When I’m Sixty-Four

I: No Fate

I started using the World Wide Web in October of 1993.  To say that the Web was primitive and ugly at that early date is to miss the point completely, making fun of a baby just emerged from the womb.  It was as beautiful and full of potential as a new-born child for those who could see past what it was and look toward what it might become.  I’d been an apostle of hypertext for well over a decade before the Web came around, so I was ready.  I knew what it portended.  Even so, the past seventeen years have surpassed my wildest expectations.

I am forty-seven years old; in seventeen years I will be sixty-four.  It is as difficult to predict the Web of 2027 from 2010 as it was to predict the Web of 2010 from 1993.  Too much relies upon the ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’.  A teenager programming in a bedroom in Melbourne or Chongquing or Moscow could do something that changes everything.  For example, back in 1993 my friend Kevin Hughes decided to see if he could put an HTML anchor tag – which creates a hyperlink – around an image tag – which displays an image within the web page.  Voila – the Web button was born!  Most of the links we click on today are buttons, and most of us have no idea that the Web button isn’t even inferred in the HTML specification.  Someone had to be inventive, to try an experiment, and – once it succeeded – share the results with the world.  That invention sent the Web into certain directions which led to the Web we have today.  If Kevin hadn’t developed the button, the Web might have remained text-based for much longer, which would have altered our experience and expectations.

Even more interesting are the technologies that get invented, then lay dormant for years, suddenly springing into life.  The wiki – essentially a web page which can be edited in place – was invented at the University of Hawaii in 1995.  Though it found a few modest uses, until in the early years of this decade, when Wikipedia burst upon the scene, people did not comprehend the power of a Web with an ‘edit’ button attached to it.  Today a web page is considered somewhat dysfunctional unless editable by its users.

This happened to my own work.  In 1994 Tony Parisi and I blended my own work in virtual reality with the very first Web technologies to create the Virtual Reality Modeling Language, a 3D companion for HTML.  We had some ideas what it could be used for, and when we offered it up to the world as an early open source software project, others came along with their own, amazing ideas:  3D encyclopedias whose representation reflected the tree of knowledge; animated tools for teaching American Sign Language; a visualization for the New York Stock Exchange which enabled a broker to absorb five thousand times as much information as was possible from a simple text display.  The future seemed rosy; Newsweek magazine dedicated a colourful two-page spread to the wonders of VRML.

But the future rarely arrives when planned, or in the form we expect.  Most PCs of the early Internet era didn’t have the speed required to display 3D computer graphics; they could barely keep up with a mixture of images and text on a web page.  And in the days before broadband, downloading a 3D model could take minutes.  Far longer than anyone cared to wait.  For users who had barely gotten their minds around the 2D web of HTML, asking them to grasp the 3D worlds of VRML was a bridge too far.  Until Toy Story and the Playstation came out in the mid-1990s, most people had no exposure to 3D computer graphics; today they’re commonplace, both in the cinema and in our living rooms.  We know how to use 3D to entertain us.  But 3D is still not a common part of our Web experience.  That is now changing with the advent of WebGL, a new technology which makes it easy to create 3D computer graphics within the Web browser.  It took sixteen years, but finally we’re seeing some great 3D on the Web.

The seeds of the future are with us in the present; it is up to us to water them, tend them, and watch them grow.  One of those seeds, with us in just this moment, is the ability to slap a GPS tracker on anything – a package or a person or a truck – hook it up to some sort of mobile, and instantly be aware of its every movement.  Parents give their children mobiles which relay a constant stream of location data to a website that those parents can use to monitor the child’s current whereabouts.  If this seems a trifle Orwellian, consider the tale told by Intel anthropologist Dr. Genevieve Bell, who interviewed a classroom of South Korean children, all of whom had these special tracking mobiles.  Did these devices make them feel too closely watched, too hemmed in?  Surprisingly, the children pointed to another member of the class, saying, “See that poor kid?  Her parents don’t love her enough to get her a tracking mobile.”  These kids love Big Brother.

Conversely, every attempt to place GPS trackers on the buses of Sydney – so that the public could have a good idea when the next bus will actually arrive at the stop – has been subject to furious rejection by the bus drivers’ union.  This, they claim, will allow the bosses to monitor their every movement.  It is Orwellian.  A bridge too far.  As a pedestrian in Sydney, constantly at the whim of public transport, I have to suffer because Sydney’s bus drivers believe their right to privacy on-the-job extends to the tool of their trade, that is, the bus itself.  I could argue that as a fare-payer, I have every right to know just where that bus is, and how long it will take to arrive.  There is the dilemma: How do we protect people, and make them feel secure in a world where ever more is being tracked?  In Melbourne all the trams are GPS tagged, and anyone can look up the precise location of any tram at any time.  It’s the future, the coming thing, and Melbourne has simply gotten there first.

In 2010 it is relatively expensive and somewhat bulky and power-hungry to track something, but in seventeen years it will be easy and tiny and cheap and probably solar-powered.  We will track everything of importance to us, all the time, and that leaves us with two big questions:  How will we deal with all of this locative data pouring upon us constantly?  And who needs access to this data?  How can I provide access without compromising myself and my privacy?  As more things are tracked more comprehensively, it becomes possible to track something by absence as well as by presence.  The missing item sticks out.  That’s the kind of tool that governments, police and gangsters will all find useful.  Which means we’ll learn the art of hiding in plain sight, of disguising our comings and goings as something else altogether, a kind of magician’s redirection of the audiences’ gaze.

There’s no escaping a future which is continuously recorded, tracked, and monitored.  This is the ‘Database Nation’ presented so chillingly in its more paranoid renderings.  But it’s only frightening if we deny ourselves agency, if we act as though we are merely prey to forces of capital and power far outside of our own control, if we simply surrender ourselves to the death of a thousand transactions.  And if we stumble into this future unconsciously, that’s pretty much what we’ll get.  Others will make the decisions we refused to make for ourselves.  But that’s not the way adults behave.  Adults are characterized by agency: they shape events where possible, and where that isn’t possible, they do their best to maintain some awareness of the events shaping them.

It is possible to resist, to push back against the forces which seek to measure us, monitor us, and ask us to comply.  Sydney’s bus drivers have done this, and as much as I might rue the shadow their decision casts over my own ability to plan my travel, I do not fault their reasons.  We should all consider how we need to push back against forces which seek to intrude and thereby control us.  We could benefit from a bit more disorder, disobedience, and resistance.  The future is unwritten.  Its seeds need not grow.  We can ignore them, or even cut them down when they spring up.  And we can plant other seeds, which enhance our agency, making us more powerful.

II: Close To You

It seems as though humans are solitary, almost lonely creatures.  If lucky, we manage to find a partner to pass through life with, to share and shoulder the burden of being.  We may have a few children, who we care for until they enter university or head off to work, and whom we see sporadically thereafter, just we only occasionally visit our own parents.  This life pattern, known as the ‘nuclear family’, first identified in the middle of the 20th century, feels as though it’s the way things have always been – because it’s the way things have always been for us.  There may be subtle differences here and there – grandparents caring for grandchildren while parents work, or children who refuse to leave the nest even into their 30s – but these exceptions prove the existence of a rule which binds us all to certain socially acceptable behaviors, and sets our range of expectations.

This is not the way things have always been.  This is not the way things were at any point before the beginning of the 20th century.   Prior to that, entire families lived together, grandparents and grandchildren, aunts and uncles and cousins, everyone under one roof, pooling resources and pulling together to keep the family alive.  That life pattern goes well back into history – at least a few thousand years, probably all the way to the beginning of agriculturization.  Before that, we lived within the close bonds of the tribal unit, foraging and hunting and moving continuously through the landscape.  That life pattern goes back countless millions of years, well before the emergence of a recognizable human species.

The tribe has always been large, much larger than the family unit, so it’s not surprising that the Nuclear Era leaves us feeling somewhat lonely, with the suspicion that something’s gone missing, that we’re not quite fulfilled.  We evolved in the close presence of others – and not just a few others.  We need that community in order to know who we are.  We were divorced from that complementary part of ourselves in the race into modernity.  We got lots of kit, but we lost a part of our soul.

This goes a long way to explain why the essential social technology – the mobile – has become such a roaring, overwhelming success.  The mobile reconnects us to the community our ancestors knew intimately and constantly.  Our family, friends and coworkers are no more than a few seconds away, always at hand.  We can look at our call logs and SMS message trails and get a good sense of who we really feel connected to.  If you want to know where someone’s heart is, follow their messages. That sinking feeling you get when you realize you’ve left your mobile at home – or, heavens forbid, misplaced it – is a sensation of amputation.  You feel cut off from the community that could help when you need it, or simply be there to listen.

Just a few years after we all acquired our mobiles, this social technology gained a double in the online world with the emergence of social networks such as Friendster and MySpace.  These social networks provide a digital scaffolding for the relationships we once enjoyed in our tribes.  They are a technology of retribalization, a chance to recover something lost.  We seem to instinctively recognize this, else why would Facebook have grown from 20 to over 500 million members in just three years?  This is what it looks like when people suddenly find themselves with the ability to fulfill a long-term need.  This is not a new thing.  This is a very old thing, a core part of humanity coming to the fore.

At first this all this connecting seems innocuous, little more than old friends becoming reacquainted after a long separation.  Nothing could be further from the truth, because these connections are established for a reason.  Some connections are drawn from the bonds of blood, others from friendship, others from financial interest (your co-workers), still others because you share some common passion, or goal, or vision.  It’s these last few which most interest me, because these are unpredicted, these aren’t simply the recovery of a prehistoric community, a recapitulation of things we already know.  These are connections with a purpose.

But what purpose?

Just in the past two or three years, researchers have been examining social networks – the real ones, not the online version – to understand what role they play in our lives.  The answers have been stunning.  It’s now been demonstrated that obesity and slimming spread through social networks: if you’re overweight it’s more likely your friends are, and if they go on a diet, you’re more likely to do so.  The same thing holds true for smoking and quitting.  Most recently it was shown that divorce spreads through social networks: a married couple with friends who are divorcing stands a greater chance of divorcing themselves.

Both obesity and smoking are public health issues; divorce is both a moral issue and a cultural hot potato.  We all know the divorce rate is high, but we haven’t had any good suggestions for how to bring that rate down – or consensus on whether we should.  But these studies seem to indicate that a tactic of strategic isolation of the divorcing from the married might go some distance to lowering the divorce rate.  In that sense, divorce itself becomes another ‘social disease’, and epidemiologists might be expected to track known cases through the community.
It all sounds a bit weird, doesn’t it?  Yet if someone were to suggest education and incentives to get these same networks to spread anti-smoking behaviors, we’d have the full weight of the state, the health system, and the community behind it.  Someone will suggest just that sometime in the next few years, with a growing awareness of the power of our communities to shape our behavior as individuals.

Yet these are just the obvious features of social networks.  Their power to define your identity and behavior go far beyond this.  Consider: someone can walk into a bank today and steal your identity, taking out a loan in your name, if they present the proper documentation.  How is this possible?  It’s because the points system we use here in Australia – and equivalent algorithms used throughout the world to establish identity – can be fooled.  Stuff the right documents in, and out pop the appropriate approvals.  But shouldn’t I be required to provide the proof of others?  Isn’t my identity contingent upon others willing to attest to it?  This isn’t the way we think of identity, it certainly doesn’t fit into any neat legal category, but it is how identity works in practice.  This is how identity has always worked.  People ‘run away from home’ to establish a new identity precisely because their identities are defined and constrained by those they are connected to, often in opposition to their own desires.

When you walk into the bank to apply for that loan, you need to provide identification; really, you should hand the bank your ‘social graph’ – the enumerated set of your connections – and let the bank judge your identity from that graph.  ASIO and MI5 and the CIA can already analyze your social graph to learn if you’re a terrorist, or a terrorist sympathizer; surely your bank can write a little bit of software which can confirm your identity?  It would help if the bank understood the strength of each of your connections, by analyzing the number of messages that have hopped the gap between you and those connected to you.  From this the bank would know who they should be asking to vouch for you.

All of this sounds complicated, and will probably be more involved than our simple but spoofable systems in use today.  The end result will be a system with much greater resilience, and much harder to fool, because we’re capitalizing on the fact that identity is a function of our community.  And not just identity: talent is also something that is both a function of and a recognized value within a community.  LinkedIn provides a mechanism for individuals to present their social graphs to potential employers; that social graph tells a recruiter more about the individual than any c.v.

The social graph is the foundation for identity; it always has been, but during the last hundred years we fragmented and atomized, and our social graphs began to atrophy.  We have now retrieved them, and because of that we can demonstrate that our value is derived from what others think of us.  This has always been true, but now those others are no Stone Age tribe, but rather represent communities of expertise which may be global, highly specific, and fiercely competitive.  These new communities have so much collected, connected capability they can ignore all of the neat boundaries of an organization, can play outside the silos of the business and government, and do as they please.  A group of well-connected, highly empowered individuals is a force to be reckoned with.  It always has been.

III: Senior Concessions

Last month the “Health Lies in Wealth” report surprised almost no one when it announced that the wealthiest among us live, on average, three years longer than the poorest.  The report identified many cofactors to life expectancy, such as graduating school, owning your own home, and – most surprisingly – the presence of a strong social network.  People who live alone do not thrive.  We know that in our bones.  We understand that ‘no man is an island’, that we actually do need one another to survive, just as we always have.  Only in close connection with others can we receive the support we need to live out the full span of our lives.  This support might help us to maintain our weight, or quit smoking, or stay faithful, or simply remind us to take care of ourselves.  Whatever form it comes in, it has become clear that it is essential.

If it is essential, should we leave it to the ad hoc, ‘natural’ social networks we’ve all be blessed with (and which fail, for some)?  Shouldn’t we apply what we’ve learned about digital social networks directly to our well-being?  This is something that a fourteen year-old wouldn’t think about as they sign up for a Facebook account, but when I’m sixty-four, it will be foremost in my mind.  How can my network keep me healthy?  How can my network assist me in wellness?

At one level this is completely obvious: the tight circle of family and friends, better connected than they ever have been, with better tools both for messaging and monitoring, allow us to ‘look in’ on one another in a way we never have before.  A case in point: my morning medication to control my blood pressure – did I take it?  Sometimes even I can’t remember until I’ve looked at the packaging.  When I get a little older, and a bit more absent-minded, this will become a constant concern.  We’ve already seen the first medicine cabinets which record their openings and closings, the first pill bottles which note when they’ve been used, all information that is monitored, collated, and which can then be distributed through ad-hoc familial or more formal digital social networks.

When the next version of Apple’s iPad comes out early next year, it will have a built-in camera to enable video conferencing.  One of my good friends – who lives on the other side of the continent from his elderly parents – will buy them an iPad, and Velcro it to the wall of their kitchen, so that he can always ‘beam in’ and see what’s going on, and so that, for them, he’s no more than a tap away.  That’s the first and somewhat clumsy version of systems which will continuously monitor the elderly, the frail, and the troubled.  Who’s going to be on the other side of all of those cameras?  Loved ones, mostly, though some of that will be automated, as seems prudent.  This is the inverse of the ‘surveillance culture’ of pervasive CCTV cameras observed by police and counter-terrorism officials; in this world of ‘sousveillance’, everyone is watching everyone else, all the time, and all to the good.  And, unlike Sydney’s bus drivers, we’ll recognize the value of this close monitoring, because it won’t represent an adversarial relationship.  No one will be using this data to wreck our careers or disturb our lives.  We’ll be using it to help one another live longer, and healthier.

What about connections that are slightly less obvious?  We’ve already seen the emergence of ‘Wikimedicine’, where patients band together and share information in an attempt to go beyond what specialists are willing to do in treating a particular condition.  These communities are, quite naturally, full of hoaxes and quacks and misinformation of every conceivable type: individuals fighting for their lives or waging war against chronic illnesses are susceptible to all sorts of tricks and flim-flammery and honest and earnest failures in understanding.  This has happened because individuals enter these networks of hope without their sensible networks of trust.  We have no way to present our social graphs to one another in these environments, to show our bona fides.  If we could (and I’m sure we will soon be able to do so) we could quickly establish who brings real value, insight and wisdom into a conversation.  We would also be able to identify those who seek to confuse, or who are confused, and those who are self-seeking.  That would be clear from their social graphs.  This is a trick eBay learned long ago: if you can see how a buyer or seller has been rated, you have some sense of whether they’ll be reputable.  Such systems are never perfect, but we can expect a continuous improvement in our own ability to detect fraudulent social graphs over the next several years.

While these Wikimedicine networks are interesting and will grow in number, they tend to be exclusive of the medical community, turning their back upon it, in the search for more effective treatments.  That creates a gap which must be filled.  As doctors and nurse practitioners grow more comfortable with a close connectivity with their patients, we’ll see the emergence of a new kind of medical network, one which places the patient at the center, and which radiates out in a few directions: to the patient’s family and social graph; to the patient’s medical team and their professional social graph; to the patient’s community of the co-afflicted.  Each of these communities, effectively isolated from one another at present, will grow closer together in order to improve the welfare of the patient.

As these communities grow closer together, knowledge will pass from one community to another.  The doctor will remain the locus of knowledge and experience, but already some of that power is passing to the nurse practitioner, who acts as a mid-way point between the doctor and the broader, connected community.  The nurse practitioner will need to act as the ‘filter’, ensuring that the various requests and inquiries that come from the community are addressed, but in such a way that the doctor still has time to work.  That’s not a secretarial role, but rather, a partnership of professionals.  Deep knowledge is required to stand between the doctor and the community; as time goes on, as knowledge is transferred to the community, the community empowers itself and assumes some of the functions of both doctor and nurse practitioner.

When I’ve expressed such thoughts to medical professionals, they reject them out of hand.  They contend that there is too much experience, too much knowledge resident in the body of the doctor for that capacity to spread safely.  I doubt this is as true as they might wish it to be.  Yes, medicine is rich and detailed and draws from the physician’s extensive body of experience, but we are building systems which can provide much of that, on demand, to almost anyone.  We won’t be getting rid of the physician – far from it – but the boundaries between the physician and the community will become fuzzier, with the physician remaining the local expert, but not the only one.

This is a new kind of medicine, a new kind of wellness, a system we will not see fully in place until well after I turn sixty-four. Perhaps by the time I’m eighty-four – in 2046 – medicine will have ‘melted’ into a more communal form.  Until then, from a policy point of view – since you are the people who make policy – I’d advise that you tend toward flexibility.  Rigidity is a poor fit for a highly-connected world.  People will tend to ignore rigid structures, creating their own ad-hoc organizations which will compete with and eventually displace yours, if they serve the needs of the patient more effectively.

At the same time, the dilemmas of a highly-monitored world will become more and more prevalent.  We treasure medical privacy, but what we really mean by this is that we want medical data to be freely available to everyone who needs it, while securely protected from anyone who does not.  This is a problem that can only be resolved if the patient has some agency in authorizing access to medical records, and tools that can track that access.  Without those tools, the patient will lose track of who knows what, and it becomes easier for someone who shouldn’t to have a look in.  As our medical records spread through our networks of expertise – the better to treat us – we may lose our fear and feel more willing to surrender our privacy.  We’re a long way away from that world, but we can see how it may eventuate.

As I said at the beginning, it’s difficult to know the shape of the future.  So much depends on the actions we take today, the seeds we choose to water.  I have shown you a few of these seeds: a world where everything is monitored; a human universe grown close with ever-present social networks; a medicine more diffuse and more effective than the one we practice today.   All of these seeds are present in this moment, all of them will affect you in your work, all will drive your decisions, and – should you ignore them – all will force you into sudden policy responses.  The future is connected in a way we could not conceive of a generation ago, in a way that our great-great-grandparents would consider unremarkable.  We’re returning to an old place, but with new tools, and that combination will change everything, whether or not we see it coming, whether or not we want it to come.

Connecting to The Social Network

(Warning, this analysis is essentially a huge spoiler for The Social Network.  You may not want to read this until you’ve seen the film.)

I am a serial entrepreneur.  At various times I started companies to exploit hypertext (this, back in 1986, before most people had even heard of it), home VR entertainment systems (when a VR system cost more than $100K), Web-based interactive 3D computer graphics (before most computers had enough oomph to draw them), and animated webisodic entertainment (half a dozen years before Red vs Blue or Happy Tree Friends burst onto the scene).  All of these ideas were innovative for their time, one was modestly successful, none of them made me rich, though I hope I am in some ways wiser.

Throughout all of those years, I learned that ideas, while important, take a back seat to people.  Business is principally the story of people, not ideas.  While great ideas are not terrifically common, the ability to translate an idea into reality requires more than just a driven creator.  That creator must be able to infect others with their own belief so that the entire creative edifice self-assembles, driven by that belief, with the creator as the burning, electric center of this process.

If this sounds a bit mystical, that’s because creation is essentially a mystical act.  It is an act that requires belief.  It’s an active position, a kind of faith, the evidence of things not seen.  You believe because you choose to believe.

That choice is at the very core of The Social Network.

Although it disguises itself as a courtroom drama – an area that writer Aaron Sorkin knows very well, having mined it for A Few Good MenThe Social Network is at its heart a buddy picture, a tale of a broken bromance than never resolves.  The bromantic partners are, of course, Mark Zuckerberg, the well-known founder of Facebook, and Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s best friend at Harvard, and the dude Zuck turned to when he had the Big Idea.

The genesis of this Big Idea is the ‘B’ storyline of The Social Network, and the one that Lawrence Lessig spent the better part of a New Republic film review agonizing over.  Lessig, the Intellectual Property lawyer, sees the script as a Hollywood propaganda vehicle in defense intellectual property.  Did Zuckerberg steal the idea for TheFacebook.com from the twin Winklevoss brothers?  The only original thing that the Winklevoss’ offered was the ‘velvet rope’ – TheFaceBook.com or HarvardConnect or ConnectU would be exclusive to Harvard students.  Social networks had been around for a while; six months before Zuckerberg began the late 2003 coding spree that led to the launch of TheFacebook.com, I was happily addicted to the ‘web crack’ of Friendster.com – as were many of my friends.  Nothing new there.  Exclusivity is an attitude, not a product.  Zuckerberg copied nothing.  He simply copped the attitude of the Winklevii.

In the logic of The Social Network, the Winklevoss twins are not friends (Zuckerberg doesn’t get beyond the Bike Room of the Porcellian Club), therefore are owed nothing.  But Zuckerberg immediately runs to Saverin, his One True Friend, to offer him half of everything.  Or, well, nearly half.  Thirty percent, and that for just a thousand dollars in servers.  Such a deal!  All Saverin had to do was believe.  What follows in the next 40 minutes is the essential bromantic core of the film, which parallels more startup stories than I can count: two people who deeply believe in one another’s vision, working day and night to bring it into being.  In this case, Zuckerberg wrote the code, while Saverin – well, he just believed in Zuckerberg.  Zuckerberg needed someone to believe in him, someone to supply him with the faith that he could translate into raw creative energy.

For a while this dynamo cranks along, but we continually see Saverin being pulled in a different direction – exemplified by the Phoenix Club sliding tempting notes beneath his door.  Saverin’s embrace of the material, away from the pure and Platonic realm of code and ideas, can only be seen as backsliding by Zuckerberg, who feverishly focuses on the act of creation, ignoring everything else.  Only when the two men receive side-by-side blowjobs in the bathroom stalls of a Cambridge bar do you sense the bond rekindled; like sailors on shore leave, their conquests are meaningful only when shared.

From this point on, The Social Network charts a descent into confusion and toward the inevitable betrayal which forms the pivot of the film.  Saverin wants to ‘wreck the party’ by introducing advertising into TheFacebook.com (a business strategy which currently earns Facebook in excess of a billion dollars a year), and drags Zuckerberg to meeting after meeting with the New York agencies, whence it becomes clear that Zuckerberg isn’t interested – isn’t even tolerant of the idea – and that Saverin just Doesn’t Get It.  While Saverin sees the potential of TheFacebook.com, he doesn’t believe, doesn’t understand how what Mark has done Will Change Everything.

There is one final reprieve: Saverin cuts a check to rent a house in Palo Alto for Zuckerberg and his interns, a final act of faith that reaffirms his connection to Mark, to the project, to the Big Idea.  This is the setup for the Judas Kiss: within a few months, Saverin withdraws the funds, essentially saying ‘I have lost faith.’  But Zuckerberg has found others who will believe in him, secured a half-million dollars in angel funding, and so discards the worthless, unfaithful Saverin.

If Saverin had stayed true, had gone to California and worked closely with Zuckerberg, this would be a different story, a story about Facebook’s co-founders, and how together they overcame the odds to launch the most successful enterprise of the 21st century.  This is not that story.  This is a story of bromance spurned, and how that inevitably ended up in the courts.  Only when people fail to connect (a recurring theme in The Social Network) do they turn to lawyers.  Zuckerberg was always there, anxious for Saverin to connect.  Saverin was always looking elsewhere for his opportunities.  That’s the tragedy of the story, a story which may not be true in all facts, but which speaks volumes of human truth.

And so a film about entrepreneurs, ideas, and code, a chronicle of theft and betrayal and backstabbing all fades away to reveal a much older tale, of loneliness and faith and brotherhood and heartbreak.  We’re wired together, but we’re still exactly the same, punching that refresh button, hoping our status will change.

Mothers of Innovation

Introduction:  Olden Days

In February 1984, seeking a reprieve from the very cold and windy streets of Boston, Massachusetts, I ducked inside of a computer store.  I spied the normal array of IBM PCs and peripherals, the Apple ][, probably even an Atari system.  Prominently displayed at the front of the store, I spied my first Macintosh.  It wasn’t known as a Mac 128K or anything like that.  It was simply Macintosh.  I walked up to it, intrigued – already, the Reality Distortion Field was capable of luring geeks like me to their doom – and spied the unfamiliar graphical desktop and the cute little mouse.  Sitting down at the chair before the machine, I grasped the mouse, and moved the cursor across the screen.  But how do I get it to do anything? I wondered.  Click.  Nothing.  Click, drag – oh look some of these things changed color!  But now what?  Gah.  This is too hard.

That’s when I gave up, pushed myself away from that first Macintosh, and pronounced this experiment in ‘intuitive’ computing a failure.  Graphical computing isn’t intuitive, that’s a bit of a marketing fib.  It’s a metaphor, and you need to grasp the metaphor – need to be taught what it means – to work fluidly within the environment.  The metaphor is easy to apprehend if it has become the dominant technique for working with computers – as it has in 2010.  Twenty-six years ago, it was a different story.  You can’t assume that people will intuit what to do with your abstract representations of data or your arcane interface methods.  Intuition isn’t always intuitively obvious.

A few months later I had a job at a firm which designed bar code readers.  (That, btw, was the most boring job I’ve ever had, the only one I got fired from for insubordination.)  We were designing a bar code reader for Macintosh, so we had one in-house, a unit with a nice carrying case so that I could ‘borrow’ it on weekends.  Which I did.  Every weekend.  The first weekend I got it home, unpacked it, plugged it in, popped in the system disk, booted it, ejected the system disk, popped in the applications disk, and worked my way through MacPaint and MacWrite and on to my favorite application of all – Hendrix.

Hendrix took advantage of the advanced sound synthesis capabilities of Macintosh.  Presented with a perfectly white screen, you dragged the mouse along the display.  The position, velocity, and acceleration of the pointer determined what kind of heavily altered but unmistakably guitar-like sounds came out of the speaker.  For someone who had lived with the bleeps and blurps of the 8-bit world, it was a revelation.  It was, in the vernacular of Boston, ‘wicked’.  I couldn’t stop playing with Hendrix.  I invited friends over, showed them, and they couldn’t stop playing with Hendrix.  Hendrix was the first interactive computer program that I gave a damn about, the first one that really showed me what a computer could be used for.  Not just pushing paper or pixels around, but an instrument, and an essential tool for human creativity.

Everything that’s followed in all the years since has been interesting to me only when it pushes the boundaries of our creativity.  I grew entranced by virtual reality in the early 1990s, because of the possibilities it offered up for an entirely new playing field for creativity.  When I first saw the Web, in the middle of 1993, I quickly realized that it, too, would become a cornerstone of creativity.  That roughly brings us forward from the ‘olden days’, to today.

This morning I want to explore creativity along the axis of three classes of devices, as represented by the three Apple devices that I own: the desktop (my 17” MacBook Pro Core i7), the mobile (my iPhone 3GS 32Gb), and the tablet (my iPad 16GB 3G).  I will draw from my own experience as both a user and developer for these devices, using that experience to illuminate a path before us.  So much is in play right now, so much is possible, all we need do is shine a light to see the incredible opportunities all around.

I:  The Power of Babel

I love OSX, and have used it more or less exclusively since 2003, when it truly became a useable operating system.  I’m running Snow Leopard on my MacBook Pro, and so far have suffered only one Grey Screen Of Death.  (And, if I know how to read a stack trace, that was probably caused by Flash.  Go figure.)  OSX is solid, it’s modestly secure, and it has plenty of eye candy.  My favorite bit of that is Spaces, which allows me to segregate my workspace into separate virtual screens.

Upper left hand space has Mail.app, upper right hand has Safari, lower right hand has TweetDeck and Skype, while the lower left hand is reserved for the task at hand – in this case, writing these words.  Each of the apps, except Microsoft Word, is inherently Internet-oriented, an application designed to facilitate human communication.  This is the logical and inexorable outcome of a process that began back in 1969, when the first nodes began exchanging packets on the ARPANET.  Phase one: build the network.  Phase two: connect everything to the network.  Phase three: PROFIT!

That seems to have worked out pretty much according to plan.  Our computers have morphed from document processors – that’s what most computers of any stripe were used for until about 1995 – into communication machines, handling the hard work of managing a world that grows increasingly connected.  All of this communication is amazing and wonderful and has provided the fertile ground for innovations like Wikipedia and Twitter and Skype, but it also feels like too much of a good thing.  Connection has its own gravitational quality – the more connected we become, the more we feel the demand to remain connected continuously.

We salivate like Pavlov’s dogs every time our email application rewards us with the ‘bing’ of an incoming message, and we keep one eye on Twitter all day long, just in case something interesting – or at least diverting – crosses the transom.  Blame our brains.  They’re primed to release the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine at the slightest hint of a reward; connecting with another person is (under most circumstances) a guaranteed hit of pleasure.

That’s turned us into connection junkies.  We pile connection upon connection upon connection until we numb ourselves into a zombie-like overconnectivity, then collapse and withdraw, feeling the spiral of depression as we realize we can’t handle the weight of all the connections that we want so desperately to maintain.

Not a pretty picture, is it?   Yet the computer is doing an incredible job, acting as a shield between what our brains are prepared to handle and the immensity of information and connectivity out there.  Just as consciousness is primarily the filtering of signal from the noise of the universe, our computers are the filters between the roaring insanity of the Internet and the tidy little gardens of our thoughts.  They take chaos and organize it.  Email clients are excellent illustrations of this; the best of them allow us to sort and order our correspondence based on need, desire, and goals.  They prevent us from seeing the deluge of spam which makes up more than 90% of all SMTP traffic, and help us to stay focused on the task at hand.

Electronic mail was just the beginning of the revolution in social messaging; today we have Tweets and instant messages and Foursquare checkins and Flickr photos and YouTube videos and Delicious links and Tumblr blogs and endless, almost countless feeds.  All of it recommended by someone, somewhere, and all of it worthy of at least some of our attention.  We’re burdened by too many web sites and apps needed to manage all of this opportunity for connectivity.  The problem has become most acute on our mobiles, where we need a separate app for every social messaging service.

This is fine in 2010, but what happens in 2012, when there are ten times as many services on offer, all of them delivering interesting and useful things?  All these services, all these websites, and all these little apps threaten to drown us with their own popularity.

Does this mean that our computers are destined to become like our television tuners, which may have hundreds of channels on offer, but never see us watch more than a handful of them?  Do we have some sort of upper boundary on the amount of connectivity we can handle before we overload?  Clay Shirky has rightly pointed out that there is no such thing as information overload, only filter failure.  If we find ourselves overwhelmed by our social messaging, we’ve got to build some better filters.

This is the great growth opportunity for the desktop, the place where the action will be happening – when it isn’t happening in the browser.  Since the desktop is the nexus of the full power of the Internet and the full set of your own data (even the data stored in the cloud is accessed primarily from your desktop), it is the logical place to create some insanely great next-generation filtering software.

That’s precisely what I’ve been working on.  This past May I got hit by a massive brainwave – one so big I couldn’t ignore it, couldn’t put it down, couldn’t do anything but think about it obsessively.

I wanted to create a tool that could aggregate all of my social messaging – email, Twitter, RSS and Atom feeds, Delcious, Flickr, Foursquare, and on and on and on.  I also wanted the tool to be able to distribute my own social messages, in whatever format I wanted to transmit, through whatever social message channel I cared to use.

Then I wouldn’t need to go hither and yon, using Foursquare for this, and Flickr for that and Twitter for something else.  I also wouldn’t have to worry about which friends used which services; I’d be able to maintain that list digitally, and this tool would adjust my transmissions appropriately, sending messages to each as they want to receive them, allowing me to receive messages from each as they care to send them.

That’s not a complicated idea.  Individuals and companies have been nibbling around the edges of it for a while.

I am going the rest of the way, creating a tool that functions as the last ‘social message manager’ that anyone will need.  It’s called Plexus, and it functions as middleware – sitting between the Internet and whatever interface you might want to cook up to view and compose all of your social messaging.

Now were I devious, I’d coyly suggest that a lot of opportunity lies in building front-end tools for Plexus, ways to bring some order to the increasing flow of social messaging.  But I’m not coy.  I’ll come right out and say it: Plexus is an open-source project, and I need some help here.  That’s a reflection of the fact that we all need some help here.  We’re being clubbed into submission by our connectivity.  I’m trying to develop a tool which will allow us to create better filters, flexible filters, social filters, all sorts of ways of slicing and dicing our digital social selves.  That’s got to happen as we invent ever more ways to connect, and as we do all of this inventing, the need for such a tool becomes more and more clear.

We see people throwing their hands up, declaring ‘email bankruptcy’, quitting Twitter, or committing ‘Facebookicide’, because they can’t handle the consequences of connectivity.

We secretly yearn for that moment after the door to the aircraft closes, and we’re forced to turn our devices off for an hour or two or twelve.  Finally, some time to think.  Some time to be.  Science backs this up; the measurable consequence of over-connectivity is that we don’t have the mental room to roam with our thoughts, to ruminate, to explore and play within our own minds.  We’re too busy attending to the next message.  We need to disconnect periodically, and focus on the real.  We desperately need tools which allow us to manage our social connectivity better than we can today.

Once we can do that, we can filter the noise and listen to the music of others.  We will be able to move so much more quickly – together – it will be another electronic renaissance: just like 1994, with Web 1.0, and 2004, with Web2.0.

That’s my hope, that’s my vision, and it’s what I’m directing my energies toward.  It’s not the only direction for the desktop, but it does represent the natural evolution of what the desktop has become.  The desktop has been shaped not just by technology, but by the social forces stirred up by our technology.

It is not an accident that our desktops act as social filters; they are the right tool at the right time for the most important job before us – how we communicate with one another.  We need to bring all of our creativity to bear on this task, or we’ll find ourselves speechless, shouted down, lost at another Tower of Babel.

II: The Axis of Me-ville

Three and a half weeks ago, I received a call from my rental agent.  My unit was going on the auction block – would I mind moving out?  Immediately?  I’ve lived in the same flat since I first moved to Sydney, seven years ago, so this news came as quite a shock.

I spent a week going through the five states of mourning: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  The day I reached acceptance, I took matters in hand, the old-fashioned way: I went online, to domain.com.au, and looked for rental units in my neighborhood.

Within two minutes I learned that there were two units for rent within my own building!

When you stop to think about it, that’s a bit weird.  There were no signs posted in my building, no indication that either of the units were for rent.  I’d heard nothing from the few neighbors I know well enough to chat with.  They didn’t know either.  Something happening right underneath our noses – something of immediate relevance to me – and none of us knew about it.  Why?  Because we don’t know our neighbors.

For city dwellers this is not an unusual state of affairs.  One of the pleasures of the city is its anonymity.  That’s also one of it’s great dangers.  The two go hand-in-hand.  Yet the world of 2010 does not offer up this kind of anonymity easily.  Consider: we can re-establish a connection with someone we went to high school with, thirty years ago – and really never thought about in all the years that followed – but still not know the names of the people in the unit next door, names you might utter with bitter anger after they’ve turned up the music again.  How can we claim that there’s any social revolution if we can’t be connected to people whom we’re physically close to?  Emotional closeness is important, and financial closeness (your coworkers) is also salient, but both should be trumped by the people who breathe the same air as you.

It is almost impossible to bridge the barriers that separate us from one another, even when we’re living on top of each other.

This is where the mobile becomes important, because the mobile is the singular social device.  It is the place where our of the human relationships reside.  (Plexus is eventually bound for the mobile, but in a few years’ time, when the devices are nimble enough to support it.)  Yet the mobile is more than just the social crossroads.  It is the landing point for all of the real-time information you need to manage your life.

On the home page of my iPhone, two apps stand out as the aids to the real-time management of my life: RainRadar AU and TripView.  I am a pedestrian in Sydney, so it’s always good to know when it’s about to rain, how hard, and how long.  As a pedestrian, I make frequent use of public transport, so I need to know when the next train, bus or ferry is due, wherever I happen to be.  The mobile is my networked, location-aware sensor.  It gathers up all of the information I need to ease my path through life.  This demonstrates one of the unstated truisms of the 21st century: the better my access to data, the more effective I will be, moment to moment.  The mobile has become that instantaneous access point, simply because it’s always at hand, or in the pocket or pocketbook or backpack.  It’s always with us.

In February I gave a keynote at a small Melbourne science fiction convention.  After I finished speaking a young woman approached me and told me she couldn’t wait until she could have some implants, so her mobile would be with her all the time.  I asked her, “When is your mobile ever more than a few meters away from you?  How much difference would it make?  What do you gain by sticking it underneath your skin?”  I didn’t even bother to mention the danger from all that subcutaneous microwave radiation.  It’s silly, and although our children or grandchildren might have some interesting implants, we need to accept the fact that the mobile is already a part of us.

We’re as Borg-ed up as we need to be.  Probably we’re more Borg-ed up than we can handle.

It’s not just that our mobiles have become essential.  It’s getting so that we can’t put them down, even in situations when we need to focus on the task at hand – driving, or having dinner with your partner, or trying to push a stroller across an intersection.  We’re addicted, and the first step to treating that addiction is to admit we have  problem.  But here’s the dilemma: we’re working hard to invent new ways to make our mobiles even more useful, indispensable and alluring.

We are the crack dealers.  And I’m encouraging you to make better crack.  Truth be told, I don’t see this ‘addiction’ as a bad thing, though goodness knows the tabloid newspapers and cultural moralists will make whatever they can of it.  It’s an accommodation we will need to make, a give-and-take.  We gain an instantaneous connection to one another, a kind of cultural ‘telepathy’ that would have made Alexander Graham Bell weep for joy.

But there’s more: we also gain a window into the hitherto hidden world of data that is all around us, a shadow and double of the real world.

For example, I can now build an app that allows me to wander the aisles of my local supermarket, bringing all of the intelligence of the network with me as I shop.  I hold the mobile out in front of me, its camera capturing everything it sees, which it passes along to the cloud, so that Google Goggles can do some image processing on it, and pick out the identifiable products on the shelves.

This information can then be fed back into a shopping list – created by me, or by my doctor, or by bank account – because I might be trying to optimize for my own palette, my blood pressure, or my budget – and as I come across the items I should purchase, my mobile might give a small vibration.  When I look at the screen, I see the shelves, but the items I should purchase are glowing and blinking.

The technology to realize this – augmented reality with a few extra bells and whistles – is already in place.  This is the sort of thing that could be done today, by someone enterprising enough to knit all these separate threads into a seamless whole.  There’s clearly a need for it, but that’s just the beginning.  This is automated, computational decision making.  It gets more interesting when you throw people into the mix.

Consider: in December I was on a road trip to Canberra.  When I arrived there, at 6 pm, I wondered where to have dinner.  Canberra is not known for its scintillating nightlife – I had no idea where to dine.  I threw the question out to my 7000 Twitter followers, and in the space of time that it took to shower, I had enough responses that I could pick and choose among them, and ended up having the best bowl of seafood laksa that I’d had since I moved to Australia!

That’s the kind of power that we have in our hands, but don’t yet know how to use.

We are all well connected, instantaneously and pervasively, but how do we connect without confusing ourselves and one another with constant requests?  Can we manage that kind of connectivity as a background task, with our mobiles acting as the arbiters?  The mobile is the crossroads, between our social lives, our real-time lives, and our data-driven selves.  All of it comes together in our hands.  The device is nearly full to exploding with the potentials unleashed as we bring these separate streams together.  It becomes hypnotizing and formidable, though it rings less and less.  Voice traffic is falling nearly everywhere in the developed world, but mobile usage continues to skyrocket.  Our mobiles are too important to use for talking.

Let’s tie all of this together: I get evicted, and immediately tell my mobile, which alerts my neighbors and friends, and everyone sets to work finding me a new place to live.  When I check out their recommendations, I get an in-depth view of my new potential neighborhoods, delivered through a marriage of augmented reality and the cloud computing power located throughout the network.  Finally, when I’m about to make a decision, I throw it open for the people who care enough about me to ring in with their own opinions, experiences, and observations.  I make an informed decision, quickly, and am happier as a result, for all the years I live in my new home.

That’s what’s coming.  That’s the potential that we hold in the palms of our hands.  That’s the world you can bring to life.

III:  Through the Looking Glass

Finally, we turn to the newest and most exciting of Apple’s inventions.  There seemed to be nothing new to say about the tablet – after all, Bill Gates declared ‘The Year of the Tablet’ way back in 2001.  But it never happened.  Tablets were too weird, too constrained by battery life and weight and, most significantly, the user experience.  It’s not as though you can take a laptop computer, rip away the keyboard and slap on a touchscreen to create a tablet computer, though this is what many people tried for many years.  It never really worked out for them.

Instead, Apple leveraged what they learned from the iPhone’s touch interface.  Yet that alone was not enough.  I was told by sources well-placed in Apple that the hardware for a tablet was ready a few years ago; designing a user experience appropriate to the form factor took a lot longer than anyone had anticipated.  But the proof of the pudding is in the eating: iPad is the most successful new product in Apple’s history, with Apple set to manufacture around thirty million of them over the next twelve months.  That success is due to the hard work and extensive testing performed upon the iPad’s particular version of iOS.

It feels wonderfully fluid, well adapted to the device, although quite different from the iOS running on iPhone.  iPad is not simply a gargantuan iPod Touch.  The devices are used very differently, because the form-factor of the device frames our expectations and experience of the device.

Let me illustrate with an example from my own experience:  I had a consulting job drop on me at the start of June, one which required that I go through and assess eighty-eight separate project proposals, all of which ran to 15 pages apiece.  I had about 48 hours to do the work.  I was a thousand kilometers from these proposals, so they had to be sent to me electronically, so that I could then print them before reading through them.  Doing all of that took 24 of the 48 hours I had for review, and left me with a ten-kilo box of papers that I’d have to carry, a thousand kilometers, to the assessment meeting.  Ugh.

Immediately before I left for the airport with this paper ball-and-chain, I realized I could simply drag the electronic versions of these files into my Dropbox account.  Once uploaded, I could access those files from my iPad – all thousand or so pages.  Working on iPad made the process much faster than having to fiddle through all of those papers; I finished my work on the flight to my meeting, and was the envy of all attending – they wrestled with multiple fat paper binders, while I simply swiped my way to the next proposal.

This was when I realized that iPad is becoming the indispensable appliance for the information worker.

You can now hold something in your hand that has every document you’ve written; via the cloud, it can hold every document anyone has ever written.  This has been true for desktops since the advent of the Internet, but it hasn’t been as immediate.  iPad is the page, reinvented, not just because it has roughly the same dimensions as a page, but because you interact with it as if it were a piece of paper.  That’s something no desktop has ever been able to provide.

We don’t really have a sense yet for all the things we can do with this ‘magical’ (to steal a word from Steve Jobs) device.

Paper transformed the world two thousand years ago. Moveable type transformed the world five hundred years ago.  The tablet, whatever it is becoming – whatever you make of it – will similarly reshape the world.  It’s not just printed materials; the tablet is the lightbox for every photograph ever taken anywhere by anyone.  The tablet is the screen for every video created, a theatre for every film produced, a tuner to every radio station that offers up a digital stream, and a player for every sound recording that can be downloaded.

All of this is here, all of this is simultaneously present in a device with so much capability that it very nearly pulses with power.

iPad is like an Formula One Ferrari, one we haven’t even gotten out of first gear.  So stretch your mind further than the idea of the app.  Apps are good and important, but to unlock the potential of iPad it needs lots of interesting data pouring into it and through it.  That data might be provided via an application, but it probably doesn’t live within the application – there’s not enough room in there.  Any way you look at it, iPad is a creature of the network; it is a surface, a looking glass, which presents you a view from within the network.

What happens when the network looks back at you?

At the moment iPad has no camera, though everyone expects a forward-facing camera to be in next year’s model.  That will come so that Apple can enable FaceTime.  (With luck, we’ll also see a Retina Display, so that documents can be seen in their natural resolution.)  Once the iPad can see you, it can respond to you.  It can acknowledge your presence in an authentic manner.  We’re starting to see just what this looks like with the recently announced Xbox Kinect.

This is the sort of technology which points all the way back to the infamous ‘Knowledge Navigator’ video that John Sculley used to create his own Reality Distortion Field around the disaster that was the Newton. Decades ahead of its time, the Knowledge Navigator pointed toward Google and Wikipedia and Milo, with just a touch of Facebook thrown in.  We’re only just getting there, to the place where this becomes possible.

These are no longer dreams, these are now quantifiable engineering problems.

This sort of thing won’t happen on Xbox, though Microsoft or a partner developer could easily write an app for it.  But that’s not where they’re looking, this is not about keeping you entertained.  The iPad can entertain you, but that’s not its main design focus.  It is designed to engage you, today with your fingers, and soon with your voice and your face and your gestures.  At that point it is no longer a mirror; it is an entity on its own.  It might not pass the Turing Test, but we’ll anthropomorphize it nonetheless, just as we did with Tamagotchi and Furby.  It will become our constant companion, helping us through every situation.  And it will move seamlessly between our devices, from iPad to iPhone to desktop.  But it will begin on iPad.

Because we are just starting out with tablets, anything is possible.  We haven’t established expectations which guide us into a particular way of thinking about the device.  We’ve had mobiles for nearly twenty years, and desktops for thirty.  We understand both well, and with that understanding comes a narrowing of possibilities.  The tablet is the undiscovered country, virgin, green, waiting to be explored.  This is the desktop revolution, all over again.  This is the mobile revolution, all over again.  We’re in the right place at the right time to give birth to the applications that will seem commonplace in ten or fifteen years.

I remember the VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet.  I remember how revolutionary it seemed, how it changed everyone’s expectations for the personal computer.  I also remember that it was written for an Apple ][.

You have the chance to do it all again, to become the ‘mothers of innovation’, and reinvent computing.  So think big.  This is the time for it.  In another few years it will be difficult to aim for the stars.  The platform will be carrying too much baggage.  Right now we all get to be rocket scientists.  Right now we get to play, and dream, and make it all real.

Make War, then Love

At the close of the first decade of the 21st century, we find ourselves continuously connecting to one another.  This isn’t a new thing, although it may feel new.  The kit has changed – that much is obvious – but who we are has not.  Only from an understanding of who we are that we can understand the future we are hurtling toward.  Connect, connect, connect.  But why?  Why are we so driven?

To explain this – and reveal that who we are now is precisely who we have always been, I will tell you two stories.  They’re interrelated – one leads seamlessly into the other.  I’m not going to say that these stories are the God’s honest truth.  They are, as Rudyard Kipling put it, ‘just-so stories’.  If they aren’t true, the describe an arrangement of facts so believable that they could very well be true.  There is scientific evidence to support both of these stories, but neither is considered scientific canon.   So, take everything with a grain of salt; these are more fables than theories, but we have always used fables to help us illuminate the essence of our nature.

For our first story, we need to go back a long, long time.  Before the settlement of Australia – by anyone.  Before Homo Sapiens, before Australopithecus, before we broke away from the chimpanzees, five million years ago, just after we broke away from the gorillas, Ten million years ago.  How much do we know about this common ancestor, which scientists call Pierolapithecus?  Not very much.  A few bits of skeletons discovered in Spain eight years ago.  If you squint and imagine some sort of mash-up of the characteristics of humans, chimpanzees and gorillas, you might be able to get a glimmer of what they looked like.  Smaller than us, certainly, and not upright – that comes along much later.  But one thing we do know, without any evidence from skeletons: Pierolapithecus was a social animal.  How do we know this?  Each of its three descendent species – humans, chips and bonobos – are all highly social animals.  We don’t do well on our own.  In fact, on our own we tend to make a tasty meal for some sort of tiger or lion or other cat.  Together, well, that’s another matter.

Which brings us to the first ‘just-so’ story.  Imagine a warm late afternoon, hanging out in the trees in Africa’s Rift Valley.  Just you and your mates – probably ten or twenty of them.  You’re all males; the females are elsewhere, doing female-type things, which we’ll discuss presently.  At a signal from the ‘alpha male’, all of you fall into line, drop out of the trees, and begin a trek that takes you throughout the little bit of land you call your own – with your own trees and plants and bugs that keep you well fed – and you go all the way to the edge of your territory, to the border of the territory of a neighboring troupe of Pierolapithecus.  That troupe – about the same size as your own – is dozing in the heat of the afternoon, all over the place, but basically within eyeshot of one another.

Suddenly – and silently – you all cross the border.  You fan out, still silent, looking for the adolescent males in this troupe.  When you find them, you kill them.  As for the rest, you scare them off with your screams and your charges, and, at the end, they’ve lost some of their own territory – and trees and plants and delicious grubs – while you’ve got just a little bit more.  And you return, triumphant, with the bodies you’ve acquired, which you eat, with your troupe, in a victory dinner.

This all sounds horrid and nasty and mean and just not criket.  That it is.  It’s war.  How do we know that ‘war’ stretches this far back into our past?  Just last month a paper published in Current Biology and reported in THE ECONOMIST described how primatologists had seen just this behavior among chimpanzees in their natural habitats in the African rain forests.  The scene I just described isn’t ten million years old, or even ten thousand, but current.  Chimpanzees wage war.  And this kind of warfare is exactly what was commonplace in New Guinea and the upper reaches of Amazonia until relatively recently – certainly within the span of my own lifetime.  War is a behavior common to both chimpanzees and humans – so why wouldn’t it be something we inherited from our common ancestor?

War.  What’s it good for?  If you win your tiny Pierolapithecine war for a tiny bit more territory, you’ll gain all of the resources in that territory.  Which means your troupe will be that much better fed.  You’ll have stronger immune systems when you get sick, you’ll have healthier children.  And you’ll have more children.  As you acquire more resources, more of your genes will get passed along, down the generations.  Which makes you even stronger, and better able to wage your little wars.  If you’re good at war, natural selection will shine upon you.

What makes you good at war?  That’s the real question here.  You’re good at war if you and your troupe – your mates – can function effectively as a unit.  You have to be able to coordinate your activities to attack – or defend – territory.  We know that language skills don’t go back ten million years, so you’ve got to do this the old fashioned way, with gestures and grunts and the ability to get into the heads of your mates.  That’s the key skill; if you can get into your mates’ heads, you can think as a group.  The better you can do that, the better you will do in war.  The better you do in war, the more offspring you’ll have, so that skill, that ability to get into each others’ heads gets reinforced by natural selection, and becomes, over time, evolution.  The generations pass, and you get better and better at knowing what your mates are thinking.

This is the beginning of the social revolution.  All the way back here, before we looked anything like human, we grasped the heart of the matter: we must know one another to survive.  If we want to succeed, we must know each other well.  There are limits to this knowing, particularly with the small brain of Pierolapithecus.  Knowing someone well takes a lot of brain capacity, and soon that fills up.  When it does, when you can’t know everyone around you intimately.  When that happens your troupe will grow increasingly argumentative, confrontational, and eventually will break into two independent troupes.  All because of a communication breakdown.

There’s strength in numbers; if I can manage a troupe of thirty while all you can manage is twenty, I’ll defeat you in war.  So there’s pressure, year after year, to grow the troupe, and, quite literally, to stuff more mates into the space between your ears.  For a long time that doesn’t lead anywhere; then there’s a baby born with just a small genetic difference, one which allows just a bit more brain capacity, so that they can handle two or three or four more mates into its head, which makes a big difference.  Such a big difference that these genes get passed along very rapidly, and soon everyone can hold a few more mates inside their heads.  But that capability comes with a price.  Those Pierolapithecines have slightly bigger brains, and slightly bigger heads.  They need to eat more to keep those bigger brains well-fed.  And those big heads would soon prove very problematic.

This is where we cross over, from our first story, into our second.  This is where we leave the world of men behind, and enter the world of women, who have been here, all along, giving birth and gathering food and raising children and mourning the dead lost to wars, as they still do today.  As they have done for ten million years.  But somewhere in the past few million years, something changed for women, something perfectly natural became utterly dangerous.  All because of our drive to socialize.

Human birth is a very singular thing in the animal world.  Among the primates, human babies are the only ones born facing downward and away from the mother.  They’re also the only ones who seriously threaten the lives of their mothers as they come down the birth canal.  That’s because our heads are big.  Very big.  Freakishly big.  So big that one of the very recent evolutionary adaptations in Homo Sapiens is a pelvic gap in women that creates a larger birth canal, at the expense of their ability to walk.  Women walk differently from men – much less efficiently – because they give birth to such large-brained children.

There’s two notable side-effects of this big-brained-ness.  The first is well-known: women used to regularly die in childbirth.  Until the first years of the 20th century, about one in one hundred pregnancies ended with the death of the mother.  That’s an extraordinarily high rate, particularly given that a women might give birth to seven or eight children over their lifetime.  Now that we have survivable caesarian sections and all sorts of other medical interventions, death in childbirth is much rarer – perhaps 1 in 10,000 births.  Nowhere else among the mammals can you find this kind of danger surrounding the delivery of offspring.  This is the real high price we pay for being big-brained: we very nearly kill our mothers.

The second side-effect is less well-known, but so pervasive we simply accept it as a part of reality: humans need other humans to assist in childbirth.  This isn’t true for any other mammal species – or any other species, period.  But there are very few (one or two) examples of cultures where women give childbirth by themselves.  Until the 20th century medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth, this was ‘women’s work’, and a thriving culture of midwives managed the hard work of delivery.  (The image of the chain-smoking father, waiting outside the maternity ward for news of his newborn child is far older than the 20th century.)

For at least a few hundred thousand years – and probably a great deal longer than that – the act of childbirth has been intensely social.  Women come together to help their sisters, cousins, and daughters pass through the dangers and into motherhood.  If you can’t rally your sisters together when you need them, childbirth will be a lonely and possibly lethal experience.  So this is what it means to be human: we entered the world because of the social capabilities of our mothers.  Women who had strong social capabilities, who could bring her sisters to her aid, would have an easier time in childbirth, and would be more likely to live through childbirth, as would their children.

After the child has been born, mothers need even more help from their female peers; in the first few hours, when the mother is weak, other women must provide food and shelter.  As that child grows, the mother will periodically need help with childcare, particularly if she’s just been delivered of another child.  Mothers who can use their social capabilities to deliver these resources will thrive.  Their children will thrive.  This means that these capabilities tended to be passed down, through the generations.  Just as men had their social skills honed by generations upon generations of warfare, women had their social skills sharpened by generations upon generations of childbirth and child raising.

All of this sounds very much as though it’s Not Politically Correct.  But our liberation from our biologically determined sex roles is a very recent thing.  Men raise children while women go to war.  Yet behind this lies hundreds of thousands of generations of our ancestors who did use these skills along gender-specific lines.  That’s left a mark; men tend to favor coordination in groups – whether that’s a war or a footy match – while women tend to concentrate on building and maintaining a closely-linked web of social connections. Women seem to have a far greater sensitivity to these social connections than men do, but men can work together in a team – to slaughter the opponent (on the battlefield or the pitch).

The prefrontal cortex – freakishly large in human beings when compared to chimpanzees – seems to be where the magic happens, where we keep these models of one another.  Socialization has limits, because our brains can’t effectively grow much bigger.  They already nearly kill our mothers, they consume about 25% of the food we eat, and they’re not even done growing until five years after we’re born – leaving us defenseless and helpless far longer than any other mammals.  That’s another price we pay for being so social.

But we’re maxed out.  We’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.  If our heads get any bigger, there won’t be any mothers left living to raise us.  So here we are.  An estimate conducted nearly 20 years ago pegs the number of people who can fit into your head at roughly 148, plus or minus a few.  That’s not very many.  But for countless thousands of years, that was as big as a tribe or a village ever grew.  That was the number of people you could know well, and that set the upper boundary on human sociability.

And then, ten thousand years ago, the comfortable steady-state of human development blew apart.  Two things happened nearly simultaneously; we learned to plant crops, which created larger food supplies, which meant families could raise more children.  We also began to live together in communities much larger than the tribe or village.  The first cities – like Jericho – date from around that time, cities with thousands of people in them.

This is where we cross a gap in human culture, a real line that separates that-which-has-come-before to that-which-comes-after.  Everyone who has moved from a small town or village to the big city knows what it’s like to cross that line.  People have been crossing that line for a hundred centuries.  On one side of the line people are connected by bonds that are biological, ancient and customary – you do things because they’ve always been done that way.  On the other side, people are bound by bonds that are cultural, modern, and legal.  When we can’t know everyone around us, we need laws to protect us, a culture to guide us, and all of this is very new.   Still. Ten thousand years of laws and culture, next to almost two hundred thousand years of custom – and that’s just Homo Sapiens.  Custom extends back, probably all the way to Pierolapithecus.

We wage a constant war within ourselves.  Our oldest parts want to be clannish, insular, and intensely xenophobic.  That’s what we’re adapted to.  That’s what natural selection fitted us for.  The newest parts of us realize real benefits from accumulations of humanity to big to get our heads around.  The division of labor associated with cities allows for intensive human productivity, hence larger and more successful human populations.  The city is the real hub of human progress; more than any technology, it is our ability to congregate together in vast numbers that has propelled us into modernity.

There’s an intense contradiction here: we got to the point where we were able to build cities because we were so socially successful, but cities thwarted that essential sociability.  It’s as though we went as far as we could, in our own heads, then leapt outside of them, into cities, and left our heads behind.  Our cities are anonymous places, and consequently fraught with dangers.

It’s a danger we seem prepared to accept.  In 2008 the UN reported that, for the first time in human history, over half of humanity lived in cities.  Half of us had crossed the gap between the social world in our heads and the anonymous and atomized worlds of Mumbai and Chongquing and Mexico City and Cairo and Saõ Paulo.  But just in this same moment, at very nearly the same time that half of us resided in cities, half of us also had mobiles.  Well more than half of us do now.  In the anonymity of the world’s cities, we stare down into our screens, and find within them a connection we had almost forgotten.  It touches something so ancient – and so long ignored – that the mobile now contends with the real world as the defining axis of social orientation.

People are often too busy responding to messages to focus on those in their immediate presence.  It seems ridiculous, thoughtless and pointless, but the device has opened a passage which allows us to retrieve this oldest part of ourselves, and we’re reluctant to let that go.

Which brings us to the present moment.

Blue Skies

I: Cloud People

I want to open this afternoon’s talk with a story about my friend Kate Carruthers.  Kate is a business strategist, currently working at Hyro, over in Surry Hills.  In November, while on a business trip to Far North Queensland, Kate pulled out her American Express credit card to pay for a taxi fare.  Her card was declined.  Kate paid with another card and thought little of it until the next time she tried to use the card – this time to pay for something rather pricier, and more important – and found her card declined once again.

As it turned out, American Express had cut Kate’s credit line in half, but hadn’t bothered to inform her of this until perhaps a day or two before, via post.  So here’s Kate, far away from home, with a crook credit card.  Thank goodness she had another card with her, or it could have been quite a problem.  When she contacted American Express to discuss that credit line change – on a Friday evening – she discovered that this ‘consumer’ company kept banker’s hours in its credit division.  That, for Kate, was the last straw.  She began to post a series of messages to Twitter:

“I can’t believe how rude Amex have been to me; cut credit limit by 50% without notice; declined my card while in QLD even though acct paid”

“since Amex just treated me like total sh*t I just posted a chq for the balance of my account & will close acct on Monday”

“Amex is hardly accepted anywhere anyhow so I hardly use it now & after their recent treatment I’m outta there”

“luckily for me I have more than enough to just pay the sucker out & never use Amex again”

“have both a gold credit card & gold charge card with amex until monday when I plan to close both after their crap behaviour”

One after another, Kate sent this stream of messages out to her Twitter followers.  All of her Twitter followers.  Kate’s been on Twitter for a long time – well over three years – and she’s accumulated a lot of followers.  Currently, she has over 8300 followers, although at the time she had her American Express meltdown, the number was closer to 7500.

Let’s step back and examine this for a moment.  Kate is, in most respects, a perfectly ordinary (though whip-smart) human being.  Yet she now has this ‘cloud’ of connections, all around her, all the time, through Twitter.  These 8300 people are at least vaguely aware of whatever she chooses to share in her tweets.  They care enough to listen, even if they are not always listening very closely.  A smaller number of individuals (perhaps a few hundred, people like me) listen more closely.  Nearly all the time we’re near a computer or a mobile, we keep an eye on Kate.  (Not that she needs it.  She’s thoroughly grown up.  But if she ever got into a spot of trouble or needed a bit of help, we’d be on it immediately.)

This kind of connectivity is unprecedented in human history.  We came from villages where perhaps a hundred of us lived close enough together that there were no secrets.  We moved to cities where the power of numbers gave us all a degree of anonymity, but atomized us into disconnected individuals, lacking the social support of a community.  Now we come full circle.  This is the realization of the ‘Global Village’ that Marshall McLuhan talked about fifty years ago.  At the time McLuhan though of television as a retribalizing force.  It wasn’t.  But Facebook and Twitter and the mobiles each of us carry with us during all our waking hours?  These are the new retribalizing forces, because they keep us continuously connected with one another, allowing us to manage connections in every-greater numbers.

Anything Kate says, no matter how mundane, is now widely known.  But it’s more than that.  Twitter is text, but it is also links that can point to images, or videos, or songs, or whatever you can digitize and upload to the Web.  Kate need simply drop a URL into a tweet and suddenly nearly ten thousand people are aware of it.  If they like it, they will send it along (‘re-tweet’ is the technical term), and it will spread out quickly, like waves on a pond.

But Twitter isn’t a one-way street.  Kate is ‘following’ 7250 individuals; that is, she’s receiving tweets from them.  That sounds like a nearly impossible task: how can you pay attention to what that many people have to say?  It’d be like trying to listen to every conversation at Central Station (or Flinders Street Station) at peak hour.  Madness.  And yet, it is possible.  Tools have been created that allow you to keep a pulse on the madness, to stick a toe into the raging torrent of commentary.

Why would you want to do this?  It’s not something that you need to do (or even want to do) all the time, but there are particular moments – crisis times – when Twitter becomes something else altogether.  After an earthquake or other great natural disaster, after some pivotal (or trivial) political event, after some stunning discovery.  The 5650 people I follow are my connection to all of that.  My connection is broad enough that someone, somewhere in my network is nearly always nearly the first to know something, among the first to share what they know.  Which means that I too, if I am paying attention, am among the first to know.

Businesses have been built on this kind of access.  An entire sector of the financial services industry, from DowJones to Bloomberg, has thrived because it provides subscribers with information before others have it – information that can be used on a trading floor.  This kind of information freely comes to the very well-connected.  This kind of information can be put to work to make you more successful as an individual, in your business, or in whatever hobbies you might pursue.  And it’s always there.  All you need do is plug into it.

When you do plug into it, once you’ve gotten over the initial confusion, and you’ve dedicated the proper time and tending to your network, so that it grows organically and enthusiastically, you will find yourself with something amazingly flexible and powerful.  Case in point: in December I found myself in Canberra for a few days.  Where to eat dinner in a town that shuts down at 5 pm?  I asked Twitter, and forty-five minutes later I was enjoying some of the best seafood laksa I’ve had in Australia.  A few days later, in the Barossa, I asked Twitter which wineries I should visit – and the top five recommendations were very good indeed.  These may seem like trivial instances – though they’re the difference between a good holiday and a lackluster one – but what they demonstrate is that Twitter has allowed me to plug into all of the expertise of all of the thousands of people I am connected to.  Human brainpower, multiplied by 5650 makes me smarter, faster, and much, much more effective.  Why would I want to live any other way?  Twitter can be inane, it can be annoying, it can be profane and confusing and chaotic, but I can’t imagine life without it, just as I can’t imagine life without the Web or without my mobile.  The idea that I am continuously connected and listening to a vast number of other people – even as they listen to me – has gone from shocking to comfortable in just over three years.

Kate and I are just the leading edge.  Where we have gone, all of the rest of you will soon follow.  We are all building up our networks, one person at a time.  A child born in 2010 will spend their lifetime building up a social network.  They’ll never lose track of any individual they meet and establish a connection with.  That connection will persist unless purposely destroyed.  Think of the number of people you meet throughout your lives, who you establish some connection with, even if only for a few hours.  That number would easily reach into the thousands for every one of us.  Kate and I are not freaks, we’re simply using the bleeding edge of a technology that will be almost invisible and not really worth mentioning by 2020.

All of this means that the network is even more alluring than it was a few years ago, and will become ever more alluring with the explosive growth in social networks.  We are just at the beginning of learning how to use these new social networks.  First we kept track of friends and family.  Then we moved on to business associates.  Now we’re using them to learn, to train ourselves and train others, to explore, to explain, to help and to ask for help.  They are becoming a new social fabric which will knit us together into an unfamiliar closeness.  This is already creating some interesting frictions for us.  We like being connected, but we also treasure the moments when we disconnect, when we can’t be reached, when our time and our thoughts are our own.  We preach focus to our children, but find our time and attention increasing divided by devices that demand service: email, Web, phone calls, texts, Twitter, Facebook, all of it brand new, and all of it seemingly so important that if we ignore any of them we immediately feel the cost.  I love getting away from it all.  I hate the backlog of email that greets me when I return.  Connecting comes with a cost.  But it’s becoming increasingly impossible to imagine life without it.

II: Eyjafjallajökull

I recently read a most interesting blog postChase Saunders, a software architect and entrepreneur in Maine (not too far from where I was born) had a bit of a brainwave and decided to share it with the rest of the world.  But you may not like it.  Saunders begins with: “For me to get really mad at a company, it takes more than a lousy product or service: it’s the powerlessness I feel when customer service won’t even try to make things right.  This happens to me about once a year.”  Given the number of businesses we all interact with in any given year – both as consumers and as client businesses – this figure is far from unusual.  There will be times when we get poor value for money, or poor service, or a poor response time, or what have you.  The world is a cruel place.  It’s what happens after that cruelty which is important: how does the business deal with an upset customer?  If they fail the upset customer, that’s when problems can really get out of control.

In times past, an upset customer could cancel their account, taking their business elsewhere.  Bad, but recoverable.  These days, however, customers have more capability, precisely because of their connectivity.  And this is where things start to go decidedly pear-shaped.  Saunders gets to the core of his idea:

Let’s say you buy a defective part from ACME Widgets, Inc. and they refuse to refund or replace it.  You’re mad, and you want the world to know about this awful widget.  So you pop over to AdRevenge and you pay them a small amount. Say $3.  If the company is handing out bad widgets, maybe some other people have already done this… we’ll suppose that before you got there, one guy donated $1 and another lady also donated $1.  So now we have 3 people who have paid a total of $5 to warn other potential customers about this sketchy company…the 3 vengeful donations will go to the purchase of negative search engine advertising.  The ads are automatically booked and purchased by the website…

And there it is.  Your customers – your angry customers – have found an effective way to band together and warn every other potential customer just how badly you suck, and will do it every time your name gets typed into a search engine box.  And they’ll do it whether or not their complaints are justified.  In fact, your competitors could even game the system, stuffing it up with lots of false complaints.  It will quickly become complete, ugly chaos.

You’re probably all donning your legal hats, and thinking about words like ‘libel’ and ‘defamation’.  Put all of that out of your mind.  The Internet is extraterritorial, it and effectively ungovernable, despite all of the neat attempts of governments from China to Iran to Australia to stuff it back into some sort of box.  Ban AdRevenge somewhere, it pops up somewhere else – just as long as there’s a demand for it.  Other countries – perhaps Iceland or Sweden, and certainly the United States – don’t have the same libel laws as Australia, yet their bits freely enter the nation over the Internet.  There is no way to stop AdRevenge or something very much like AdRevenge from happening.  No way at all.  Resign yourself to this, and embrace it, because until you do you won’t be able to move on, into a new type of relationship with your customers.

Which brings us back to our beginning, and a very angry Kate Carruthers.  Here she is, on a Friday night in Far North Queensland, spilling quite a bit of bile out onto Twitter.  Everyone one of the 7500 people who read her tweets will bear her experience in mind the next time they decide whether they will do any business with American Express.  This is damage, probably great damage to the reputation of American Express, damage that could have been avoided, or at least remediated before Kate ‘went nuclear’.

But where was American Express when all of this was going on?  While Kate expressed her extreme dissatisfaction with American Express, its own marketing arm was busily cooking up a scheme to harness Twitter.  It’s Open Forum Pulse website shows you tweets from small businesses around the world.  Ironic, isn’t it? American Express builds a website to show us what others are saying on Twitter, all the while ignoring about what’s being said about it.  So the fire rages, uncontrolled, while American Express fiddles.

There are other examples.  On Twitter, one of my friends lauded the new VAustralia Premium Economy service to the skies, while VAustralia ran some silly marketing campaign that had four blokes sending three thousand tweets over two days in Los Angeles.  Sure, I want to tune into that stream of dreck and drivel.  That’s exactly what I’m looking for in the age of information overload: more crap.

This is it, the fundamental disconnect, the very heart of the matter.  We all need to do a whole lot less talking, and a whole lot more listening.  That’s true for each of us as individuals: we’re so well-connected now that by the time we do grow into a few thousand connections we’d be wiser listening than speaking, most of the time.  But this is particularly true for businesses, which make their living dealing with customers.  The relationship between businesses and their customers has historically been characterized by a ‘throw it over the wall’ attitude.  There is no wall, anywhere.  The customer is sitting right beside you, with a megaphone pointed squarely into your ear.

If we were military planners, we’d call this ‘asymmetric warfare’.  Instead, we should just give it the name it rightfully deserves: 21st-century business.  It’s a battlefield out there, but if you come prepared for a 20th-century conflict – massive armies and big guns – you’ll be overrun by the fleet-footed and omnipresent guerilla warfare your customers will wage against you – if you don’t listen to them.  Like volcanic ash, it may not present a solid wall to prevent your progress.  But it will jam up your engines, and stop you from getting off the ground.

Listening is not a job.  There will be no ‘Chief Listening Officer’, charged with keeping their ear down to the ground, wondering if the natives are becoming restless, ready to sound the alarm when a situation threatens to go nuclear.  There is simply too much to listen to, happening everywhere, all at once.  Any single point which presumed to do the listening for an entire organization – whether an individual or a department – will simply be overwhelmed, drowning in the flow of data.  Listening is not a job: it is an attitude.  Every employee from the most recently hired through to the Chief Executive must learn to listen.  Listen to what is being said internally (therein lies the path to true business success) and learn to listen to what others, outside the boundaries of the organization, are saying about you.

Employees already regularly check into their various social networks.  Right now we think of that as ‘slacking off’, not something that we classify as work.  But if we stretch the definition just a bit, and begin to recognize that the organization we work for is, itself, part of our social network, things become clearer.  Someone can legitimately spend time on Facebook, looking for and responding to issues as they arise.  Someone can be plugged into Twitter, giving it continuous partial attention all day long, monitoring and soothing customer relationships.  And not just someone.  Everyone.  This is a shared responsibility.  Working for the organization means being involved with and connected to the organization’s customers, past, present and future.  Without that connection, problems will inevitably arise, will inevitably amplify, will inevitably result in ‘nuclear events’.  Any organization (or government, or religion) can only withstand so many nuclear events before it begins to disintegrate.  So this isn’t a matter of choice.  This is a basic defensive posture.  An insurance policy, of sorts, protecting you against those you have no choice but to do business with.

Yet this is not all about defense.  Listening creates opportunity.  I get some of my best ideas – such as that AdRevenge article – because I am constantly listening to others’ good ideas.  Your customers might grumble, but they also praise you for a job well done.  That positive relationship should be honored – and reinforced.  As you reinforce the positive, you create a virtuous cycle of interactions which becomes terrifically difficult to disrupt.  When that’s gone on long enough, and broadly enough, you have effectively raised up your own army – in the post-modern, guerilla sense of the word – who will go out there and fight for you and your brand when the haters and trolls and chaos-makers bear down upon you.  These people are connected to you, and will connect to one another because of the passion they share around your products and your business.  This is another network, an important network, an offensive network, and you need both defensive and offensive strategies to succeed on this playing field.

Just as we as individuals are growing into hyperconnectivity, so our businesses must inevitably follow.  Hyperconnected individuals working with disconnected businesses is a perfect recipe for confusion and disaster.  Like must meet with like before the real business of the 21st-century can begin.

III: Services With a Smile

Moving from the abstract to the concrete, let’s consider the types of products and services required in our densely hyperconnected world.  First and foremost, we are growing into a pressing, almost fanatical need for continuous connectivity.  Wherever we are – even in airplanes – we must be connected.  The quality of that connection – its speed, reliability, and cost – are important co-factors to consider, and it is not always the cheapest connection which serves the customer best.  I pay a premium for my broadband connection because I can send the CEO of my ISP a text any time my link goes down – and my trouble tickets are sorted very rapidly!  Conversely, I went with a lower-cost carrier for my mobile service, and I am paying the price, with missed calls, failed data connections, and crashes on my iPhone.

As connectivity becomes more important, reliability crowds out other factors.  You can offer a premium quality service at a premium price and people will adopt it, for the same reason they will pay more for a reliable car, or for electricity from a reliable supplier, or for food that they’re sure will be wholesome.  Connectivity has become too vital to threaten.  This means there’s room for healthy competition, as providers offer different levels of service at different price points, competing on quality, so that everyone gets the level of service they can afford.  But uptime always will be paramount.

What service, exactly is on offer?  Connectivity comes in at least two flavors: mobile and broadband.  These are not mutually exclusive.  When we’re stationary we use broadband; when we’re in motion we use mobile services.  The transition between these two networks should be invisible and seamless as possible – as pioneered by Apple’s iPhone.

At home, in the office, at the café or library, in fact, in almost any structure, customers should have access to wireless broadband.  This is one area where Australia noticeably trails the rest of the world.  The tariff structure for Internet traffic has led Australians to be unusually conservative with their bits, because there is a specific cost incurred for each bit sent or received.  While this means that ISPs should always have the funding to build out their networks to handle increases in capacity, it has also meant that users protect their networks from use in order to keep costs down.  This fundamental dilemma has subjected wireless broadband in Australia to a subtle strangulation.  We do not have the ubiquitous free wireless access that many other countries – in particular, the United States – have on offer, and this consequently alters our imagination of the possibilities for ubiquitous networking.

Tariffs are now low enough that customers ought to be encouraged to offer wireless networking to the broader public.  There are some security concerns that need to be addressed to make this safe for all parties, but these are easily dealt with.  There is no fundamental barrier to pervasive wireless broadband.  It does not compete with mobile data services.  Rather, as wireless broadband becomes more ubiquitous, people come to rely on continuous connectivity ever more.  Mobile data demand will grow in lockstep as more wireless broadband is offered.  Investment in wireless broadband is the best way to ensure that mobile data services continue to grow.

Mobile data services are best characterized principally by speed and availability.  Beyond a certain point – perhaps a megabit per second – speed is not an overwhelming lure on a mobile handset.  It’s nice but not necessary.  At that point, it’s much more about provisioning: how will my carrier handle peak hour in Flinders Street Station (or Central Station)?  Will my calls drop?  Will I be able to access my cloud-based calendar so that I can grab a map and a phone number to make dinner reservations?  If a customer finds themselves continually frustrated in these activities, one of two things will happen: either the mobile will go back into the pocket, more or less permanently, or the customer will change carriers.  Since the customer’s family, friends and business associates will not be putting their own mobiles back into their pockets, it is unlikely that any customer will do so for any length of time, irrespective of the quality of their mobile service.  If the carrier will not provision, the customers must go elsewhere.

Provisioning is expensive.  But it is also the only sure way to retain your customers.  A customer will put up with poor customer service if they know they have reliable service.  A customer will put up with a higher monthly spend if they have a service they know they can depend upon in all circumstances.  And a customer will quickly leave a carrier who can not be relied upon.  I’ve learned that lesson myself.  Expect it to be repeated, millions of times over, in the years to come, as carriers, regrettably and avoidably, find that their provisioning is inadequate to support their customers.

Wireless is wonderful, and we think of it as a maintenance-free technology, at least from the customer’s point of view.  Yet this is rarely so.  Last month I listened to a talk by Genevieve Bell, Intel Fellow and Lead Anthropologist at the chipmaker.  Her job is to spend time in the field – across Europe and the developing world – observing  how people really use technology when it escapes into the wild.  Several years ago she spent some time in Singapore, studying how pervasive wireless broadband works in the dense urban landscape of the city-state.  In any of Singapore’s apartment towers – which are everywhere – nearly everyone has access to very high speed wired broadband (perhaps 50 megabits per second) – which is then connected to a wireless router to distribute the broadband throughout the apartment.  But wireless is no great respecter of walls.  Even in my own flat in Surry Hills I can see nine wireless networks from my laptop, including my own.  In a Singapore tower block, the number is probably nearer to twenty or thirty.

Genevieve visited a family who had recently purchased a wireless printer.  They were dissatisfied with it, pronouncing it ‘possessed’.  What do you mean? she inquired.  Well, they explained, it doesn’t print what they tell it to print.  But it does print other things.  Things they never asked for.  The family called for a grandfather to come over and practice his arts of feng shui, hoping to rid the printer of its evil spirits.  The printer, now repositioned to a more auspicious spot, still misbehaved.  A few days later, a knock came on the door.  Outside stood a neighbor, a sheaf of paper in his hands, saying, “I believe these are yours…?”

The neighbor had also recently purchased a wireless printer, and it seems that these two printers had automatically registered themselves on each other’s networks.  Automatic configuration makes wireless networks a pleasure to use, but it also makes for botched configurations and flaky communication.  Most of this is so far outside the skill set of the average consumer that these problems will never be properly remedied.  The customer might make a support call, and maybe – just maybe the problem will be solved.  Or, the problem will persist, and the customer will simply give up.  Even with a support call, wireless networks are often so complex that the problem can’t be wholly solved.

As wireless networks grow more pervasive, Genevieve Bell recommends that providers offer a high-quality hand-holding and diagnostic service to their customers.  They need to offer a ‘tune up’ service that will travel to the customer once a year to make sure everything is running well.  Consumers need to be educated that wireless networks do not come for free.  Like anything else, they require maintenance, and the consumer should come to expect that it will cost them something, every year, to keep it all up and running.  In this, a wireless network is no different than a swimming pool or a lawn.  There is a future for this kind of service: if you don’t offer it, your competitors soon will.

Finally, let me close with what the world looks like when all of these services are working perfectly.  Lately, I’ve become a big fan of Foursquare, a ‘location-based social network’.  Using the GPS on my iPhone, Foursquare allows me to ‘check in’ when I go to a restaurant, a store, or almost anywhere else.  Once I’ve checked in, I can make a recommendation – a ‘tip’ in Foursquare lingo – or simply look through the tips provided by those who have been there before me.  This list of tips is quickly growing longer, more substantial, and more useful.  I can walk into a bar that I’ve never been to before and know exactly which cocktail I want to order.  I know which table at the restaurant offers the quietest corner for a romantic date.  I know which salesperson to talk to for a good deal on that mobile handset.  And so on.  I have immediate and continuous information in depth, and I put that information to work, right now, to make my life better.

The world of hyperconnectivity isn’t some hypothetical place we’ll never see.  We are living in it now.  The seeds of the future are planted in the present.  But the shape of the future is determined by our actions today.  It is possible to blunt and slow Australia’s progress into this world with bad decisions and bad services.  But it is also possible to thrust the nation into global leadership if we can embrace the inevitable trend toward hyperconnectivity, and harness it.  It has already transformed our lives.  It will transform our businesses, our schools, and our government.  You are the carriers of that change.  Your actions will bring this new world into being.