Flexible Futures

I: A Brief Tour of the Future

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 agreed 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 choices – 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 visit, 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, 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 Australia – and New Zealand and the UK and the USA – 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, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, or any of an constantly-increasing number of ways.

The mobile takes the vast, anonymous and unknowable world, and makes it pocket-sized, friendly and personal.  If we ever run into a spot of bother, we 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.

Because everyone is connected, we can connect to anyone we wish.  These connections needn’t follow the well-trodden paths of family, friends, neighbors and colleagues.  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.  Generally, they will connect to their greatest advantage, whether or not that suits your purposes, protocols, or needs.  When people need a lifeline, they will turn over heaven and earth to find it, and once they’ve found it, they will share it with others.

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 imagine 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, gotten overexcited, and suddenly start 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.

As we learn who wants to know what, we integrate ourselves into a very powerful network for the dissemination of knowledge.  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.  In the 21st century, news comes and finds us.  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 efficient 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 employee, no matter their position on the org chart, can now possess a detailed awareness your organization.  When an employee trains their attention on something important to them, they see how to connect to others sharing similar important information.

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 everyone to involve themselves fully within any domain deemed important – or at least interesting.  Each 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.

In addition to everything else, we are each a unique set of knowledge, experience and capabilities which, in the right situation, proves uniquely valuable.  By sharing what we know, we advertise our expertise.  It follows us where ever we go.   Because this expertise 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 colleagues?  We work in organizations 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 you, throughout the entire organization.  Everyone in it can now have some awareness of the talents that pulse through your organizations – with the right tools in place.

 

II: Mobility & Flexibility

Everyone now goes everywhere with a mobile in hand.  This means everyone is continually connected to the organization.  That has given us an office that has no walls, one which has expanded to fill every moment of our lives.  We need to manage that relationship and the tension between connectivity and capability.  People can not always be available, people can not always be ‘on’.  Instead, we must be able to establish boundaries, rules, conventions and practices which allow us to separate work from the rest of our lives, because we can no longer do so based on time or location.

We also need some way to be able to track the times and places we do work.  We’re long past the days of punching a timeclock.  In a sense, the mobile has become the work-whistle, timeclock and overseer, because it is the monitor.  This creates another tension, because people will not be comfortable if they believe their own devices are spying on them. Can organizations walk a middle path, which allows the mobile to enable more employee choice and greater freedom, without eternally tethering the employee to the organization?

This is a policy matter, not a technology matter, but technology is forcing the hand of policy.  How can technology come to the aid of that policy?  How can I know when it might be appropriate to contact an employee within my organization, and when it would be right out?  This requires more than a quick glance at an employee schedule.  The employee, mobile in hand, has the capacity to be able to ‘check in’ and ‘check out’ of availability, and will do so if it’s relatively effortless.  Employees can manage their own time more effectively than any manager, given the opportunity.

It’s interesting to note that this kind of employee-driven ‘flextime’ has been approaching for nearly thirty years, but hasn’t yet arrived.  Flextime has proven curiously inflexible.  That’s a result of the restricted communication between employee and organization, mostly happening within the office and within office hours.  Now that communication is continuous and pervasive, now that the office is everywhere, flextime policies must be adjusted to accommodate the continuously-evolving needs of the organization’s employees.  The technology can support this – and we’re certainly flexible enough.  So these practices must come into line with our capabilities.

As practice catches up with technology, we need to provide employees with access to the tools which they can use to manage their own work lives.  This is the key innovation, because empowering employees in this way creates greater job satisfaction, and a sense of ownership and participation within the organization.  Just as we can schedule time with our friends or pursuing our hobbies, we should be able to manage our work lives.

Because we rely so heavily on mobiles, we lead very well-choreographed lives.  Were we to peek at a schedule, our time might look free, but our lives have a habit of forming themselves on-the-fly, sometimes only a few minutes in advance of whatever might be happening.   We hear our mobile chime, then read the latest text message telling us where we should be – picking up the kids, going to the shops, heading to a client.  Our mobiles are already in the driver’s seat.  Fourteen years ago, when I sat at Darling Harbour, waiting for my late friends, we had no sense that we could use pervasive mobile connectivity to manage our schedules and our friends’ schedules so precisely.  Now, it’s just the way things are.

Do we have back office practices which reflect this new reality?  Can an employee poke at their mobile and know where they’re expected, when, and why?  By this, I don’t mean calendaring software (which is important), but rather the rest of the equation, which allows employee and employer to come to a moment-by-moment agreement about the focus of that employment.

This is where we’re going.  The same processes at work in our private lives are grinding away relentlessly within our organizations.  Why should our businesses be fundamentally more restrictive than our family or friends, all of whom have learned how to adapt to the flexibility that the mobile has wrought?  This isn’t a big ask.  It’s not as though our organizations will tip into chaos as employees gain the technical capacity to manage their own time.  This is why policy is important.  Just because anything is possible doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  Hand-in-hand with the release of tools must come training on how these tools should be used to strengthen an organization, and some warnings on how these same tools could undermine an organization whose employees put their own needs consistently ahead of their employer.

Once everyone has been freed to manage their own time, you have a schedule that looks more like Swiss cheese than the well-ordered blocks of time we once expected from the workforce.  Every day will be special, a unique arrangement of hours worked.  Very messy.  You need excellent tracking and reporting tools to tell you who did what, when, and for how long.  Those tools are the other side of the technology equation; give employees control, and you create the demand for a deeper and more comprehensive awareness of employee activities.

Managers can’t spend their days tracking employee comings and goings.  As our schedules become more flexible and more responsive to both employee and organizational needs, the amount of information a manager needs to absorb becomes prohibitive.  Managers need tools which boil down the raw data into easily digestible and immediately apprehensible summaries.

Not long ago, I did quite a bit of IT consulting for a local council, and one thing I heard from the heads of each of the council’s departments, was how much the managers at the top needed a ‘dashboard’, which could give them a quick overview of the status of their departments, employee deployment, and the like.  A senior executive needs to be able to glance at something – either on their desktop computer, or with a few pokes on their mobile – and know what’s going on.

Something necessary for the senior management has utility throughout the organization.  The kind of real-time information that makes a better manager also makes a better organization, because employees who have access to real-time updates can change their own activities to meet rising demands.  The same flexibility which allows employees to schedule themselves also creates the opportunity for a thoroughly responsive and reconfigurable workforce, able to turn on a dime, because it is plugged in and well-aware of the overall status of the organization.

That’s the real win here; employees want flexibility to manage their own lives, and organizations need that flexibility to able to respond quickly to both crises and opportunities.  The mobile empowers both employee and organization to meet these demands, provided there is sufficient institutional support to make these moment-to-moment changes effortless.

This is a key point.   Where there is friction in making a change, in updating a schedule, or in keeping others well-informed, those points of friction become the pressure points within the organization.  An organization might believe that it can respond quickly and flexibly to a crisis, only to find – in the midst of that crisis – that there is too much resistance to support the organizational demand for an instant change of focus.  An organization with too much friction divides its capabilities, becoming less effective through time, while an organization which has smoothed away those frictions multiplies its capabilities, because it can redeploy its human resources at the speed of light.

Within a generation, that’s the kind of flexibility we will all expect from every organization.  With the right tools in hand, it’s easy to imagine how we can create organizations that flow like water while remaining internally coherent.  We’re not there yet, but the pieces are now in place for a revolution which will reshape the organization.

 

III: Exposing Expertise

It’s all well and good to have a flexible organization, able to reconfigure itself as the situation demands, but that capability is useless unless supported by the appropriate business intelligence.  When a business pivots, it must be well-executed, lest it fly apart as all of the pieces fall into the wrong places, hundreds of square pegs trying to fill round holes.

Every employee in an organization has a specific set of talents, but these talents are not evenly distributed.  Someone knows more about sales, someone else knows more about marketing, or customer service, or accounting.  That’s why people have roles within an organization; they are the standard-bearers for the organization’s expertise.

Yet an employee’s expertise may lie across several domains.  Someone in accounting may also provide excellent customer service.  Someone in manufacturing might be gifted with sales support.  A salesman might be an accomplished manager.  People come into your organization with a wide range of skills, and even if they don’t have an opportunity to share them as part of their normal activities, those skills represent resources of immense value.

If only we knew where to find them.

You see, it isn’t always clear who knows what, who’s had experience where, or who’s been through this before.  We do not wear our employment histories on our sleeves.  Although we may enter an organization with our c.v. in hand, once hired it gets tucked away until we start scouting around for another job.  What we know and what we’ve done remains invisible.  Our professional lives look a lot like icebergs, with just a paltry bit of our true capabilities exposed to view.

One of the functions of a human resources department is to track these employee capabilities.  Historically, these capabilities have been strictly defined, with an appropriately circumscribed set of potentials.  Those slots in the organization are filled by these skills.  This model fit well well organizations treasured stability and order over flexibility and responsiveness.  But an organization that needs to pivot and reorient itself as conditions arise will ask employees to be ready to assume a range of roles as required.

How does an organization become aware of the potential hidden away within its employees?

I look out this afternoon and see an audience, about whom I know next to nothing.  There are deep reservoirs of knowledge and experience in this room, reservoirs that extend well beyond your core skills in payroll and human resources.  But I can’t see any of it.  I have no idea what we could do together, if we had the need.  We probably have enough skills here to create half a dozen world-class organizations.  But I’m flying blind.

You’re not.  Human resources is more than hiring and compliance.  It is an organizational asset, because HR is the keeper of the human inventory of skills and experiences.   As an employee interviews for a position and is hired, do you translate their c.v. into a database of expertise?  Do you sit them down for an in-depth interview which would uncover any other strengths they bring into the organization?  Or is this information simply lying dormant, like a c.v. stashed away in a drawer?

The technology to capture organizational skills is already widely deployed.  In many cases you don’t need much more than your normal HR tools.  This isn’t a question of tools, but rather, how those tools get used.  Every HR department everywhere is like a bank vault loaded up with cash and precious metals.  You could just close the vault, leaving the contents to moulder unused.  Or you can take that value and lend it out, making it work for you and your organization.

That’s the power of an HR department which recognizes that business intelligence about the intelligence and expertise within your organization acts like a force multiplier.  A small organization with a strong awareness of its expertise punches far above its weight.  A large organization with no such awareness consistently misses opportunities to benefit from its unique excellence.

You hold the keys to the kingdom, able to unlock a revolution in productivity which can take your organizations to a whole new level of capability.  When anyone in the organization can quickly learn who can help them with a given problem, then reach that person immediately – which they now can, given everyone has a mobile – you have effectively swept away much of the friction which keeps organizations from reaching their full potential.

Consider the tools you already employ.  How can they be opened up to give employees an awareness of the depth of talent within your organization?  How can HR become a switchboard of capabilities, connecting those with needs to those who have proven able to meet those needs?  How can a manager gain a quick understanding of all of the human resources available throughout the organization, so that a pivot becomes an effortless moment of transition, not a chaotic chasm of confusion.

This is the challenge for the organizations of the 21st century.  We have to learn how to become flexible, fluid, responsive and mobile.  We have to move from ignorance into awareness.  We have to understand that the organization as a whole benefits from an expanded awareness of itself.  We have to do these things because newer, more nimble competitors will force these changes on us.   Organizations that do not adapt to the workforce and organizational movements toward flexibility and fluidity will be battered, dazed and confused, staggering from crisis to crisis.  Better by far to be on the front foot, walking into the future with a plan to unleash the power within our organizations.

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 New Toolkit

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

Introduction: The Age of Connection

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

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

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

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

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

I:  Hyperconnectivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II: Hyperdistribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III: Hyperintelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV: Hyperempowerment

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

Hyperdemocracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blueprint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.