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.

Hypereconomics

What happens after we’re all connected?  When I asked that question, seven years ago, well over eighty percent of all Australians had their own mobile, and the bulk of the nation had signed up for broadband Internet access.  The answer led me on a journey through the future of media, education, politics, and now, economics.

In July I started to set down the outcomes of my research in a book titled THE NEXT BILLION SECONDS.  A billion seconds is just a bit over 30 years – a generation, if you will – and it’s my belief the billion seconds from 1995 to 2026 will be as important in the history of human affairs as the birth of language, seventy thousand years ago.  Being connected means being something new.

We, here in this room tonight – along with everyone else on the planet – are in the middle of this transition, halfway between what we were, and what we will become.  That’s always been true, but just now the transformation of our civilization has gone into overdrive, because all of the frictions which kept it chugging along at a lazy pace are evaporating.

We’re moving into a superconducting phase of development, with no resistance holding us back.  Stripped of all baggage, we’re accelerating wildly, unpredictably, into a future which looks almost nothing like the recent past.

 

ALPHA: Fisher, Farmer, Barber, Disruptor

For thousands of years, fishermen from the Indian state of Kerala, sailed their sturdy boats into the Indian ocean, dropped their nets, said their prayers, then pulled the sea’s bounty aboard their craft.  Once they’d filled their hold, the fishermen would head back to the mainland.  At this point, they’d be faced with a choice: where should they sell their fish?  The Kerala coastline, dotted with ports and markets, offers fishermen numerous choices, and the markets need fish every day.  Working from instinct and memory, the fishermen would pick a port, and sail into it.

Inevitably, other fishermen would have had the same idea, would dock at the same port, at near the same time, their holds also filled with freshly-caught fish.  Suddenly there’s a problem of oversupply: Too many fish for sale means low prices in the fish market.  A fisherman might just barely cover their costs, no matter how hard they worked, or how many fish they caught.  Meanwhile, just a few kilometers up or down the coastline, another fishing port had been forgotten by the fishermen that day.  No fish for sale in that fish markets, at any price.  The Kerala fishermen had grown used to their subsistence lifestyle, and Keralan fishmongers to their inconstant supply.  It’s just the way things were, the way they’d always been.

In the 1990s, the Indian government auctioned radio spectrum to telecommunications companies, and in 1997, mobiles came to Kerala.  As is the case everywhere, the first mobiles were expensive to own and use, so only the wealthy could afford them.  The cheapest mobile cost a month of an average fisherman’s income.  (In Australian terms, that would be around $4000 for a mobile, or about the cost of five top-of-the-line smartphones.)

Cell towers began to spring up all over Kerala (no government paperwork required, just raise a mast and plug it in) including the coastline.  This gave the beaches of Kerala excellent mobile coverage, and, because radio signals travel in straight lines, it also extended that coverage out to sea for over twenty kilometers.  Anyone could make a call from the middle of the Indian ocean, almost out of sight of land – if they had a reason to make a call.

The most prosperous Kerala fishermen owned more than one boat.  Proceeds from that fishing fleet gave one fisherman enough spare cash that he could purchase a mobile.  The mobile went out to sea with that fisherman, and at some point – no one knows precisely who, or where, or when – someone called the fisherman while out to sea.  Over the course of that conversation, the fisherman learned about a fish market going without fish that day.  The fisherman immediately set his sails for that port, and made a tidy profit from his eagerly awaited fish.

The next day, while still at sea, the fisherman phoned around, calling each fish market in succession, learning which markets most needed fish.  That day the fisherman made another excellent return on his catch.  The same thing happened the day after that, and the one after that.  With his mobile to check the markets, every day brought a very nice profit.

The fishermen of Kerala are a community, and although they may not reveal to one another their favorite fishing spots, news of the mobile fish market spread quickly throughout the length of the state.  Within a few months, every fisherman, from the poorest to the most well-off, owned a mobile, using it to check prices at several markets before selecting a port of call.  Three things happened as a result: every fish market now had a supply of fish; the price of fish at one market matched the price of fish in every other market; and the fishermen now got the best possible price for their fish, every day.  That mobile, which had cost them a month’s income, paid for itself in just two months.

All of the inefficiencies and friction in human communication (markets are one aspect of communication) fell away as the Kerala fishermen used their mobiles to extend their reach, improving  circumstances for both sellers and buyers, a true win-win.  The friction that kept the fishermen poor and poorly informed melted under the heat of connectivity, and the dross of market inefficiencies boiled away, leaving only the gold of commerce.  This happened not because of some top-down mandate, but from a bottom-up process in which people connect, share what they know, learn from one another, then put that learning into practice.

Kerala was an early example, but far from the only one.  Farmers, forever at the mercy of the weather, insects and crop blights, suffered from ‘informational asymmetry’ in the marketplace: the buyers have always known more than the sellers, using that information to their advantage.  Hyperconnectivity has disrupted that informational arbitrage: farmers in Kenya use DrumNet, a mobile service that allows them to check the current market prices for their produce at a range of locations.  When a farmer readies his crop for sale, he sends a text message to DrumNet, using the response to choose the market which will give him the best return for his efforts.  Just as Kerala fishermen phone around for the best price for their catch, a Kenyan farmer can quickly learn where he’ll get the best price for his vegetables.  Hyperconnectivity makes informational asymmetries a thing of the past; every party to a transaction can negotiate a sale fully informed.  With DrumNet, Kenyan farmers have been earning as much as 40% more for their crops – a rate of return which makes the service a very good investment.

The DrumNet concept has spread across the developing world.  In India, Nokia mobiles come equipped with apps that illiterate farmers employ to get information about crops, weather and market prices.  Nokia makes a small profit off the service – which is expected to grow to serve tens of millions of users – and farmers in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan earn more for their produce.  Each of these farmers, hyperconnected, has access to informational resources as great as those available to the most well-resourced farmer, anywhere in the world.

Moreover, the mobile frees the market from a place, attaching it to a person.  In Karachi, barbers have always had to rent an expensive stall in the pubic markets to ply their trade.  When Pakistan crossed over into of hyperconnectivity, a different kind of commerce became possible.  An enterprising barber can buy a bicycle and a mobile, printing signs reading “FOR A HAIRCUT CALL 03XX-YYYYYYYYY”, and post these throughout the city.   Clients contact the barber directly, mobile-to-mobile, receiving on-call service in their homes.  Everyone is better served by this relationship: the client gets a shave at a time and location of their own choosing; the barber cuts his own costs dramatically, while establishing a closer relationship with his clientele.  For the ancient market civilizations of South Asia, this displacement of place by person means that the market has altered permanently because of hyperconnectivity.  The intersection of commerce and society has suddenly become something quite different.

The hyperconnectivity created by the mobile dramatically improves an individual’s ability to earn a living.  To own a mobile in Bangladesh or Peru or Nigeria means you have a capability to earn more to keep you and your family alive.  This effect is completely obvious, so everyone in the developing world has been acquiring their own mobile handsets.  In the decade from 1999 to 2009, we went from half the world’s population never having made a phone call to half the planet owning their own mobile.  We’re now well past that point.  There are over six billion mobile subscriptions and almost five-and-a-half billion individuals using mobiles right this minute, and, if current growth patterns are maintained, in five years’ time everyone on Earth – over seven billion people – will have their own mobile.

 

BETA: Aggregation and Collapse

Under the pressure of hyperconnectivity, all friction within all markets, everywhere, has begun to melt.  Everything is becoming smooth, slick, slippery, and very fast.  Not just in the developing world.  But here in Australia it takes different forms, because we come from a different technological base, with excellent connectivity.

One good current example from our own market is Ruslan Kogan’s eponymous – and quite profitable – consumer electronics enterprise.  Kogan realized that the value chain created by the large television manufacturers – the Samsungs and Sonys – rested with a few Chinese companies assembling the raw components for flat-screen televisions according to specifications that varied hardly at all from model to model.  Kogan knew he could get these Chinese manufacturers to build televisions for him, if he could order them in sufficient quantity.  Kogan turned to the Web to create enough demand to overcome the frictions to the transaction.  The Web provides a frictionless environment where purchasers can pool their buying needs around Kogan’s capacity to build a value chain.

Gerry Harvey complains that Kogan undercuts his retail business, but the innovation is more fundamental than simple e-commerce.  Kogan is using the Web as an aggregation mechanism, not a sales channel.  Eventually, others will copy the Kogan model, aggregating demand for almost every imaginable product or service.  Groupon and Spreets cut off-price deals with businesses, taking a cut of the sales as the price of customer aggregation.  The most disruptive businesses of 2011 identify a demand, build a value chain to service that demand, aggregating demand in sufficient quantity to produce a substantial price differential.

Kogan itself is built upon frictions in the marketplace.  It is not easy to go directly to a Chinese manufacturer and order a huge and cheap flat-screen television.  Kogan is an at-present-necessary intermediary between the manufacturer and the marketplace, the point of aggregation.  This interface between manufacturer and marketplace exists only for as long as the manufacturers hold themselves aloof.  One of these manufacturers will develop a value chain which allows them to accomodate single customer orders, and at that point the Kogan model collapses, just as Gerry Harvey’s has already collapsed.

A number of businesses take advantage of the frictionless environment provided hyperconnectivity.  One, named Uber, has begun to disrupt the taxi market.  Launched late last year in San Francisco, Uber requires users to download a mobile app to their smartphone, uses GPS to locate the user, showing a map of the locale, with any available cars also shown on the map, positions updating in real-time.  Uber transmits a request for a pickup to each of these cars, and one car accepts, the others disappear, while the user watches the car approach the pickup location in real-time.

The cars employed by Uber are standard black limousines, used for airport and executive transfers throughout the USA.  The drivers run a companion iPhone app in their cars, receiving offers for jobs as users requests pickups.  As these drivers add Uber jobs to their scheduled pickups, driver downtime – generally around 50% of the driver’s time – is sharply reduced.  The driver makes more per shift worked, because the inefficiencies in hiring a driver have been removed by Uber’s aggregation of both supply and demand.

I had the opportunity to interview several Uber drivers, who uniformly praised the service.  Although more expensive than a taxi, Uber makes the process of booking a pickup and paying the driver so frictionless –  the payment is charged to a credit card supplied when signing up for the service – it make sense for all but the most cost-conscious.

Uber transformed a discrete and disconnected army of cars into a single, cohesive entity, aggregating demand for that fleet, ensuring that there would be work.  This innovation proved so disruptive to the existing San Francisco taxi companies they filed suit against Uber – originally named ‘Uber Cabs’ – getting a judge to order Uber to remove the word ‘Cabs’ from their name.  That hasn’t stopped Uber’s growth; they’ve now entered New York, Chicago, Seattle and Boston.  Every city that has a fleet of underutilitzed limousines is now ripe for disruption.

AirBnB is another disruptive business employing similar strategies around aggregation.  Allowing property owners to list rooms, apartments or homes for short-term rental, AirBnB simultaneously aggregates people looking for short-term rental properties.  What was once done informally and clumsily through word-of-mouth and Craigslist, is now smooth, efficient, and effortless.

AirBnB is disrupting the hotel market in cities such as New York and San Francisco, where room prices are high, and where there are also a pool of homeowners looking for cash to defray their enormous mortgage payments.  The same market forces which make these cities expensive to visit drive supply and demand to AirBnB.  AirBnB has created a fluid market in very-short-term rental properties where none could have existed before, because of marketplace frictions which made it very difficult to connect property owners to renters.  Hyperconnectivity has eliminated those frictions, so AirBnB represents the first pass at a frictionless the rental market.

The hotel industry is soon to follow, with Room77.com building an individual database for every hotel room everywhere in the world, so an individual renting a room in a hotel will know which room might be the best for their particular needs.  It’s only a short step from that kind of in-depth information to a system allowing individuals to bid for particular rooms on particular days, a disaggregation of a hotel into a set of rooms with prices driven by individual demand.  Such a system would have been almost impossible to create and maintain just a handful of years ago.  Today, it’s the kind of task that software-as-a-service cloud computing is designed for.  Hotels, under pressure from AirBnB, will be forced to disaggregate themselves, in order to compete.

Transport and housing, two primary industry sectors, are fundamentally transformed by hyperconnectivity.  But the cut goes deeper, and closer to the root.  Labour itself is becoming subject to the same forces.  Consider the tweet I received last week:

Who wants to go to woolies for me
and buy dog and cat food and chocolate teddy bear biscuits?

This is the kind of humorous message we hear all the time, and on the occasional lazy day, wish for ourselves.  But it has always remained in the realm of fantasy, unless we are fortunate enough to have a personal servant.  However, if there were some way to aggregate the demands of all these lazy people, matching that demand to a supply of free labor – well, then you’d have Zaarly.

Launched in May, Zaarly offers Americans a smartphone-based interface to a competitive labor pool.   As someone who needs labor, you post a particular task, locale, timeframe and payment to Zaarly.  That request is shared with everyone in the labor pool.  Anyone interested in the job responds with their own price and time frame for completion.  You review these responses, select one, and, after the transaction completes, money is automatically transferred from your credit card into the account of the individual who accepted the job.

As with AirBnB, Zaarly is a radical simplification and acceleration of the services once offered through classified advertisements and in the ‘Gigs Offered / Gigs Wanted’ sections of Craigslist.  Zaarly aggregates the pool of short-term labor just as AirBnB aggregates the pool of short-term accomodation, and Uber aggregates the pool of transport vehicles.  Zaarly could not have existed before the widespread adoption of smartphones, because the friction of connecting laborer to labor was too great.  Now there is no friction, and no resistance to aggregation of either labor demand or labor supply.

For a few years, websites like Freelance.com have been providing a frictionless way to aggregate individuals offering high-value services, such as programming and web design, with organizations who need those services.  A colleague in California, Tyler Crowley, used a distributed development team – in Russia, the Ukraine and India, to rapidly prototype and release Skweal.com, a website that creates a channel for restaurant patrons to send feedback directly to restaurant management – keeping those comments off of websites like Yelp, where they could be very damaging.

Although it wasn’t particularly easy managing a highly virtual, global development team – California is on the other side of the world from Russia and India – Tyler got the work done quickly and at a price he could afford, funding Skweal entirely from his own savings, something that wouldn’t have been possible if he’d been competing for the high-priced Web developers available to him in Southern California.  Labour, like transport and accomodation, has become entirely fluid, subject to none of the frictions which prevented aggregation of supply and demand.

In fact, the law of supply and demand amplifies under the influence of hyperconnectivity.  We are more likely to go to those who can provide a room or a ride or a piece of code cheaply.  In short order this brings us to the ‘race to the bottom’.  In an environment freed from the frictions of the marketplace, there is no room for rent-seeking or even the kinds of labor practices which keep developed economies stable.  When I pit my $75/hour rate against someone in Pakistan asking only $30/hour, how do I survive?  And if I cut my rate to $35/hour, does someone else offer the same service for $15/hour?

At the moment, Uber sets the rates for its drivers, preventing a race to the bottom.  But Uber is just software.  Someone will come along and create a similar piece of software, one which allows transaction participants to negotiate the price – just as Zaarly does.  As these designed-in frictions are designed away, the market opens to economic forces accelerated to the speed of light, and all price supports sustained by market frictions begin to collapse.

The frictionless free-fall of markets doesn’t end with the individual labourer.  Businesses born out of hyperconnectivity, aggregating demand and supply – firms such as eBay, Uber, and AirBnB – face another round of disruption.  The connectivity which made eBay possible also allowed the firm to centralize its aggregation, bringing all buyers and sellers to a single website, where their traffic could be channeled, and a tariff placed on all transactions.  In the virtual marketplace of eBay, sellers pay ‘rent’, in the form of a transaction fee, a cost passed along to the buyer.

Centralization is a form of market friction, in that it grants whomever controls the central point the power to act as taxman, tollbooth, and censor.  Apple has been notorious for the strict controls it puts upon apps available for iOS devices, which must be purchased through its centralized iTunes store.  If your iPhone app does something Apple doesn’t like – or considers a potential competitive threat – Apple has the power to deny you access to its centralized retail channel.  Because the hyperconnectivity of Apple’s iOS devices would normally allow peer-to-peer exchanges of software and other items of value, these market frictions had to be engineered into the operating system.

The market frictions of centralization become harder to maintain as we become more hyperconnected.  The recording industry profited enormously in the transition to digital recording, because of the friction associated with the distribution of hundreds of megabytes of music.  As compression techniques improved, and broadband spread throughout the developed world, the barriers to peer-to-peer distribution of music progressively collapsed.

We are now sufficiently hyperconnected that it is not only technically possible to build a peer-to-peer competitor to eBay, but inevitable, as hyperconnectivity tends through time to remove all frictions in the market.  The frictions that eBay uses to generate revenue are being smoothed away by a diffuse, distributed, decentralized, global aggregation of buyers and sellers, less bazaar than switchboard, more MapReduce than website.  The same fate will inevitably befall Uber, AirBnB, even Zaarly – any business seeking to conduct aggregation-based arbitrage.  Hyperconnectivity does not support the inefficiencies needed to make these businesses a continuing success.  They are all intermediate forms, leveraging the brief moment between the disconnected and hyperconnected worlds.

 

RC1: Runny Money

The transition to hypereconomics – economics where friction has vanished – has a few years yet to run.  The sudden rise of firms like Zaarly and Freelance.com has given us some sense of what the labour market will soon look like: will we be ‘gigging’, rather than working; our gigs may be small tasks, ephemeral moments when we contribute our particular expertise to an overall project, even if that expertise is simply being in the right place at the right time.

As we move further into a hypereconomy, we need to assemble value chains from the resources available to us.  We need to be able to bring this material together with that design expertise, married to a fabrication capability, delivered via the appropriate transportation logistics.  When we can do that, every individual will have the same capabilities to fashion an assembly line that Henry Ford once commanded.

To do this right now would be difficult.  The amount of friction associated with many of these tasks is still quite high. Indeed, because that friction is so high, Ruslan Kogan is still in business.  We may be hyperconnected, but the businesses we run have not grasped the nettle of hyperconnectivity.  Businesses have not moved to reduce the frictions which frame their sales channels.  Only a small percentage of businesses present their sales channel through a website, and only a tiny portion of these provide any sort of interface – an Application Program Interface, or API – which would allow that sales channel to be rolled into a larger, more flexible tool.

This is the gap – and the great opportunity of the present moment.  Every commercial entity, whether an individual offering up labour and expertise, or an organization offering products and services, will soon present themselves through an interface that removes all of the frictions of the business transaction.

Let’s use Kogan as an example.  With appropriate APIs to the manufacturers of LCD panels, television electronics, electronics assembly, and transport, I could have a TV built-to-order.   This may seem like a bit of work, but once someone has put together a particular supply chain, by mashing-up the appropriate APIs, that supply chain can be shared.  I won’t have to do much more than call up that supply chain widget on my mobile, and press ‘order’.

Seen in this way, the transportation logistics provided by Uber, materials offered on eBay, and a design consultancy facilitated by Freelance.com are no longer destinations in themselves, but APIs, each offering a specific element in a production value chain.  The recipe which strings them all together, turning an idea into reality, is the innovation, an innovation which can only emerge where friction has been been removed in every component of the recipe, via an API.

Like everything else within the culture of hyperconnectivity, these recipes will be shared within communities of expertise.  People who care about televisions will trade recipes to cook up custom models; people who care about coffee or cookware or carpeting will be able to do the same thing.  Being part of a community of expertise gives you access to all the production value chains associated with that community.  This is already true: consider how hobbyists trade tips on where to find particularly obscure bits of mechanism, recordings, and so forth.  But enough friction still exists to keep these production value chains very short.  As that friction disappears, these production value chains grow long enough to span the whole distance from raw materials to finished product.

A hundred years ago, when Henry Ford established his River Rouge assembly plant, he needed nothing more than iron, sand, coke and raw rubber.  From these basic ingredients, he manufactured millions of Model Ts, because River Rouge encompassed a production value chain able to refine, fabricate and assemble every part of the automobile.  We are at the threshold of a similar, individual Industrial revolution: as businesses publish their APIs, customers gain unprecedented control over the means of production.   A given customer can optimize for price, delivery time, carbon footprint, or any of a countless number of variables, crafting a production value chain which precisely meets their needs.

One remaining point of friction within this system is financial.  Businesses can present themselves to a global market of customers via an API, but flows of capital remain stubbornly territorial, hemmed in by the macroeconomic policies of central banks, blocking flows of capital to bring stability to national economies.  That friction has always made global commerce difficult, creating a place in the value chain for import/export arbitrage.

As soon as the world had become sufficiently hyperconnected for these frictions to become a real barrier to commerce, PayPal arrived on the scene.  Using PayPal, it is possible to transfer funds internationally, and almost immediately, with very little effort.  PayPay propelled eBay into international viability – undoubtedly the reason the auction website purchased PayPal in 2002.

While it is conceivable that PayPal could become a ‘financial API’, capitalizing all of the pieces of a production value chain, PayPal, like eBay, is an artifact of the transition to hyperconnectivity, an arbitrageur exploiting imperfections in hyperconnectivity.  Once everyone is directly connected, it is possible to transfer capital between peers, without any mediating exchange service.

Given the capital flow restrictions of central banks, fiat currencies can not be employed in transactions crossing international boundaries.  Instead, individuals and organizations will begin to develop their own exchange mechanisms, perhaps based on precious metals (a de facto return to the gold standard), but more likely employing virtual currencies: perhaps kilowatt-hours, abstract ‘labour units’, or other measures of value.

It is not necessary for all parties within a production value chain to agree to use a single virtual currency.  Where multiple virtual currencies exist, trading markets will flourish, accessible via APIs.  Although currency conversion is a point of friction, an API-based approach to currency conversion makes any virtual currency portable enough that its use presents little friction.

If this sounds a bit fanciful, consider the recent introduction of BitCoins, a cryptographically secure virtual currency, which has value only relative to itself, but which can be exchanged for fiat currencies across a range of websites, several of which offer APIs.  A number of businesses now accept payment in BitCoins, and although the currency has been more influential as an idea than as a medium of exchange, it points toward the possibility of a hypercurrency, designed to slot smoothly into the frictionless universe of hypereconomics.

As more businesses present themselves as APIs ready to be wired into production value chains, the need for a frictionless medium of exchange will become more pronounced.  Just as PayPal came along to take eBay global, a hypercurrency will arrive on the scene just as we need it, because there will be a universal demand for it.

As capital migrates from friction-filled national and international finance markets into hypereconomic frameworks, institutions dependent upon those frictions will be threatened.  Banks will not be able to collect interest.  Governments will not be able to tax – customs duties and user fees look to be the only ways governments can generate revenue.  Courts will not be able to seize assets.  The peculiar arrangement of laws and regulations which keep our economic system stable will grow increasingly meaningless.  Governments and courts will try to follow capital flows into hypereconomic zones, only to learn that their mechanisms of control and enforcement are poorly matched to such a fluid environment.

 

CONCLUSION: Open Your APIs

Many businesses will not welcome a broadly frictionless hypereconomic environment, as they have adapted themselves to harness these frictions profitably.  This resistance leaves those businesses vulnerable to new competitors, offering the same products and services via frictionless APIs.  Businesses will be forced to change their sales channels, or they will simply wither away.  Australia somehow managed to avoid the allure of retail e-commerce for fifteen years, but now retailers see their businesses being hollowed-out as Australian consumers find the online shopping experience sufficiently frictionless to attract their dollars.  The decision to ignore e-commerce was a mistake that is proving fatal to Australian retailers.

If we want to avoid massive business failures, we must learn from this mistake.  The future does not look like the recent past, with massive, comprehensive websites offering everything to everyone.  The future belongs to tight, focused APIs of products and services, written to be easy to use, easy to mash-up, easy to share, and easy to roll into other tools.  The future belongs to businesses which can effortlessly accept payment in any currency the customer cares to offer.  The future belongs to the entrepreneurs building tools that make constructing a production value chain a simple matter of dragging and dropping a few icons on an iPad’s screen.  The future belongs to the hyperconnected, learning to skate on this very slippery ice.

What happens when there’s no more friction, anywhere?  Open your APIs.  We’re  about to find out.

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

*

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

The guards join with us as we storm the palace.

****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

The Social Sense

I: On Top of the World

WebEarth.org image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

II: All Together Now

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

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

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

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

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

 

III:  I, Spy

The lost iPad, found

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

IV: Overshare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s give that some thought.

 

V:  Mother Birth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People Power

Introduction: Magic Pudding

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

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

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

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

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

 

I: What’s Your Number?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

II: Sharing is Daring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

III:  Practice Makes Perfect

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

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

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

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

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

To do that, we must rethink everything we do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.