In the beginning, there is perfect Power, Power with a Thousand Faces: pharaoh, padishah, emperor, king, Lord Protector, Generalissimo, El Presidente. Power pure and uninterrupted. We have but to think the word and it is so. We are in a world apart, protected by G*d, by ritual, by blades and dumb muscle. Nothing enters save by Our permission, and then only when stripped naked, bound, and bowing. This is the perfect relation of perfect power: absolute and absolutely asymmetric.
While we have him questioned, Our leading economist relates a report, recently received, tying the wealth of nations to their connectivity. The people need no one else, he tells Me with his dying breath, but We need the money. He spoke the truth: We need the instruments of Power to reinforce Our reality, and these do not come cheaply. Our remaining advisers, chastened and respectful, suggest beginning with television – projecting Our Presence into the homes of Our people – and an auction (to Our most loyal friends) of radio spectrum suitable for mobile communication.
Our eyes, downcast, unable to look upon the Power except in its perfect portraits, had never seen the frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command that cameras captured, passions read and broadcast: a heart that mocked us, a hand always raised in reproach, as if we, ungrateful children, needed the constant admonition of the rod. This plain as nakedness: all the smooth words of newscasters, commentators, spokespeople and ministers could not remove that stain from Power. Each thought ourselves alone in this treason, and quickly burying it beneath other, safer thoughts.
Hidden truths undermine us in our humour, moments of lèse majesté, whispered giggles hidden behind our hands, scribbled graffiti above the pissoir, so shocking they made us gasp, and then, thereafter, we knew them as truth. Other lines joined them, more foul, funny, shocking and true, a vast fabric of written rebellion, expressions of everything we had always known. On the day the first text message arrives, with a joke that could get us killed, we delete it – though not before we forward it along to a few of our friends, who send it along, who send it along. Suddenly the secret insult is common knowledge.
Those who mock Us seek to destroy Us. Those loyal to Us scrub treasonous filth from walls and streets. We secure and question anyone nearby, their confessions Our entry points into a hidden nest of radicals, revolutionaries, and anarchists. These We monitor closely, tapping their mobiles, looking to whom they contact, building a map from these connections, tracing the outlines of their conspiracies. Our friends who own the telcos willingly hand over the information which spell out comings and goings of these traitors. In one sudden strike we take them, whole, to summary judgement. Treason troubles us no more.
They came in the night, roused us from sleep, and took him away. We never saw him again. Without a body, how could we mourn? How could we bury our grief? We could not speak of it, lest we ourselves disappear. Someone – we know not whom – set up a memorial on Facebook, inviting those who knew him to share themselves. We stayed away, but were told that one, then two, five, ten, fifteen, fifty, hundreds and finally uncountable thousands came to share; those who knew him, and those who only knew what he believed in. We were afraid, but content.
Those who love traitors are traitors themselves. We have no love for them, but We are thankful for their foolishness. Facebook reveals them to Us, and everyone they know. Treason breeds treason. Traitors hang together. We friend, and listen, and draw another map of another conspiracy until the picture, finely detailed, demands action. Another night of gathering, judgement and cleansing. This ends that. There are not even whispers against Us.
Internet dating – has there been a greater invention? Men and women who would not normally find one another can seek each other out in the privacy of their own homes. Here, this one is pretty. Such lovely green eyes. And what a lovely green jacket. And beautiful fingers, held up in such an attractive pose, count them: one, two. And the photo, taken in the Capitol Square? How interesting. I’ll tell all my friends that I have a date, a Green Date, in Capitol Square, on the 2nd. Yes. I’ll tell them all. They’ll want a date as well.
Inconceivable! They gather in My capitol, in My square, in their tens of thousands, to make demands. Impudence! They should thank the heavens for their homes and daily bread. Ingratitude! By what witchcraft have they come together? We tapped the phones, blocked the websites, and still they come, in their hundreds of thousands. Some advise it must all be unplugged – at once – but others tell Us we have grown too dependent on the network. Flip the switch, and We blind Ourselves, dragging Our loyal subjects into darkness, Our economy into ruin. But the storm must be stopped, the plug pulled.
It didn’t surprise us when the network failed: half amazed it took so long. We found ourselves thrown back into another time: before instantly, before everywhere, before all-at-once. But lessons learned lingered, taking on different forms: graffiti in hidden places, posters in public, chalk laid out on the sidewalk so anyone could add their own voice, so we could to move together, in unity. This grew into a code: jumbled letters and numbers in text messages and spray painted street signs, which told us where and when.
And still they keep coming, in their millions. How? Without eyes to see and ears to hear, how do they know? Our friends grow concerned, see Us sinking beneath this rising storm, but We apprehend the root of Our troubles, and will root it out. This all began when We foolishly permitted our people to connect. That must now stop, to preserve Us. Against the wishes of My friends – who will lose their fortunes so We might maintain control – We have mobile networks shut down, and wait for the inevitable collapse, as those against Us lose contact.
It took a few moments to realize that these handheld lifelines had become useless lumps of silicon and plastic. It seemed like silence had descended in the midst of the crowd. Then someone said, ‘Here, take this’, and gave me something that brought my mobile back to life, allowed it to connect with everyone else in the crowd, and to the world beyond. In lieu of thanks I was asked to pass it along, and did, with the same instruction, so it spread like wildfire. We could see around the tanks, around the police, around everything, moving faster, moving everywhere, moving NOW.
The guards join with us as we storm the palace.
We The People, in order to form a more perfect union, choose from amongst ourselves those fit to represent our franchise. The elections, free, fair and hard-fought, divide, inevitably, along a spectrum from left to right. But whatever ideology, no one argues the need to reframe power as governance, making a mystery of the obvious, placing it beyond reproach. Power – however dressed – draws those who lust for it, who benefit from the application of it, and this, too obvious, would ruin everything, igniting another Revolution. In secrecy and silence, safety.
You can only be told ‘No!’ so many times before the blood begins to boil and overflows into action. They’ll let us march in the streets now, but leave us impotent at the seats of government, demanding ‘process’ and ‘decorum’. How can we be polite as our future is stolen away? This shell of democracy – perfect in form but crowded with corruption – needs to be punctured, so the rot beneath the skin can be exposed and excised. Thankfully, someone with conscience – sick to death with the stench of power – comes forward with evidence enough to condemn everyone, bringing them down.
Madness! How can anything be stable when everything is exposed? How can we guide the nation into prosperity with saboteurs underfoot? Incredible. The government will go on, will nail down roof nearly shorn off by these ‘revelations’. We will ensure those who work for the government remain true to it: by oath and affirmation, surveillance and monitoring, force of law and pain of imprisonment. Only when guaranteed privacy can we work to preserve the continued security of the nation. It’s in these moments our democracy proves itself supple enough to meet the challenges of our times. We can all congratulate ourselves on a crisis successfully overcome.
They threw him in jail – of course – claiming espionage, charging treason, crying for his head. The message was clear, and silence descended, a curtain protecting them from us. Behind it, they grow deaf and arrogant, manufacturing a managed dissent, bringing their full power down upon on anything else. Still, a friend showed me something: a magic box. Anything placed into that box finds finds its way to magazine editors and newspaper reporters and bloggers and loudmouthed radicals, no questions asked, in perfect anonymity. That could prove irresistible.
If secrets they want, secrets they shall have, by the hundreds of thousands, a tsunami broken silences, signifying nothing. All of the effluvia and trivia of state, dressed up as meaning, each item seeming significant, demanding more attention than even a planet of mischief-makers, continuously clicking through pages, could possibly hope to digest. Let them chew on that as the government draws these paranoids closer, tantalizing them with the shadows of conspiracies, just beyond the horizons of reason, yet believable enough that they will inevitably overreach into folly. As they implode in a ruin of accusations and mistrust, the government will step in, bringing order to chaos, carrying on as before.
Do I know you? How do I know you? Who knows you that I know?
We have two choices before us: closely bound, connected at a thousand points of past and presence; or atomized, invisible, and ANONYMOUS. On one hand, the tribe; on the other, legion. The tribe is loyal, safe and steadfast, the legion strong, but mercurial and diffident. We can subvert from within, or pervert from without. In the right circumstances, we might even do both at once. We might not always get our way, but we can resist, redirect, repurpose, and sometimes win. Success is our greatest threat: the enemy learns, and nothing works twice.
Credentials, please. Access granted. You are now logged into the government. You will need to re-authorize your credentials every fifteen minutes to prevent unauthorized access. Today’s status report: sixty-five percent of systems are functioning normally; twenty percent are undergoing integrity checks, ten percent are under persistent attack, and five percent are compromised. As a security measure your access has been temporarily restricted. Please confine your activities to the indicated systems. WARNING: There has been an intrusion detection. All system access has been restricted until further notice. Thank you and have a nice day!
I ask for a password. It comes along a few hours later, buried in the back-end bits of a cute little image of a wet kitten. That’s a start, enough to log in. But what then, as the network watches my every move, measuring me against the real person behind this account? How should I behave? I whisper. Just above the throbbing dubstep soundtrack of this shooter, my fellow players feed me replies which could be actions within the gameworld – or something else entirely. I make my moves, as advised, and when I see WARNING: There has been an intrusion detection, I know we have won.
[ Please note that this essay uses some rough language.]
Introduction: The First Billion Seconds
In a few days time, it will be exactly thirty-two years – a bit more than a billion seconds – since I learned to code. I was lucky enough to attend a high school with its own DEC PDP 11/45, and lucky that it chose to offer computer science courses on a few VT-52 video terminals and a DECWriter attached to it. My first OS was RSTS/E, and my first programming language was – of course – BASIC.
A hundred million seconds before this, a friend dragged me over to a data center his dad managed, sat me down at a DECWriter, typed ‘startrek’ at the prompt, and it was all over. The damage had been done. From that day, all I’ve ever wanted to do is play with computers.
I’ve pretty much been able to keep to that.
Oddly, the only time I didn’t play with computers was at MIT. After MIT, when I began work as a software engineer, I got to play and get paid for it. I’ve written code for every major microprocessor family (with the exception of the 6502), all the common microcontrollers, and every OS from CP/M to Android. I’ve even written a batch-executed RPG II program, typed up on punched cards, exectuted on an IBM 370 mainframe.
At Christmas 1990, I sat down and read a novel published a few years before, by an up-and-coming science fiction writer. That novel – Neuromancer – changed my life. It gave me a vision that I would pursue for an entire decade: a three-dimensional, immersive, visualized Internet. Cyberspace. I dropped everything, moved myself to San Francisco – epicenter of all work in virtual reality – and founded a startup to design and market an inexpensive immersive videogaming console. It was hard work, frequently painful, and I managed to pour my life savings into the company before it went belly up. But I can’t say that any of the other VR companies faired any better. A few of them still exist, shadows of their former selves, selling specialty products into the industrial market.
These companies failed because each of them – my own among them – coveted the whole prize. With the eyes of a megalomaniac, each firm was going to ‘rule the world’. Each did lots of inventing, holding onto every scrap of invention with IP agreements and copyrights and all sorts of patents. I invented a technology very much similar to that seen in the Wiimote, but fourteen years before the Wiimote was introduced. It’s all patented. I don’t own it. After my company collapsed the patent went through a series of other owners, until eventually I found myself in a lawyer’s office, being deposed, because my patent – the one I didn’t actually own – was involved in a dispute over priority, theft of intellectual property, and other violations.
With the VR industry in ruins, I set about creating my own networked VR protocol, using a parser donated by my friend Tony Parisi, building upon work from a coder over in Switzerland, a bloke by the name of Tim Berners-Lee, who’d published reams and reams of (gulp) Objective-C code, preprocessed into ANSI C, implementing his new Hypertext Transport Protocol. I took his code, folded it into my own, and rapidly created a browser for three-dimensional scenes attached to Berners-Lee’s new-fangled World Wide Web.
This happened seventeen years ago this week. Half a billion seconds ago.
When I’d gotten my 3D browser up and running, I was faced with a choice: I could try to hold it tight, screaming ‘Mine! Mine! Mine!’ and struggle for attention, or I could promiscuously share my code with the world. Being the attention-seeking type that I am, the choice was easy. After Dave Raggett – the father of HTML – had christened my work ‘VRML’, I published the source code. A community began to form around the project. With some help from an eighteen year-old sysadmin at WIRED named Brian Behlendorf, I brought Silicon Graphics to the table, got them to open their own code, and we had a real specification to present at the 2nd International Conference on the World Wide Web. VRML was off and running, precisely because it was open to all, free to all, available to all.
It took about a billion seconds of living before I grokked the value of open source, the penny-drop moment I realized that a resource shared is a resource squared. I owe everything that came afterward – my careers as educator, author, and yes, panelist on The New Inventors – to that one insight. Ever since then, I’ve tried to give away nearly all of my work: ideas, articles, blog posts, audio and video recordings of my talks, slide decks, and, of course, lots of source code. The more I give away, the richer I become – not just or even necessarily financially. There are more metrics to wealth than cash in your bank account, and more ways than one to be rich. Just as there is more than one way to be good, and – oh yeah – more than one way to be evil.
Which brings us to my second penny-drop moment, which came after I’d been programming computers for almost a billion seconds…
I: ZOMFG 574LLm4N W45 r19H7!
Sometimes, the evil we do, we do to ourselves. For about half a billion seconds between the ages of nineteen and thirty nine, I smoked tobacco, until I realized that anyone who smokes past the age of forty is either a fool or very poorly informed. So I quit. It took five years and many, many, many boxes of nicotine chewing gum, but I’m clean.
A few years ago, Harvard researcher Dr. Nicholas Christakis published some interesting insights on how the behavior of smoking spreads. It’s not the advertising – that’s mostly banned, these days – but because we take cues from our peers. If our friends start smoking, we ourselves are more likely to start smoking. There’s a communicative relationship, almost an epidemiological relationship at work here. This behavior is being transmitted by mimesis – imitation. We’re the imitating primates, so good at imitating one another that we can master language and math and xkcd. When we see our friends smoking, we want to smoke. We want to fit in. We want to be cool. That’s what it feels like inside our minds, but really, we just want to imitate. We see something, and we want to do it. This explains Jackass.
Mimesis is not restricted to smoking. Christakis also studied obesity, and found that it showed the same ‘network’ effects. If you are surrounded by the obese people, chances are greater that you will be obese. If your peers starts slimming, chances are that you will join them in dieting. The boundaries of mimesis are broad: we can teach soldiers to kill by immersing them in an environment where everyone learns to kill; we can teach children to read by immersing them in an environment where everyone learns to read; we can stuff our faces with Maccas and watch approvingly as our friends do the same. We have learned to use mimesis to our advantage, but equally it makes us its slaves.
Recent research has shown something disturbing: divorce spreads via mimesis. If you divorce, its more likely that your friends will also split up. Conversely, if your friends separate, it’s more likely that your marriage will dissolve. Again, this makes sense – you’re observing the behavior of your peers and imitating it, but here it touches the heart, the core of our being.
Booting up into Homo Sapiens Sapiens meant the acquisition of a facility for mimesis as broadly flexible as the one we have for language. These may even be two views into the same cognitive process. We can imitate nearly anything, but what we choose to imitate is determined by our network of peers, that set of relationships which we now know as our ‘social graph’.
This is why one needs to choose one’s friends carefully. They are not just friends, they are epidemiological vectors. When they sneeze, you will catch a cold. They are puppet masters, pulling your strings, even if they are blissfully unaware of the power they have over you – or the power that you have over them.
All of this is interesting, but little of it has the shock of the new. Our mothers told us to exercise caution when selecting our friends. We all know people who got in with the ‘wrong crowd’, to see their lives ruined as a consequence. This is common knowledge, and common sense.
But things are different today. Not because the rules have changed – those seem to be eternal – but because we have extended ourselves so suddenly and so completely. Our very new digital ‘social networks’ recapitulate the ones between our ears, in one essential aspect – they become channels for communication, channels through which the messages of mimesis can spread. Viral videos – and ‘viral’ behavior in general – are good examples of this.
Digital social networks are instantaneous, ubiquitous and can be vastly larger than the hundred-and-fifty-or-so limit imposed on our endogenous social networks, the functional bandwidth of the human neocortex. Just as computers can execute algorithms tens of millions of times faster than we can, digital social networks can inflate to elephantine proportions, connecting us to thousands of others.
Most of us keep our social graphs much smaller; the average number of friends on any given user account on Facebook is around 35. That’s small enough that it resembles your endogenous social network, so the same qualities of mimesis come into play. When your connections start talking about a movie or a song or a television series, you’re more to become interested in it.
If this is all happening on Facebook – which it normally is – there is another member of your social graph, there whether you like it or not: Facebook itself. You choose to build your social graph by connecting to others within Facebook, store your social graph on Facebook’s servers, and communicate within Facebook’s environment. All of this has been neatly captured, providing an opening for Facebook to do what they will with your social graph.
You have friended Mark Zuckerberg, telling him everything about yourself that you have ever told to any of your friends. More, actually, because an analysis of your social graph reveals much about you that you might not want to ever reveal to anyone else: your sexual preference and fetishes, your social class, your income level – everything that you might choose to hide is entirely revealed because you need to reveal it in order to make Facebook work. Because you do not own it. Because you do not have access to the source code, or the databases. Because it is closed.
Your social graph is the most important thing you have that can be represented in bits. With it, I can manipulate you. I can change your tastes, your attitudes, even your politics. We now know this is possible – and probably even easy. But to do this, I need your social graph. I need you to surrender it to me before I can use it to fuck you over.
We didn’t understand any of this a quarter billion seconds ago, when Friendster went live. Now we have a very good idea of the potency of the social graph, but we find ourselves almost pathetically addicted to the amplified power of communication provided by Facebook. We want to quit it, but we just don’t know how. Just as with tobacco, going cold turkey won’t be easy.
On 28 May 2010, I killed my Facebook profile and signed off once and for all. There is a cost – I’m missing a lot of the information which exists solely within the walled boundaries of Facebook – but I also breathe a bit easier knowing that I am not quite the puppet I was. When someone asks why I quit – an explanation which has taken me over a thousand words this morning – they normally just close down the conversation with, “My grandmother is on Facebook. I have to be there.”
That may be our epitaph.
We are so fucked. We ended up here because we surrendered our most vital personal details to a closed-source system. We should have known better.
And that’s only the half of it.
So much has happened in the last eight weeks that we’ve almost forgotten that before all of this disaster and tragedy afflicted Queensland, we were obsessed with another sort of disaster, rolling out in slow-motion, like a car smash from inside the car. On 29 November 2010, Wikileaks, in conjunction with several well-respected newspapers, began to release the first few of a quarter million cables, written by US State Department officials throughout the world. The US Government did its best to laugh these off as inconsequential, but one has already led more-or-less directly to a revolution in Tunisia. We also know that Hilary Clinton has requested credit card numbers and DNA samples for all of the UN ambassadors in New York City, presumably so she can raise up a clone army of diplomats intent on identity theft. Not a good look.
In early December, as the first cables came to light, and their contents ricocheted through the mediasphere, the US government recognized that it had to act – and act quickly – to staunch the flow of leaks. The government had some help, because an individual seduced by the United States’ projection of power decided to mount a Distributed Denial of Service attack against the Wikileaks website. In the name of freedom. Or liberty. Or something.
Wikileaks went down, but quickly relocated its servers into Amazon.com’s EC2 cloud. This lasted until US Senator Joseph Lieberman started making noises. Wikileaks was quickly turfed out of EC2, with Amazon claiming newly discovered violations of its Terms of Service. Another ‘discovery’ of a violation followed in fairly short order with Wikileaks’ DNS provider, everyDNS. For the coup de gras, PayPal had a look at their own terms of service – and, quelle horreur! – found Wikileaks in violation, freezing Wikileaks accounts, which, at that time, must have been fairly overflowing with contributions.
Deprive them of servers, deprive them of name service, deprive them of funds: checkmate. The Powers That Be must have thought this could dent the forward progress of Wikileaks. In fact, it only caused the number of copies of the website and associated databases to multiply. Today, nearly two thousand webservers host mirrors of Wikileaks. Like striking at a dandelion, attacking it only causes the seed to spread with the winds.
Although Wikileaks successfully resumed its work releasing the cables, the entire incident proved one ugly, mean, nasty point: the Internet is fundamentally not free. Where we thought we breathed the pure air of free speech and free thought, we instead find ourselves severely caged. If we do something that upsets our masters too much, they bring the bars down upon us, leaving us no breathing room at all. That isn’t liberty. That is slavery.
This isn’t some hypothetical. This isn’t a paranoid fantasy. This is what is happening. It will happen again, and again, and again, whenever the State or forces in collusion with the State find themselves threatened. None of it is secure. None of it belongs to us. None of it is free.
This is why we are so truly and wholly fucked. This is why we must stop and rethink everything we are doing. This is why we must consider ourselves victims of another kind of disaster, another tragedy, and must equally and bravely confront another kind of rebuilding. Because if we do not create something new, if we do not restore what is broken, we surrender to the forces of control.
I will not surrender. I will not serve.
II: Life During Wartime (with A Design Guide for Anarchists)
Like it or not, we find ourselves at war. It’s not a war we asked for. It’s not a war we wanted. But war is upon us, the last great gasp of the forces of control as they realize that when they digitized, in pursuit of greater efficiency, profit, or extensions of their own power, whatever they once held onto became so fluid it now drains away completely.
That’s one enemy, the old enemy, the ones whom history has already ruled irrelevant. But there’s the other enemy, who seeks to exteriorize the interior, to make privacy difficult and therefore irrelevant. Without privacy there is no liberty. Without privacy there is no individuality. Without privacy there is only the mindless, endless buzzing of the hive. That’s the new enemy. Although it announces itself with all of the hyperbole of historical inevitability, this is just PR aimed at extending the monopoly power of these forces.
We need weapons. Lots of weapons. I’m not talking about the Low Orbit Ion Cannon. Rather, I’m recommending a layered defensive strategy, one which allows us to carry on with our business, blithely unmolested by the forces which seek to constrain us.
Here, then, is my ‘Design Guide for Anarchists’:
Design Principle One: Distribute Everything
The recording industry used the courts to shut down Napster because they could. Napster had a single throat they could get their legal arms around, choking the life out of it. In a display of natural selection that would have brought a tear to Alfred Russel Wallace’s eye, the selection pressure applied by the recording industry only led to the creation of Gnutella, which, through its inherently distributed architecture, became essentially impossible to eradicate. The Day of the Darknet had begun.
Break everything up. Break it all down. When you have these components, make them all independent. Replicate them widely. Allow them to talk to one another. Allow them to search one another, share with one another, so that together they will create a whole greater than a simple sum of parts. Then you will never be rid of them, because if one part should be cut down, there will be two others to take its place.
This is an extension of the essential UNIX idea of simple programs which can be piped together to do useful things. ‘Small pieces, loosely joined.’ But these pieces shouldn’t live within a single process, a single processor, a single computer, or a single subnet. They must live everywhere they can live, in every compatible environment, so that they can survive any of the catastrophes of war.
Design Principle Two: Transport Independence
The inundation of Brisbane and its surrounding suburbs brought a sudden death to all of its networks: mobile, wired, optic. All of these networks are centralized, and for that reason they can all be turned off – either by a natural disaster, or at the whim of The Powers That Be. Just as significantly, they require the intervention of those Powers to reboot them: government and telcos had to work hand-in-hand to bring mobile service back to the worst-affected suburbs. So long as you are in the good graces of the government, it can be remarkably efficient. But if you find yourself aligned against your government, or your government is afflicted with corruption, as simple a thing as a dial tone can be almost impossible to manifest.
We have created a centralized communications infrastructure. Lines feed into trunks, which feed into central offices, which feed into backbones. This seems the natural order of things, but it is entirely an echo of the commercial requirements of these networks. In order to bill you, your communications must pass through a point where they can be measured, metered and tariffed.
There is another way. Years before the Internet came along, we used UUCP and FidoNet to spread mail and news posts throughout a far-flung, only occasionally connected global network of users. It was slower than we’re used to these days, but no less reliable. Messages would forward from host to host, until they reached their intended destination. It all worked if you had a phone line, or an Internet connection, or, well, pretty much anything else. I presume that a few hardy souls printed out a UUCP transmission on paper tape, physically carried it from one host to another, and fed it through.
A hierarchy is efficient, but the price of that efficiency is vulnerability. A rhizomatic arrangement of nodes within a mesh is slow, but very nearly invulnerable. It will survive flood, fire, earthquake and revolution. To abolish these dangerous hierarchies, we must reconsider everything we believe about ‘the right way’ to get bits from point A to point B. Every transport must be considered – from point-to-point laser beams to wide-area mesh networks using unlicensed spectrum down to semaphore and smoke signals. Nothing is too slow, only too unreliable. If we rely on TCP/IP and HTTP exclusively, we risk everything for the sake of some speed and convenience. But this is life during wartime, and we must shoulder this burden.
Design Principle Three: Secure Everything
Why would any message traverse a public network in plaintext? The bulk of our communication occurs in the wide open – between Web browsers and Web servers, email servers and clients, sensors and their recorders. This is insanity. It is not our job to make things easy to read for ASIO or the National Security Agency or Google or Facebook or anyone else who has some need to know what we’re saying and what we’re thinking.
As a baseline, everything we do, everywhere, must be transmitted with strong encryption. Until someone perfects a quantum computer, that’s our only line of defense.
We need a security approach that is more comprehensive than this. The migration to cloud computing – driven by its ubiquity and convenience, and baked into Google’s Chrome OS – deprives us of any ability to secure our own information. When we use Gmail or Flickr or Windows Live or MobileMe or even Dropbox (which is better than most, as it stores everything encrypted), we surrender our security for a little bit of simplicity. This is a false trade-off. These systems are insecure because it benefits those who offer these systems to the public. There is value in all of that data, so everything is exposed, leaving us exposed.
If you do not know where it lives, if you do not hold the keys to lock it or release it, if it affects to be more pretty than useful (because locks are ugly), turn your back on it, and tell the ones you love – who do not know what you know – to do the same. Then, go and build systems which are secure, which present nothing but a lock to any prying eyes.
Design Principle Four: Open Everything
I don’t need to offer any detailed explanation for this last point: it is the reason we are here. If you can’t examine the source code, how can you really trust it? This is an issue beyond maintainability, beyond the right to fork; this is the essential element that will prevent paranoia. ‘Transparency is the new objectivity’, and unless any particular program is completely transparent, it is inherently suspect.
Open source has the additional benefit that it can be reused and repurposed; the parts for one defensive weapon can rapidly be adapted to another one, so open source accelerates the responses to new threats, allowing us to stay one step ahead of the forces who are attempting to close all of this down. There’s a certain irony here: in order to compete effectively with us, those who oppose us will be forced to open their own source, to accelerate their own responses to our responses. On this point we must win, simply because open source improves selection fitness.
When all four of these design principles are embodied in a work, another design principle emerges: resilience. Something that is distributed, transport independent, secure and open is very, very difficult to subvert, shut down, or block. It will survive all sorts of disasters. Including warfare. It will adapt at lightning speed. It makes the most of every possible selection advantage. But nothing is perfect. Systems engineered to these design principles will be slower than those built purely for efficiency. The more immediacy you need, the less resilience you get. Sometimes immediacy will overrule other design principles. Such trade-offs must be carefully thought through.
Is all of this more work? Yes. But then, building an automobile that won’t kill its occupants at speed is a lot more work than slapping four wheels and a gear train on a paper mache box. We do that work because we don’t want our loved ones hurtling toward their deaths every time they climb behind the wheel. Freedom ain’t free, and ‘extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.’
Let me take a few minutes to walk you through the design of my own open-source project, so you can see how these design principles have influenced my own work.
When I announced I would quit Facebook, many of my contacts held what can only be described as an ‘electronic wake’ for me, in the middle of my Facebook comment stream. As if I were about to pass away, and they’d never see me again. I kept pointing them to my Posterous blog, but they simply ignored the links, telling me how much I’d be missed once I departed. ‘But why can’t you just come visit me on Posterous?’ I asked. One contact answered for the lot when he said, ‘That’s too hard, Mark. With Facebook I can check on everyone at once. I don’t need to go over there for you, and over here for someone else, and so on and so on. Facebook makes it easy.’
That’s another epitaph. Yet it precipitated a penny-drop moment. The reason Facebook has such lock-in with its users is because of a network effect: as more people join Facebook, its utility value as a human switchboard increases. It is this access to the social graph which is Facebook’s ‘flypaper’, the reason it is so sticky, and surpassing Google as the most visited site on the Internet.
That social graph is the key thing; it’s what the address book, the rolodex and the contacts database have morphed into, and it forms the foundation for a project that I have named Plexus. Plexus is a protocol for the social web, ‘plumbing’ that allows all social web components to communicate: from each, according to their ability, to each, according to their need. Some components of the social web – Facebook comes to mind – are very poor communicators. Others, like Twitter, have provided every conceivable service to make them easy to talk to.
Plexus provides a ‘meta-API’, based on RFC2822 messaging, so that each service can feed into or be fed by an individual’s social graph. This social graph, the heart of Plexus, is what we might call the ‘Web2.0 address book’. It’s not simply a static set of names, addresses, telephone numbers and emails, but, rather, an active set of connections between services, which you can choose to listen to, or to share with. This is the switchboard, where the real magic takes place, allowing you listen to or be listened to, allowing you to share, or be shared with.
Plexus is agnostic; it can talk to any service, and any service can talk to it. It is designed to ‘wire everything together’, so that we never have to worry about going hither and yon to manage our social graph, but neither need we be chained in one place. Plexus gives us as much flexibility as we require. That’s the vision.
Just after New Year, I had an insight. I had originally envisioned Plexus as a monolithic set of Python modules. It became clear that message-passing between the components – using an RFC2822 protocol – would allow me to separate the components, creating a distributed Plexus, parts of which could run anywhere: on a separate process, on a separate subnet, or, really, anywhere. Furthermore, these messages could easily be encrypted and signed using RSA encryption, creating a strong layer of security. Finally, these messages could be transmitted by any means necessary: TCP/IP, UUCP, even smoke signals. And of course, all of it is entirely open. Because it’s a protocol, the pieces of Plexus can be coded in any language anyone wants to use: Python, Node.js, PHP, Perl, Haskell, Ruby, Java, even shell. Plexus is an agreement to speak the same language about the things we want to share.
I could go into mind-numbing detail about the internals of Plexus, but I trust those of you who find Plexus intriguing will find me after I leave the stage this morning. I’m most interested in what you know that could help move this project forward: what pieces already exist that I can rework and adapt for Plexus? I need your vast knowledge, your insights and your critiques. Plexus is still coming to life, but a hundred things must go right for it to be a success. With your aid, that can happen.
Plexus is a white ant set to the imposing foundations of Facebook and every other service which chooses to take the easy path, walling its users in, the better to control them. There is another way. When the network outside the walls has a utility value greater than the network within, the forces of natural selection come into play, and those walls quickly tumble. We saw it with AOL. We saw it with MSN. We’ll see it again with Facebook. We will build the small and loosely-coupled components that individually do very little but altogether add up to something far more useful than anything on offer from any monopolist.
We need to see this happen. This is not just a game.
Conclusion: The Next Billion Seconds
A billion seconds ago, Linux did not exist. The personal computer was an expensive toy. The Internet – well, one of my friends is the sysadmin who got HP onto UUCP – this was before the Internet became pervasive – and he remembers updating his /etc/hosts file weekly – by hand. Every machine on the Internet could be found within a single file, that could be printed out on two sheets of greenbar. A billion seconds later, and we’re a few days away from IPocalypse, the total allocation of the IPv4 number space.
Something is going on.
I’m not as teleological as Kevin Kelly. I do not believe that there is evidence to support a seventh class of life – the technium – which is striving to come into its own. I don’t consider technology as something in any way separate from us. Other animals may use tools, but we have gone further, becoming synonymous with them. Our social instinct for imitation, our language instinct for communication, and our technological instinct for tool using all seem to be reaching new heights. Each instinct reinforces the others, creating a series of rising feedbacks that has only one possible end: the whole system overloads, overflows all its buffers, and – as you might expect – knocks the supervisor out of the box.
The epicenter of this transition, where all three streams collide, sits in the palm of our hands, nearly all the time. The mobile is the most pervasive technology in human history. People who do not have electricity or indoor plumbing or literacy or agriculture have mobiles. Perhaps five and a half billion of the planet’s seven billion souls possesses one; that’s everyone who earns more than one dollars a day. Countless studies shows that individuals with mobiles improve their economic fitness: they earn more money. Anything that improves selection fitness – and economic fitness is a big part of that – spreads rapidly, as humans imitate, as humans communicate, as humans take the tool and further it, increasing its utility, amplifying its ability to amplify economic fitness. The mobile becomes even more useful, more essential, more indispensable. A billion seconds ago, no one owned a mobile. Today, nearly everyone does.
Hundreds of billions of dollars are being invested to make the mobile more useful, more pervasive, and more effective. The engines of capital are reorganizing themselves around it, just as they did, three billion seconds ago, for the automobile, and a billion seconds ago for the integrated circuit. But unlike the automobile or the IC, the mobile is quintessentially a social technology, a connective fabric for humanity. The next billion seconds will see this fabric become more tangible and more tightly woven, as it becomes increasingly inconceivable to separate ourselves from those we choose to share our lives with.
Call this a Hive Mind, if you like. I simply refer to it as the next billion seconds.
This is starting to push beneath our skins the way it has already colonized our attention. I don’t know that we will literally ‘Borg’ ourselves. But the strict boundaries between ourselves, our machines, and other humans are becoming blurred to the point of meaninglessness. Organisms are defined by their boundaries, by what they admit and what they refuse. In this billion seconds, we are rewriting the definition of homo sapiens sapiens, irrevocably becoming something else.
Do we own that code? Are parts of that new definition closed off from us, fenced in by the ramparts of privilege or power or capital or law? Will we end up with something foreign inside each of us, a potency unnamed, unobserved, and unavoidable? Will we be invaded, infected, and controlled? This is the choice that confronts us in the next billion seconds, a choice made even in its abrogation. Freedom is not just an ideal. Liberty is not some utopian dream. These must form the baseline human experience in our next billion seconds, or all is lost. We ourselves will be lost.
We have reached the decision point. Our actions today – here, in this room – define the future we will inhabit, the transhumanity we are emerging into. We’ve had our playtime, and it’s been good. We’ve learned a lot, but mostly we’ve learned how to discern right from wrong. We know what to do: what to build up, and what to tear down. This transition is painful and bloody and carries with it the danger of complete loss. But we have no choice. We are too far down within it to change our ways now. ‘The way down is the way up.’
Call it a birth, if you like. It awaits us within the next billion seconds.
For the past three hundred years, the relationship between the press and the state has been straightforward: the press tries to publish, the state uses its various mechanisms to thwart those efforts. This has produced a cat-and-mouse steady-state, a balance where selection pressures kept the press tamed and the state – in many circumstances – somewhat accountable to the governed. There are, as always, exceptions.
In the last few months, the press has become hyperconnected, using that hyperconnectivity to pierce the veil of secrecy which surrounds the state; using the means available to it to hyperdistribute those secrets. The press has become hyperempowered, an actor unlike anything ever experienced before.
Wikileaks is the press, but not the press as we have known it. This is the press of the 21st century, the press that comes after we’re all connected. Suddenly, all of the friendliest computers have become the deadliest weapons, and we are fenced in, encircled by threats – which are also opportunities.
This threat is two sided, Janus-faced. The state finds its ability to maintain the smooth functioning of power short-circuited by the exposure of its secrets. That is a fundamental, existential threat. In the same moment, the press recognizes that its ability to act has been constrained at every point: servers get shut down, domain names fail to resolve, bank accounts freeze. These are the new selection pressures on both sides, a sudden quickening of culture’s two-step. And, of course, it does not end there.
The state has now realized the full cost of digitization, the price of bits. Just as the recording industry learned a decade ago, it will now have to function within an ecology which – like it or not – has an absolutely fluid quality. Information flow is corrosive to institutions, whether that’s a record label or a state ministry. To function in a hyperconnected world, states must hyperconnect, but every point of connection becomes a gap through which the state’s power leaks away.
Meanwhile, the press has come up against the ugly reality of its own vulnerability. It finds itself situated within an entirely commercial ecology, all the way down to the wires used to carry its signals. If there’s anything the last week has taught us, it’s that the ability of the press to act must never be contingent upon the power of the state, or any organization dependent upon the good graces of the state.
Both sides are trapped, each with a knife to the other’s throat. Is there a way to back down from this DEFCON 1-like threat level? The new press can not be wished out of existence. Even if the Internet disappeared tomorrow, what we have already learned about how to communicate with one another will never be forgotten. It’s that shared social learning – hypermimesis – which presents the continued existential threat to the state. The state is now furiously trying to develop a response in kind, with a growing awareness that any response which extends its own connectivity must necessarily drain it of power.
There is already a movement underway within the state to shut down the holes, close the gaps, and carry on as before. But to the degree the state disconnects, it drifts away from synchronization with the real. The only tenable possibility is a ‘forward escape’, an embrace of that which seems destined to destroy it. This new form of state power – ‘hyperdemocracy’ – will be diffuse, decentralized, and ubiquitous: darknet as a model for governance.
In the interregnum, the press must reinvent its technological base as comprehensively as Gutenberg or Berners-Lee. Just as the legal strangulation of Napster laid the groundwork for Gnutella, every point of failure revealed in the state attack against Wikileaks creates a blueprint for the press which can succeed where it failed. We need networks that lie outside of and perhaps even in opposition to commercial interest, beyond the reach of the state. We need resilient Internet services which can not be arbitrarily revoked. We need a transaction system that is invisible, instantaneous and convertible upon demand. Our freedom madates it.
Some will argue that these represent the perfect toolkit for terrorism, for lawlessness and anarchy. Some are willing to sacrifice liberty for security, ending with neither. Although nostalgic and tempting, this argument will not hold against the tenor of these times. These systems will be invented and hyperdistributed even if the state attempts to enforce a tighter grip over its networks. Julian Assange, the most famous man in the world, has become the poster boy, the Che for a networked generation. Script kiddies everywhere now have a role model. Like it or not, they will create these systems, they will share what they’ve learned, they will build the apparatus that makes the state as we have known it increasingly ineffectual and irrelevant. Nothing can be done about that. This has already happened.
We face a choice. This is the fork, in both the old and new senses of the word. The culture we grew up with has suddenly shown its age, its incapacity, its inflexibility. That’s scary, because there is nothing yet to replace it. That job is left to us. We can see what has broken, and how it should be fixed. We can build new systems of human relations which depend not on secrecy but on connectivity. We can share knowledge to develop the blueprint for our hyperconnected, hyperempowered future. A week ago such an act would have been bootless utopianism. Now it’s just facing facts.
With every day, with every passing hour, the power of the state mobilizes against Wikileaks and Julian Assange, its titular leader. The inner processes of statecraft have never been so completely exposed as they have been in the last week. The nation state has been revealed as some sort of long-running and unintentionally comic soap opera. She doesn’t like him; he doesn’t like them; they don’t like any of us! Oh, and she’s been scouting around for DNA samples and your credit card number. You know, just in case.
None of it is very pretty, all of it is embarrassing, and the embarrassment extends well beyond the state actors – who are, after all, paid to lie and dissemble, this being one of the primary functions of any government – to the complicit and compliant news media, think tanks and all the other camp followers deeply invested in the preservation of the status quo. Formerly quiet seas are now roiling, while everyone with any authority everywhere is doing everything they can to close the gaps in the smooth functioning of power. They want all of this to disappear and be forgotten. For things to be as if Wikileaks never was.
Meanwhile, the diplomatic cables slowly dribble out, a feed that makes last year’s MP expenses scandal in the UK seem like amateur theatre, an unpracticed warm-up before the main event. Even the Afghan and Iraq war logs, released by Wikileaks earlier this year, didn’t hold this kind of fascination. Nor did they attract this kind of upset. Every politican everywhere – from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Vladimir Putin to Julia Gillard has felt compelled to express their strong and almost visceral anger. But to what? Only some diplomatic gossip.
Has Earth become a sort of amplified Facebook, where an in-crowd of Heathers, horrified, suddenly finds its bitchy secrets posted on a public forum? Is that what we’ve been reduced to? Or is that what we’ve been like all along? That could be the source of the anger. We now know that power politics and statecraft reduce to a few pithy lines referring to how much Berlusconi sleeps in the company of nubile young women and speculations about whether Medvedev really enjoys wearing the Robin costume.
It’s this triviality which has angered those in power. The mythology of power – that leaders are somehow more substantial, their concerns more elevated and lofty than us mere mortals, who must not question their motives – that mythology has been definitively busted. This is the final terminus of aristocracy; a process that began on 14 July 1789 came to a conclusive end on 28 November 2010. The new aristocracies of democracy have been smashed, trundled off to the guillotine of the Internet, and beheaded.
Of course, the state isn’t going to take its own destruction lying down. Nothing is ever that simple. And so, over the last week we’ve been able to watch the systematic dismantling of Wikileaks. First came the condemnation, then, hot on the heels of the shouts of ‘off with his head!’ for ‘traitor’ Julian Assange, came the technical attacks, each one designed to amputate one part of the body of the organization.
First up, that old favorite, the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, which involves harnessing tens of thousands of hacked PCs (perhaps yours, or your mom’s, or your daughter’s) to broadcast tens of millions of faux requests for information to Wikileaks’ computers. This did manage to bring Wikileaks to its knees (surprising for an organization believed to be rather paranoid about security), so Wikileaks moved to a backup server, purchasing computing resources from Amazon, which runs a ‘cloud’ of hundreds of thousands of computers available for rent. Amazon, paranoid about customer reliability, easily fended off the DDoS attacks, but came under another kind of pressure. US Senator Joe Lieberman told Amazon to cut Wikileaks off, and within a few hours Amazon had suddenly realized that Wikileaks violated their Terms of Service, kicking them off Amazon’s systems.
You know what Terms of Service are? They are the too-long agreements you always accept and click through on a Website, or when you install some software, etc. In the fine print of that agreement any service provider will always be able to find some reason, somewhere, for terminating the service, charging you a fee, or – well, pretty much whatever they like. It’s the legal cudgel that companies use to have their way with you. Do you reckon that every other Amazon customer complies with its Terms of Service? If you do, I have a bridge you might be interested in.
At that point, Assange & Co. could have moved the server anywhere willing to host them – and Switzerland had offered. But the company that hosts Wikileaks’ DNS record – everyDNS.com – suddenly realized that Wikileaks was in violation of its terms of service, and it too, cut Wikileaks off. This was a more serious blow. DNS, or Domain Name Service, is the magic that translates a domain name like markpesce.com or nytimes.com into a number that represents a particular computer on the Internet. Without someone handling that translation, no one could find wikileaks.org. You would be able to type the name into your web browser, but that’s as far as you’d get.
So Wikileaks.org went down, but Wikileaks.ch (the Swiss version) came online moments later, and now there are hundreds of other sites which are all mirroring the content on the original Wikileaks site. It’s a little bit harder to find Wikileaks now – but not terrifically difficult. Score one for Assange, who – if the news media are to be believed – is just about to be taken into custody by the UK police, serving a Swedish arrest warrant.
Finally, just a few hours ago, the masterstroke. Wikileaks is financed by contributions made by individuals and organizations. (Disclosure: I’m almost certain I donated $50 to Wikileaks in 2008.) These contributions have been handled (principally) by the now-ubiquitous PayPal, the financial services arm of Internet auction giant eBay. Once again, the fine folks at PayPal had a look at their Terms of Service (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) and – oh, look! those bad awful folks at Wikileaks are in violation of our terms! Let’s cut them off from their money!
Wikileaks has undoubtedly received a lot of contributions over the last few days. As PayPal never turns funds over immediately, there’s an implication that PayPal is holding onto a considerable sum of Wikileaks’ donations, while that shutdown makes it much more difficult to to ‘pass the hat’ and collect additional funds to keep the operation running. Checkmate.
A few months ago I wrote about how confused I was by Julian Assange’s actions. Why would anyone taking on the state so directly become such a public figure? It made no sense to me. Now I see the plan. And it’s awesome.
You see, this is the first time anything like Wikileaks has been attempted. Yes, there have been leaks prior to this, but never before have hyperdistribution and cryptoanarchism come to the service of the whistleblower. This is a new thing, and as well thought out as Wikileaks might be, it isn’t perfect. How could it be? It’s untried, and untested. Or was. Now that contact with the enemy has been made – the state with all its powers – it has become clear where Wikileaks has been found wanting. Wikileaks needs a distributed network of servers that are too broad and too diffuse to be attacked. Wikileaks needs an alternative to the Domain Name Service. And Wikileaks needs a funding mechanism which can not be choked off by the actions of any other actor.
We’ve been here before. This is 1999, the company is Napster, and the angry party is the recording industry. It took them a while to strangle the beast, but they did finally manage to choke all the life out of it – for all the good it did them. Within days after the death of Napster, Gnutella came around, and righted all the wrongs of Napster: decentralized where Napster was centralized; pervasive and increasingly invisible. Gnutella created the ‘darknet’ for filesharing which has permanently crippled the recording and film industries. The failure of Napster was the blueprint for Gnutella.
In exactly the same way – note for note – the failures of Wikileaks provide the blueprint for the systems which will follow it, and which will permanently leave the state and its actors neutered. Assange must know this – a teenage hacker would understand the lesson of Napster. Assange knows that someone had to get out in front and fail, before others could come along and succeed. We’re learning now, and to learn means to try and fail and try again.
This failure comes with a high cost. It’s likely that the Americans will eventually get their hands on Assange – a compliant Australian government has already made it clear that it will do nothing to thwart or even slow that request – and he’ll be charged with espionage, likely convicted, and sent to a US Federal Prison for many, many years. Assange gets to be the scapegoat, the pinup boy for a new kind of anarchism. But what he’s done can not be undone; this tear in the body politic will never truly heal.
Everything is different now. Everything feels more authentic. We can choose to embrace this authenticity, and use it to construct a new system of relations, one which does not rely on secrets and lies. A week ago that would have sounded utopian, now it’s just facing facts. I’m hopeful. For the first time in my life I see the possibility for change on a scale beyond the personal. Assange has brought out the radical hiding inside me, the one always afraid to show his face. I think I’m not alone.
I: My Cloud
This is the age of networks, and we are always connected. If that seems fanciful, ask yourself how often you are parted from your mobile, and for how long? All of our hours – even as we sleep – the mobile is within arm’s reach for almost all of us. A few months ago a woman asked me when we might expect to have implants, to close the loop, and make the connection permanent. “We’re already there,” I responded. “It’s wedded to the palm of your hand.” In a purely functional sense this is the truth, and it has been the case for several years.
Connection to the network is neither an instantaneous nor absolute affair. It takes time to establish the protocols for communication. We understand many of these protocols without explanation: we do not telephone someone at three o’clock in the morning unless vitally important. Three o’clock in the afternoon, however, is open season. Lately, there are newer, technologically driven protocols: I can look at a caller’s number, and decide whether I want to take that call or direct it to voice mail. The caller has no idea I’ve made any decision. From their point of view, it’s simply a missed call. Similarly, I have friends I can not text before 10 AM unless it’s quite urgent, and I ask my friends not to text me after 10 PM for the same reason. We set our boundaries with technology, boundaries which determine how we connect. We can choose to be entirely connected, or entirely disconnected. We can let the batteries run flat on our mobile, or simply turn it off and put it away. But there’s a price to be paid. Absence from connection incurs a cost. To be disconnected is to cede your ability to participate in the flow of affairs. Thus, the modern condition is a dilemma, where we balance the demands of our connectedness against the desire to be free from its constraints.
Connectedness is not simply a set of pressures; it is equally a range of capabilities. As our connectedness grows, so our capabilities grow in lock-step. What we could achieve with the landline was immeasurably beyond what was possible with the post, yet doesn’t compare with what we can do with email, mobile voice, SMS, or, now, any of a hundred thousand different sorts of activities, from banking to dating to ordering up a taxi. The device has become a platform, a social nexus, the point where we find ourselves attached to the universe of others. Consider the address book that lives on your mobile. Mine has about 816 entries. Those are all connections that were made at some point in my life. (Admittedly, I haven’t been weeding them out as vigorously as I should, so some of those contact are duplicates or no longer accurate.) That’s just what’s on my mobile. If I go out to Twitter, I have rather more connections in my ‘social graph’ – about 6700. These connections aren’t quiescent, waiting to be dialed, but are constantly listening in to what I have to say, just as I am constantly listening to them.
No one can give their full-time attention to that sort of cacophony of human voices. Some are paid more attention, others, rather less. Sometimes there’s no spare attention to be given to any of these voices, and what they say is lost to me. Yet, on the whole, I can maintain some form of continuous partial attention with this ‘cloud’ of others. They are always with me, and I with them. This is a new thing (I view myself as a sort of guinea pig in a lab experiment) and it has produced some rather unexpected results.
At the end of last year I went on a long road trip with a friend from the US. On our first day, we struck out from Sydney and drove to Canberra, arriving, tired and hungry at quarter to six. Where do you eat dinner in a town that closes down at 5 pm? I went online and put the question out to Twitter, then ducked into the shower. By the time I’d dried off, I had a whole suite of responses from native Canberrans, several of whom pointed me to the Civic Asian Noodle House. Thirty minutes later, my American friend was enjoying his first bowl of seafood laksa – which was among the best I’ve had in Australia.
A few days later, at the end of the road trip, when we’d reached the Barossa Valley, I put another question out to Twitter: what wineries should we visit? The top five recommendations were very good indeed. Each of these ‘cloud moments’, by themselves, seems relatively trivial. Both together begin to mark the difference between an ordinary holiday and a most excellent one.
Another case in point: two weeks ago today, my washing machine gave up the ghost. What to replace it with? I asked Twitter. Within a few hours, and some back-and-forth, I decided upon a Bosch. Some of that was based on direct input from Bosch owners, some of that came from a CHOICE survey of washing machine owners. I was pointed to that survey by someone on Twitter.
As I experiment, and learn how to query my cloud, I have sbecome more dependent upon the good advice it can provide. My cloud extends my reach, my experience and my intelligence, making me much more effective as some sort of weird ‘colony individual’ than I could be on my own. I have no doubt that within a few years, as the tools improve, nearly every decision I make will be observed and improved upon by my cloud. Which is wonderful, incredible, and – to quote Tony Abbott – very confronting.
Let me turn things around a bit, to show another side of the cloud, specifically the cloud of my good friend Kate Carruthers. Last year Kate found herself in Far North Queensland on a business trip and discovered that her American Express card credit limit had summarily been cut in half – with no advance warning – leaving her far away from home and potentially caught in a jam. When she called American Express to make an inquiry – and found that their consumer credit division closed at 5 pm on a Friday evening – she lost her temper. The 7500 people who follow Kate on Twitter heard a solid rant about the evils of American Express, a rant that they will now remember every time they find an American Express invitation letter in the post, or even when they decide which credit card to select while making a purchase.
Hollywood has been forced to take note of the power of these clouds. There’s a direct correlation between the speed at which a motion picture bombs and the rise in the number of users of Twitter. It used to take a few days for word-of-mouth to kill a movie’s box office: now it takes a few minutes. As the first showing ends, friends text friends, people post to Twitter and Facebook, and the news spreads. After the second or third showing, the crowds have dropped off: word has gotten out that the film stinks. Where just a few years ago a film could coast for an entire weekend, now the Friday matinee has become a make-or-break affair. An opinion, multiplied by hundreds or thousands of connections, carries a lot of weight.
That amplification effect has been particularly visible to me over the last week. I’ve been participating in a ‘social review program’ sponsored by Telstra, who sought reviewers for the handset du jour, the HTC Desire. I received a free handset – worth about $800 – in exchange for a promise to do a thorough, but honest review. This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, and when I started to post my thoughts to Twitter, I immediately got a big pushback. Some of my cloud considered it an unacceptable commercialization of a space they consider essentially private and personal. I spruik The New Inventors on Twitter every Wednesday. That’s just as commercial, but Telstra is held out for particular contempt by a broad swath of the Australian public, so any association with them carries it own opprobrium. I’ve come to realize that I’ve tarred myself with the same brush that others use for Telstra. Although I did this accidentally and innocently, some of that tar will continue to stick to me. I have suffered the worst fate that can befall anyone who lives life with a cloud: reputational damage. Some people have made it perfectly clear that they will never again regard me with the same benevolence. That damage is done. All I can do is learn from it, and work to not repeat the same mistakes.
This marked the first time that I’d been ‘chastised’ by my cloud. I’ve always operated within the bounds of propriety – the protocols of civilized behavior – but in this case I found I’d stumbled into a minefield, a danger zone filled with obstacles that I’d created for myself by presenting myself not just as Mark Pesce, but as Telstra. I’ve learned new limits, new protocols, and, for the first time, I can begin to sense the constraints that come hand-in-hand with my new capabilities. I can do a lot, but I can not do as I please.
II: Share the Health
Social networks are nothing new. We’ve carried them around inside our heads from a time long before we were recognizably human. They are the secret to our success, and always have been. We’re the most social of all the of the mammals, and while the bees may put us to shame, we also have big brains to develop distinct personalities and unique strengths, which we have always shared, so that our expertise becomes an asset to the whole of society, whether that is a tribe, a city, or a nation.
Others have been studying these ‘old-school’ human social networks, and they’ve learned some surprising things. Harvard internist and social scientist Dr. Nicholas Christakis has published a series of papers that illustrate the power of the connection. In his first paper, he studied how smoking behaviors – both starting and quitting – spread through social networks. It turns out that if a sufficient number of your friends start to smoke, you’re more likely to begin yourself. Conversely, if enough of your friends quit, you’re more likely to quit. This makes sense when you consider the reinforcing nature of social relationships; we each send one another a forest of subtle cues about the ‘right’ way to behave, fit in, and get along. Those cues shape our choices and behaviors. Hang out with smokers and you’re more likely to smoke. Hang out with non-smokers, and you’re likely to quit smoking.
Dr. Christakis also found that the same phenomenon appears to hold true for obesity. Again, people look to one another for cues about body image. If all of your peers are obese, you are more likely to be obese yourself. If your peers are thin, you’re more likely to be thin. And if your peers go on a diet, you’re likely to join them in slimming. The connections between us are also the transmitters of behavior. (It may be the secret to the success of other groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.) This is a powerful insight, one which caused me to have a bit of a brainwave, a few months ago, as I began planning this talk: what happens when we take what we know about our human social networks as behavioral transmitters and apply that to our accelerated, amplified digital selves?
I can take any bit of data I like and share it out through Twitter to 6700 connections, and I frequently do. I post articles I’ve read, interesting films I’ve watched, photographs I’ve taken, and so forth. My cloud is an opportunity to share what I encounter in my life. Probably many of you do precisely the same thing. But let’s take it a step further. Let’s say that my doctor wants me to lose 15 kilos, in order to help me lower my blood pressure. I agree to his request, and perhaps see a nutritionist, but after that I’m pretty much own my own. I could spend some money to join a ‘group’ like Weight Watchers or whatnot; essentially purchasing a peer group with whom I will connect. That will work for the duration of the weight loss, but once the support ends, the weight comes piles on.
Instead of this (or, perhaps, in addition to it), what I need to do is to bind my cloud to my intention to lose weight. I need to share this information, but I need to do it meaningfully. This is more than simply saying, ‘Hey, I need to drop some pounds.’ More than posting the weekly weigh-in figures. It means using the cloud intelligently, sharing with the cloud what can and should be shared – that is, what I eat and what exercise I get.
When I say ‘my cloud’ in this context, I doubt that I’m speaking about the full complement of 6700 souls. Although all of them wish me well, this sort of detail is simply noise to many of them. Instead, I need to go to a smaller cohort: my close friends, and those within my cloud who share a similar affinity – who are also working to lose weight. These connections – a cloud within my cloud – are the ones who will be best served by my sharing. I now keep track of what I eat and how I exercise, using some collaborative tool developed an some enterprising entrepreneur to track it all, and everyone sees what kind of progress I’m making toward my goal. I also see everyone else’s progress toward their own goals. We reinforce, we reassure, we share both new-found strengths and our moments of weakness. As we share, we grow closer. The network is reinforced. All along, my friends (and my GP) are looking in, monitoring, happy to see that I’m on track toward my goal.
None of this is rocket science. It’s good social science, and plain common sense. It needs to be supported by tools. At this point, I began to think about the kinds of tools that would be useful. First and most useful would be a food diary. Rather than a text-based listing of everything eaten, I reckon this will be a bit more up-to-date; there’ll be photographs, taken with my mobile, of everything that goes into my mouth. As a bit of an experiment, I tried photographing everything I ate from the beginning of this month. I always got breakfast, mostly lunch, and by dinner had forgotten completely. My records are incomplete. That wouldn’t do for any sharing system like this, and it points to the fact that technology is no substitute for effective habits, and those habits don’t develop overnight. They require some peer support.
As I was beginning to think through the requirements of such a hypothetical system – so that I could share that system with you– I learned that someone had already implemented a real-world system along similar lines. Jon Cousins, an entrepreneur from Cambridgeshire recently launched a website known as Moodscope. This site allows individuals who have mood disorders to track their moods daily, and then shares those daily updates with a circle of up to five trusted individuals.
It’s known that individuals with mood disorders can be supported by a network – if that network is kept abreast of that individual’s changes in mood. I decided to give Moodscope a try, and have been charting my daily moods (which average around the baseline of 50%) for the past 26 days, sharing those results with a close friend. Although it’s early days, Moodscope is showing promise as a tool that can support people in their struggle for mood regulation and overall mental health, and might even do so better than some pharmaceutical treatments.
In these two examples – one imaginary and one wholly real – we have a pattern for health care in the 21st century, a model which doesn’t supplant the existing systems, but rather, works alongside them to improve outcomes and to keep patient care costs down, by spreading the burden of care throughout a community. This model could be repeated to cover diabetics, or hypertensives, or asthmatics, or arthritics, and so on. It is a generic model which can be applied to every patient and each disorder.
We’ve already seen the birth of ‘Wikimedicine’, where individuals connect together to try to learn more about their diseases than their treating physicians. This is sometimes a recipe for disaster, but that’s because this is all so new. Within a few years, doctors, nurse practitioners and patients will be connected through dense networks of knowledge and need. The doctor and nurse practitioner will help guide the patient into knowledge using the wealth of online resources. That’s not often happening at present, and this means that patients fall prey to all sorts of bad information. In our near future, medical knowledge isn’t simply locked away in the physician’s head; it’s shared through a connected community for the benefit of all. The doctor still treats, while the patient – and the patient’s connections – learn. From that learning comes the lifestyle changes and reinforcements in behavior that lead to better outcomes.
We have the networks in place, both human and virtual. We merely need to institute some new practices to reap the benefit of our connections. As the population ages, these sorts of innovations will seem both natural – relying on others is an essentially human characteristic – and cost-effective. The population will adopt these measures because they find them empowering (and because their GPs will recommend them), while governments and insurance companies will adopt them because they keep a lid on medical costs. The forces of culture and technology are converging on a shared, hyperconnected future which aims to keep us as healthy as possible for as long as possible.
III: The Ministry of Love
I have a good friend who was diagnosed with a mood disorder sixteen years ago. A few months ago he decided his psychiatric medication was doing him more harm than good, and took himself off of it. Although it’s been a difficult process, so far he’s been reasonably stable. When I found Moodscope, I told him about it. “Sounds good,” he responded, “I can’t wait until they have it as a Facebook app.” I hadn’t thought about that, but it does make perfect sense: your social graph is already right there, embedded into Facebook, and Facebook applications have access to your social graph: why not create a version of Moodscope that ties the two together? It sounds very compelling, a sure winner.
But do you really want Facebook to have access to highly privileged medical information, information about your mental state? That information can be used to help you, but it could also be used against you. Sydney teenager Nona Belomesoff was lured to her death by a man who used information gleaned from Facebook to befriend her. Consider: If someone wanted to cause my friend some distress, they could use that shared mood data as a key indicator which would guide them to time their destabilizing efforts for maximum effectiveness. They could kick him when he was down, and make sure he stayed down. Giving someone insight into our emotional state gives them the upper hand.
Were that not dangerous enough, just last Friday the Wall Street Journal reported the results of an investigation, which revealed that Facebook was sharing confidential user data with advertisers – data which they’d legally agreed to hold in closest confidence. The advertisers themselves had no idea that this information was provided illegally. Facebook, the supreme collector of marketing data, simply didn’t know when or even how to restrain itself.
With that in mind, let’s imagine a situation bound to happen sometime in the next few years. You and your Facebook friends decide that you want to quit smoking. It’s too expensive, it’s too hard to find a smoking area, your clothes stink, and you’re starting to get a hacking cough in the mornings. Enough. So you tell your friends – over Facebook – that you’re thinking of quitting. And they think that’s a great idea. They want to quit, too. So you all set a date to quit. That’s all well and good, but then an invitation arrives to a very swanky party in the City, an exclusive affair. You go, and find that the whole space is a smoking area! All of these elegant people, puffing away. Because smoking is glamorous. And you begin to reconsider. Your resolve begins to weaken.
Or you want to lose weight. You even add the Facebook ‘Drop the Fat’ app to your account, to help you achieve your weight loss goals. But, just as soon as you do that, you start seeing lots more Facebook advertisements for biscuits and ice cream and fresh pizzas. That has an effect. It weakens your willpower, and makes those slightly-hungry hours seem more unbearable.
This is the friendly version of ‘Room 101’ from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In that room, you met your greatest fear. In this one, you meet your greatest weakness. When a tobacco company has access to a social network which is trying to quit smoking, it will be tempted to disrupt that network. When a soft drink company has access to a social network which is trying to lose weight, it will be tempted to disrupt that network. Our social networks are too potent and too powerful to leave exposed to anyone, for any reason whatsoever. Yet we leave them lying around, open to public inspection, and we allow Facebook to own them outright, to exploit them as it sees fit, to its own ends, and for its own profit. Hopefully that will come to an end, unless we’re too far down the rabbit hole to pull out of Facebook and into something else that preserves the integrity of our social graph while granting us control over how we share our inmost selves.
This is where you come in. You’re the policy folks, and I’ve just thrown a whopper into your lap. Securing the safety and prosperity of our social future means that we need to establish clear guidelines on how these networks can be used, by whom, and to what ends. As I’ve explained, there is enormous potential for these networks to lead to breakthroughs in public health, disease prevention, and medical cost management. That’s just the beginning. These same networks can organize toward political ends. We got just a taste of that in the Obama presidential campaign, but the next decade will see its full flower, whether in America or in Iran or in Australia. As social networks become identified with power networks, all of the conservative and power-seeking interests of culture will work to interfere with them as a means of control.
As public servants and policy makers, you will see the politicians, the doctors, and the advertisers come to you crying, ‘Can’t we do something?’ All of them will want you to weaken the protections for social networks, in order to make them more permeable and less resilient. In this present moment, and with our current laws, social networks have no protections whatsoever. They used to live inside our heads, where they needed few protections. Now they live in public, and with every day that passes we come to understand that they are perhaps our most important possession, the doorway to ourselves. First you must protect. Then you must defend.
Protection is not enough. It’s not clear that any commercial interest can be trusted with the social graphs of a community. There’s too much potential for mischief, particularly right now, when everything is so new and so raw. Government must play a role in this revolution, encouraging government-affiliated NGOs and other not-for-profits to foster networks of connections to spring up around communities which need the empowerment that comes with hyperconnectivity. In the absence of this sort of gardening, the ground will be ceded to commercial forces which may not have the best interests of the citizenry foremost in mind. By doing nothing, we lay the foundation for a new generation of grifters, criminals, and brainwashers. But if these networks are built securely – by people who believe in them, and believe in what is possible with them – they become hyper-potent, capable of transforming the lives of everyone connected to them. It’s a short path from hyperconnectivity to hyperempowerment, a path which will be well-trodden in the coming years.
The 21st century will look very different from the century just passed. Instead of big wars and major powers, we’ll see different ‘gangs’ of hyperempowered social networks having a rumble, networks that look a lot like families, towns, or nations. We’ll all be connected by similar principles, for similar reasons, and we will use similar tools to rally together and mobilize our strengths. As is the nature of power, power will seek to use power to undermine the power of others. Facebook is already doing this, though they seem to have stumbled into it. The next time it happens it will be more deliberate, and more diabolical.
That’s it. The future is much bigger than hyperconnected health, but as someone who will be a senior in just 20 years, hyperconnected health means more to me than whatever might happen to politics or business. I need the support that will keep me healthy long into my sunset years, and I will join with others to build those systems. If we build from corruption, corruption will be the fruit. We must be honest with ourselves, acknowledge the dangers even as we laud the benefits, and build ourselves systems which do not play into human weaknesses, or avarice, or megalomania. This is a project fit for a culture, a project worthy of a nation, a people who understand that together we can accomplish whatever we set our sights upon, if we build from a foundation of trust, respect and privacy.
I: Baby Books
Forty-eight years ago, when my mother was pregnant with me, her friends and family threw her a baby shower. Among the gifts, she received a satin-covered ‘Baby Book’, with spaces to record all of the minutiae of the early days of my existence. I know for a fact that Dr. No and Lawrence of Arabia were playing in the movie theatres in Massachusetts at the time I was born, because it is neatly recorded on a page of my baby book. I know how much I weighed when I was born (7 lbs, 7 oz – or 3.3 kg), when I got my first tooth, when I started to walk, and so on. All of it is there, because my mother took the time to write it down as it happened.
What my mother didn’t write down – because it isn’t at all remarkable – was that I was busy reaching out, making connections with everyone I came into contact with. Those connections began with my mother and my father, then my aunts and uncles and grandparents, and, just a year later, my sister. I made those connections because that’s what humans do. It sounds perfectly ordinary because it comes so naturally: in fact, it’s quite profound. From the moment we’re born, we work to embed ourselves within a deep, strong and complex web of social relationships.
This isn’t a recent innovation, something that we ‘thought up’ the way we dreamed up art or writing or the steam engine; you need to go way, way back – at least ten million years, and probably a great deal more – before you get to any of our ancestors who wasn’t thoroughly social. A social animal will, on the whole, outperform a loner. A social animal can harness resources outside of themselves to ensure their survival and the survival of their children. Ten million years ago, a social animal could share the hunting and gathering of food, childcare, or lookout duties. Those with the best social skills – the best ability to communicate, coordinate, and function effectively as a unit – did better than their less-well-socialized relatives. They survived to pass their genes and behaviors along, down the generations. All along, a constant pressure accompanied them, driving them to become ever more social, better coordinated, and more effective. At some point – no one knows how long ago, or even how it happened – this pressure overflowed, creating the infinitely flexible form of communication we call language.
The more we study other animals – particularly chimpanzees – the less unique we seem to ourselves. Animals think, they even reason. They can carry around within themselves a model of how others think and think about them. They can deceive. They even appear to have empathy and a sense of fairness. But no other animal has the perfect tool of language. Animals can think and feel, but they can not express themselves, at least, not as comprehensively as we can. The expressiveness of language has one overriding aim: it allows us to connect very effectively.
The more we study ourselves, the more we understand how our need to connect has worked its way into our bodies, colonizing our nervous system. Our big brains are the hardware for our connection into the human network: there’s a direct correlation between the amount of grey matter in our prefrontal cortex and the number of individuals we can maintain connections with. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar came up with a figure of 148, plus or minus a few. That’s the number of individuals you carry around in your head with you, all the time. For a long, long time – tens of thousands of years – that was the largest a tribe of humans could grow, before they hived off into two tribes. When a tribe grows so big you can’t know all of its members, it’s time to divide.
We’ve grown used to being surrounded by people we have no connection with. That’s what cities are all about. We’ve been building them for close to ten thousand years, and in that time we’ve learned how to live with those we don’t know. It’s not easy – it requires police and courts and prisons – but the advantages of coming together in such great numbers outweigh the disadvantages. In 2008, for the first time in history, half of humanity lived in cities. We’re in the final stages of the urban revolution – a revolution in the making for the past hundred centuries. Urban life is now the default human condition.
Just as that revolution reaches is climax, we find ourselves presented with a new technology, which takes all of our human connections and digitizes them, creating an electronic representation of what we each carry around in our heads. We call this ‘social networking’, though, as I’ve explained, social networks are actually older than our species. Stuffing them into a computer doesn’t change them: We are our connections. They are what make us human. But the computer speeds up and amplifies those connections, taking something natural and ordinary and turning it into something freakish and – hopefully – wonderful.
Before we discuss how these newly amplified connections can be used, it may be useful to step back, and reframe this latest revolution – just three years old – in the context of a child born, not in the early 1960s, but in 2010. I have good friends in Melbourne who are expecting their first child in early September. For the sake of today’s talk, let’s use this child (we’ll call her a daughter, though no one yet knows) as an example of what is now happening, and what is to come.
Will this child have a baby book? Certainly, some beloved relative may provide one to the lucky parents, and mom and dad may even take the time to fill it in – between the 3 AM feedings and the nappy changes. But the true baby book for this child will be the endless stream of digital media created in her wake. From a few minutes after birth, she will be photographed, recorded, videoed, measured and captured in ways that would seem inconceivable (and obsessive) just a generation ago. Yet today think nothing of a parent who follows a child everywhere with a video camera.
As parents collect that all of that media, they’re going to want somewhere to show it off. An eponymous website. YouTube is already cluttered with videos of babies doing the most mundane sorts of things, precisely so they can be shown off to proud grandparents. Photo galleries on Picasa and Snapfish and Flickr exist for precisely the same reason – they provide a venue for sharing. Parents post to blogs documenting every move, every fitful crawl, every illness. What’s the difference between this and what we think of as a baby book? Nothing at all.
It seems natural and wonderful to gather all of this documentation about her. This is who she is in her youngest years. But there’s other information that her parents do not document, at least not yet: who does she connect with? This list is small in her very first years, but as she grows into a toddler and heads off to day care and pre-kindy and grade school, that list grows rather longer. Will her parents keep track of these relationships? Even if they do not, at some point, she will. She’ll go online to a site patrolled by Disney or Apple or Google or Microsoft and be invited to ‘friend’ others on the site, and enroll her own real-world friends. Her social network will begin to twin into its physical and virtual selves. Much of each will be a reflection of the other, but some connections will exist purely in one realm. Some friends or family members will have no presence online; a few friends might remain life-long ‘pen pals’, never meeting in the flesh, but maintaining constant, connected contact.
The most significant difference between these real-world and virtual networks centers on persistence. We only have room for 150 people in our heads. When we fill up, people start to get pushed out, crossing that invisible yet absolutely real line between friend and acquaintance. We may have a lot of acquaintances, but these relationships, in the real world, don’t consist of very much beyond a greeting and a few polite words. Contrast this to the virtual world, the world of Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, where connections persist forever unless explicitly deleted by one of the parties to that connection. There is no upper limit to the number of connections a computer can remember. (Facebook has an upper limit of 5000 friends, but that’s entirely artificial and will eventually be abandoned.)
As she passes through life, this child will continue to accrue connections, and these connections will be digitized for safekeeping – just like the photos and videos her parents shot in her youngest years. That list will naturally grow and grow and grow, as she passes through years 1 through 12, moves on to university, and out into the world of adults. By the time she’s 25, she’ll likely have thousands of connections that accreted just by living her life. Each of these people will be able to peer in, and see how she’s doing; she’ll be able to do the same with each of them.
Managing the difference between our real-world connections, which top out, and our virtual connections, which do not, is a task that we’ll be mastering over the next decade. Right now, we’re not very good at it. By the time she’s grown up enough to understand the different qualities of real and virtual connections, we will be able to teach her behaviors appropriate to each sphere of connection. At present there’s a lot of confusion, a fair bit of chaos, and a healthy helping of ignorance around all of this. We can give ourselves a pass: it’s brand new. But already we’re beginning to see that this is a real revolution. In the social sphere, nothing will look like the past.
II: Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire
On Friday evening, my washing machine – which I bought, used, just after I moved to Australia – finally gave up the ghost. The motor on my front loader seemed less and less likely to make it through an entire spin cycle, so I knew this day was coming, and had some thoughts about what I’d do for a replacement. One of my very good friends recommended that I buy a Simpson brand washer, just as she owned, just as her mother owned. ‘Years of trouble-free service,’ she said. ‘It’ll last forever.’ I took that suggestion under advisement. But I knew that I had a larger pool of individuals to interrogate. About thirty minutes after the unfortunate passing of the washer, I posted a message to Twitter, asking for recommendations. Within minutes I was pointed to Choice Magazine, wher I read their reliability survey. Many people chimed in with their own love or horror stories about particular brands of washers. I was quickly dissuaded from Simpson: ‘There’s a reason they’re cheap,’ one person replied. A furious argument raged about whether LG should be purchased by anyone, for any reason whatsoever, given that they were caught cheating on a refrigerator efficiency test. Miele owners seemed fanatically in love with their washers – but acknowledged that they paid a big premium for that love. And so on. After reviewing the input from Twitter (and Choice), I made a decision to purchase a Bosch, which seemed both highly reliable and not too expensive, good value for money. I put my decision out to Twitter, and the Bosch owners all chimed in: very happy, except for one, who seemed to have gotten one of those units that inevitably break down a few days after the warrantee expires. That settled it. On Saturday morning I played Bing Lee off Harvey Norman, talked one down to a very good price, and made the purchase. Crisis resolved.
Let’s step back from the immediate and get a good look at this whole process. In considering what to replace my dead washing machine with, I first consulted my real-world network – my friend who recommended Simpson. Then I went out to my virtual network, a network which is much, much larger. I follow about 5700 people on Twitter. This means I have access, potentially, to 5700 opinions, 5700 sets of experiences, 5700 people who may be willing to help. Even if only a small proportion of those do decide to offer assistance, that’s a lot of help, and it comes to me more or less immediately. The entire process took about half an hour – and this on a Friday night. If it’d been on a Tuesday afternoon, when people idly monitor Twitter while they work, I would have received double the response.
Wherever I go, I carry this ‘cloud’ of connections with me. These connections have value in themselves – they are a record of my passage through the human universe – but they have far greater value when put to work to accomplish some task. This is it; this is the knife-edge of the present: We have been busily building up our social networks, and though I freely admit that I am better connected than most, this will not long remain the case, as a generation grows into adulthood keeping a perfect record of all of their connections. Within a few years, nearly everyone who wills it will enter every situation with the same cloud of connections, the same reliable web of helpers who can respond to requests as the need arises. That fundamental transition – at the heart of this latest revolution – makes each of us much more effective. We’re carrying around a whole stadium of individuals, who can be called upon as needed to help us make the best decision in every situation. As we grow more comfortable with this new power, every decision of significance we make will be done in consultation with this network of effectiveness. This is already transforming the way we operate.
Some more examples, drawn from my own experience, will help illuminate this transformation. In December I found myself in Canberra for a few days. Where to eat dinner in a town that shuts down at 5 pm? I asked Twitter, and forty-five minutes later I was enjoying some of the best seafood laksa I’ve had in Australia. A few days later, in the Barossa Valley, I asked Twitter which wineries I should visit – and the top five recommendations were very good indeed. In the moment these can seem like trivial affairs, but both together begin to mark the difference between an ordinary holiday and an awesome one. Imagine this stretching out, minute after minute, throughout our lives. We’re not used to thinking in such terms. But just twenty years ago we weren’t used to the idea that we could reach anyone else instantly from wherever we were, or be reached by anyone else, anywhere. Then the mobile came along, and now that’s an accepted part of our reality. We’d find it difficult to go back to a time before the mobile became such an essential tool in our lives. This is the same transition we’re in the midst of right now with social networks. We look at Twitter and Facebook and find them charming ways to stay in touch and while away some empty time. A social network isn’t charming, and it certainly isn’t a waste of time. We are like children, playing with very powerful weapons. And sometimes they go off.
Before we explore that more explosive side to social networks, the ‘pillar of fire’ to this ‘pillar of cloud’, I want to introduce you to one more social networking technology, one which is brand-new, and which you may not have heard of yet. Just over the past month, I’ve become a big fan of Foursquare, a location-based ‘social network’. Using the GPS on my mobile, Foursquare allows me to ‘check in’ when I go to a restaurant, a store, or almost anywhere else. That is, Foursquare records the fact that I am at a particular place at a particular time. Once I’ve checked in, I can then make a recommendation – a ‘tip’ in Foursquare lingo – and share something I’ve observed about that place. It could be anything – something absurdly trivial, or something very relevant. As others have likely been to this place before me, there is already a list of tips. If I peek through those tips, I can learn something that could prove very useful.
As every day passes, and more people use Foursquare (over a million at present, all around the world) this list of tips is rapidly growing longer, more substantial, and more useful. What does this mean? Well, I could walk into a bar that I’ve never been to before and know exactly which cocktail I want to order. I would know which table at a restaurant offers the quietest corner for a romantic date. Or which salesperson to talk to for a good deal on that washing machine. And so on. With Foursquare have immediate and continuous information in depth, information provided by the hundreds or thousands in my own social network, plus everyone else who chooses to contribute. Foursquare turns the real world into a kind of Wikipedia, where everyone contributes what they know to improve the lot of all. I have a growing range of information about the world around me in my hands. If I put it to work, it will improve my effectiveness.
Last weekend I went to the cinema, to see Iron Man 2. As soon as I left the theatre, I sent out a message to Twitter: “Thought Iron Man 2 better than original. Snappier. Funnier. More comic-book-y.” That recommendation – high praise from me – went out to the 6550 people who follow me. Many of those folks are Australians, who might have been looking for a film to see last weekend. My positive review would have influenced them. I know for a fact that it did influence some, because they sent me messages telling me this.
On the other hand, if I’d sent out a message saying, ‘Worst. Movie. Ever.’ that also would have reached 6550 people, who would, once again, consider it. It might have even dissuaded some from paying the $17.50 to see Iron Man 2 on the big screen. If enough people said the same thing, that could kill the box office. This is precisely what we’ve seen. There’s a direct correlation between the speed at which a motion picture bombs and the rise in the number of users of Twitter. It used to take a few days for word-of-mouth to kill a movie’s box office (think Godzilla). Now it takes a few minutes. As the first showing ends, friends text friends, people post to Twitter and Facebook, and the story spreads. After the second or third showing, the crowds have dropped off: word has gotten out that the film stinks. Where a film could coast an entire weekend, now it has just a Friday matinee to succeed or fail. Positive word-of-mouth kept Avatar at the #1 spot for nine weeks, and the film remained a trending topic on Twitter for half of that time; conversely, The Back-Up Plan disappeared almost without a trace. An opinion, multiplied by hundreds or thousands of connections, carries a lot of weight.
These connections always come with us, part of who we are now. If we have an experience we find objectionable, our connections have a taste of that. A few months ago a friend found herself in Far North Queensland with an American Express card whose credit limit had summarily been cut in half with no warning, leaving her far away from home and potentially caught in a jam. When she called American Express to make an inquiry – and found that their consumer credit division closed at 5 pm on a Friday evening – she lost her temper. The 7500 people who follow her on Twitter heard a solid rant about the evils of American Express, a rant that they will now remember every time they find an American Express invitation letter in the post, or even when they decide which credit card to select while making a purchase.
Every experience, positive or negative, is now amplified beyond all comprehension. We sit here with the social equivalent of tactical nuclear weapons in our hands, toying with the triggers, and act surprised when occasionally they go off. Catherine Deveny, a weekly columnist for The AGE, was summarily dismissed last week because of some messages she posted over Twitter during the Logies broadcast. It seems she hadn’t thought through the danger of sending an obscene – but comedic – message to thousands of people, a message that would be picked up and sent again, and sent again, and sent again, until the tabloid newspapers and television shows, smelling blood in the water, got in on the action. When you’re well-connected, everything is essentially public. There’s no firm boundary between your private sphere and your public life once you allow thousands of others a look in. That can be a good thing if one is hungry for celebrity and fame – Kim Kardashian is an excellent example of this – but it can also accelerate a drive to self-destruction (witness Miranda Devine’s comments from Sunday). We live within a social amplifier, and it’s always turned up to 11. When we scream, we can be heard around the world, but now our whispers sound like shouts.
This means that no one can be silenced, anywhere. Last June, the entire world watched as an abortive Iranian revolution broke out on the streets of Tehran, viewing clips shot on mobile handsets, uploaded to YouTube, tagged, then picked up and shared throughout social networks like Twitter, which brought them to the attention of CNN, the New York Times, and the US State Department. Mobiles brought into North Korea puncture the tightly held reins of state control as information and news seeps across the border with China, the human connection amplified by a social technology. It’s no longer the CIA or ASIO station chief who gathers intelligence from far-flung places. It courses through our human networks.
You can begin to see the shape of this revolution-in-progess. Everything is so new, so rough, so raw, so innocent of intention that we really don’t know where we are going. We’re all stumbling through this doorway together. Each of us hold our connections to one another; like balloons that, in sufficient numbers, might cause us to take flight. We’re lifting off and gaining speed. Whether we’re a glider or a guided missile is up to us. We must pause, take stock, and ask ourselves what we want from these powerful new tools. And, in return, ask what we must be prepared to accept.
III: Threat Assistment
Individuals are becoming radically hyper-empowered. Our connections give us capabilities undreamt of a generation ago. As individuals who assess the various risks for your organizations, you’ve just learned about a brand new one, a threat that will – relatively quickly – dwarf nearly all others. The risk of hyperconnectivity is coming at you from three distinct but interrelated axes: hyper-empowered individuals who want to interact with your organizations; hyper-empowered individuals who compose your organizations; and your organizations, when they grasp the nettle of hyperconnectivity.
What do you do when a hyperconnected individual wants to become a customer, or just interact in some way with your organization? What happens when an existing customer becomes hyperconnected? Both of these situations are becoming commonplace affairs. My friend who had her troubles with American Express typifies this sort of threat. She had a long-term relationship with the company, but in the last years of that relationship she became hyperempowered. American Express didn’t know this – probably wouldn’t have understood it – and failed to manage the relationship when she ran into trouble.
The key attitudes for managing external relationships with hyperconnected individuals are humility and openness. American Express had no idea what was going on because they weren’t plugged into what my friend was saying to thousands of her followers. They didn’t consider her worth listening to. There’s no reason for this sort of thing to happen. Excellent tools exist that allow you to monitor what is being said about your organization, right now, who is saying it, and where. You can keep your finger on the pulse; when a customer has an issue, you can respond in a timely manner, humbly and transparently. Social media places an enormous value on transparency: unless someone’s motives – and connections – are apparent to you, you have no real reason to trust them, and no basis upon which to build that trust.
This isn’t a difficult policy to implement, but the responsibility for listening doesn’t lie with a single individual or department within your organization. Responsibility is spread throughout the organization; that’s the only way your organization will be able to handle all of the hyperconnected customers you do business with. Spread the load. The Chinese have a proverb: ‘Many hands make light work.’ That same rule applies here. Make listening to customers a priority throughout your organizations. If you don’t, those customers will use their amplified capabilities to make your life a living hell.
Employees within your organizations don’t leave their own networks at the door when they walk into the office. Although employers often block access to services like Facebook and Twitter from employee workstations, mobiles and pervasive high speed wireless connectivity make that restriction increasingly meaningless. Employees will connect and stay connected throughout the day, regardless of your stated policy. Soon enough, you will be encouraging them to stay connected, in order to share the burden of all that listening. Right now, your employees are well connected, but poorly disciplined. They don’t know the right way to do things. Don’t blame them for this. It’s all very new, and there hasn’t been a lot of guidance.
If you walk out of today’s talk with any one thing buzzing in your head, let it be this: develop a social media policy for your employees. Employees want to know how they can be connected in the office without damaging your reputation or their position. In the absence of a social media policy, organizations will get into all sorts of prangs that could have been avoided. Case in point: last week’s sacking of AGE columnist Catherine Deveny happened, in large part, because Fairfax has no social media policy. There were no guidelines for what constituted acceptable behavior, or even which behavior was ‘on the clock’ versus ‘off the clock’. Without these sorts of guidelines, hyperconnected employees will make their own decisions – putting your organizations, your stakeholders and your brands at risk.
Two well-known Australian organizations have established their own social media policies. The ABC boiled theirs down to four simple rules:
1) Do not mix the personal and the professional in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute;
2) Do not undermine your effectiveness at work;
3) Do not imply ABC endorsement of your personal views;
4) Do not disclose confidential information obtained through work.
This could be summed up with ‘use common sense’, but spelled out as it is here, the ABC has given its employees a framework that allows them to both regulate and embrace social media.
Telstra’s policy is wordier – it runs to five pages – but it is, in essence, very similar. It is good that Telstra has a social media policy, but that policy was only developed after a very public and very embarrassing incident. Last year, Telstra employee Leslie Nassar, who posted to Twitter pseduonymously under the account ‘Fake Stephen Conroy’, revealed his identity. When Telstra realized that one of their employees daily satirized the senator charged with ministerial oversight of their organization, the company was appalled, and quickly moved to fire Nassar – only to find that it couldn’t, because Nassar had violated no stated policy or conditions of employment. Shortly after that, Telstra developed and promulgated its social media guidelines. Learn from Telstra’s mistake. This same sort of PR and political catastrophe needn’t happen in your organizations, but I guarantee that it will, if you do not develop a social media policy. So please, get started immediately.
Finally, what happens when organizations hyperconnect? For hundreds of years, organizations have been based on rigid hierarchies and restricted flows of information. Hyperconnectivity puts paid to the org chart, replacing it with a dense set of hyperconnections between individuals within the organization, and between organizations: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. We don’t really understand much about this new form of organization, other than to say that it looks very little like what we are familiar with today. But the pressure from hyperconnected individuals – both within and outside of the organization – will only increase, and to accommodate this pressure, the organization will increasingly find itself embedded in hyperconnections. This is the final leg of the revolution, still some years away, but one which requires careful planning today. Can your organization handle itself as it connects broadly to a planet where everyone is connected broadly? Will it maintain its own integrity, will it dissolve, merge, or disintegrate? This is a question that businesses need to ask, that schools need to ask, that governments need to ask. Everything from mass production to service delivery is being re-thought and re-shaped by our hyperconnectivity.
Organizations that master hyperconnectivity, putting social media to work, experience a leap forward in productivity. That leap forward comes at a price. Every tool that enhances productivity also changes everyone who uses it. None of us, as individuals or organizations, will be left behind, even if we choose to unplug, because we remain completely connected to a human world which is increasing hyperconnected. There is no going back, nor any particular safety in the present. Instead, we need to connect, and together use the best of what we’ve got – which is substantial, because there are plenty of smart people in all your organizations, throughout the nation, and the world – to mange this transition. This could be a nearly bloodless revolution, if we can remember that, at our essence, we are the connected species. Thought it may seem chaotic, this is not a collapse. It is a culmination.
The slides for this talk can be found here.
My keynote for the Personal Democracy Forum, in New York.
Introduction: War is Over (if you want it)
Over the last year we have lived through a profound and perhaps epochal shift in the distribution of power. A year ago all the talk was about how to mobilize Facebook users to turn out on election day. Today we bear witness to a ‘green’ revolution, coordinated via Twitter, and participate as the Guardian UK crowdsources the engines of investigative journalism and democratic oversight to uncover the unpleasant little secrets buried in the MPs expenses scandal – secrets which the British government has done everything in its power to withhold.
We’ve turned a corner. We’re on the downward slope. It was a long, hard slog to the top – a point we obviously reached on 4 November 2008 – but now the journey is all about acceleration into a future that looks almost nothing like the past. The configuration of power has changed: its distribution, its creation, its application. The trouble with circumstances of acceleration is that they go hand-in-hand with a loss of control. At a certain point our entire global culture is liable to start hydroplaning, or worse, will go airborne. As the well-oiled wheels of culture leave the roadbed of civilization behind, we can spin the steering wheel all we want. Nothing will happen. Acceleration has its own rationale, and responds neither to reason nor desire. Force will meet force. Force is already meeting force.
What happens now, as things speed up, is a bit like what happens in the guts of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Different polities and institutions will smash and reveal their inner workings, like parts sprung from crashed cars. We can learn a lot – if we’re clever enough to watch these collisions as they happen. Some of these particles-in-collision will recognizably be governments or quasi-governmental organizations. Some will look nothing like them. But before we glory, Ballard-like, in the terrible beauty of the crash, we should remember that these institutions are, first and foremost, the domain of people, individuals ill-prepared for whiplash or a sudden impact with the windshield. No one is wearing a safety belt, even as things slip noticeably beyond control. Someone’s going to get hurt. That much is already clear.
What we urgently need, and do not yet have, is a political science for the 21st century. We need to understand the autopoietic formation of polities, which has been so accelerated and amplified in this era of hyperconnectivity. We need to understand the mechanisms of knowledge sharing among these polities, and how they lead to hyperintelligence. We need to understand how hyperintelligence transforms into action, and how this action spreads and replicates itself through hypermimesis. We have the words – or some of them – but we lack even an informal understanding of the ways and means. As long as this remains the case, we are subject to terrible accidents we can neither predict nor control. We can end the war between ourselves and our times. But first we must watch carefully. The collisions are mounting, and they have already revealed much. We have enough data to begin to draw a map of this wholly new territory.
I: The First Casualty of War
Last month saw an interesting and unexpected collision. Wikipedia, the encyclopedia created by and for the people, decreed that certain individuals and a certain range of IP addresses belonging to the Church of Scientology would hereafter be banned from the capability to edit Wikipedia. This directive came from the Arbitration Committee of Wikipedia, which sounds innocuous, but is in actuality the equivalent the Supreme Court in the Wikipediaverse.
It seems that for some period of time – probably stretching into years – there have been any number of ‘edit wars’ (where edits are made and reverted, then un-reverted and re-reverted, ad infinitum) around articles concerning about the Church of Scientology and certain of the personages in the Church. These pages have been subject to fierce edit wars between Church of Scientology members on one side, critics of the Church on the other, and, in the middle, Wikipedians, who attempted to referee the dispute, seeking, above all, to preserve the Neutral Point-of-View (NPOV) that the encyclopedia aspires to in every article. When this became impossible – when the Church of Scientology and its members refused to leave things alone – a consensus gradually formed within the tangled adhocracy of Wikipedia, finalized in last month’s ruling from the Arbitration Committee. For at least six months, several Church of Scientology members are banned by name, and all Church computers are banned from making edits to Wikipedia.
That would seem to be that. But it’s not. The Church of Scientology has been diligent in ensuring that the mainstream media (make no mistake, Wikipedia is now a mainstream medium) do not portray characterizations of Scientology which are unflattering to the Church. There’s no reason to believe that things will simply rest as they are now, that everyone will go off and skulk in their respective corners for six months, like children given a time-out. Indeed, the Chairman of Scientology, David Miscavidge, quickly issued a press release comparing the Wikipedians to Nazis, asking, “What’s next, will Scientologists have to wear yellow, six-pointed stars on our clothing?”
How this skirmish plays out in the months and years to come will be driven by the structure and nature of these two wildly different organizations. The Church of Scientology is the very model of a modern religious hierarchy; all power and control flows down from Chairman David Miscavidge through to the various levels of Scientology. With Wikipedia, no one can be said to be in charge. (Jimmy Wales is not in charge of Wikipedia.) The whole things chugs along as an agreement, a social contract between the parties participating in the creation and maintenance of Wikipedia. Power flows in Wikipedia are driven by participation: the more you participate, the more power you’ll have. Power is distributed laterally: every individual who edits Wikipedia has some ultimate authority.
What happens when these two organizations, so fundamentally mismatched in their structures and power flows, attempt to interact? The Church of Scientology uses lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits as a coercive technique. But Wikipedia has thus far proven immune to lawsuits. Although there is a non-profit entity behind Wikipedia, running its servers and paying for its bandwidth, that is not Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not the machines, it is not the bandwidth, it is not even the full database of articles. Wikipedia is a social agreement. It is an agreement to share what we know, for the greater good of all. How does the Church of Scientology control that? This is the question that confronts every hierarchical organization when it collides with an adhocracy. Adhocracies present no control surfaces; they are at once both entirely transparent and completely smooth.
This could all get much worse. The Church of Scientology could ‘declare war’ on Wikipedia. A general in such a conflict might work to poison the social contract which powers Wikipedia, sewing mistrust, discontent and the presumption of malice within a community that thrives on trust, consensus-building and adherence to a common vision. Striking at the root of the social contract which is the whole of Wikipedia could possibly disrupt its internal networks and dissipate the human energy which drives the project.
Were we on the other side of the conflict, running a defensive strategy, we would seek to reinforce Wikipedia’s natural strength – the social agreement. The stronger the social agreement, the less effective any organized attack will be. A strong social agreement implies a depth of social resources which can be deployed to prevent or rapidly ameliorate damage.
Although this conflict between the Church of Scientology and Wikipedia may never explode into a full-blown conflict, at some point in the future, some other organization or institution will collide with Wikipedia, and battle lines will be drawn. The whole of this quarter of the 21st century looks like an accelerating series of run-ins between hierarchical organizations and adhocracies. What happens when the hierarchies find that their usual tools of war are entirely mismatched to their opponent?
II: War is Hell
Even the collision between friendly parties, when thus mismatched, can be devastating. Rasmus Klies Nielsen, a PhD student in Columbia’s Communications program, wrote an interesting study a few months ago in which he looked at “communication overload”, which he identifies as a persistent feature of online activism. Nielsen specifically studied the 2008 Democratic Primary campaign in New York, and learned that some of the best-practices of the Obama campaign failed utterly when they encountered an energized and empowered public.
The Obama campaign encouraged voters to communicate through its website, both with one another and with the campaign’s New York staff. Although New York had been written off by the campaign (Hilary Clinton was sure to win her home state), the state still housed many very strong and vocal Obama supporters (apocryphally, all from Manhattan’s Upper West Side). These supporters flooded into the Obama campaign website for New York, drowning out the campaign itself. As election day loomed, campaign staffers retreated to “older” communication techniques – that is, mobile phones – while Obama’s supporters continued the conversation through the website. A complete disconnection between campaign and supporters occurred, even though the parties had the same goals.
Political campaigns may be chaotic, but they are also very hierarchically structured. There is an orderly flow of power from top (candidate) to bottom (voter). Each has an assigned role. When that structure is short-circuited and replaced by an adhocracy, the instrumentality of the hierarchy overloads. We haven’t yet seen the hybrid beast which can function hierarchically yet interaction with an adhocracy. At this point when the two touch, the hierarchy simply shorts out.
Another example from the Obama general election campaign illustrates this tendency for hierarchies to short out when interacting with friendly adhocracies. Project Houdini was touted as a vast, distributed GOTV program which would allow tens of thousands of field workers to keep track of who had voted and who hadn’t. Project Houdini was among the most ambitious of the online efforts of the Obama campaign, and was thoroughly tested in the days leading up to the general election. But, once election day came, Project Houdini went down almost immediately under the volley of information coming in from every quadrant of the nation, from fieldworkers thoroughly empowered to gather and report GOTV data to the campaign. A patchwork backup plan allowed the campaign to tame the torrent of data, channeling it through field offices. But the great vision of the Obama campaign, to empower the individuals with the capability to gather and report GOTV data, came crashing down, because the system simply couldn’t handle the crush of the empowered field workers.
Both of these collisions happened in ‘friendly fire’ situations, where everyone’s eyes were set on achieving the same goal. But these two systems of organization are so foreign to one another that we still haven’t seen any successful attempt to span the chasm that separates them. Instead, we see collisions and failures. The political campaigns of the future must learn how to cross that gulf. While some may wish to turn the clock back to an earlier time when campaigns respected carefully-wrought hierarchies, the electorates of the 21st century, empowered in their own right, have already come to expect that their candidate’s campaigns will meet them in that empowerment. The next decade is going to be completely hellish for politicians and campaign workers of every party as new rules and systems are worked out. There are no successful examples – yet. But circumstances are about to force a search for solutions.
III: War is Peace
As governments release the vast amounts of data held and generated by them, communities of interest are rising up to work with that data. As these communities become more knowledgeable, more intelligent – hyperintelligent – via this exposure, this hyperintelligence will translate into action: hyperempowerment. This is all well and good so long as the aims of the state are the same as the aims of the community. A community of hyperempowered citizens can achieve lofty goals in partnership with the state. But even here, the hyperempowered community faces a mismatch with the mechanisms of the state. The adhocracy by which the community thrives has no easy way to match its own mechanisms with those of the state. Even with the best intentions, every time the two touch there is the risk of catastrophic collapse. The failures of Project Houdini will be repeated, and this might lead some to argue that the opening up itself was a mistake. In fact, these catastrophes are the first sign of success. Connection is being made.
In order to avoid catastrophe, the state – and any institution which attempts to treat with a hyperintelligence – must radically reform its own mechanisms of communication. Top-down hierarchies which order power precisely can not share power with hyperintelligence. The hierarchy must open itself to a more chaotic and fundamentally less structured relationship with the hyperintelligence it has helped to foster. This is the crux of the problem, asking the leopard to change its spots. Only in transformation can hierarchy find its way into a successful relationship with hyperintelligence. But can any hierarchy change without losing its essence? Can the state – or any institution – become more flexible, fluid and dynamic while maintaining its essential qualities?
And this is the good case, the happy outcome, where everyone is pulling in the same direction. What happens when aims differ, when some hyperintelligence for some reason decides that it is antithetical to the interests of an institution or a state? We’ve seen the beginnings of this in the weird, slow war between the Church of Scientology and ANONYMOUS, a shadowy organization which coordinates its operations through a wiki. In recent weeks ANONYMOUS has also taken on the Basidj paramilitaries in Iran, and China’s internet censors. ANONYMOUS pools its information, builds hyperintelligence, and translates that hyperintelligence into hyperempowerment. Of course, they don’t use these words. ANONYMOUS is simply a creature of its times, born in an era of hyperconnectivity.
It might be more profitable to ask what happens when some group, working the data supplied at Recovery.gov or Data.gov or you-name-it.gov, learns of something that they’re opposed to, then goes to work blocking the government’s activities. In some sense, this is good old-fashioned activism, but it is amplified by the technologies now at hand. That amplification could be seen as a threat by the state; such activism could even be labeled terrorism. Even when this activism is well-intentioned, the mismatch and collision between the power of the state and any hyperempowered polities means that such mistakes will be very easy to make.
We will need to engage in a close examination of the intersection between the state and the various hyperempowered actors which rising up over next few years. Fortunately, the Obama administration, in its drive to make government data more transparent and more accessible (and thereby more likely to generate hyperintelligence around it) has provided the perfect laboratory to watch these hyperintelligences as they emerge and spread their wings. Although communication’s PhD candidates undoubtedly will be watching and taking notes, public policy-makers also should closely observe everything that happens. Since the rules of the game are changing, observation is the first most necessary step toward a rational future. Examining the pushback caused by these newly emerging communities will give us our first workable snapshot of a political science for the 21st century.
The 21st century will continue to see the emergence of powerful and hyperempowered communities. Sometimes these will challenge hierarchical organizations, such as with Wikipedia and the Church of Scientology; sometimes they will work with hierarchical organizations, as with Project Houdini; and sometimes it will be very hard to tell what the intended outcomes are. In each case the hierarchy – be it a state or an institution – will have to adapt itself into a new power role, a new sharing of power. In the past, like paired with like: states shared power with states, institutions with institutions, hierarchies with hierarchies. We are leaving this comfortable and familiar time behind, headed into a world where actors of every shape and description find themselves sufficiently hyperempowered to challenge any hierarchy. Even when they seek to work with a state or institution, they present challenges. Peace is war. In either direction, the same paradox confronts us: power must surrender power, or be overwhelmed by it. Sharing power is not an ideal of some utopian future; it’s the ground truth of our hyperconnected world.