you, a classic example of asymmetric warfare.  You’re outmatched, outgunned and outwitted, not because you’re weak or dull, but because there are a lot more of them than there are of you.  They’re starting to recognize this, and put it to work.

You can not ban the mobile.  It’s here to stay, and it’s increasingly indispensable.  You can not sever the connections that come with the mobile, or Facebook, or Twitter, or text messaging, or whatever flavour-of-the-month gets invented tomorrow afternoon.  You can’t even reasonably hope to downplay their influence within the classroom.  They’re becoming too potent, and they will leak into your pedagogical spaces by any means necessary.

You must engage.  But we can not hand you a teenager and ask you to suddenly engage with them.  That simply won’t work.  Building the bond takes time; it’s a labour of love and an exercise in trust-building.  The best mentors and teachers know this and practice it within their classrooms.  But the classroom is suddenly everywhere.  The network has swept in, swept through, and blown down the classroom walls.  Educators and students are immersed in an ‘educational field’, something like a magnetic field, where amazing educational resources lie at tip of fingers, at the end of our hands.  We may worry about the accuracy of Wikipedia, but no one argues about its impact.  Anyone who has seen iTunes University, or downloaded an educational podcast knows about this ‘educational field’.  Education is freely available.  That is not in short supply.  What is in short supply – and always has been – is that moment of human contact, the connection which produces the transfer of insight, of skills, and understanding that won’t come from any webpage, however brilliant, or any podcast, however well-produced.

Students are connected as never before, but few of those connections lead to understanding.  This is the failure and the challenge of our generation.  It is a failure because we let the school grow up outside of the network, where we should have been binding the two together at every point.  It is our challenge because unless we do begin the hard work to knit these two together, we will see formal education become increasingly irrelevant in the presence of an ever-more-potent educational field.

Because the network is everywhere, the school is everywhere.  Because the school is everywhere, the hard-and-fast boundaries between school and the rest of life, as we live it in modern-day Australia, must collapse.  The idea that school is something that happens ‘over here’, while the rest of life is lived ‘over there’ doesn’t make sense anymore.  Given that the connections a child establishes from her earliest years persist throughout her lifetime, shouldn’t some of those connections – arguably, the second most important, after family – be to educators and educational resources?  These connections would become the core of the mentoring bond, which rises to work in partnership with the parental bond, a constant nurturing force throughout the passage into adulthood.

This is not the way we think of education today.  It’s not the way we think of culture today.  Yet it is the way culture is being practiced.  Helicopter parents are proof positive of this.  They represent a leading edge of a new wave of cultural forms which are the consequential result of hyperconnectivity.  Plug people together and they will behave differently.  Plug institutions into people and the people will transform those institutions.

We must begin somewhere.  Giving kids laptops is interesting and important but entirely insufficient.  We must give kids a reason to connect, something beyond pure sociality (which is also important but outside of the task at hand).  We must give them a reason to connect with knowledge.

We’re very lucky, because just at this moment in time, the Commonwealth has gifted us with the best reason we’re ever likely to receive – the National Curriculum.  Now that every student, everywhere across Australia, is meant to be covering the same materials, we have every reason to connect together – student to student, teacher to teacher, school to school, state to state.  The National Curriculum is thought of as a mandate, but it’s really the architecture of a network.  It describes how we all should connect together around a body of knowledge.  If we know that we should be teaching calculus or Mandarin or the Eureka Stockade rebellion, we have an opportunity to connect together, pool our knowledge and our ignorance, and work together.  We can use our hyperconnectivity to hyperempower our ability to work toward understanding.

Again, this is not the way we’re used to working.  We ask kids to collaborate on their projects, but a broader collaboration – which doesn’t end with the student, or the classroom, or the school, or the state – has remained frustratingly beyond our grasp.  It doesn’t even have a location in time; collaboration is not something that has temporal boundaries.  We collaborate while we have a need to do so, not because it’s ‘collaboration time’.  The network intrudes everywhere and everywhen.

Collaboration begins as soon as the child can communicate, though it is informal and ad-hoc.  As educators we need to think about how to begin the process of formal collaboration in pre-kindy.  At first, collaboration is a network between parents and carers and educators, but as the child progresses through the educational system, that network extends to other educators, other students, and other resources as the child has need.  The network constructs itself around the child at the same time the child is busily building her own network.

If we build an educational system which can do this (and I honestly don’t know that there’s any educational system, anywhere in the world thinking in these terms) we will have solved the problem of hyperconnective asymmetry.  We will be as connected as our students, we will be connected to them from long before they become our students, and will remain connected with them long after they have been our students.  School will not be a boundary.  It will be a gradient through which children move on their passage to adulthood, and, even then, will not leave them behind, because these connections open the doorway to lifelong learning.

Let me leave you with a warning, and a promise.  First the warning: If we simply try to make the teacher the locus of all of this hyperconnectivity, they will collapse from the over-connectivity.  Teachers are not switchboards; it is not up to them to hear every problem, arbitrate every dispute, or make every opening.  In a network the burden should be distributed – to other students, other teachers, other mentors, other parents, and other schools.  That means that power is going to be distributed very differently in the classroom.  It won’t always be clear who has the power.  That may look like chaos, but it will be a fecund chaos, where real learning takes place.

The helicopter parent is a herald of a new type of connectivity, which both empowers and infantilizes in equal measure.  As we come to embrace this more comprehensive connection, we will find ourselves both hyperempowered and disempowered.  Some things will not work, others will work far better than before.  It all comes back to the child, who always has the drive to connect.  It is in her genes.  It is all she is about.  If we can harness that drive to connect to the desire to learn, we will have comprehensively solved the problem of education in the 21st century.  We will have created a platform for life-long learning, for a cradle-to-grave immersion in the educational field.  It’s worth working toward.  It restores the balance we lost as soon as we began to hyperconnect.  We’re near enough now to see the goal.  We have the vision.  All we need now are the will and the persistence to reach toward that promise.

Hyperconnected Health

I: My Cloud

This is the age of networks, and we are always connected.  If that seems fanciful, ask yourself how often you are parted from your mobile, and for how long?  All of our hours – even as we sleep – the mobile is within arm’s reach for almost all of us.  A few months ago a woman asked me when we might expect to have implants, to close the loop, and make the connection permanent.  “We’re already there,” I responded.  “It’s wedded to the palm of your hand.”  In a purely functional sense this is the truth, and it has been the case for several years.

Connection to the network is neither an instantaneous nor absolute affair.  It takes time to establish the protocols for communication.  We understand many of these protocols without explanation: we do not telephone someone at three o’clock in the morning unless vitally important.  Three o’clock in the afternoon, however, is open season.  Lately, there are newer, technologically driven protocols: I can look at a caller’s number, and decide whether I want to take that call or direct it to voice mail.  The caller has no idea I’ve made any decision.  From their point of view, it’s simply a missed call.  Similarly, I have friends I can not text before 10 AM unless it’s quite urgent, and I ask my friends not to text me after 10 PM for the same reason.  We set our boundaries with technology, boundaries which determine how we connect.  We can choose to be entirely connected, or entirely disconnected.  We can let the batteries run flat on our mobile, or simply turn it off and put it away.  But there’s a price to be paid.  Absence from connection incurs a cost.  To be disconnected is to cede your ability to participate in the flow of affairs.  Thus, the modern condition is a dilemma, where we balance the demands of our connectedness against the desire to be free from its constraints.

Connectedness is not simply a set of pressures; it is equally a range of capabilities.  As our connectedness grows, so our capabilities grow in lock-step.  What we could achieve with the landline was immeasurably beyond what was possible with the post, yet doesn’t compare with what we can do with email, mobile voice, SMS, or, now, any of a hundred thousand different sorts of activities, from banking to dating to ordering up a taxi.  The device has become a platform, a social nexus, the point where we find ourselves attached to the universe of others.  Consider the address book that lives on your mobile.  Mine has about 816 entries.  Those are all connections that were made at some point in my life.  (Admittedly, I haven’t been weeding them out as vigorously as I should, so some of those contact are duplicates or no longer accurate.)  That’s just what’s on my mobile.  If I go out to Twitter, I have rather more connections in my ‘social graph’ – about 6700.  These connections aren’t quiescent, waiting to be dialed, but are constantly listening in to what I have to say, just as I am constantly listening to them.

No one can give their full-time attention to that sort of cacophony of human voices.  Some are paid more attention, others, rather less.  Sometimes there’s no spare attention to be given to any of these voices, and what they say is lost to me.  Yet, on the whole, I can maintain some form of continuous partial attention with this ‘cloud’ of others.  They are always with me, and I with them.  This is a new thing (I view myself as a sort of guinea pig in a lab experiment) and it has produced some rather unexpected results.

At the end of last year I went on a long road trip with a friend from the US.  On our first day, we struck out from Sydney and drove to Canberra, arriving, tired and hungry at quarter to six.  Where do you eat dinner in a town that closes down at 5 pm?  I went online and put the question out to Twitter, then ducked into the shower.  By the time I’d dried off, I had a whole suite of responses from native Canberrans, several of whom pointed me to the Civic Asian Noodle House.  Thirty minutes later, my American friend was enjoying his first bowl of seafood laksa – which was among the best I’ve had in Australia.

A few days later, at the end of the road trip, when we’d reached the Barossa Valley, I put another question out to Twitter: what wineries should we visit?  The top five recommendations were very good indeed.  Each of these ‘cloud moments’, by themselves, seems relatively trivial.  Both together begin to mark the difference between an ordinary holiday and a most excellent one.

Another case in point: two weeks ago today, my washing machine gave up the ghost.  What to replace it with?  I asked Twitter.  Within a few hours, and some back-and-forth, I decided upon a Bosch.  Some of that was based on direct input from Bosch owners, some of that came from a CHOICE survey of washing machine owners.  I was pointed to that survey by someone on Twitter.

As I experiment, and learn how to query my cloud, I have sbecome more dependent upon the good advice it can provide.  My cloud extends my reach, my experience and my intelligence, making me much more effective as some sort of weird ‘colony individual’ than I could be on my own.   I have no doubt that within a few years, as the tools improve, nearly every decision I make will be observed and improved upon by my cloud.  Which is wonderful, incredible, and – to quote Tony Abbott – very confronting.

Let me turn things around a bit, to show another side of the cloud, specifically the cloud of my good friend Kate Carruthers.  Last year Kate found herself in Far North Queensland on a business trip and discovered that her American Express card credit limit had summarily been cut in half – with no advance warning – leaving her far away from home and potentially caught in a jam.  When she called American Express to make an inquiry – and found that their consumer credit division closed at 5 pm on a Friday evening – she lost her temper.  The 7500 people who follow Kate on Twitter heard a solid rant about the evils of American Express, a rant that they will now remember every time they find an American Express invitation letter in the post, or even when they decide which credit card to select while making a purchase.

Hollywood has been forced to take note of the power of these clouds.  There’s a direct correlation between the speed at which a motion picture bombs and the rise in the number of users of Twitter.  It used to take a few days for word-of-mouth to kill a movie’s box office:  now it takes a few minutes.  As the first showing ends, friends text friends, people post to Twitter and Facebook, and the news spreads.  After the second or third showing, the crowds have dropped off: word has gotten out that the film stinks.  Where just a few years ago a film could coast for an entire weekend, now the Friday matinee has become a make-or-break affair.  An opinion, multiplied by hundreds or thousands of connections, carries a lot of weight.

That amplification effect has been particularly visible to me over the last week.   I’ve been participating in a ‘social review program’ sponsored by Telstra, who sought reviewers for the handset du jour, the HTC Desire.  I received a free handset – worth about $800 – in exchange for a promise to do a thorough, but honest review.  This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, and when I started to post my thoughts to Twitter, I immediately got a big pushback.  Some of my cloud considered it an unacceptable commercialization of a space they consider essentially private and personal.  I spruik The New Inventors on Twitter every Wednesday.  That’s just as commercial, but Telstra is held out for particular contempt by a broad swath of the Australian public, so any association with them carries it own opprobrium.  I’ve come to realize that I’ve tarred myself with the same brush that others use for Telstra.  Although I did this accidentally and innocently, some of that tar will continue to stick to me.  I have suffered the worst fate that can befall anyone who lives life with a cloud: reputational damage.  Some people have made it perfectly clear that they will never again regard me with the same benevolence.  That damage is done.  All I can do is learn from it, and work to not repeat the same mistakes.

This marked the first time that I’d been ‘chastised’ by my cloud.  I’ve always operated within the bounds of propriety – the protocols of civilized behavior – but in this case I found I’d stumbled into a minefield, a danger zone filled with obstacles that I’d created for myself by presenting myself not just as Mark Pesce, but as Telstra.  I’ve learned new limits, new protocols, and, for the first time, I can begin to sense the constraints that come hand-in-hand with my new capabilities.  I can do a lot, but I can not do as I please.

II: Share the Health

Social networks are nothing new.  We’ve carried them around inside our heads from a time long before we were recognizably human.  They are the secret to our success, and always have been.  We’re the most social of all the of the mammals, and while the bees may put us to shame, we also have big brains to develop distinct personalities and unique strengths, which we have always shared, so that our expertise becomes an asset to the whole of society, whether that is a tribe, a city, or a nation.

Others have been studying these ‘old-school’ human social networks, and they’ve learned some surprising things.  Harvard internist and social scientist Dr. Nicholas Christakis has published a series of papers that illustrate the power of the connection.  In his first paper, he studied how smoking behaviors – both starting and quitting – spread through social networks.  It turns out that if a sufficient number of your friends start to smoke, you’re more likely to begin yourself.  Conversely, if enough of your friends quit, you’re more likely to quit.  This makes sense when you consider the reinforcing nature of social relationships; we each send one another a forest of subtle cues about the ‘right’ way to behave, fit in, and get along.  Those cues shape our choices and behaviors.  Hang out with smokers and you’re more likely to smoke.  Hang out with non-smokers, and you’re likely to quit smoking.

Dr. Christakis also found that the same phenomenon appears to hold true for obesity.  Again, people look to one another for cues about body image.  If all of your peers are obese, you are more likely to be obese yourself.  If your peers are thin, you’re more likely to be thin.  And if your peers go on a diet, you’re likely to join them in slimming.  The connections between us are also the transmitters of behavior.  (It may be the secret to the success of other groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.)  This is a powerful insight, one which caused me to have a bit of a brainwave, a few months ago, as I began planning this talk: what happens when we take what we know about our human social networks as behavioral transmitters and apply that to our accelerated, amplified digital selves?

I can take any bit of data I like and share it out through Twitter to 6700 connections, and I frequently do.  I post articles I’ve read, interesting films I’ve watched, photographs I’ve taken, and so forth.  My cloud is an opportunity to share what I encounter in my life.  Probably many of you do precisely the same thing.  But let’s take it a step further.  Let’s say that my doctor wants me to lose 15 kilos, in order to help me lower my blood pressure.  I agree to his request, and perhaps see a nutritionist, but after that I’m pretty much own my own.  I could spend some money to join a ‘group’ like Weight Watchers or whatnot; essentially purchasing a peer group with whom I will connect.  That will work for the duration of the weight loss, but once the support ends, the weight comes piles on.

Instead of this (or, perhaps, in addition to it), what I need to do is to bind my cloud to my intention to lose weight. I need to share this information, but I need to do it meaningfully.  This is more than simply saying, ‘Hey, I need to drop some pounds.’  More than posting the weekly weigh-in figures.  It means using the cloud intelligently, sharing with the cloud what can and should be shared – that is, what I eat and what exercise I get.

When I say ‘my cloud’ in this context, I doubt that I’m speaking about the full complement of 6700 souls.  Although all of them wish me well, this sort of detail is simply noise to many of them.  Instead, I need to go to a smaller cohort: my close friends, and those within my cloud who share a similar affinity – who are also working to lose weight.  These connections – a cloud within my cloud – are the ones who will be best served by my sharing.  I now keep track of what I eat and how I exercise, using some collaborative tool developed an some enterprising entrepreneur to track it all, and everyone sees what kind of progress I’m making toward my goal.  I also see everyone else’s progress toward their own goals.  We reinforce, we reassure, we share both new-found strengths and our moments of weakness.  As we share, we grow closer.  The network is reinforced.  All along, my friends (and my GP) are looking in, monitoring, happy to see that I’m on track toward my goal.

None of this is rocket science.  It’s good social science, and plain common sense.  It needs to be supported by tools.  At this point, I began to think about the kinds of tools that would be useful.  First and most useful would be a food diary.   Rather than a text-based listing of everything eaten, I reckon this will be a bit more up-to-date; there’ll be photographs, taken with my mobile, of everything that goes into my mouth.  As a bit of an experiment, I tried photographing everything I ate from the beginning of this month.  I always got breakfast, mostly lunch, and by dinner had forgotten completely.  My records are incomplete.  That wouldn’t do for any sharing system like this, and it points to the fact that technology is no substitute for effective habits, and those habits don’t develop overnight.  They require some peer support.

As I was beginning to think through the requirements of such a hypothetical system – so that I could share that system with you– I learned that someone had already implemented a real-world system along similar lines.  Jon Cousins, an entrepreneur from Cambridgeshire recently launched a website known as Moodscope.  This site allows individuals who have mood disorders to track their moods daily, and then shares those daily updates with a circle of up to five trusted individuals.

It’s known that individuals with mood disorders can be supported by a network – if that network is kept abreast of that individual’s changes in mood.  I decided to give Moodscope a try, and have been charting my daily moods (which average around the baseline of 50%) for the past 26 days, sharing those results with a close friend.  Although it’s early days, Moodscope is showing promise as a tool that can support people in their struggle for mood regulation and overall mental health, and might even do so better than some pharmaceutical treatments.

In these two examples – one imaginary and one wholly real – we have a pattern for health care in the 21st century, a model which doesn’t supplant the existing systems, but rather, works alongside them to improve outcomes and to keep patient care costs down, by spreading the burden of care throughout a community.  This model could be repeated to cover diabetics, or hypertensives, or asthmatics, or arthritics, and so on.  It is a generic model which can be applied to every patient and each disorder.

We’ve already seen the birth of ‘Wikimedicine’, where individuals connect together to try to learn more about their diseases than their treating physicians.  This is sometimes a recipe for disaster, but that’s because this is all so new.  Within a few years, doctors, nurse practitioners and patients will be connected through dense networks of knowledge and need.  The doctor and nurse practitioner will help guide the patient into knowledge using the wealth of online resources.  That’s not often happening at present, and this means that patients fall prey to all sorts of bad information.  In our near future, medical knowledge isn’t simply locked away in the physician’s head; it’s shared through a connected community for the benefit of all.  The doctor still treats, while the patient – and the patient’s connections – learn.  From that learning comes the lifestyle changes and reinforcements in behavior that lead to better outcomes.

We have the networks in place, both human and virtual.  We merely need to institute some new practices to reap the benefit of our connections.  As the population ages, these sorts of innovations will seem both natural – relying on others is an essentially human characteristic – and cost-effective.  The population will adopt these measures because they find them empowering (and because their GPs will recommend them), while governments and insurance companies will adopt them because they keep a lid on medical costs.  The forces of culture and technology are converging on a shared, hyperconnected future which aims to keep us as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

III:  The Ministry of Love

I have a good friend who was diagnosed with a mood disorder sixteen years ago.  A few months ago he decided his psychiatric medication was doing him more harm than good, and took himself off of it.  Although it’s been a difficult process, so far he’s been reasonably stable.  When I found Moodscope, I told him about it.  “Sounds good,” he responded, “I can’t wait until they have it as a Facebook app.”  I hadn’t thought about that, but it does make perfect sense: your social graph is already right there, embedded into Facebook, and Facebook applications have access to your social graph: why not create a version of Moodscope that ties the two together?  It sounds very compelling, a sure winner.

But do you really want Facebook to have access to highly privileged medical information, information about your mental state?  That information can be used to help you, but it could also be used against you.   Sydney teenager Nona Belomesoff was lured to her death by a man who used information gleaned from Facebook to befriend her.  Consider: If someone wanted to cause my friend some distress, they could use that shared mood data as a key indicator which would guide them to time their destabilizing efforts for maximum effectiveness.  They could kick him when he was down, and make sure he stayed down.  Giving someone insight into our emotional state gives them the upper hand.

Were that not dangerous enough, just last Friday the Wall Street Journal reported the results of an investigation, which revealed that Facebook was sharing confidential user data with advertisers – data which they’d legally agreed to hold in closest confidence.  The advertisers themselves had no idea that this information was provided illegally.  Facebook, the supreme collector of marketing data, simply didn’t know when or even how to restrain itself.

With that in mind, let’s imagine a situation bound to happen sometime in the next few years.  You and your Facebook friends decide that you want to quit smoking.  It’s too expensive, it’s too hard to find a smoking area, your clothes stink, and you’re starting to get a hacking cough in the mornings.  Enough.  So you tell your friends – over Facebook – that you’re thinking of quitting.  And they think that’s a great idea.  They want to quit, too.  So you all set a date to quit.  That’s all well and good, but then an invitation arrives to a very swanky party in the City, an exclusive affair.  You go, and find that the whole space is a smoking area!  All of these elegant people, puffing away.  Because smoking is glamorous.  And you begin to reconsider.  Your resolve begins to weaken.

Or you want to lose weight.  You even add the Facebook ‘Drop the Fat’ app to your account, to help you achieve your weight loss goals.  But, just as soon as you do that, you start seeing lots more Facebook advertisements for biscuits and ice cream and fresh pizzas.  That has an effect.  It weakens your willpower, and makes those slightly-hungry hours seem more unbearable.

This is the friendly version of ‘Room 101’ from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In that room, you met your greatest fear.  In this one, you meet your greatest weakness.  When a tobacco company has access to a social network which is trying to quit smoking, it will be tempted to disrupt that network.  When a soft drink company has access to a social network which is trying to lose weight, it will be tempted to disrupt that network.  Our social networks are too potent and too powerful to leave exposed to anyone, for any reason whatsoever.  Yet we leave them lying around, open to public inspection, and we allow Facebook to own them outright, to exploit them as it sees fit, to its own ends, and for its own profit.  Hopefully that will come to an end, unless we’re too far down the rabbit hole to pull out of Facebook and into something else that preserves the integrity of our social graph while granting us control over how we share our inmost selves.

This is where you come in.  You’re the policy folks, and I’ve just thrown a whopper into your lap.  Securing the safety and prosperity of our social future means that we need to establish clear guidelines on how these networks can be used, by whom, and to what ends.  As I’ve explained, there is enormous potential for these networks to lead to breakthroughs in public health, disease prevention, and medical cost management.  That’s just the beginning.  These same networks can organize toward political ends.  We got just a taste of that in the Obama presidential campaign, but the next decade will see its full flower, whether in America or in Iran or in Australia.  As social networks become identified with power networks, all of the conservative and power-seeking interests of culture will work to interfere with them as a means of control.

As public servants and policy makers, you will see the politicians, the doctors, and the advertisers come to you crying, ‘Can’t we do something?’  All of them will want you to weaken the protections for social networks, in order to make them more permeable and less resilient.  In this present moment, and with our current laws, social networks have no protections whatsoever.  They used to live inside our heads, where they needed few protections.  Now they live in public, and with every day that passes we come to understand that they are perhaps our most important possession, the doorway to ourselves.  First you must protect.  Then you must defend.

Protection is not enough.  It’s not clear that any commercial interest can be trusted with the social graphs of a community.  There’s too much potential for mischief, particularly right now, when everything is so new and so raw.  Government must play a role in this revolution, encouraging government-affiliated NGOs and other not-for-profits to foster networks of connections to spring up around communities which need the empowerment that comes with hyperconnectivity.  In the absence of this sort of gardening, the ground will be ceded to commercial forces which may not have the best interests of the citizenry foremost in mind.  By doing nothing, we lay the foundation for a new generation of grifters, criminals, and brainwashers.  But if these networks are built securely – by people who believe in them, and believe in what is possible with them – they become hyper-potent, capable of transforming the lives of everyone connected to them.  It’s a short path from hyperconnectivity to hyperempowerment, a path which will be well-trodden in the coming years.

The 21st century will look very different from the century just passed.  Instead of big wars and major powers, we’ll see different ‘gangs’ of hyperempowered social networks having a rumble, networks that look a lot like families, towns, or nations.  We’ll all be connected by similar principles, for similar reasons, and we will use similar tools to rally together and mobilize our strengths.  As is the nature of power, power will seek to use power to undermine the power of others.  Facebook is already doing this, though they seem to have stumbled into it.  The next time it happens it will be more deliberate, and more diabolical.

That’s it.  The future is much bigger than hyperconnected health, but as someone who will be a senior in just 20 years, hyperconnected health means more to me than whatever might happen to politics or business.  I need the support that will keep me healthy long into my sunset years, and I will join with others to build those systems.  If we build from corruption, corruption will be the fruit.  We must be honest with ourselves, acknowledge the dangers even as we laud the benefits, and build ourselves systems which do not play into human weaknesses, or avarice, or megalomania.  This is a project fit for a culture, a project worthy of a nation, a people who understand that together we can accomplish whatever we set our sights upon, if we build from a foundation of trust, respect and privacy.

Calculated Risks

I:  Baby Books

Forty-eight years ago, when my mother was pregnant with me, her friends and family threw her a baby shower.  Among the gifts, she received a satin-covered ‘Baby Book’, with spaces to record all of the minutiae of the early days of my existence.  I know for a fact that Dr. No and Lawrence of Arabia were playing in the movie theatres in Massachusetts at the time I was born, because it is neatly recorded on a page of my baby book.  I know how much I weighed when I was born (7 lbs, 7 oz – or 3.3 kg), when I got my first tooth, when I started to walk, and so on.  All of it is there, because my mother took the time to write it down as it happened.

What my mother didn’t write down – because it isn’t at all remarkable – was that I was busy reaching out, making connections with everyone I came into contact with.  Those connections began with my mother and my father, then my aunts and uncles and grandparents, and, just a year later, my sister.  I made those connections because that’s what humans do.  It sounds perfectly ordinary because it comes so naturally: in fact, it’s quite profound.  From the moment we’re born, we work to embed ourselves within a deep, strong and complex web of social relationships.

This isn’t a recent innovation, something that we ‘thought up’ the way we dreamed up art or writing or the steam engine; you need to go way, way back – at least ten million years, and probably a great deal more – before you get to any of our ancestors who wasn’t thoroughly social.  A social animal will, on the whole, outperform a loner.  A social animal can harness resources outside of themselves to ensure their survival and the survival of their children.  Ten million years ago, a social animal could share the hunting and gathering of food, childcare, or lookout duties.  Those with the best social skills – the best ability to communicate, coordinate, and function effectively as a unit – did better than their less-well-socialized relatives.  They survived to pass their genes and behaviors along, down the generations.  All along, a constant pressure accompanied them, driving them to become ever more social, better coordinated, and more effective.  At some point – no one knows how long ago, or even how it happened – this pressure overflowed, creating the infinitely flexible form of communication we call language.

The more we study other animals – particularly chimpanzees – the less unique we seem to ourselves.  Animals think, they even reason.  They can carry around within themselves a model of how others think and think about them.  They can deceive.  They even appear to have empathy and a sense of fairness.  But no other animal has the perfect tool of language.  Animals can think and feel, but they can not express themselves, at least, not as comprehensively as we can.  The expressiveness of language has one overriding aim: it allows us to connect very effectively.

The more we study ourselves, the more we understand how our need to connect has worked its way into our bodies, colonizing our nervous system.  Our big brains are the hardware for our connection into the human network: there’s a direct correlation between the amount of grey matter in our prefrontal cortex and the number of individuals we can maintain connections with.  Anthropologist Robin Dunbar came up with a figure of 148, plus or minus a few.  That’s the number of individuals you carry around in your head with you, all the time.  For a long, long time – tens of thousands of years – that was the largest a tribe of humans could grow, before they hived off into two tribes.  When a tribe grows so big you can’t know all of its members, it’s time to divide.

We’ve grown used to being surrounded by people we have no connection with.  That’s what cities are all about.  We’ve been building them for close to ten thousand years, and in that time we’ve learned how to live with those we don’t know.  It’s not easy – it requires police and courts and prisons – but the advantages of coming together in such great numbers outweigh the disadvantages.  In 2008, for the first time in history, half of humanity lived in cities.  We’re in the final stages of the urban revolution – a revolution in the making for the past hundred centuries.  Urban life is now the default human condition.

Just as that revolution reaches is climax, we find ourselves presented with a new technology, which takes all of our human connections and digitizes them, creating an electronic representation of what we each carry around in our heads.  We call this ‘social networking’, though, as I’ve explained, social networks are actually older than our species.  Stuffing them into a computer doesn’t change them: We are our connections.  They are what make us human.  But the computer speeds up and amplifies those connections, taking something natural and ordinary and turning it into something freakish and – hopefully – wonderful.

Before we discuss how these newly amplified connections can be used, it may be useful to step back, and reframe this latest revolution – just three years old – in the context of a child born, not in the early 1960s, but in 2010.  I have good friends in Melbourne who are expecting their first child in early September.  For the sake of today’s talk, let’s use this child (we’ll call her a daughter, though no one yet knows) as an example of what is now happening, and what is to come.

Will this child have a baby book?  Certainly, some beloved relative may provide one to the lucky parents, and mom and dad may even take the time to fill it in – between the 3 AM feedings and the nappy changes.  But the true baby book for this child will be the endless stream of digital media created in her wake.  From a few minutes after birth, she will be photographed, recorded, videoed, measured and captured in ways that would seem inconceivable (and obsessive) just a generation ago.  Yet today think nothing of a parent who follows a child everywhere with a video camera.

As parents collect that all of that media, they’re going to want somewhere to show it off.  An eponymous website. YouTube is already cluttered with videos of babies doing the most mundane sorts of things, precisely so they can be shown off to proud grandparents. Photo galleries on Picasa and Snapfish and Flickr exist for precisely the same reason – they provide a venue for sharing.  Parents post to blogs documenting every move, every fitful crawl, every illness.  What’s the difference between this and what we think of as a baby book?  Nothing at all.

It seems natural and wonderful to gather all of this documentation about her.  This is who she is in her youngest years.  But there’s other information that her parents do not document, at least not yet: who does she connect with?  This list is small in her very first years, but as she grows into a toddler and heads off to day care and pre-kindy and grade school, that list grows rather longer.  Will her parents keep track of these relationships?  Even if they do not, at some point, she will.  She’ll go online to a site patrolled by Disney or Apple or Google or Microsoft and be invited to ‘friend’ others on the site, and enroll her own real-world friends.  Her social network will begin to twin into its physical and virtual selves.  Much of each will be a reflection of the other, but some connections will exist purely in one realm.  Some friends or family members will have no presence online; a few friends might remain life-long ‘pen pals’, never meeting in the flesh, but maintaining constant, connected contact.

The most significant difference between these real-world and virtual networks centers on persistence.  We only have room for 150 people in our heads.  When we fill up, people start to get pushed out, crossing that invisible yet absolutely real line between friend and acquaintance.  We may have a lot of acquaintances, but these relationships, in the real world, don’t consist of very much beyond a greeting and a few polite words.  Contrast this to the virtual world, the world of Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, where connections persist forever unless explicitly deleted by one of the parties to that connection.  There is no upper limit to the number of connections a computer can remember.  (Facebook has an upper limit of 5000 friends, but that’s entirely artificial and will eventually be abandoned.)

As she passes through life, this child will continue to accrue connections, and these connections will be digitized for safekeeping – just like the photos and videos her parents shot in her youngest years.  That list will naturally grow and grow and grow, as she passes through years 1 through 12, moves on to university, and out into the world of adults.  By the time she’s 25, she’ll likely have thousands of connections that accreted just by living her life.  Each of these people will be able to peer in, and see how she’s doing; she’ll be able to do the same with each of them.

Managing the difference between our real-world connections, which top out, and our virtual connections, which do not, is a task that we’ll be mastering over the next decade.  Right now, we’re not very good at it.  By the time she’s grown up enough to understand the different qualities of real and virtual connections, we will be able to teach her behaviors appropriate to each sphere of connection.  At present there’s a lot of confusion, a fair bit of chaos, and a healthy helping of ignorance around all of this.  We can give ourselves a pass: it’s brand new.  But already we’re beginning to see that this is a real revolution.  In the social sphere, nothing will look like the past.

II:  Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire

On Friday evening, my washing machine – which I bought, used, just after I moved to Australia – finally gave up the ghost.  The motor on my front loader seemed less and less likely to make it through an entire spin cycle, so I knew this day was coming, and had some thoughts about what I’d do for a replacement.  One of my very good friends recommended that I buy a Simpson brand washer, just as she owned, just as her mother owned.  ‘Years of trouble-free service,’ she said.  ‘It’ll last forever.’  I took that suggestion under advisement.  But I knew that I had a larger pool of individuals to interrogate.  About thirty minutes after the unfortunate passing of the washer, I posted a message to Twitter, asking for recommendations.  Within minutes I was pointed to Choice Magazine, wher I read their reliability survey.  Many people chimed in with their own love or horror stories about particular brands of washers.  I was quickly dissuaded from Simpson: ‘There’s a reason they’re cheap,’ one person replied.  A furious argument raged about whether LG should be purchased by anyone, for any reason whatsoever, given that they were caught cheating on a refrigerator efficiency test.  Miele owners seemed fanatically in love with their washers – but acknowledged that they paid a big premium for that love.  And so on.  After reviewing the input from Twitter (and Choice), I made a decision to purchase a Bosch, which seemed both highly reliable and not too expensive, good value for money.  I put my decision out to Twitter, and the Bosch owners all chimed in: very happy, except for one, who seemed to have gotten one of those units that inevitably break down a few days after the warrantee expires.  That settled it.  On Saturday morning I played Bing Lee off Harvey Norman, talked one down to a very good price, and made the purchase.  Crisis resolved.

Let’s step back from the immediate and get a good look at this whole process.  In considering what to replace my dead washing machine with, I first consulted my real-world network – my friend who recommended Simpson.  Then I went out to my virtual network, a network which is much, much larger.  I follow about 5700 people on Twitter.  This means I have access, potentially, to 5700 opinions, 5700 sets of experiences, 5700 people who may be willing to help.  Even if only a small proportion of those do decide to offer assistance, that’s a lot of help, and it comes to me more or less immediately.  The entire process took about half an hour – and this on a Friday night.  If it’d been on a Tuesday afternoon, when people idly monitor Twitter while they work, I would have received double the response.

Wherever I go, I carry this ‘cloud’ of connections with me.  These connections have value in themselves – they are a record of my passage through the human universe – but they have far greater value when put to work to accomplish some task.  This is it; this is the knife-edge of the present: We have been busily building up our social networks, and though I freely admit that I am better connected than most, this will not long remain the case, as a generation grows into adulthood keeping a perfect record of all of their connections.  Within a few years, nearly everyone who wills it will enter every situation with the same cloud of connections, the same reliable web of helpers who can respond to requests as the need arises.  That fundamental transition – at the heart of this latest revolution – makes each of us much more effective.  We’re carrying around a whole stadium of individuals, who can be called upon as needed to help us make the best decision in every situation.  As we grow more comfortable with this new power, every decision of significance we make will be done in consultation with this network of effectiveness.  This is already transforming the way we operate.

Some more examples, drawn from my own experience, will help illuminate this transformation.  In December I found myself in Canberra for a few days.  Where to eat dinner in a town that shuts down at 5 pm?  I asked Twitter, and forty-five minutes later I was enjoying some of the best seafood laksa I’ve had in Australia.  A few days later, in the Barossa Valley, I asked Twitter which wineries I should visit – and the top five recommendations were very good indeed.  In the moment these can seem like trivial affairs, but both together begin to mark the difference between an ordinary holiday and an awesome one.  Imagine this stretching out, minute after minute, throughout our lives.  We’re not used to thinking in such terms.  But just twenty years ago we weren’t used to the idea that we could reach anyone else instantly from wherever we were, or be reached by anyone else, anywhere.  Then the mobile came along, and now that’s an accepted part of our reality.  We’d find it difficult to go back to a time before the mobile became such an essential tool in our lives.  This is the same transition we’re in the midst of right now with social networks.  We look at Twitter and Facebook and find them charming ways to stay in touch and while away some empty time.  A social network isn’t charming, and it certainly isn’t a waste of time.  We are like children, playing with very powerful weapons.  And sometimes they go off.

Before we explore that more explosive side to social networks, the ‘pillar of fire’ to this ‘pillar of cloud’, I want to introduce you to one more social networking technology, one which is brand-new, and which you may not have heard of yet.   Just over the past month, I’ve become a big fan of Foursquare, a location-based ‘social network’.  Using the GPS on my mobile, Foursquare allows me to ‘check in’ when I go to a restaurant, a store, or almost anywhere else.  That is, Foursquare records the fact that I am at a particular place at a particular time.  Once I’ve checked in, I can then make a recommendation – a ‘tip’ in Foursquare lingo – and share something I’ve observed about that place.  It could be anything – something absurdly trivial, or something very relevant.  As others have likely been to this place before me, there is already a list of tips.  If I peek through those tips, I can learn something that could prove very useful.

As every day passes, and more people use Foursquare (over a million at present, all around the world) this list of tips is rapidly growing longer, more substantial, and more useful.  What does this mean?  Well, I could walk into a bar that I’ve never been to before and know exactly which cocktail I want to order.  I would know which table at a restaurant offers the quietest corner for a romantic date.  Or which salesperson to talk to for a good deal on that washing machine.  And so on.  With Foursquare have immediate and continuous information in depth, information provided by the hundreds or thousands in my own social network, plus everyone else who chooses to contribute.  Foursquare turns the real world into a kind of Wikipedia, where everyone contributes what they know to improve the lot of all.  I have a growing range of information about the world around me in my hands.  If I put it to work, it will improve my effectiveness.

Last weekend I went to the cinema, to see Iron Man 2.  As soon as I left the theatre, I sent out a message to Twitter: “Thought Iron Man 2 better than original.  Snappier.  Funnier.  More comic-book-y.”  That recommendation – high praise from me – went out to the 6550 people who follow me.  Many of those folks are Australians, who might have been looking for a film to see last weekend.  My positive review would have influenced them.  I know for a fact that it did influence some, because they sent me messages telling me this.

On the other hand, if I’d sent out a message saying, ‘Worst. Movie. Ever.’ that also would have reached 6550 people, who would, once again, consider it.  It might have even dissuaded some from paying the $17.50 to see Iron Man 2 on the big screen.  If enough people said the same thing, that could kill the box office.  This is precisely what we’ve seen.  There’s a direct correlation between the speed at which a motion picture bombs and the rise in the number of users of Twitter.  It used to take a few days for word-of-mouth to kill a movie’s box office (think Godzilla).  Now it takes a few minutes. As the first showing ends, friends text friends, people post to Twitter and Facebook, and the story spreads.  After the second or third showing, the crowds have dropped off: word has gotten out that the film stinks.  Where a film could coast an entire weekend, now it has just a Friday matinee to succeed or fail.  Positive word-of-mouth kept Avatar at the #1 spot for nine weeks, and the film remained a trending topic on Twitter for half of that time; conversely, The Back-Up Plan disappeared almost without a trace.  An opinion, multiplied by hundreds or thousands of connections, carries a lot of weight.

These connections always come with us, part of who we are now.  If we have an experience we find objectionable, our connections have a taste of that.  A few months ago a friend found herself in Far North Queensland with an American Express card whose credit limit had summarily been cut in half with no warning, leaving her far away from home and potentially caught in a jam.  When she called American Express to make an inquiry – and found that their consumer credit division closed at 5 pm on a Friday evening – she lost her temper.  The 7500 people who follow her on Twitter heard a solid rant about the evils of American Express, a rant that they will now remember every time they find an American Express invitation letter in the post, or even when they decide which credit card to select while making a purchase.

Every experience, positive or negative, is now amplified beyond all comprehension.  We sit here with the social equivalent of tactical nuclear weapons in our hands, toying with the triggers, and act surprised when occasionally they go off.  Catherine Deveny, a weekly columnist for The AGE, was summarily dismissed last week because of some messages she posted over Twitter during the Logies broadcast.  It seems she hadn’t thought through the danger of sending an obscene – but comedic – message to thousands of people, a message that would be picked up and sent again, and sent again, and sent again, until the tabloid newspapers and television shows, smelling blood in the water, got in on the action.  When you’re well-connected, everything is essentially public.  There’s no firm boundary between your private sphere and your public life once you allow thousands of others a look in.  That can be a good thing if one is hungry for celebrity and fame – Kim Kardashian is an excellent example of this – but it can also accelerate a drive to self-destruction (witness Miranda Devine’s comments from Sunday).  We live within a social amplifier, and it’s always turned up to 11.  When we scream, we can be heard around the world, but now our whispers sound like shouts.

This means that no one can be silenced, anywhere.  Last June, the entire world watched as an abortive Iranian revolution broke out on the streets of Tehran, viewing clips shot on mobile handsets, uploaded to YouTube, tagged, then picked up and shared throughout social networks like Twitter, which brought them to the attention of CNN, the New York Times, and the US State Department. Mobiles brought into North Korea puncture the tightly held reins of state control as information and news seeps across the border with China, the human connection amplified by a social technology. It’s no longer the CIA or ASIO station chief who gathers intelligence from far-flung places.  It courses through our human networks.

You can begin to see the shape of this revolution-in-progess.  Everything is so new, so rough, so raw, so innocent of intention that we really don’t know where we are going.  We’re all stumbling through this doorway together.  Each of us hold our connections to one another; like balloons that, in sufficient numbers, might cause us to take flight.  We’re lifting off and gaining speed.  Whether we’re a glider or a guided missile is up to us.  We must pause, take stock, and ask ourselves what we want from these powerful new tools.  And, in return, ask what we must be prepared to accept.

III:  Threat Assistment

Individuals are becoming radically hyper-empowered.  Our connections give us capabilities undreamt of a generation ago.  As individuals who assess the various risks for your organizations, you’ve just learned about a brand new one, a threat that will – relatively quickly – dwarf nearly all others.  The risk of hyperconnectivity is coming at you from three distinct but interrelated axes: hyper-empowered individuals who want to interact with your organizations; hyper-empowered individuals who compose your organizations; and your organizations, when they grasp the nettle of hyperconnectivity.

What do you do when a hyperconnected individual wants to become a customer, or just interact in some way with your organization?  What happens when an existing customer becomes hyperconnected?  Both of these situations are becoming commonplace affairs.  My friend who had her troubles with American Express typifies this sort of threat.  She had a long-term relationship with the company, but in the last years of that relationship she became hyperempowered.  American Express didn’t know this – probably wouldn’t have understood it – and failed to manage the relationship when she ran into trouble.

The key attitudes for managing external relationships with hyperconnected individuals are humility and openness.  American Express had no idea what was going on because they weren’t plugged into what my friend was saying to thousands of her followers.   They didn’t consider her worth listening to.  There’s no reason for this sort of thing to happen.  Excellent tools exist that allow you to monitor what is being said about your organization, right now, who is saying it, and where.  You can keep your finger on the pulse; when a customer has an issue, you can respond in a timely manner, humbly and transparently.  Social media places an enormous value on transparency: unless someone’s motives – and connections – are apparent to you, you have no real reason to trust them, and no basis upon which to build that trust.

This isn’t a difficult policy to implement, but the responsibility for listening doesn’t lie with a single individual or department within your organization.  Responsibility is spread throughout the organization; that’s the only way your organization will be able to handle all of the hyperconnected customers you do business with.  Spread the load.  The Chinese have a proverb: ‘Many hands make light work.’  That same rule applies here.  Make listening to customers a priority throughout your organizations.  If you don’t, those customers will use their amplified capabilities to make your life a living hell.

Employees within your organizations don’t leave their own networks at the door when they walk into the office.  Although employers often block access to services like Facebook and Twitter from employee workstations, mobiles and pervasive high speed wireless connectivity make that restriction increasingly meaningless.  Employees will connect and stay connected throughout the day, regardless of your stated policy.  Soon enough, you will be encouraging them to stay connected, in order to share the burden of all that listening.  Right now, your employees are well connected, but poorly disciplined.  They don’t know the right way to do things.  Don’t blame them for this.  It’s all very new, and there hasn’t been a lot of guidance.

If you walk out of today’s talk with any one thing buzzing in your head, let it be this: develop a social media policy for your employees.  Employees want to know how they can be connected in the office without damaging your reputation or their position.  In the absence of a social media policy, organizations will get into all sorts of prangs that could have been avoided.  Case in point: last week’s sacking of AGE columnist Catherine Deveny happened, in large part, because Fairfax has no social media policy.  There were no guidelines for what constituted acceptable behavior, or even which behavior was ‘on the clock’ versus ‘off the clock’.  Without these sorts of guidelines, hyperconnected employees will make their own decisions – putting your organizations, your stakeholders and your brands at risk.

Two well-known Australian organizations have established their own social media policies.  The ABC boiled theirs down to four simple rules:

1)    Do not mix the personal and the professional in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute;

2)    Do not undermine your effectiveness at work;

3)    Do not imply ABC endorsement of your personal views;

4)    Do not disclose confidential information obtained through work.

This could be summed up with ‘use common sense’, but spelled out as it is here, the ABC has given its employees a framework that allows them to both regulate and embrace social media.

Telstra’s policy is wordier – it runs to five pages – but it is, in essence, very similar.  It is good that Telstra has a social media policy, but that policy was only developed after a very public and very embarrassing incident.  Last year, Telstra employee Leslie Nassar, who posted to Twitter pseduonymously  under the account ‘Fake Stephen Conroy’, revealed his identity.  When Telstra realized that one of their employees daily satirized the senator charged with ministerial oversight of their organization, the company was appalled, and quickly moved to fire Nassar – only to find that it couldn’t, because Nassar had violated no stated policy or conditions of employment.  Shortly after that, Telstra developed and promulgated its social media guidelines.  Learn from Telstra’s mistake.  This same sort of PR and political catastrophe needn’t happen in your organizations, but I guarantee that it will, if you do not develop a social media policy.  So please, get started immediately.

Finally, what happens when organizations hyperconnect?  For hundreds of years, organizations have been based on rigid hierarchies and restricted flows of information.  Hyperconnectivity puts paid to the org chart, replacing it with a dense set of hyperconnections between individuals within the organization, and between organizations: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.  We don’t really understand much about this new form of organization, other than to say that it looks very little like what we are familiar with today.  But the pressure from hyperconnected individuals – both within and outside of the organization – will only increase, and to accommodate this pressure, the organization will increasingly find itself embedded in hyperconnections.  This is the final leg of the revolution, still some years away, but one which requires careful planning today.  Can your organization handle itself as it connects broadly to a planet where everyone is connected broadly?  Will it maintain its own integrity, will it dissolve, merge, or disintegrate?  This is a question that businesses need to ask, that schools need to ask, that governments need to ask.  Everything from mass production to service delivery is being re-thought and re-shaped by our hyperconnectivity.

Organizations that master hyperconnectivity, putting social media to work, experience a leap forward in productivity.  That leap forward comes at a price.  Every tool that enhances productivity also changes everyone who uses it.  None of us, as individuals or organizations, will be left behind, even if we choose to unplug, because we remain completely connected to a human world which is increasing hyperconnected.  There is no going back, nor any particular safety in the present.  Instead, we need to connect, and together use the best of what we’ve got – which is substantial, because there are plenty of smart people in all your organizations, throughout the nation, and the world – to mange this transition.  This could be a nearly bloodless revolution, if we can remember that, at our essence, we are the connected species.  Thought it may seem chaotic, this is not a collapse.  It is a culmination.

The slides for this talk can be found here.