Inaugural address for the “What’s the Big Idea?” lecture series, at the Bundeena Bowls Club in Bundeena, a small community (pop. 3500) just south of Sydney in Royal National Park.
I: Family Affairs
In the US state of North Carolina, the New York Times reports, an interesting experiment has been in progress since the first of February. The “Birds and Bees Text Line” invites teenagers with any questions relating to sex or the mysteries of dating to SMS their question to a phone number. That number connects these teenagers to an on-duty adult at the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign. Within 24 hours, the teenager gets a reply to their text. The questions range from the run-of-the-mill – “When is a person not a virgin anymore?” – and the unusual – “If you have sex underwater do u need a condom?” – to the utterly heart-rending – “Hey, I’m preg and don’t know how 2 tell my parents. Can you help?”
The Birds and Bees Text Line is a response to the slow rise in the number of teenage pregnancies in North Carolina, which reached its lowest ebb in 2003. Teenagers – who are given state-mandated abstinence-only sex education in school – now have access to another resource, unmediated by teachers or parents, to prevent another generation of teenage pregnancies. Although it’s early days yet, the response to the program has been positive. Teenagers are using the Birds and Bees Text Line.
It is precisely because the Birds and Bees Text Line is unmediated by parental control that it has earned the ire of the more conservative elements in North Carolina. Bill Brooks, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council, a conservative group, complained to the Times about the lack of oversight. “If I couldn’t control access to this service, I’d turn off the texting service. When it comes to the Internet, parents are advised to put blockers on their computer and keep it in a central place in the home. But kids can have access to this on their cell phones when they’re away from parental influence – and it can’t be controlled.”
If I’d stuffed words into a straw man’s mouth, I couldn’t have come up with a better summation of the situation we’re all in right now: young and old, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. There are certain points where it becomes particularly obvious, such as with the Birds and Bees Text Line, but this example simply amplifies our sense of the present as a very strange place, an undiscovered country that we’ve all suddenly been thrust into. Conservatives naturally react conservatively, seeking to preserve what has worked in the past; Bill Brooks speaks for a large cohort of people who feel increasingly lost in this bewildering present.
Let us assume, for a moment, that conservatism was in the ascendant (though this is clearly not the case in the United States, one could make a good argument that the Rudd Government is, in many ways, more conservative than its predecessor). Let us presume that Bill Brooks and the people for whom he speaks could have the Birds and Bees Text Line shut down. Would that, then, be the end of it? Would we have stuffed the genie back into the bottle? The answer, unquestionably, is no.
Everyone who has used or even heard of the Birds and Bees Text Line would be familiar with what it does and how it works. Once demonstrated, it becomes much easier to reproduce. It would be relatively straightforward to take the same functions performed by the Birds and Bees Text Line and “crowdsource” them, sharing the load across any number of dedicated volunteers who might, through some clever software, automate most of the tasks needed to distribute messages throughout the “cloud” of volunteers. Even if it took a small amount of money to setup and get going, that kind of money would be available from donors who feel that teenage sexual education is a worthwhile thing.
In other words, the same sort of engine which powers Wikipedia can be put to work across a number of different “platforms”. The power of sharing allows individuals to come together in great “clouds” of activity, and allows them to focus their activity around a single task. It could be an encyclopedia, or it could be providing reliable and judgment-free information about sexuality to teenagers. The form matters not at all: what matters is that it’s happening, all around us, everywhere throughout the world.
The cloud, this new thing, this is really what has Bill Brooks scared, because it is, quite literally, ‘out of control’. It arises naturally out of the human condition of ‘hyperconnection’. We are so much better connected than we were even a decade ago, and this connectivity breeds new capabilities. The first of these capabilities are the pooling and sharing of knowledge – or ‘hyperintelligence’. Consider: everyone who reads Wikipedia is potentially as smart as the smartest person who’s written an article in Wikipedia. Wikipedia has effectively banished ignorance born of want of knowledge. The Birds and Bees Text Line is another form of hyperintelligence, connecting adults with knowledge to teenagers in desperate need of that knowledge.
Hyperconnectivity also means that we can carefully watch one another, and learn from one another’s behaviors at the speed of light. This new capability – ‘hypermimesis’ – means that new behaviors, such as the Birds and Bees Text Line, can be seen and copied very quickly. Finally, hypermimesis means that that communities of interest can form around particular behaviors, ‘clouds’ of potential. These communities range from the mundane to the arcane, and they are everywhere online. But only recently have they discovered that they can translate their community into doing, putting hyperintelligence to work for the benefit of the community. This is the methodology of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign. This is the methodology of Wikipedia. This is the methodology of Wikileaks, which seeks to provide a safe place for whistle-blowers who want to share the goods on those who attempt to defraud or censor or suppress. This is the methodology of ANONYMOUS, which seeks to expose Scientology as a ridiculous cult. How many more examples need to be listed before we admit that the rules have changed, that the smooth functioning of power has been terrifically interrupted by these other forces, now powers in their own right?
II: Affairs of State
Don’t expect a revolution. We will not see masses of hyperconnected individuals, storming the Winter Palaces of power. This is not a proletarian revolt. It is, instead, rather more subtle and complex. The entire nature of power has changed, as have the burdens of power. Power has always carried with it the ‘burden of omniscience’ – that is, those at the top of the hierarchy have to possess a complete knowledge of everything of importance happening everywhere under their control. Where they lose grasp of that knowledge, that’s the space where coups, palace revolutions and popular revolts take place.
This new power that flows from the cloud of hyperconnectivity carries a different burden, the ‘burden of connection’. In order to maintain the cloud, and our presence within it, we are beholden to it. We must maintain each of the social relationships, each of the informational relationships, each of the knowledge relationships and each of the mimetic relationships within the cloud. Without that constant activity, the cloud dissipates, evaporating into nothing at all.
This is not a particularly new phenomenon; Dunbar’s Number demonstrates that we are beholden to the ‘tribe’ of our peers, the roughly 150 individuals who can find a place in our heads. In pre-civilization, the cloud was the tribe. Should the members of tribe interrupt the constant reinforcement of their social, informational, knowledge-based and mimetic relationships, the tribe would dissolve and disperse – as happens to a tribe when it grows beyond the confines of Dunbar’s Number.
In this hyperconnected era, we can pick and choose which of our human connections deserves reinforcement; the lines of that reinforcement shape the scope of our power. Studies of Japanese teenagers using mobiles and twenty-somethings on Facebook have shown that, most of the time, activity is directed toward a small circle of peers, perhaps six or seven others. This ‘co-presence’ is probably a modern echo of an ancient behavior, presumably related to the familial unit.
While we might desire to extend our power and capabilities through our networks of hyperconnections, the cost associated with such investments is very high. Time spent invested in a far-flung cloud is time that lost on networks closer to home. Yet individuals will nonetheless often dedicate themselves to some cause greater than themselves, despite the high price paid, drawn to some higher ideal.
The Obama campaign proved an interesting example of the price of connectivity. During the Democratic primary for the state of New York (which Hilary Clinton was expected to win easily), so many individuals contacted the campaign through its website that the campaign itself quickly became overloaded with the number of connections it was expected to maintain. By election day, the campaign staff in New York had retreated from the web, back to using mobiles. They had detached from the ‘cloud’ connectivity they used the web to foster, instead focusing their connectivity on the older model of the six or seven individuals in co-present connection. The enormous cloud of power which could have been put to work in New York lay dormant, unorganized, talking to itself through the Obama website, but effectively disconnected from the Obama campaign.
For each of us, connectivity carries a high price. For every organization which attempts to harness hyperconnectivity, the price is even higher. With very few exceptions, organizations are structured along hierarchical lines. Power flows from bottom to the top. Not only does this create the ‘burden of omniscience’ at the highest levels of the organization, it also fundamentally mismatches the flows of power in the cloud. When the hierarchy comes into contact with an energized cloud, the ‘discharge’ from the cloud to the hierarchy can completely overload the hierarchy. That’s the power of hyperconnectivity.
Another example from the Obama campaign demonstrates this power. Project Houdini was touted out by the Obama campaign as a system which would get the grassroots of the campaign to funnel their GOTV results into a centralized database, which could then be used to track down individuals who hadn’t voted, in order to offer them assistance in getting to their local polling station. The campaign grassroots received training in Project Houdini, when through a field test of the software and procedures, then waited for election day. On election day, Project Houdini lasted no more than 15 minutes before it crashed under the incredible number of empowered individuals who attempted to plug data into Project Houdini. Although months in the making, Project Houdini proved that a centralized and hierarchical system for campaign management couldn’t actually cope with the ‘cloud’ of grassroots organizers.
In the 21st century we now have two oppositional methods of organization: the hierarchy and the cloud. Each of them carry with them their own costs and their own strengths. Neither has yet proven to be wholly better than the other. One could make an argument that both have their own roles into the future, and that we’ll be spending a lot of time learning which works best in a given situation. What we have already learned is that these organizational types are mostly incompatible: unless very specific steps are taken, the cloud overpowers the hierarchy, or the hierarchy dissipates the cloud. We need to think about the interfaces that can connect one to the other. That’s the area that all organizations – and very specifically, non-profit organizations – will be working through in the coming years. Learning how to harness the power of the cloud will mark the difference between a modest success and overwhelming one. Yet working with the cloud will present organizational challenges of an unprecedented order. There is no way that any hierarchy can work with a cloud without becoming fundamentally changed by the experience.
III: Affair de Coeur
All organizations are now confronted with two utterly divergent methodologies for organizing their activities: the tower and the cloud. The tower seeks to organize everything in hierarchies, control information flows, and keep the power heading from bottom to top. The cloud isn’t formally organized, pools its information resources, and has no center of power. Despite all of its obvious weaknesses, the cloud can still transform itself into a formidable power, capable of overwhelming the tower. To push the metaphor a little further, the cloud can become a storm.
How does this happen? What is it that turns a cloud into a storm? Jimmy Wales has said that the success of any language-variant version of Wikipedia comes down to the dedicated efforts of five individuals. Once he spies those five individuals hard at work in Pashtun or Khazak or Xhosa, he knows that edition of Wikipedia will become a success. In other words, five people have to take the lead, leading everyone else in the cloud with their dedication, their selflessness, and their openness. This number probably holds true in a cloud of any sort – find five like-minded individuals, and the transformation from cloud to storm will begin.
At the end of that transformation there is still no hierarchy. There are, instead, concentric circles of involvement. At the innermost, those five or more incredibly dedicated individuals; then a larger circle of a greater number, who work with that inner five as time and opportunity allow; and so on, outward, at decreasing levels of involvement, until we reach those who simply contribute a word or a grammatical change, and have no real connection with the inner circle, except in commonality of purpose. This is the model for Wikipedia, for Wikileaks, and for ANONYMOUS. This is the cloud model, fully actualized as a storm. At this point the storm can challenge any tower.
But the storm doesn’t have things all its own way; to present a challenge to a tower is to invite the full presentation of its own power, which is very rude, very physical, and potentially very deadly. Wikipedians at work on the Farsi version of the encyclopedia face arrest and persecution by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and religious police. Just a few weeks ago, after the contents of the Australian government’s internet blacklist was posted to Wikileaks, the German government invaded the home of the man who owns the domain name for Wikileaks in Germany. The tower still controls most of the power apparatus in the world, and that power can be used to squeeze any potential competitors.
But what happens when you try to squeeze a cloud? Effectively, nothing at all. Wikipedia has no head to decapitate. Jimmy Wales is an effective cheerleader and face for the press, but his presence isn’t strictly necessary. There are over 2000 Wikipedians who handle the day-to-day work. Locking all of them away, while possible, would only encourage further development in the cloud, as other individuals moved to fill their places. Moreover, any attempt to disrupt the cloud only makes the cloud more resilient. This has been demonstrated conclusively from the evolution of ‘darknets’, private file-sharing networks, which grew up as the legal and widely available file-sharing networks, such as Napster, were shut down by the copyright owners. Attacks on the cloud only improve the networks within the cloud, only make the leaders more dedicated, only increase the information and knowledge sharing within the cloud. Trying to disperse a storm only intensifies it.
These are not idle speculations; the tower will seek to contain the storm by any means necessary. The 21st century will increasingly look like a series of collisions between towers and storms. Each time the storm emerges triumphant, the tower will become more radical and determined in its efforts to disperse the storm, which will only result in a more energized and intensified storm. This is not a game that the tower can win by fighting. Only by opening up and adjusting itself to the structure of the cloud can the tower find any way forward.
What, then, is leadership in the cloud? It is not like leadership in the tower. It is not a position wrought from power, but authority in its other, and more primary meaning, ‘to be the master of’. Authority in the cloud is drawn from dedication, or, to use rather more precise language, love. Love is what holds the cloud together. People are attracted to the cloud because they are in love with the aim of the cloud. The cloud truly is an affair of the heart, and these affairs of the heart will be the engines that drive 21st century business, politics and community.
Author and pundit Clay Shirky has stated, “The internet is better at stopping things than starting them.” I reckon he’s wrong there: the internet is very good at starting things that stop things. But it is very good at starting things. Making the jump from an amorphous cloud of potentiality to a forceful storm requires the love of just five people. That’s not much to ask. If you can’t get that many people in love with your cause, it may not be worth pursing.
Conclusion: Managing Your Affairs
All 21st century organizations need to recognize and adapt to the power of the cloud. It’s either that or face a death of a thousand cuts, the slow ebbing of power away from hierarchically-structured organizations as newer forms of organization supplant them. But it need not be this way. It need not be an either/or choice. It could be a future of and-and-and, where both forms continue to co-exist peacefully. But that will only come to pass if hierarchies recognize the power of the cloud.
This means you.
All of you have your own hierarchical organizations – because that’s how organizations have always been run. Yet each of you are surrounded by your own clouds: community organizations (both in the real world and online), bulletin boards, blogs, and all of the other Web2.0 supports for the sharing of connectivity, information, knowledge and power. You are already halfway invested in the cloud, whether or not you realize it. And that’s also true for people you serve, your customers and clients and interest groups. You can’t simply ignore the cloud.
How then should organizations proceed?
First recommendation: do not be scared of the cloud. It might be some time before you can come to love the cloud, or even trust it, but you must at least move to a place where you are not frightened by a constituency which uses the cloud to assert its own empowerment. Reacting out of fright will only lead to an arms race, a series of escalations where the your hierarchy attempts to contain the cloud, and the cloud – which is faster, smarter and more agile than you can ever hope to be – outwits you, again and again.
Second: like likes like. If you can permute your organization so that it looks more like the cloud, you’ll have an easier time working with the cloud. Case in point: because of ‘message discipline’, only a very few people are allowed to speak for an organization. Yet, because of the exponential growth in connectivity and Web2.0 technologies, everyone in your organization has more opportunities to speak for your organization than ever before. Can you release control over message discipline, and empower your organization to speak for itself, from any point of contact? Yes, this sounds dangerous, and yes, there are some dangers involved, but the cloud wants to be spoken to authentically, and authenticity has many competing voices, not a single monolithic tone.
Third, and finally, remember that we are all involved in a growth process. The cloud of last year is not the cloud of next year. The answers that satisfied a year ago are not the same answers that will satisfy a year from now. We are all booting up very quickly into an alternative form of social organization which is only just now spreading its wings and testing its worth. Beginnings are delicate times. The future will be shaped by actions in the present. This means there are enormous opportunities to extend the capabilities of existing organizations, simply by harnessing them to the changes underway. It also means that tragedies await those who fight the tide of times too single-mindedly. Our culture has already rounded the corner, and made the transition to the cloud. It remains to be seen which of our institutions and organizations can adapt themselves, and find their way forward into sharing power.
If a picture paints a thousand words, you’ve just absorbed a million, the equivalent of one-and-a-half Bibles. That’s the way it is, these days. Nothing is small, nothing discrete, nothing bite-sized. Instead, we get the fire hose, 24 x 7, a world in which connection and community have become so colonized by intensity and amplification that nearly nothing feels average anymore.
Is this what we wanted? It’s become difficult to remember the before-time, how it was prior to an era of hyperconnectivity. We’ve spent the last fifteen years working out the most excellent ways to establish, strengthen and multiply the connections between ourselves. The job is nearly done, but now, as we put down our tools and pause to catch our breath, here comes the question we’ve dreaded all along…
Why. Why this?
I gave this question no thought at all as I blithely added friends to Twitter, shot past the limits of Dunbar’s Number, through the ridiculous, and then outward, approaching the sheer insanity of 1200 so-called-“friends” whose tweets now scroll by so quickly that I can’t focus on any one saying any thing because this motion blur is such that by the time I think to answer in reply, the tweet in question has scrolled off the end of the world.
This is ludicrous, and can not continue. But this is vital and can not be forgotten. And this is the paradox of the first decade of the 21st century: what we want – what we think we need – is making us crazy.
Some of this craziness is biological.
Eleven million years of evolution, back to Proconsul, the ancestor of all the hominids, have crafted us into quintessentially social creatures. We are human to the degree we are in relationship with our peers. We grew big forebrains, to hold banks of the chattering classes inside our own heads, so that we could engage these simulations of relationships in never-ending conversation. We never talk to ourselves, really. We engage these internal others in our thoughts, endlessly rehearsing and reliving all of the social moments which comprise the most memorable parts of life.
It’s crowded in there. It’s meant to be. And this has only made it worse.
No man is an island. Man is only man when he is part of a community. But we have limits. Homo Sapiens Sapiens spent two hundred thousand years exploring the resources afforded by a bit more than a liter of neural tissue. The brain has physical limits (we have to pass through the birth canal without killing our mothers) so our internal communities top out at Dunbar’s magic Number of 150, plus or minus a few.
Dunbar’s Number defines the crucial threshold between a community and a mob. Communities are made up of memorable and internalized individuals; mobs are unique in their lack of distinction. Communities can be held in one’s head, can be tended and soothed and encouraged and cajoled.
Four years ago, when I began my research into sharing and social networks, I asked a basic question: Will we find some way to transcend this biological limit, break free of the tyranny of cranial capacity, grow beyond the limits of Dunbar’s Number?
After all, we have the technology. We can hyperconnect in so many ways, through so many media, across the entire range of sensory modalities, it is as if the material world, which we have fashioned into our own image, wants nothing more than to boost our capacity for relationship.
And now we have two forces in opposition, both originating in the mind. Our old mind hews closely to the community and Dunbar’s Number. Our new mind seeks the power of the mob, and the amplification of numbers beyond imagination. This is the central paradox of the early 21st century, this is the rift which will never close. On one side we are civil, and civilized. On the other we are awesome, terrible, and terrifying. And everything we’ve done in the last fifteen years has simply pushed us closer to the abyss of the awesome.
We can not reasonably put down these new weapons of communication, even as they grind communities beneath them like so many old and brittle bones. We can not turn the dial of history backward. We are what we are, and already we have a good sense of what we are becoming. It may not be pretty – it may not even feel human – but this is things as they are.
When the historians of this age write their stories, a hundred years from now, they will talk about amplification as the defining feature of this entire era, the three hundred year span from industrial revolution to the emergence of the hyperconnected mob. In the beginning, the steam engine amplified the power of human muscle – making both human slavery and animal power redundant. In the end, our technologies of communication amplified our innate social capabilities, which eleven million years of natural selection have consistently selected for. Above and beyond all of our other natural gifts, those humans who communicate most effectively stand the greatest chance of passing their genes along to subsequent generations. It’s as simple as that. We talk our partners into bed, and always have.
The steam engine transformed the natural world into a largely artificial environment; the amplification of our muscles made us masters of the physical world. Now, the technologies of hyperconnectivity are translating the natural world, ruled by Dunbar’s Number, into the dominating influence of maddening crowd.
We are not prepared for this. We have no biological defense mechanism. We are all going to have to get used to a constant state of being which resembles nothing so much as a stack overflow, a consistent social incontinence, as we struggle to retain some aspects of selfhood amidst the constantly eroding pressure of the hyperconnected mob.
Given this, and given that many of us here today are already in the midst of this, it seems to me that the most useful tool any of us could have, moving forward into this future, is a social contextualizer. This prosthesis – which might live in our mobiles, or our nettops, or our Bluetooth headsets – will fill our limited minds with the details of our social interactions.
This tool will make explicit that long, Jacob Marley-like train of lockboxes that are our interactions in the techno-social sphere. Thus, when I introduce myself to you for the first or the fifteen hundredth time, you can be instantly brought up to date on why I am relevant, why I matter. When all else gets stripped away, each relationship has a core of salience which can be captured (roughly), and served up every time we might meet.
I expect that this prosthesis will come along sooner rather than later, and that it will rival Google in importance. Google took too much data and made it roughly searchable. This prosthesis will take too much connectivity and make it roughly serviceable. Given that we primarily social beings, I expect it to be a greater innovation, and more broadly disruptive.
And this prosthesis has precedents; at Xerox PARC they have been looking into a ‘human memory prosthesis’ for sufferers from senile dementia, a device which constantly jogs human memories as to task, place, and people. The world that we’re making for ourselves, every time we connect, is a place where we are all (in some relative sense) demented. Without this tool we will be entirely lost. We’re already slipping beneath the waves. We need this soon. We need this now.
I hope you’ll get inventive.
Now that we have comfortably settled into the central paradox of our current era, with a world that is working through every available means to increase our connectivity, and a brain that is suddenly overloaded and sinking beneath the demands of the sum total of these connections, we need to ask that question: Exactly what is hyperconnectivity good for? What new thing does that bring us?
The easy answer is the obvious one: crowdsourcing. The action of a few million hyperconnected individuals resulted in a massive and massively influential work: Wikipedia. But the examples only begin there. They range much further afield.
Uni students have been sharing their unvarnished assessments of their instructors and lecturers. Ratemyprofessors.com has become the bête noire of the academy, because researchers who can’t teach find they have no one signing up for their courses, while the best lecturers, with the highest ratings, suddenly find themselves swarmed with offers for better teaching positions at more prestigious universities. A simply and easily implemented system of crowdsourced reviews has carefully undone all of the work of the tenure boards of the academy.
It won’t be long until everything else follows. Restaurant reviews – that’s done. What about reviews of doctors? Lawyers? Indian chiefs? Politicans? ISPs? (Oh, wait, we have that with Whirlpool.) Anything you can think of. Anything you might need. All of it will have been so extensively reviewed by such a large mob that you will know nearly everything that can be known before you sign on that dotted line.
All of this means that every time we gather together in our hyperconnected mobs to crowdsource some particular task, we become better informed, we become more powerful. Which means it becomes more likely that the hyperconnected mob will come together again around some other task suited to crowdsourcing, and will become even more powerful. That system of positive feedbacks – which we are already quite in the midst of – is fashioning a new polity, a rewritten social contract, which is making the institutions of the 19th and 20th centuries – that is, the industrial era – seem as antiquated and quaint as the feudal systems which they replaced.
It is not that these institutions are dying, but rather, they now face worthy competitors. Democracy, as an example, works well in communities, but can fail epically when it scales to mobs. Crowdsourced knowledge requires a mob, but that knowledge, once it has been collected, can be shared within a community, to hyperempower that community. This tug-of-war between communities and crowds is setting all of our institutions, old and new, vibrating like taught strings.
We already have a name for this small-pieces-loosely-joined form of social organization: it’s known as anarcho-syndicalism. Anarcho-Syndicalism emerged from the labor movements that grew in numbers and power toward the end of the 19th century. Its basic idea is simply that people will choose to cooperate more often than they choose to compete, and this cooperation can form the basis for a social, political and economic contract wherein the people manage themselves.
A system with no hierarchy, no bosses, no secrets, no politics. (Well, maybe that last one is asking too much.) Anarcho-syndicalism takes as a given that all men are created equal, and therefore each have a say in what they choose to do.
Somewhere back before Australia became a nation, anarcho-syndicalist trade unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (or, more commonly, the ‘Wobblies’) fought armies of mercenaries in the streets of the major industrial cities of the world, trying get the upper hand in the battle between labor and capital. They failed because capital could outmaneuver labor in the 19th century. Today the situation is precisely reversed. Capital is slow. Knowledge is fast, the quicksilver that enlivens all our activities.
I come before you today wearing my true political colors – literally. I did not pick a red jumper and black pants by some accident or wardrobe malfunction. These are the colors of anarcho-syndicalism. And that is the new System of the World.
You don’t have to believe me. You can dismiss my political posturing as sheer radicalism. But I ask you to cast your mind further than this stage this afternoon, and look out on a world which is permanently and instantaneously hyperconnected, and I ask you – how could things go any other way? Every day one of us invents a new way to tie us together or share what we know; as that invention is used, it is copied by those who see it being used.
When we imitate the successful behaviors of our hyperconnected peers, this ‘hypermimesis’ means that we are all already in a giant collective. It’s not a hive mind, and it’s not an overmind. It’s something weirdly in-between. Connected we are smarter by far than we are as individuals, but this connection conditions and constrains us, even as it liberates us. No gift comes for free.
I assert, on the weight of a growing mountain of evidence, that anarcho-syndicalism is the place where the community meets the crowd; it is the environment where this social prosthesis meets that radical hyperempowerment of capabilities.
Let me give you one example, happening right now. The classroom walls are disintegrating (and thank heaven for that), punctured by hyperconnectivity, as the outside world comes rushing in to meet the student, and the student leaves the classroom behind for the school of the world. The student doesn’t need to be in the classroom anymore, nor does the false rigor of the classroom need to be drilled into the student. There is such a hyperabundance of instruction and information available, students needs a mentor more than a teacher, a guide through the wilderness, and not a penitentiary to prevent their journey.
Now the students, and their parents – and the teachers and instructors and administrators – need to find a new way to work together, a communion of needs married to a community of gifts. The school is transforming into an anarcho-syndicalist collective, where everyone works together as peers, comes together in a “more perfect union”, to educate. There is no more school-as-a-place-you-go-to-get-your-book-learning. School is a state of being, an act of communion.
If this is happening to education, can medicine, and law, and politics be so very far behind? Of course not. But, unlike the elites of education, these other forces will resist and resist and resist all change, until such time as they have no choice but to surrender to mobs which are smarter, faster and more flexible than they are. In twenty years time they all these institutions will be all but unrecognizable.
All of this is light-years away from how our institutions have been designed. Those institutions – all institutions – are feeling the strain of informational overload. More than that, they’re now suffering the death of a thousand cuts, as the various polities serviced by each of these institutions actually outperform them.
You walk into your doctor’s office knowing more about your condition than your doctor. You understand the implications of your contract better than your lawyer. You know more about a subject than your instructor. That’s just the way it is, in the era of hyperconnectivity.
So we must band together. And we already have. We have come together, drawn by our interests, put our shoulders to the wheel, and moved the Earth upon its axis. Most specifically, those of you in this theatre with me this arvo have made the world move, because the Web is the fulcrum for this entire transformation. In less than two decades we’ve gone from physicists plaything to rewriting the rules of civilization.
But try not to think about that too much. It could go to your head.
III. THE OTHER.
Back in July, just after Vodafone had announced its meager data plans for iPhone 3G, I wrote a short essay for Ross Dawson’s Future of Media blog. I griped and bitched and spat the dummy, summing things up with this line:
“It’s time to show the carriers we can do this ourselves.”
I recommended that we start the ‘Future Australian Carrier’, or FAUC, and proceeded to invite all of my readers to get FAUCed. A harmless little incitement to action. What could possibly go wrong?
Within a day’s time a FAUC Facebook group had been started – without my input – and I was invited to join. Over the next two weeks about four hundred people joined that group, individuals who had simply had enough grief from their carriers and were looking for something better. After that, although there was some lively discussion about a possible logo, and some research into how MVNOs actually worked, nothing happened.
About a month later, individuals began to ping me, both on Facebook and via Twitter, asking, “What happened with that carrier you were going to start, Mark? Hmm?” As if somehow, I had signed on the dotted line to be chief executive, cheerleader, nose-wiper and bottle-washer for FAUC.
All of this caught me by surprise, because I certainly hadn’t signed up to create anything. I’d floated an idea, nothing more. Yet everyone was looking to me to somehow bring this new thing into being.
After I’d been hit up a few times, I started to understand where the epic !FAIL! had occurred. And the failure wasn’t really mine. You see, I’ve come to realize a sad and disgusting little fact about all of us: We need and we need and we need.
We need others to gather the news we read. We need others to provide the broadband we so greedily lap up. We need other to govern us. And god forbid we should be asked to shoulder some of the burden. We’ll fire off a thousand excuses about how we’re so time poor even the cat hasn’t been fed in a week.
So, sure, four hundred people might sign up to a Facebook group to indicate their need for a better mobile carrier, but would any of them think of stepping forward to spearhead its organization, its cash-raising, or it leasing agreements? No. That’s all too much hard work. All any of these people needed was cheap mobile broadband.
Well, cheap don’t come cheaply.
Of course, this happens everywhere up and down the commercial chain of being. QANTAS and Telstra outsource work to southern Asia because they can’t be bothered to pay for local help, because their stockholders can’t be bothered to take a small cut in their quarterly dividends.
There’s no difference in the act itself, just in its scale. And this isn’t even raw economics. This is a case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Carve some profit today, spend a fortune tomorrow to recover. We see it over and over and over again (most recently and most expensively on Wall Street), but somehow the point never makes it through our thick skulls. It’s probably because we human beings find it much easier to imagine three months into the future than three years. That’s a cognitive feature which helps if you’re on the African savannah, but sucks if you’re sitting in an Australian boardroom.
So this is the other thing. The ugly thing that no one wants to look at, because to look at it involves an admission of laziness. Well folks, let me be the first one here to admit it: I’m lazy. I’m too lazy to administer my damn Qmail server, so I use Gmail. I’m too lazy to setup WebDAV, so I use Google Docs. I’m too lazy to keep my devices synced, so I use MobileMe. And I’m too lazy to start my own carrier, so instead I pay a small fortune each month to Vodafone, for lousy service.
And yes, we’re all so very, very busy. I understand this. Every investment of time is a tradeoff. Yet we seem to defer, every time, to let someone else do it for us.
And is this wise? The more I see of cloud computing, the more I am convinced that it has become a single-point-of-failure for data communications. The decade-and-a-half that I spent as a network engineer tells me that. Don’t trust the cloud. Don’t trust redundancy. Trust no one. Keep your data in the cloud if you must, but for goodness’ sake, keep another copy locally. And another copy on the other side of the world. And another under your mattress.
I’m telling you things I shouldn’t have to tell you. I’m telling you things that you already know. But the other, this laziness, it’s built into our culture. Socially, we have two states of being: community and crowd. A community can collaborate to bring a new mobile carrier into being. A crowd can only gripe about their carrier. And now, as the strict lines between community and crowd get increasingly confused because of the upswing in hyperconnectivity, we behave like crowds when we really ought to be organizing like a community.
And this, at last, is the other thing: the message I really want to leave you with. You people, here in this auditorium today, you are the masters of the world. Not your bosses, not your shareholders, not your users. You. You folks, right here and right now. The keys to the kingdom of hyperconnectivity have been given to you. You can contour, shape and control that chaotic meeting point between community and crowd. That is what you do every time you craft an interface, or write a script. Your work helps people self-organize. Your work can engage us at our laziest, and turn us into happy worker bees. It can be done. Wikipedia has shown the way.
And now, as everything hierarchical and well-ordered dissolves into the grey goo which is the other thing, you have to ask yourself, “Who does this serve?”
At the end of the day, you’re answerable to yourself. No one else is going to do the heavy lifting for you. So when you think up an idea or dream up a design, consider this: Will it help people think for themselves? Will it help people meet their own needs? Or will it simply continue to infantilize us, until we become a planet of dummy-spitting, whinging, wankers?
It’s a question I ask myself, too, a question that’s shaping the decisions I make for myself. I want to make things that empower people, so I’ve decided to take some time to work with Andy Coffey, and re-think the book for the 21st century. Yes, that sounds ridiculous and ambitious and quixotic, but it’s also a development whose time is long overdue. If it succeeds at all, we will provide a publishing platform for people to share their long-form ideas. Everything about it will be open source and freely available to use, to copy, and to hack, because I already know that my community is smarter than I am.
And it’s a question I have answered for myself in another way. This is my third annual appearance before you at Web Directions South. It will be the last time for some time. You people are my community; where I knew none of you back in 2006; I consider many of you friends in 2008. Yet, when I talk to you like this, I get the uncomfortable feeling that my community has become a crowd. So, for the next few years, let’s have someone else do the closing keynote. I want to be with my peeps, in the audience, and on the Twitter backchannel, taking the piss and trading ideas.
The future – for all of us – is the battle over the boundary between the community and the crowd. I am choosing to embrace the community. It seems the right thing to do. And as I walk off-stage here, this afternoon, I want you to remember that each of you holds the keys to the kingdom. Our community is yours to shape as you will. Everything that you do is translated into how we operate as a culture, as a society, as a civilization. It can be a coming together, or it can be a breaking apart. And it’s up to you.
Not that there’s any pressure.
Recorded in New York City, 23 June 2008 – the day before I delivered “Hyperpolitics, American Style” at the Personal Democracy Forum. A wide-ranging discussion on hyperconnectivity, hyperpolitics, media, hyperdistribution, and lots of other fun things.
Many thanks to Mark for getting it up!
My presentation at the Personal Democracy Forum, Lincoln Center, New York City, 24 June 2008. Many thanks to Micah Sifry and the PdF staff for making it all possible.
Part One: Hyperconnected
We have been human beings for perhaps sixty thousand years. In all that time, our genome, the twenty-five thousand genes and three billion base pairs which comprise the source code for Homo Sapiens Sapiens has hardly changed.
For at least three thousand generations, we’ve had big brains to think with, a descended larynx to speak with, and opposable thumbs to grasp with. Yet, for almost ninety percent of that enormous span of time, humanity remained a static presence.
Our ancestors entered the world and passed on from it, but the patterns of culture remained remarkably stable, persistent and conservative. This posed a conundrum for paleoanthropologists, long known as ‘the sapient paradox’: if we had the “kit” for it, why did civilization take so long to arise?
Cambridge archeologist Colin Renfrew (more formally, Baron Renfrew of Kamisthorn) recently proposed an answer. We may have had great hardware, but it took a long, long time for humans to develop software which made full use of it.
We had to pass through symbolization, investing the outer world with inner meaning (in the process, creating some great art), before we could begin to develop the highly symbolic processes of cities, culture, law, and government.
About ten thousand years ago, the hidden interiority of humanity, passed down through myths and teachings and dreamings, built up a cultural reservoir of social capacity which overtopped the dam of the conservative patterns of humanity. We booted up (as it were) into a culture now so familiar we rarely take notice of it.
Cultures located along similar climatic regions on the planet’s surface could and did share innovations, most significantly along the broad swath of land from the Yangtze to the Rhine. This sharing accelerated the development of each of the populations connected together through the material flow of plants and animals and the immaterial flow of ideas and symbols. Where sharing had been a local and generational project for fifty thousand years, it suddenly became a geographical project across nearly half the diameter of the planet. Cities emerged in Anatolia, Palestine and the Fertile Crescent, and civilization spread out, over the next five hundred generations, to cover all of Eurasia.
Civilization proved another conservative force in human culture; despite the huge increases in population, the social order of Jericho looks little different from those of Imperial Rome or the Qin Dynasty or Medieval France.
But when Gutenberg (borrowing from the Chinese) perfected moveable type, he led the way to another and even broader form of cultural sharing; literacy became widespread in the aftermath of the printing press, and savants throughout the Europe published their insights, sharing their own expertise, producing the Enlightenment and igniting the Scientific Revolution. Peer-review, although portrayed today as a conservative force, initially acted as a radical intellectual accelerant, a mental hormone which again amplified the engines of human culture, leading directly to the Industrial Age.
The conservative empires fell, replaced by demos, the people: the cogs and wheels of a new system of the world which allowed for massive cities, massive markets, mass media, massive growth in human knowledge, and a new type of radicalism, known as Liberalism, which asserted the freedom of capital, labor, and people. That Liberalism, after two hundred and fifty years of ascendancy, has become the conservative order of culture, and faces its own existential threat, the result of another innovation in sharing.
Last month, The Economist, that fountainhead of Ur-Liberalism, proclaimed humanity “halfway there.” Somewhere in the last few months, half the population of the planet became mobile telephone subscribers. In a decade’s time we’ve gone from half the world having never made a telephone call to half the world owning their own mobile.
It took nearly a decade to get to the first billion, four years to the second, eighteen months to the third, and – sometime during 2011 – over five billion of us will be connected. Mobile handsets will soon be in the hands of everyone except the billion and a half extremely poor; microfinance organizations like Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank work hard to ensure that even this destitute minority have access to mobiles. Why? Mobiles may be the most potent tool yet invented for the elimination of poverty.
To those of us in the developed word this seems a questionable assertion. For us, mobiles are mainly social accelerants: no one is ever late anymore, just delayed. But, for entire populations who have never had access to instantaneous global communication, the mobile unleashes the innate, inherent and inalienable capabilities of sociability. Sociability has always been the cornerstone to human effectiveness. Being social has always been the best way to get ahead.
Until recently, we’d seen little to correlate mobiles with human economic development. But, here again, we see the gap between raw hardware capabilities and their expression in cultural software. Handing someone a mobile is not the end of the story, but the beginning. Nor is this purely a phenomenon of the developing world, or of the poor. We had the Web for almost a decade before we really started to work it toward its potential. Wikis were invented in 1995, marking it as an early web technology; the idea of Wikipedia took another six years.
Even SMS, the true carrier of the Human Network, had been dismissed by the telecommunications giants as uninteresting, a sideshow. Last year we sent forty three billion text messages.
We have a drive to connect and socialize: this drive has now been accelerated and amplified as comprehensively as the steam engine amplified human strength two hundred and fifty years ago. Just as the steam engine initiated the transformation of the natural landscape into man-made artifice, the ‘hyperconnectivity’ engendered by these new toys is transforming the human landscape of social relations. This time around, fifty thousand years of cultural development will collapse into about twenty.
This is coming as a bit of a shock.
Part Two: Hypermimesis
I have two nephews, Alexander and Andrew, born in 2001, and 2002. Alexander watched his mother mousing around on her laptop, and – from about 18 months – reached out to play with the mouse, imitating her actions. By age three Alex had a fair degree of control over the mouse; his younger brother watched him at play, and copied his actions. Soon, both wrestled for control of a mouse that both had mastered. Children are experts in mimesis – learning by imitation. It’s been shown that young chimpanzees regularly outscore human toddlers on cognitive tasks, while the children far surpass the chimps in their ability to “ape” behavior. We are built to observe and reproduce the behaviors of our parents, our mentors and our peers.
Our peers now number three and a half billion.
Whenever any one of us displays a new behavior in a hyperconnected context, that behavior is inherently transparent, visible and observed. If that behavior is successful, it is immediately copied by those who witnessed the behavior, then copied by those who witness that behavior, and those who witnessed that behavior, and so on. Very quickly, that behavior becomes part of the global behavioral kit. As its first-order emergent quality, hyperconnectivity produces hypermimesis, the unprecedented acceleration of the natural processes of observational learning, where each behavioral innovation is distributed globally and instantaneously.
Only a decade ago the network was all hardware and raw potential, but we are learning fast, and this learning is pervasive. Behaviors, once slowly copied from generation to generation, then, still slowly, from location to location, now ‘hyperdistribute’ themselves via the Human Network. We all learn from each other with every text we send, and each new insight becomes part of the new software of a new civilization.
We still do not know much about this nascent cultural form, even as its pieces pop out of the ether all around us. We know that it is fluid, flexible, mobile, pervasive and inexorable. We know that it does not allow for the neat proprieties of privacy and secrecy and ownership which define the fundamental ground of Liberal civilization. We know that, even as it grows, it encounters conservative forces intent on moderating its impact. Yet every assault, every tariff, every law designed to constrain this Human Network has failed.
Record companies and movie studios try to block distribution channels they can not control and can not tariff; every attempt to control distribution only results in an ever-more-pervasive and ever-more-difficult to detect “Darknet.”
A band of reporters and bloggers (some of whom are in this room today) took down the Attorney General of the United States, despite the best attempts of Washington’s political machinery to obfuscate then overload the processes of transparency and oversight. Each of these singular examples would have been literally unthinkable a decade ago, but today they are the facts on the ground, unmistakable signs of the potency of this new cultural order.
It is as though we have all been shoved into the same room, a post-modern Panopticon, where everyone watches everyone else, can speak with everyone else, can work with everyone else. We can send out a call to “find the others,” for any cause, and watch in wonder as millions raise their hands. Any fringe (noble or diabolical) multiplied across three and a half billion adds up to substantial numbers. Amplified by the Human Network, the bonds of affinity have delivered us over to a new kind of mob rule.
This shows up, at its most complete, in Wikipedia, which (warts and all) represents the first attempt to survey and capture the knowledge of the entire human race, rather than only its scientific and academic elites. A project of the mob, for the mob, and by the mob, Wikipedia is the mob rule of factual knowledge. Its phenomenal success demonstrates beyond all doubt how the calculus of civilization has shifted away from its Liberal basis. In Liberalism, knowledge is a scarce resource, managed by elites: the more scarce knowledge is, the more highly valued that knowledge, and the elites which conserve it. Wikipedia turns that assertion inside out: the more something is shared the more valuable it becomes. These newly disproportionate returns on the investment in altruism now trump the ‘virtue of selfishness.’
Paradoxically, Wikipedia is not at all democratic, nor is it actually transparent, though it gives the appearance of both. Investigations conducted by The Register in the UK and other media outlets have shown that the “encyclopedia anyone can edit” is, in fact, tightly regulated by a close network of hyperconnected peers, the “Wikipedians.”
This premise is borne out by the unpleasant fact that article submissions to Wikipedia are being rejected at an ever-increasing rate. Wikipedia’s growth has slowed, and may someday grind to a halt, not because it has somehow encompassed the totality of human knowledge, but because it is the front line of a new kind of warfare, a battle both semantic and civilizational. In this battle, we can see the tracings of hyperpolitics, the politics of era of hyperconnectivity.
To outsiders like myself, who critique their increasingly draconian behavior, Wikipedians have a simple response: “We are holding the line against chaos.” Wikipedians honestly believe that, in keeping Wikipedia from such effluvia as endless articles on anime characters, or biographies of living persons deemed “insufficiently notable,” they keep their resource “pure.” This is an essentially conservative impulse, as befits the temperament of a community of individuals who are, at heart, librarians and archivists.
The mechanisms through which this purity is maintained, however, are hardly conservative.
Hyperconnected, the Wikipedians create “sock puppet” personae to argue their points on discussion pages, using back-channel, non-transparent communications with other Wikipedians to amass the support (both numerically and rhetorically) to enforce their dictates. Those who attempt to counter the fixed opinion of any network of Wikipedians encounter a buzz-saw of defiance, and, almost invariably, withdraw in defeat.
Now that this ‘Great Game’ has been exposed, hypermimesis comes into play. The next time an individual or community gets knocked back, they have an option: they can choose to “go nuclear” on Wikipedia, using the tools of hyperconnectivity to generate such a storm of protest, from so many angles of attack, that the Wikipedians find themselves overwhelmed, backed into the buzz-saw of their own creation.
This will probably engender even more conservative reaction from the Wikipedians, until, in fairly short order, the most vital center of human knowledge creation in the history of our species becomes entirely fossilized.
Or, just possibly, Wikipedians will bow to the inevitable, embrace the chaos, and find a way to make it work.
That choice, writ large, is the same that confronts us in every aspect of our lives. The entire human social sphere faces the increasing pressures of hyperconnectivity, which arrive hand-in-hand with an increasing empowerment (‘hyperempowerment’) by means of hypermimesis. All of our mass social institutions, developed at the start of the Liberal era, are backed up against the same buzz saw.
Politics, as the most encompassing of our mass institutions, now balances on a knife edge between a past which no longer works and a future of chaos.
Part Three: No Governor
Last Monday, as I waited at San Francisco International for a flight to Logan, I used my mobile to snap some photos of the status board (cheerfully informing me of my delayed departure), which I immediately uploaded to Flickr. As I waited at the gate, I engaged in a playful banter with two women d’un certain age, that clever sort of casual conversation one has with fellow travelers. After we boarded the flight, one of the women approached me. “I just wanted you to know, that other woman, she works for the Treasury Department. And you were making her nervous when you took those photos.”
Now here’s the thing: I wanted to share the frustrations of my journey with my many friends, both in Australia and America, who track my comings and goings on Twitter, Flickr and Facebook. Sharing makes the unpleasant endurable. In that moment of confrontation, I found myself thrust into a realization that had been building over the last four years: Sharing is the threat. Not just a threat. It is the whole of the thing.
A photo snapped on my mobile becomes instantaneously and pervasively visible. No wonder she’s nervous: in my simple, honest and entirely human act of sharing, it becomes immediately apparent that any pretensions to control, or limitation, or the exercise of power have already collapsed into shell-shocked impotence.
We are asked to believe that hyperconnectivity can be embraced by political campaigns, and by politicians in power. We are asked to believe that everything we already know to be true about the accelerating disintegration of hierarchies of all kinds – economic, academic, cultural – will somehow magically suspend itself for the political process. That, somehow, politics will be different.
Bullshit. Ladies and gentlemen, don’t believe a word of it. It’s whistling past the graveyard. It’s clapping for Tinkerbelle. Obama may be the best thing since sliced bread, but this isn’t a crisis of leadership. This is not an emergency. And my amateur photography did not bring down the curtain on the Republic.
For the first time, we have a political campaign embracing hyperconnectivity. As is always the case with political campaigns, it is a means to an end. The Obama campaign has built a nationwide social network (using lovely, old-fashioned, human techniques), then activated it to compete in the primaries, dominate in the caucuses, and secure the Democratic nomination. That network is being activated again to win the general election.
Then what? Three months ago, I put this question directly to an Obama field organizer. He paused, as if he’d never given the question any thought, before answering, “I don’t know. I don’t believe anyone’s thought that far ahead.” There are now some statements from candidate Obama about what he’d like to see this network become. They are, of course, noble sentiments. They matter not at all. The mob, now mobilized, will do as it pleases. Obama can lead by example, can encourage or scold as occasion warrants, but he can not control. Not with all the King’s horses and all the King’s men.
And yes, that’s scary.
Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a rapid descent into the Bellum omnia contra omnes, Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all.” A hyperconnected polity – whether composed of a hundred individuals or a hundred thousand – has resources at its disposal which exponentially amplify its capabilities. Hyperconnectivity begets hypermimesis begets hyperempowerment. After the arms race comes the war.
Conserved across nearly four thousand generations, the social fabric will warp and convulse as various polities actualize their hyperempowerment in the cultural equivalent of nuclear exchanges. Eventually (one hopes, with hypermimesis, rather quickly) we will learn to contain these most explosive forces. We will learn that even though we can push the button, we’re far better off refraining. At that point, as in the era of superpower Realpolitik, the action will shift to a few tens of thousands of ‘little’ conflicts, the hyperconnected equivalents of the endless civil wars which plagued Asia, Africa and Latin America during the Cold War.
Naturally, governments will seek to control and mediate these emerging conflicts. This will only result in the guns being trained upon them. The power redistributions of the 21st century have dealt representative democracies out. Representative democracies are a poor fit to the challenges ahead, and ‘rebooting’ them is not enough. The future looks nothing like democracy, because democracy, which sought to empower the individual, is being obsolesced by a social order which hyperempowers him.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously pronounced that we should “Never underestimate the ability of a small group of committed individuals to change the world.” Mead spoke truthfully, and prophetically. We are all committed, we are all passionate. We merely lacked the lever to effectively translate the force of our commitment and passion into power. That lever has arrived, in my hand and yours.
And now, the world’s going to move – for all of us.
My presentation at Melbourne’s Next Wave Festival, on the panel “Friends I’ve Never Known”, with Christian McCrea, Dani Kirby, Alex Gibson and myself, all talking about different aspects of this hyperconnected era.
Please note that my language is a little raw in this presentation – not suitable for young children.
In March of 2008, someone – probably in India – bought a mobile telephone. By itself, that wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy, yet it represented a watershed: the halfway mark of humanity’s accelerating interconnection. Over 3.5 billion mobile subscribers, or one person in two, are wired into the global network. Most of these people live in the “developing” countries, where incomes average just a few dollars a day. Desperately poor by the standards of the “developed” world, why would these people waste their meager resources on something that, to most of us, seems little more than a useful toy?
In the developed world, mobile phones are completely ubiquitous: only toddlers, the very oldest seniors, and technophobes have resisted their allure. Parents give their children mobiles with global satellite tracking features, so they can search the web to find out where their kids are – and snoop into where they’ve been. Adults use mobile telephones to smooth the frictions of social life: in the age of the mobile, one can phone ahead. No one is late anymore, just delayed. Your productive business life can follow you anywhere – into bed, on vacation, even into the middle of an argument. We enjoy – and suffer through – a life of seamless connectivity.
This is new, and it is very important.
For the nearly two hundred thousand years of human presence on Earth, our lives have been bounded by how far we could throw our voices. Yodelers once scaled Alpine mountaintops to sing to the valleys below; today, a communications satellite, perched 25,000 miles above the equator, can reach half the planet. During the 20th century, radio transmitters (which, like yodelers, started off on mountaintops, but later migrated into orbit) transmitted one message to many receivers. We could hear and then see things that happened far away from our own ears and eyes, and know more about what happened in Washington D.C., on any given day, than what took place in the next town over. As we entered the 21st century, that comfortable (if paradoxical) relationship to the world beyond the reach of our own voices, which most of us had known for most of our lives, suddenly disintegrated. People began to talk with one another.
Nothing at all surprising about that: people have always talked with one another. Communication is arguably the defining feature of homo sapiens sapiens. We are the species that speaks. It is so much of what we are that vast sections of our brains are given over to the understanding of language. Children spend most of their first few years of life, their developing brains working overtime, intently studying every word that comes out of their parents’ mouths, learning to find meaning amidst all those strange sounds.
As a child practices her first few words, she receives encouragement and praise from her parents – who often can’t understand a word she’s saying, but nonetheless applaud every attempt. As she rises into mastery, first with a few simple words, then short phrases, then full-blown sentences, rich with meaning, she joins the “human network,” the age-old web of relationships which define humanity.
Communication shapes us in nearly every conceivable way. If we can not communicate, we are cut off from the common life of our species, and could not hope to survive. But, once we can communicate – with parents and peers – we begin to develop an ever-deepening web of connections with the people around us. This web, formally known as a “social network”, is so important to us that even more of our brain is given over to tending and managing our social networks than the parts used to understand language. Nearly all of our “prefrontal cortex” – the part of the brain which sits directly behind our foreheads – seems to be principally occupied with keeping us well-connected to our fellows.
Until about 10,000 years ago, we lived in tribes, groupings of several interrelated families who hunted and gathered their way across the landscapes of Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia. Tribes grew and shrank, through births and deaths, but never grew very large. A large tribe would divide into two smaller ones, along familial lines, and each would go their own way. The natural limit for tribes seems to be around 150 people – beyond that, the tribe always splinters. Why is this? That’s all the space we have in our brains. We can carry around a “mental picture” of about 150 people in our heads, but after that, we just run out of space. We can’t manage a social network any larger than that. We don’t have enough brains.
Fast-forward a hundred centuries: more than half of us now live in cities, not tribes. In our day-to-day lives we don’t feel immediately connected to a hundred and fifty other people. We have close relationships to our families, a handful of friends, and a few colleagues. We are more individual and more isolated than at any time in our common history as a species, yet the largest part of our brain tirelessly works toward building strong connections with others. Over the 20th century, we filled this vacuum with false relations: fans and stalkers, who so idolize their objects of affection (musicians, actors, politicians, etc.) that they built a false idol into their social networks. Ultimately unsatisfying, but better than a widening gyre of emptiness inside our heads.
Our ancestors in the family of man have used tools for at least 2 million years to increase our strength, and extend our capabilities. An obsidian knife is a far better cutting tool than our teeth, and a bone needle better suited to its task than the most nimble fingertips. We domesticated Aurochs (the ancestor of the ox) ten thousand years ago, using their strength to till our fields and carry our loads – and human capabilities took another huge leap forward.
Two hundred years ago, the steam engine multiplied human strength almost infinitely, and produced the Industrial Revolution. As railroads stitched their way across the planet, man could travel faster than a galloping horse; with a steam shovel, he could lift a load that all of Pharaoh’s slaves would have been crushed beneath; and with a telegraph, could he hear or be heard from one end of Earth to the other, in a matter of moments. Technologies are amplifiers; they take some innate human capability and reinforce it, far beyond human limits, until it seems almost an entirely new thing. However alien they might seem to us, technologies are simply the funhouse mirror reflection of ourselves.
Just now – within the last ten years, or thereabouts – we have invented tools which amplify our innate desire to strengthen our human networks. Our wholly human and ancient capacity for communication and connection, so long the poor stepchild of all our technological prowess, is finally coming into its own.
This changes everything, in utterly unexpected ways.
Fishermen in India use text messages to solve a thousand year-old problem with their fish markets, doubling their income; a teenager posts an party invitation to Facebook, and five hundred ‘friends’ show up to make trouble; repressive governments try to clamp down on dissent, only to find their latest outrage available for viewing on YouTube; a band of bloggers, undeterred by every dirty trick thrown at them by a slick bureaucracy, bring down the Attorney General of the United States. None of these singular events were in any way coordinated; no one at an imagined center was telling people to “do this” or “do that”. These things just happened, because our own capabilities as social beings in the human network are already so advanced, and so powerful that, when amplified – even the tiniest bit – we become potent almost beyond imagining.
The world’s vast swath of medium poor put mobile telephones to work and dramatically increase their ability to earn a living, using text messages to multiply the effectiveness of the human networks that we have all used, since time out of mind, to make our way in the world. That’s why a mobile phone is the new “must have” device for everyone on Earth: it’s a tool that helps the poor far more than it helps the rich, because, for the first time, they’re wired into the global human network. They already know how to use these networks – we all do – but the mobile telephone extends their reach, and amplifies their capabilities. This new “globalization” isn’t about spreading franchises of McDonald’s and Starbucks – it’s about a farmer in Kenya being able to call ahead to find out which market offers the best price for his maize crop.
Repeat that individual example a few billion times, and the startling power of the human network begins to reveal itself. We are finding new ways to communicate, connect and improve our lives, each of us carefully watching one other, each of us copying the best of what we see in the behavior of our peers, and applying it to our own lives. As our reach is extended, so is our ability to learn from one another. This global pooling of expertise – or, “hyperintelligence” – leads directly to the phenomenal success of Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia created by millions of individual contributions, each giving the best of what they know, and, in return enjoying the fruits of a planet full of smart people. For just a small contribution, the rewards are so disproportionate (like putting a single chip down on a roulette wheel, and getting the whole casino in return) that Wikipedia defines the first new model for human knowledge creation in at least a thousand years. Wikipedia helps us all to become smarter and more effective, because, by sharing the wealth of knowledge in each of our heads, we help one another make better decisions.
The more we learn to share through the human network, the more powerful we become, both as individuals and in groups. This has a shadow side: a text message, forwarded throughout a community of White Supremacists, led to a race riot on a Sydney beach in December 1995; meanwhile, the loosely-affiliated groups who all call themselves ‘al Qaeda’ pool knowledge and resources in order to make their destabilizing acts of terror increasingly effective. Power is a two-edged sword, and most technologies can be used for good or ill.
At the same time, this new phenomenon of “hyperempowerment” – people using their newly-amplified capabilities in the human network – means that we’re not so easy to push around any more. Consumers can organize against nasty corporate behavior in moments; corporate executives nervously scan endless lists of comments on web sites, anxiously looking for signs of approaching trouble; governments regularly find their constituents running rings around them. The human network puts all of the power relationships that have dominated recent history into play; naturally, those with power are pushing back, but – as in the case of the record companies, who have tried to sue their customers into behaving legally – institutional power finds itself ever more effectively thwarted by diffuse and distributed efforts to oppose it.
The next decades of the 21st century will be dominated by the rise of the human network, as “hyper people power” rises up in unexpected, unpredicted, and sometimes unwelcome ways. The collision of our oldest skills with our newest tools points toward a radical transformation in human behavior and human culture. The energy released in this collision will empower all of us, threaten many of us, and force some of us to rethink our lives. In some ways, we are finally returning to our tribal roots; in other ways, we are, at long last, becoming a global family.
After two hundred years, during which man used machines to amplify his strength, and so shaped the world, we have finally turned that power inward, to reshape ourselves. The Human Network: Sharing, Knowledge and Power in the 21st Century tells the story of this epochal shift in civilization, in behavior, in humanity itself. In its 250 pages, it will paint the compelling and accessible picture of the tremendous changes underway, everywhere, in every nation, to every person, as we all become fully-fledged actors in the human network.
Everybody talks about the weather. It happens in Singapore, where the weather never changes much, and in Melbourne, where four seasons unfold over the course of an afternoon. Why? It comes down to trust. Conversations with strangers are among the most difficult tasks humans manage: without any mental model of another human being’s behavior, peccadilloes and preferences, common ground is the safest place to begin. A few lines about the rain (or snow or humidity or wind) reveal the inner workings of another person’s mind. Face-to-face, we watch the other person intently, reading the body language, while we listen to the words being said. In the first moments of conversation, sweeping judgments about this stranger are made and welded into place. Their behavior finds a best fit with some other person whose behavior and habits we are already familiar with. A conversation about the weather isn’t idle banter; it’s the rapid-fire exchange of the human protocol.
Should the stranger turn out to be truly strange – prattling on about how aliens from Zeta Reticuli are secretly using their energy beams to melt the icecaps, fooling us into believing in anthropogenic global warming – we’d likely disengage ourselves from that conversation very quickly (and probably very politely), breathing a sigh of relief under our breath. Of course, we might share their belief in Grey Alien conspiracies, in which case the conversation would shift to an entirely different level. Talk about the weather is an opening parley, an invitation to a deeper involvement.
Some individuals are incredibly adept in conversational forms; some much less so. Some give you everything up front, others are more mysterious. In each case it’s a trial by fire, a strategic assessment: are you sufficiently like me that we can communicate? Extroverts can talk themselves into loneliness, consistently denying to others the openings they need to introduce themselves, while introverts will hang back from that opening until the moment has passed. The middle approach is best, a mixture of forwardness and reticence, but this is a difficult balance to achieve, because all of the human neuroses of rejection (at a biological level, a rejected human faces an uphill battle passing his genes along to subsequent generations) are amplified during the first moments of conversation. There are so many ways a first conversation can run off the rails – a misinterpreted word, an inappropriate joke, a whopper of a prejudice. Children, unformed and blissfully ignorant, have an easier time of it, for they haven’t learned what to reject. As we grow older, and into a better sense of our likes and dislikes, conversation becomes a minefield. It’s amazing that adults make any friends at all, but then, as adults we tend to seek the company of the like-minded for precisely this reason. We know we won’t like everyone we meet.
Beginnings are delicate times. In the social sphere this is most true in those first few words exchanged in conversation, when everything is at risk. In the online world, these risks are modulated, both amplified and attenuated. Over a decade ago, psychologist Sherry Turkle noted that the ability to redefine one’s self online could bring out profoundly extroverted qualities across a wide range of otherwise “introverted” individuals. Students who would never raise their hand in a classroom often become prolific contributors to class discussions when given the opportunity to submit their comments electronically. In a given set of students, some will be more verbal, while others will be more discursive, needing time to think through a response before presenting it to an instructor or peers. The classroom environment is not anonymous, unlike the wilder corners of the Internet, so any contribution carries with it the risk of embarrassment and failure. Yet, allowing individuals to define themselves through expository practices, instead of relying solely on verbal expression, has helped a broader range of students participate in the educational process, bolstering self-confidence, and increasing participation.
The amplifications associated with electronically-mediated conversation are not wholly positive. When the mediation is complete – that is, when there is no real-world embodiment accompanying the electronic communication – individuals have tendency to project their own preconceptions onto the words of others. This is a classic quality of a low-resolution medium, as first defined by Marshal McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Words are a very low-resolution medium, so the mind of the reader fills in all the missing details, ascribing all sorts of motivations to the author which may not be true. We enjoy an novelist’s words when they grow into a world inside our minds, but online, in the absence of the embodied experience that grows out of a face-to-face meeting of minds, we work overtime to fill the gaps in our understanding with stereotypes, assumptions, and emotions.
From the earliest days of USENET, the original Internet-wide bulletin-board system, “flame wars” have erupted in every thread, on nearly every conceivable topic – from atheism to dog care – precisely because individuals assumed too much about the other parties to the conversation. Too quick to attack the perceived indiscretions of others, and too slow to see their own faults, online conversationalists have a tendency to amplify the worst qualities of human communication. Some of this comes from the novelty of the situation: we’ve only had the Internet-as-conversational-space for half a generation. The normative behaviors which govern our conduct in the embodied world are being rewritten to encompass life online. At the best of times, this is a trial-and-error process conducted by individuals full of good will. There are numerous other occasions when individuals, fully aware of the disruptive potential of the Internet as amplifier, set out to deliberately poison the conversation. These efforts are frequently effective, particularly when the conversation is in its opening stages, and trust relationships between the participants are still being established. As a general rule of thumb, the longer a conversation has been going on, the more resistant it is to these sorts of attacks; the trust built up by the continuing interaction between all parties to a conversation provides an increasingly effective firewall.
Sometimes, for the very best of reasons, online conversations can turn ugly. From 1990 through 1994, I was a reader of and occasional contributor to sci.virtual-worlds, the USENET group for discussion about all things relating to virtual reality and computer simulation. At the time, I was deeply engaged in the engineering and development of virtual reality systems, so I considered sci.virtual-worlds an indispensable resource, a place where I could ask others about their own experiences, answer questions in areas where I possessed expertise, and share in the growing recognition that VR enjoyed in the early 1990s.
On a Saturday afternoon late in 1992 I read a post on sci.virtual-worlds which greatly excited me. An individual was claiming that he’d made a mathematical breakthrough in the computation of real-time computer graphics – the sorts of imagery you see in every video game – that would speed it up by a factor of ten to a hundred times. He posted his almost unbelievable results, and asked for expressions of interest in his work. I quickly wrote back, introduced myself, stated my credentials, listed my needs, and set up a meeting with this bright lad.
A few hours later, an expert in computer graphics – an individual who’d been working in the field for a decade or more – posted a lengthy rebuttal to these supposed “results,” giving a half a dozen reasons why these claims were absolutely impossible, ending with a wry suspicion that someone had left their computer logged in over the weekend, and that this post had simply been sent out as a prank to excite the more gullible readers of sci.virtual-worlds. This person, speaking from the undeniable authority of his position as a respected academic and researcher, essentially shut down all consideration, on sci.virtual-worlds, of this breakthrough in computer graphics.
As it turned out, the researcher was wrong. This innovation, known today as “software rendering,” became the cornerstone for almost all the computer graphics in use today. I took my meeting with the inventor (who quietly laughed at the ignorance of this famous researcher), saw the results of his efforts for myself, and knew the truth of the matter. Because I had no pre-conceptions (or rather, less prejudices than this expert) I was open to this startling, unexpected discovery. I got there first, and used that technology to create the very first VRML browser – over a year before anyone else was putting the technology to work for them.
Expertise is not enough to carry a conversation. Reputation may open the door, but conversations are not lectures. Trust emerges over time, and that which is believed to be true – rightly or wrongly – emerges from trust. The many parties to a conversation are constantly reinforcing their trust relationships with every message they read, and every word they post. Pronouncements made Ex Cathedra do not have any great effect on the conversation – unless the individual making the pronouncement is greatly trusted, and is willing to engage in conversation. This places experts at a disadvantage, because expertise carries only modest weight within a conversation, and assertion of expertise, in advance of trust, sours the conversation. Humility is the only successful long-term strategy.
Institutions do not have conversations. It is a capability only given to individuals. The voice of the institution is never conversational; it can be pedantic or persuasive, but it is never engaged, because there is no singular human to engage. Institutions aggregate individuals in order to maximize their institutional effectiveness, but that aggregation is not without its costs. (Nor do institutions maximize the effectiveness of the individuals thus aggregated, except as an afterthought.) The trepidation with which institutions treat bloggers within their own ranks is a reflection of institutional inability to winnow itself down to a single voice, engaged in conversation. The pieces do not match up. The blogger can not speak for the institution, but neither can the institution converse with an individual. This was of modest consequence in a era, only recently past, when our ability to conduct these conversations was restricted by proximity and synchrony.
With the advent of hyperconnectivity – the ability of every human being to effectively communicate with every other human being on the planet at little or no cost to themselves – the individual is hyperempowered in conversational abilities, relative to the institution. Individuals can (and regularly do) have conversations that confound institutions, because these conversations lie beyond any institutional zone of control. In a hyperconnected era, each conversation is a Temporary Autonomous Zone, where individuals can quickly form trust relationships (ad hoc social networks) around any topic of interest, exchange opinions, share information, and develop strategies. These are not the necessary outcomes of any conversational moment (there is a pure joy in conversation which frees it from any utilitarian requirements) but they are the potentials of any conversation. These potentials are inherently dangerous to all institutions.
The institution finds itself caught in a paradox: aggregation makes it powerful, but takes away its voice. When power was important, the institution prospered. Now that the cultural balance is shifting toward hyperempowered individuals engaging in conversation, the institution is under threat. It is being disempowered in a way that it can not adapt to without a fundamental restructuring of its organizational behavior. This is something that governments are only slowly coming to recognize, but educators (and, in particular, educational administrators) are already well aware that their students are more empowered than the educational institutions they attend. The desynchronization between the scope of institutional power and the chaos of unconstrained and unconstrainable conversational hyperempowerment presents a challenge that will transform the institution – or kill it.
Some institutions will be entirely unable to adapt to the new selection forces of hyperconnectivity and hyperempowerment. They will trudge along, facing a growing set of roadblocks, until, exhausted, they collapse. Some others will change by degrees, reacting to the changes of the environment, but always with some delay, and therefore consistently missing opportunities for advantage, as they change just enough to satisfy the requirements of the moment’s pressures.
The smartest institutions will embrace conversation wholeheartedly, and mutate into new forms of organization which favor transparency and the free flow of information in highly decentralized forms. Instead of a hierarchy, these institutions will look more like a highly-reinforced social network of experts, banded together in common pursuit of a goal, utilizing all the tools of communication and conversation to amplify their effectiveness both within the institution, and beyond these newly permeable institutional boundaries, to other individuals. This kind of institution can participate within a conversation, because individuals have not be aggregated, but rather, use their institutional/social network to become more expert individuals. They speak for themselves, but from the expertise of the network which supports them.
How does an institution manage this transition? How does it restructure itself into a network of highly empowered individuals? How does it avoid being drowned out in an a noisy cacophony of ever-more-vital conversations? Once again, humility is the only successful long-term strategy. The institution must recognize its disempowered state, and embrace the opportunity to relearn, revision and redirect its organizational energies.
This is not easy, nor do I make any claims to a simple five-step program which might produce a seamless transition from the aggregated institutional form to the social-network model. But consider this: The individuals who make up institutions are already hyperempowered in the conversations they have outside the institutional form. There is, at least, a place to begin. Without humility none of this will happen. We must be honest enough to acknowledge that institutions and individuals rarely surrender their own power. Yet the exercise of power inevitably breeds that which is capable of resisting power. This has now happened – across all human institutions. Humility is the only viable option.
Australians have just gone to the polls, and made a collective decision to reinvent their government. John Howard was uncommonly truthful when he stated, “When you change the government, you change the direction of the nation.” Just at this moment, as the front bench of the Government is being sorted out and ministers sworn in, we straddle a liminal space, where anything is possible. Before the Government does anything, it remains entirely potential. This is a space for dreaming big dreams.
All institutions inevitably disappoint – governments included – and as the Rudd Labor government moves from potentiality into actuality, these dreams will inevitably fade. We will wake up into a new reality. But just now, in these few days remaining to us, we have a unique opportunity to re-vision both the means and ends of governance. We can take a longer view than is normally allowed by a 24-hour news cycle, or the constant chatter of the blogs, and the endless sniping of a fractured and demoralized Liberal Opposition. This is the last moment – perhaps for the next decade – to rethink our assumptions.
In this essay, I will a new picture of politics, a “Theory of Everything”, which unites the Right-Left divide within an underlying model of human behavior. This is not a new political philosophy, but rather, the application of current research into sociobiology to sociology. Although sociology has historically stood at some distance from the “hard” sciences, the same was said of biology less than fifty years ago. When Watson and Crick discovered DNA, back in 1953, they unified biology and the “hard” sciences of chemistry and physics. We are at the cusp of another such union.
At the same time, the study of sociology, ethnology and anthropology has become the most vital area of research in technology. For a decade now, although I have continued to work with and invent new technologies, I have focused my research toward an understanding of how technologies change the people who use them, and how people change the technologies they use. This emergent, or “autopoeic,” relationship between technology and society is now having a significant impact upon the organization of all aspects of human life – and, in specific, the relationships between vast collections of individuals: that is, politics.
So let’s start with biology, and, as we work our way up, moving from the individual body to the body politic, I will to show you how our technologies have amplified some of our innate capabilities to such a degree that the previously unquestioned truths of political life no longer apply. The political environment of the 21st century bears little resemblance to the mass movements of the 19th and 20th centuries; this is a reality that political institutions are about to confront, and an environment which all of us – as political animals – must learn to exploit.
In 1871, when Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man, he stated that,
Although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe…an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another.
This statement has caused no end of trouble, being taken up by those seeking a scientific rationale for the “White Man’s Burden,” which the British, Americans, French and Germans used as rationale for the “Great Game” of colonization. The European races, seeing themselves as morally superior to the uncivilized barbarian races (even if both India and China had been civilized since time out of mind), used their hundred year head start in technological advancement to trump the highly moral cultures of Asia. It was, they claimed, survival of the fittest. Darwin and all that.
The reductio ad absurdum of “moral fitness” justified the mass slaughter of indigenous Australians, Americans, Africans, and the extinction of the Tasmanians. The jump from Charles Darwin to King Leopold took just twenty years. When biologists realized what Darwin had wrought – and certainly Darwin had never intended his words to be twisted toward such malevolent ends – the entire idea of “moral selection” was quietly dropped from the canon of evolution. That presented a problem of its own; Darwin was working as a scientist, and you can’t just abandon an idea which has a sound scientific basis. While no one talked about “moral selection” in the context of human cultures, a new word, “altruism,” came to take its place. We’ll come back to that.
Meanwhile, over the next hundred years, evolutionary biologists studied the behavior of other social animals – specifically, the insects. E. O. Wilson, the Harvard myrmecologist and evolutionary biologist, studied the social behavior of ants. Ants, bees and other social insects flout the hard-and-fast laws of natural selection as laid down by Darwin: they often do not act in their own best interest, instead acting in the best interest of the colony or nest or hive. The individual selfishness predicted by natural selection has simply been written out of their repertoire of behaviors. Worker ants and worker bees simply toil until they drop dead from exhaustion; they do not breed, and do not pass their genes along to the next generation. In evolutionary terms, they do not succeed. Yet ants and bees are wonderfully successful life forms, found all across the habitable regions of the Earth.
This behavioral altruism has been a thorn in the side of evolutionary biologists; selfishness is considered an essential feature of natural selection – after all, the most selfish animals should, on the whole, do better than their less-selfish peers. This seems true on its face, but other social animals – the lions of Africa, who live in prides of up to fifteen females and children – also practice altruistic behaviors. Some females will forego breeding – and the chance to pass their genes along – instead, investing their energy in protecting and providing for the new mothers and their young. In other words, a pride which practices some degree of altruism will be more successful, in the long run, than a pride where it’s every lion for herself. This phenomenon has been recognized for some years, but, because it did not fit the existing theory, it’s been ignored.
Forty years ago, a consensus developed in the community of evolutionary biologists that natural selection occurred only at the level of the individual. That is, evolution would only select for traits useful in a single individual. The idea that traits such as altruism might be selected for within a social collection of individuals was declared heterodox. To the evolutionary biologists, there was no such thing as a social collection – despite some rather obvious evidence, from the insects and higher animals, that social collections are fairly common. As a consequence, evolutionary biologists have spent the last forty years developing some rather weird theories to explain away altruistic behavior, that is, trying to describe how unselfishness could emerge from selfishness.
The lovely thing about science is that the truth eventually triumphs. Just this year a number of papers – including a few by E. O. Wilson – describe what biologists are now calling “multi-level” selection; that is, a process of natural selection which includes both the individual and groups of individuals. Within the individual, selfish behaviors are selected for, but with social groups, altruistic behaviors can be just as strongly selected for. Consider two prides of lions, one of which has a number of females who have opted-out of breeding, while another has an assemblage of selfish individuals, all of whom are breeding. When each pride is threatened, or needs food, the pride with the altruistic individuals will tend to succeed, while the pride with only selfish individuals will tend to fail. The pressures of natural selection will tend to select altruism over selfishness when selecting between groups, but tends to select selfish individuals within either group.
This basic tension is at the core of what I want to explore this morning. Social animals do better for themselves and their children if they are selfish; but they do better against other similar groups if they are altruistic. Both of these selection pressures are acting simultaneously, both within the individual and within social groupings. If this is true for prides of lions, why would it be less true for the hominids? Neither altruism nor selfishness are extraordinary behaviors for social animals; they are both strongly selected for. All social animals, ourselves included, must display both of these behaviors to be successful. And, as we all know, humans have been very successful.
Let’s cross the tiny chasm that separates us from the “lower” animals. We’re less than two hundred thousand years away from the animal state ourselves, and we know that we haven’t evolved very much in that period of time. We’re remarkably similar to early modern humans found in South Africa. These early humans contained within them the same drives toward selfishness and selflessness; the selfish individuals within a tribal grouping would receive the “lion’s share” of the calories, and would raise healthy children. At the same time, starving your fellow tribespeople would leave you (in the plural, social sense) fatally weakened. Food sharing is an antique behavior, common across the hominids, strongest in humans, and is a signifier of altruism. Consider the emphasis we place on teaching children to share – an emphasis which is common across human cultures. Somewhere in our deepest roots, we understand that sharing is essential to survival.
Now, let’s step across a a larger chasm, and come forward two thousand centuries. In just the last ten thousand years, we’ve gone from tribal groupings driven by the “Dunbar Number,” which limits the effective size of human social networks to roughly 150 people, to urban groupings. Cities of a few thousand were commonplace at least eight thousand years ago, at Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, and Jericho in Palestine, social assemblages of humanity which far surpassed the ability of any human to contain all those other humans in their heads. As numbers grew, the basic human drives of selfishness and altruism, selected for over tens of millions of years of evolution, did not fade away. Instead, we see the emergence of differing ideals for human social organization – that is, political models. Each human culture of the past ten thousand years found its own balance point between selfishness and selflessness – often coded into the laws and moral teachings of religion.
By the nineteenth century, in the first city to pass a million inhabitants – London – we saw the emergence of two mutually exclusive political philosophies that are the absolute embodiment of these fundamental selection pressures. On the one hand, Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan announced the “War of all against all,” and John Stuart Mill, with his philosophy of Libertarianism, asserted the absolute right of the selfish individual to make his own way in the world. On the other, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels distilled the essence of altruism: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” The polar play of Libertarianism and Socialism stand outside the Left/Right divide of politics: Libertarianism is a philosophy of both the Left (anarcho-capitalism) and the Right (Objectivism), while Socialism can be Kropotkin’s anarchism, or authoritarian Marxism-Leninism. The important thing to note here is that both philosophies emerge from natural selection pressures. Libertarianism springs from the selfishness of the individual, Socialism from the altruism of the group. Neither is superior to the other. Both are natural and both are necessary. Yet so much of the tragedy of the last two hundred years has grown from one innate and natural drive asserting its primacy over its mirror twin.
Despite the fighting, the deaths and proclamations of the absolute, unquestionable truth from both camps, reality lies somewhere in the middle. It’s the mixture of selfish and altruistic tendencies which the body politic expresses; only in some very rare instances of revolution does one tendency achieve any lasting dominance over the other, and that invariably ends in debacle, because pressures selecting for both are never removed. Soviet Marxism-Leninism collapsed because it could not honestly incorporate individual selfishness; it was replaced by its opposite, a form of Crony Capitalism (the Age of the Oligarchs) which, in its own way, was just as noxious. China since Deng Xiaoping has moved from collectivism toward a mixed socialism which looks a lot more like American capitalism than Marxism-Leninism. This is not, as Francis Fukuyama would have it, “The End of History,” and the triumph of neo-Liberalism. Far from it. Australians have overwhelmingly rejected neo-Liberalism as too radical, too far from the mixture of selfishness and altruism which must be maintained in order to prevent catastrophe. There is a moral cost in adhering to selfishness, just as there is an opportunity cost inherent in altruism. Only in a mix can a healthy, vital balance be maintained.
While the preceding argument advocates for a moderate, middle-of-the-road approach to politics, this model works only with respect to politics before the network era. When looking toward a comfortable median in the behaviors and drives of thirteen million voters, a Government that mixes economic conservatism with a degree of socialism would seem to be as near to the ideal as can be achieved in the real world – and this is precisely the government Australians have elected. But the Australian body politic is now, suddenly, connected in entirely new ways, and, as a result, the political formations and pressures which characterized centrist politics will be increasingly destabilized by radically empowered polities within the larger body politic. These forces, too, are driven by the same essential selection pressures that characterize all social groupings, but these pressures have now accelerated to the speed of light, and amplified beyond all recognition.
II: Hyperintelligence: Or, What I Learned From The Poll Bludger
For the past three years, I have been intently studying the new digital social networks which have become such a prominent feature of life online. This study led me to a more complete understanding of all human social networks. We are all, all the time, immersed in social networks. It is a basic, essential part of human biology, and the one which takes the longest to mature. The cognitive apparatus which manages our social networks doesn’t come into its own until the mid-to-late teenage years, and is a big reason why teenagers, as a population, are so miserable: learning the rules of social networks is perhaps the most challenging of all human tasks.
A human isn’t completely human in the absence of our social networks. As a social species, we are not defined solely as individuals, but as members within some grouping. We do not end at our skin. Here too, we can see the echo of the selfish vs. altruist tug-of-war; the selfish bits of our biology seek to be self-contained; the drive to altruism reminds us that no man is an island. We are all actors within dynamic, evolving networks of individuals, gathered together around some shared goal. For tens of thousands of years, survival was the only goal of these human networks. While improvement in survival fitness remains the core goal of our participation within any social network, we now have many ways of reaching that goal. The explosion of cultural forms which define modernity is proof of this.
Social networks are now as ubiquitous as at any time in history, and have become instantaneous and global. Furthermore, these networks can capture their activity in a persistent form which lies outside of any one head – collective intelligence. It is now possible for a global human social network to pool its energies around a single effort, and – in the process – create something with value that far exceeds the contributions of any single member of the network. In the network era, the benefits of altruism can disproportionately outweigh the selection pressures of selfishness.
Consider Wikipedia. There are, globally, approximately 2000 “Wikipedians,” that is, core members of the global social network who create, maintain, arbitrate and improve upon the globally accessible, freely available and openly editable encyclopedia. The efforts of these Wikipedians (and additional contributions by millions of “fellow travelers”, who loosely affiliate themselves with the Wikipedians around a specific topic of interest) have completely redefined our understanding of knowledge formation. It is now clear, in the aftermath of the Britannica vs. Wikipedia Wars, that knowledge formation is not the exclusive province of elites: anyone, however marginalized, can make a meaningful contribution to the common font of human knowledge. Furthermore, everyone literate person can benefit from Wikipedia. As Wikipedia becomes ever-more-ubiquitous, as it extends its entries into every factual category, in every language with more than a million speakers, it should help us make better decisions: we have immediate access to (reasonably) accurate information in a way that no human has ever had before. If knowing the facts is a necessary precondition to good decision making, Wikipedia has already increased the selection fitness of all of its users. Anyone who uses Wikipedia has an enormous advantage over anyone who does not. This, in itself, is driving us all toward using Wikipedia.
In her book Continuities in Cultural Evolution, anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
The Wikipedians, a 21st-century digital social network, have indeed changed the world – not just for themselves, but for all of us. Their single-minded dedication to an activity of nearly unalloyed altruism (Wikipedians are not paid, and, moreover, frequently confront powerful disapproval for their efforts) has had a profound and continuing influence on human culture. This is not just Wikipedia in itself, but the idea of Wikipedia. Collective intelligence, harnessed, recorded and shared, leads to what I have termed hyperintelligence, a social network that is vastly more intelligent than the sum of its parts. Wikipedia is only one variety of a hyperintelligence; there are others, and there will be many, many more to come.
Most are already familiar with the example of Wikipedia; while it is the archetypical example of hyperintelligence, and many believe that lightning will not strike twice, that this revolution begins and ends with Wikipedia. This is not the case. There are examples of hyperintelligence emerging everywhere we care to look. Having just returned from an encounter with another emerging hyperintelligence, I want to share with you one such example, as I believe that in this example we can locate the definitive features of a generalized model which then can be put to work.
As a subscriber to Crikey.com.au, I’ve kept careful note of links to other Australian political blogs when published in the newsletter. Among the most interesting of these are Possum’s Politics, run by the anonymous and mysterious “Possum Commitatus,” and The Poll Bludger, run by William Bowe, a 36 year-old PhD student at the University of Western Australia. Both Possum and Bowe are psephologists – they study the statistics of polls and elections. A few months ago, I hadn’t ever heard the word psephologist. Now I have something of an understanding of what they do, and how they do it. Psephologists use statistical tools to determine the accuracy of polls, the trends indicated by polls, and attempt – insofar as it is possible – to remove the noise from the soundings received from the electorate, to predict the outcome of elections. As with anything statistical, it’s not a precise science, but a psephologist can give you a margin of error for his predictions. In fact, I can now give you the formula for the margin of error associated with any statistical sample:
MoE = 0.98 / sqrt(sample size)
With this formula I can tell you that with a random poll of 2701 voters – such as in the last Newspoll taken before the election – the margin of error is about 1.9%, with a confidence level of 95%. I can tell you what a confidence level is. I can also tell you that Newspoll misallocated their preferences, based on an assumption, now shown to be erroneous, that preference distributions from 2004 would remain an accurate guide to preference distributions in 2007. The final Newspoll of the Federal election yielded a surprisingly low value for the two-party-preferred result for the ALP, which showed the race narrowing at its close, while, in fact, very little narrowing took place.
How do I know all this? I am not a psephologist, and I assure you that I have never in my life taken a statistics course. I know all of this because, for the last several weeks, and, in particular, for the two weeks leading up to the Federal election, I was deeply immersed in The Poll Bludger. I wasn’t the only one. From serious psephologists such as Bowe and Possum and the rock-star-like Antony Green, to tens of knowledgeable amateurs, through to complete newbies like myself, we opened up the entrails of the electorate and augured its meaning. We knew that the final AC Neilsen poll, showing a 57-43 TPP couldn’t possibly be right, because it swung to the top of the range of the earlier AC Nielsen polls; for the same reason, the much-touted narrowing in the final 48 hours was nothing but bad statistics, assumptions, and wishful thinking. We knew this, because those of us with knowledge shared it freely with those eager to learn. And I, being very eager indeed, spent hours and hours reading through the postings, ignoring the ever-increasing noise of various partisans as the campaign grew more heated and more desperate, focusing on the raw meat of poll data.
This was doubly an education for myself: as someone familiar only with the American electoral system, the concept of “swings” was entirely alien. But, because I listened intently, regarding each post from Possum and Bowe and Antony Green as pure psephological gold, I learned. I was hardly alone in this. Many of the individuals posting on Poll Bludger knew as little as I did – but we all learned together, and grew confident enough to share what we little we knew with each other.
At this point, it feels as though I’ve been through a crash course in psephology, statistics and Australian politics. I know far too much about far too many of the 150 electoral divisions in the House of Representatives, their voting histories and their members. I know how the “Latham swing” artificially distorted the preferences of the 2004 election. It may even be, when all the votes are counted, that I have correctly predicted the number of ALP seats (84) in the House of Representatives. I am, in short, a wholly qualified amateur psephologist, because other individuals in the blogging community freely and altruistically shared their knowledge with me in a way that allowed me to analyze, dissect and meditate upon their pedagogy.
A blog is a mechanism not just for conversation, but for knowledge capture. It is not as neat and accessible as a wiki, insofar as the blog must be read in its entirety, but it can record the collective intellectual output of a social network. Some of that is opinion, and some of that is factual; as I spent more time on Poll Bludger, it became easier to discern one from another. Raw knowledge, through experience, translated into understanding. That understanding, once earned, was also captured. It is impossible to translate one person’s understanding directly into another’s head, but captured understanding is a necessary prerequisite for hyperintelligence.
Wikipedia captures its understanding through its still-evolving processes: its standards, and (more significantly) its practices represent the embodied understandings of the Wikipedians, as Wikipedia has evolved from possibility through viability and into ubiquity. The Poll Bludgers learned very quickly not to feed the trolls, learned to detect and expose the “concern trolls,” and, over time, have grown into a community. Over the last four weeks, The Poll Bludger has become the place for “political tragics” to come and learn about and (perhaps) discuss the hot topics of the election. In that, The Poll Bludger is filling a very obvious void in Australian political life; the US has Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo, Huffington Post, Little Green Footballs, and countless other politically-focused blogs; before this electoral cycle, Australia’s political blogs were mostly personal sites, or professional journalistic endeavors. Possum’s Politics and The Poll Bludger mark the emergence of a political blogging community which, through shared, altruistic effort, are producing the first hallmarks of hyperintelligence.
Assuming that the community of Poll Bludgers hangs together past the fag-end of this electoral cycle (there are signs that Bowe intends the site to transition into broader discussions of the political affairs of the nation) there is now a highly knowledgeable and reasonably strong digital social network of politically-aware Australians. How the hyperintelligence of this community translates into a transformation of the Australian political landscape is, as yet, an open question.
As I stated at the outset, this is a period of profound liminality. We are between things. But what we do know, from Wikipedia and now The Poll Bludger, is that a community can share its wealth of knowledge – from each according to his ability, to each according to his need – and produce a highly disproportionate, asymmetric result. A small but motivated group of citizens can change the world. We need only to dissect the mechanics of this process, and abstract a model which can be put to work. This model will form the template for 21st-century political activism.
III: Nothing Like Democracy
Earlier this year, I was privileged to go “on tour” with Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales, the founder and public face of Wikipedia, as we crisscrossed the nation, talking to educators in Adelaide, Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. Everywhere we went, people asked the same question: why is Wikipedia such a success, while my wiki languishes? What do you need to achieve critical mass? The answer, Jimmy said, is five people. Five individuals dedicated to an altruistic sharing of collective intelligence should be enough to produce a flowering similar to Wikipedia. Jimbo has learned, through experience, that the “minor” language versions of Wikipedia (languages with less than 10 million native speakers), need at least five steady contributors to become self-sustaining. In the many wikis Jimbo oversees through his commercial arm, Wikia, he’s noted the same phenomenon time and again. Five people mark the tipping point between a hobby and a nascent hyperintelligence.
Five people is not a very big ask. Anything that people are passionate about should be able to gather together that many dedicated altruists. Since we are now constrained neither by location nor synchronous activity, the barrier to entry has become nearly non-existent. Just five people can easily enter into a pact to change the world. As their work catches on and catches fire, as they capture their collective intelligence, and as the social network forms, hyperintelligence will emerge. Everyone involved in the social network benefits from it, and every member of the network increases their own selection fitness by pursuing an altruistic end. They will be more effective in pursuit of their ends (insofar as those ends are those of the network), because of their participation within the network.
Effectiveness is a highly reinforcing reward. If, through participation within a social network, an individual can pursue his or her goals with greater effectiveness, those individuals are more likely, through time, to become more deeply involved in the network, further increasing their effectiveness. Thus, altruism – that is, investment in the network – reaps the selfish reward of increased effectiveness. Both basic biological drives are simultaneously served. This marks the fault line between the network era and the politics which came before it. In the era of hyperpolitics, altruistic investment yields selfish results, and does so in such a disproportionate manner that the drive toward altruistic behavior is very strongly reinforced.
Hyperpolitics have completely scrambled the neat continuum from selfishness to altruism which provided the frame for a hundred centuries of human civilization. We are entering uncharted territory. It is now almost impossibly easy for networks of individuals to appear out of nowhere, harnessing hyperintelligence to achieve their ends. This phenomenon, known as hyperempowerment (Robb, 2007), is a radically destabilizing force.
Wikipedians have put hyperintelligence to work for the benefit of all humanity, but the hyperempowerment created by Wikipedia has unintentionally destabilized educational, informational and governmental elites throughout the entire world. Daily Kos has put its social network to work for the benefit of progressive politicians throughout the US: for the next decade, psephologists will be debating the impact of the “Kossaks” on the 2006 US Congressional elections; there is no doubt that Kossaks strongly influenced candidate pre-selection. Hyperempowerment means you punch far above your weight; institutions – all institutions – formed during an earlier period, are ill-prepared for this.
The 21st century is witnessing the balkanization of a single body politic into a mass of hyperempowered polities, each leveraging its own resources of social networks and hyperintelligence to achieve its own ends. This is where we see the ageless conflict of selfishness against altruism emerge again, but in a different configuration. Within any hyperempowered network, altruism is strongly rewarded; when working against the aims of a similarly hyperempowered network, selfishness will rule the day. However, these polities are likely to be quick to recognize the advantages of cooperation as frequently as they choose to compete, so we will see meta-polities, and mega-polities. Political life will not re-integrate into the singular political blocks of the 19th and 20th centuries, but massive, if inchoate forces will emerge periodically before melting back into the chaos.
None of this involves voting. None of this involves government as we currently conceive of it. The “Reassurance Ritual” which Alvin Toffler wrote about in The Third Wave, the triennial trip to the polling booth to assert your continuing belief in and respect for the institutions of representative democracy simply doesn’t apply. Political pressure will be applied directly to the institutions of influence, and these institutions are already deforming due to the informational stresses placed upon them. They simply can’t respond fast enough to hyperempowered polities and hyperpolitics. There is little doubt that most of our familiar institutions, including governments, will rapidly disintegrate as the number of hyperempowered single-interest and special-interest and meta-interest groups begins to climb. We will be left with the hollowed-out remains of the institutions of government, but with nothing that looks anything like democracy.
This is already happening. And it’s a little late to reform our ways; these transformations emerge naturally from our interactions with each other through the network. We’d need to junk the infrastructure of the last forty years of development, everywhere in the world, to prevent this process from continuing and accelerating. Yet there are dangers, great dangers. Turn hyperempowerment one way, and you get Wikipedia. Turn it another way, and you get Al Qaeda, which is the very definition of a hyperempowered polity: loosely joined, knowledge sharing, altruistically focused on bringing a Wahabist Caliphate to the entire Muslim world. Al Qaeda will not surrender its network. It is its network. And that network has proven incredibly resilient, despite every attempt from a nearly universal collection of institutional powers to extinguish it. (The same can be said about the file-sharing networks which have become the permanent bane of institutional media interests.)
For this reason, we don’t have any easy options. We must understand how the processes of hyperintelligence, hyperempowerment and hyperpolitics work, and make them work for us. Because someone will make it work for them. Indeed, some already have. Unless hyperempowerment is met with hyperempowerment, in a new balance of power, we will simply be pushed around more effectively than ever before, by forces which, acting selfishly, are unlikely to have our own best interests in mind.
So, as we sit and talk pleasantly about blogging and conversational media and Web 2.0, discussing their impacts on Australia’s political system and the global political order, please realize this: we are sitting on a bomb, now half-exploded. Everything we know about how institutions behave is likely to be proven hilariously wrong. We are the institutions now, and we, here in this room, bear full responsibility for our actions. This is the between time, the time when anything can happen. As we rise into hyperempowerment, we need to be mindful of what we want to share, and to what end. For sharing is the shape, the promise, and the danger of our common future.