Mothers of Innovation

Introduction:  Olden Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

I:  The Power of Babel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II: The Axis of Me-ville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III:  Through the Looking Glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens when the network looks back at you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Skies

I: Cloud People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II: Eyjafjallajökull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III: Services With a Smile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Ever Happened to the Book?

For Ted Nelson

I: Centrifugal Force

We live in the age of networks.  Wherever we are, five billion of us are continuously and ubiquitously connected.  That’s everyone over the age of twelve who earns more than about two dollars a day.  The network has us all plugged into it.  Yet this is only the more recent, and more explicit network.  Networks are far older than this most modern incarnation; they are the foundation of how we think.  That’s true at the most concrete level: our nervous system is a vast neural network.  It’s also true at a more abstract level: our thinking is a network of connections and associations.  This is necessarily reflected in the way we write.

I became aware of this connectedness of our thoughts as I read Ted Nelson’s Literary Machines back in 1982.  Perhaps the seminal introduction to hypertext, Literary Machines opens with the basic assertion that all texts are hypertexts.  Like it or not, we implicitly reference other texts with every word we write.  It’s been like this since we learned to write – earlier, really, because we all crib from one another’s spoken thoughts.  It’s the secret to our success.  Nelson wanted to build a system that would make these implicit relationships explicit, exposing all the hidden references, making text-as-hypertext a self-evident truth.  He never got it.  But Nelson did influence a generation of hackersSir Tim Berners-Lee among them – and pushed them toward the implementation of hypertext.

As the universal hypertext system of HTTP and HTML conquered all, hypertext revealed qualities as a medium which had hitherto been unsuspected.  While the great strength of hypertext is its capability for non-linearity – you can depart from the text at any point – no one had reckoned on the force (really, a type of seduction) of those points of departure.  Each link presents an opportunity for exploration, and is, in a very palpable sense, similar to the ringing of a telephone.  Do we answer?  Do we click and follow?  A link is pregnant with meaning, and passing a link by necessarily incurs an opportunity cost.  The linear text is constantly weighed down with a secondary, ‘centrifugal’ force, trying to tear the reader away from the inertia of the text, and on into another space.  The more heavily linked a particular hypertext document is, the greater this pressure.

Consider two different documents that might be served up in a Web browser.  One of them is an article from the New York Times Magazine.  It is long – perhaps ten thousand words – and has, over all of its length, just a handful of links.  Many of these links point back to other New York Times articles.  This article stands alone.  It is a hyperdocument, but it has not embraced the capabilities of the medium.  It has not been seduced.  It is a spinster, of sorts, confident in its purity and haughty in its isolation.  This article is hardly alone.  Nearly all articles I could point to from any professional news source portray the same characteristics of separateness and resistance to connect with the medium they employ.  We all know why this is: there is a financial pressure to keep eyes within the website, because attention has been monetized.  Every link presents an escape route, and a potential loss of income.  Hence, links are kept to a minimum, the losses staunched.  Disappointingly, this has become a model for many other hyperdocuments, even where financial considerations do not conflict with the essential nature of the medium.  The tone has been set.

On the other hand, consider an average article in Wikipedia.  It could be short or long – though only a handful reach ten thousand words – but it will absolutely be sprinkled liberally with links.  Many of these links will point back into Wikipedia, allowing someone to learn the meaning of a term they’re unfamiliar with, or explore some tangential bit of knowledge, but there also will be plenty of links that face out, into the rest of the Web.  This is a hyperdocument which has embraced the nature of medium, which is not afraid of luring readers away under the pressure of linkage.  Wikipedia is a non-profit organization which does not accept advertising and does not monetize attention.  Without this competition of intentions, Wikipedia is itself an example of another variety of purity, the pure expression of the tension between the momentum of the text and centrifugal force of hypertext.

Although commercial hyperdocuments try to fence themselves off from the rest of the Web and the lure of its links, they are never totally immune from its persistent tug.  Just because you have landed somewhere that has a paucity of links doesn’t constrain your ability to move non-linearly.  If nothing else, the browser’s ‘Back’ button continually offers that opportunity, as do all of your bookmarks, the links that lately arrived in email from friends or family or colleagues, even an advertisement proffered by the site.  In its drive to monetize attention, the commercial site must contend with the centrifugal force of its own ads.  In order to be situated within a hypertext environment, a hyperdocument must accept the reality of centrifugal force, even as it tries, ever more cleverly, to resist it.  This is the fundamental tension of all hypertext, but here heightened and amplified because it is resisted and forbidden.  It is a source of rising tension, as the Web-beyond-the-borders becomes ever more comprehensive, meaningful and alluring, while the hyperdocument multiplies its attempts to ensnare, seduce, and retain.

This rising tension has had a consequential impact on the hyperdocument, and, more broadly, on an entire class of documents.  It is most obvious in the way we now absorb news.  Fifteen years ago, we spread out the newspaper for a leisurely read, moving from article to article, generally following the flow of the sections of the newspaper.  Today, we click in, read a bit, go back, click in again, read some more, go back, go somewhere else, click in, read a bit, open an email, click in, read a bit, click forward, and so on.  We allow ourselves to be picked up and carried along by the centrifugal force of the links; with no particular plan in mind – except perhaps to leave ourselves better informed – we flow with the current, floating down a channel which is shaped by the links we encounter along the way.  The newspaper is no longer a coherent experience; it is an assemblage of discrete articles, each of which has no relation to the greater whole.  Our behavior reflects this: most of us already gather our news from a selection of sources (NY Times, BBC, Sydney Morning Herald and Guardian UK in my case), or even from an aggregator such as Google News, which completely abstracts the article content from its newspaper ‘vehicle’.

The newspaper as we have known it has been shredded.  This is not the fault of Google or any other mechanical process, but rather is a natural if unforeseen consequence of the nature of hypertext.  We are the ones who feel the lure of the link; no machine can do that.  Newspapers made the brave decision to situate themselves as islands within a sea of hypertext.  Though they might believe themselves singular, they are not the only islands in the sea.  And we all have boats.  That was bad enough, but the islands themselves are dissolving, leaving nothing behind but metaphorical clots of dirt in murky water.

The lure of the link has a two-fold effect on our behavior.  With its centrifugal force, it is constantly pulling us away from wherever we are.  It also presents us with an opportunity cost.  When we load that 10,000-word essay from the New York Times Magazine into our browser window, we’re making a conscious decision to dedicate time and effort to digesting that article. That’s a big commitment.  If we’re lucky – if there are no emergencies or calls on the mobile or other interruptions – we’ll finish it.  Otherwise, it might stay open in a browser tab for days, silently pleading for completion or closure. Every time we come across something substantial, something lengthy and dense, we run an internal calculation: Do I have time for this?  Does my need and interest outweigh all of the other demands upon my attention?  Can I focus?

In most circumstances, we will decline the challenge.  Whatever it is, it is not salient enough, not alluring enough.  It is not so much that we fear commitment as we feel the pressing weight of our other commitments.  We have other places to spend our limited attention.  This calculation and decision has recently been codified into an acronym: “tl;dr”, for “too long; didn’t read”.  It may be weighty and important and meaningful, but hey, I’ve got to get caught up on my Twitter feed and my blogs.

The emergence of the ‘tl;dr’ phenomenon – which all of us practice without naming it – has led public intellectuals to decry the ever-shortening attention span.  Attention spans are not shortening: ten year-olds will still drop everything to read a nine-hundred page fantasy novel for eight days.   Instead, attention has entered an era of hypercompetitive development.  Twenty years ago only a few media clamored for our attention.  Now, everything from video games to chatroulette to real-time Twitter feeds to text messages demand our attention.  Absence from any one of them comes with a cost, and that burden weighs upon us, subtly but continuously, all figuring into the calculation we make when we decide to go all in or hold back.

The most obvious effect of this hypercompetitive development of attention is the shortening of the text.  Under the tyranny of ‘tl;dr’ three hundred words seems just about the right length: long enough to make a point, but not so long as to invoke any fear of commitment.  More and more, our diet of text comes in these ‘bite-sized’ chunks.  Again, public intellectuals have predicted that this will lead to a dumbing-down of culture, as we lose the depth in everything.  The truth is more complex.  Our diet will continue to consist of a mixture of short and long-form texts.  In truth, we do more reading today than ten years ago, precisely because so much information is being presented to us in short form.  It is digestible.  But it need not be vacuous.  Countless specialty blogs deliver highly-concentrated texts to audiences who need no introduction to the subject material.  They always reference their sources, so that if you want to dive in and read the lengthy source work, you are free to commit.  Here, the phenomenon of ‘tl;dr’ reveals its Achilles’ Heel:  shorter the text, the less invested you are.  You give way more easily to centrifugal force.  You are more likely to navigate away.

There is a cost incurred both for substance and the lack thereof.  Such are the dilemmas of hypertext.

II:  Schwarzschild Radius

It appears inarguable that 2010 is the Year of the Electronic Book.  The stars have finally aligned: there is a critical mass of usable, well-designed technology, broad acceptance (even anticipation) within the public, and an agreement among publishers that revenue models do exist. Amazon and its Kindle (and various software simulators for PCs and smartphones) have proven the existence of a market.  Apple’s recently-released iPad is quintessentially a vehicle for iBooks, its own bookstore-and-book-reader package.  Within a few years, tens of millions of both devices, their clones and close copies will be in the hands of readers throughout the world.  The electronic book is an inevitability.

At this point a question needs to be asked: what’s so electronic about an electronic book?  If I open the Stanza application on my iPhone, and begin reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, I am presented with something that looks utterly familiar.  Too familiar.  This is not an electronic book.  This is ‘publishing in light’.  I believe it essential that we discriminate between the two, because the same commercial forces which have driven links from online newspapers and magazines will strip the term ‘electronic book’ of all of its meaning.  An electronic book is not simply a one-for-one translation of a typeset text into UTF-8 characters.  It doesn’t even necessarily begin with that translation.  Instead, first consider the text qua text.  What is it?  Who is it speaking to?  What is it speaking about?

These questions are important – essential – if we want to avoid turning living typeset texts into dead texts published in light.  That act of murder would give us less than we had before, because the published in light texts essentially disavow the medium within which they are situated.  They are less useful than typeset texts, purposely stripped of their utility to be shoehorned into a new medium.  This serves the economic purposes of publishers – interested in maximizing revenue while minimizing costs – but does nothing for the reader.  Nor does it make the electronic book an intrinsically alluring object.  That’s an interesting point to consider, because hypertext is intrinsically alluring.  The reason for the phenomenal, all-encompassing growth of the Web from 1994 through 2000 was because it seduced everyone who has any relationship to the text.  If an electronic book does not offer a new relationship to the text, then what precisely is the point?  Portability?  Ubiquity?  These are nice features, to be sure, but they are not, in themselves, overwhelmingly alluring.  This is the visible difference between a book that has been printed in light and an electronic book: the electronic book offers a qualitatively different experience of the text, one which is impossibly alluring.  At its most obvious level, it is the difference between Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia.

Publishers will resist the allure of the electronic book, seeing no reason to change what they do simply to satisfy the demands of a new medium.  But then, we know that monks did not alter the practices within the scriptorium until printed texts had become ubiquitous throughout Europe.  Today’s publishers face a similar obsolescence; unless they adapt their publishing techniques appropriately, they will rapidly be replaced by publishers who choose to embrace the electronic book as a medium,.  For the next five years we will exist in an interregnum, as books published in light make way for true electronic books.

What does the electronic book look like?  Does it differ at all from the hyperdocuments we are familiar with today?  In fifteen years of design experimentation, we’ve learned a lot of ways to present, abstract and play with text.  All of these are immediately applicable to the electronic book.  The electronic book should represent the best of 2010 has to offer and move forward from that point into regions unexplored.  The printed volume took nearly fifty years to evolve into its familiar hand-sized editions.  Before that, the form of the manuscript volume – chained to a desk or placed upon an altar – dictated the size of the book.  We shouldn’t try to constrain our idea of what an electronic book can be based upon what the book has been.  Over the next few years, our innovations will surprise us.  We won’t really know what the electronic book looks like until we’ve had plenty of time to play with them.

The electronic book will not be immune from the centrifugal force which is inherent to the medium.  Every link, every opportunity to depart from the linear inertia of the text, presents the same tension as within any other hyperdocument.  Yet we come to books with a sense of commitment.  We want to finish them.  But what, exactly do we want to finish?  The electronic book must necessarily reveal the interconnectedness of all ideas, of all writings – just as the Web does.  So does an electronic book have a beginning and an end?  Or is it simply a densely clustered set of texts with a well-defined path traversing them?  From the vantage point of 2010 this may seem like a faintly ridiculous question.  I doubt that will be the case in 2020, when perhaps half of our new books are electronic books.  The more that the electronic book yields itself to the medium which constitutes it, the more useful it becomes – and the less like a book.  There is no way that the electronic book can remain apart, indifferent and pure.  It will become a hybrid, fluid thing, without clear beginnings or endings, but rather with a concentration of significance and meaning that rises and falls depending on the needs and intent of the reader.  More of a gradient than a boundary.

It remains unclear how any such construction can constitute an economically successful entity.  Ted Nelson’s “Project Xanadu” anticipated this chaos thirty-five years ago, and provided a solution: ‘transclusion’, which allows hyperdocuments to be referenced and enclosed within other hyperdocuments, ensuring the proper preservation of copyright throughout the hypertext universe.  The Web provides no such mechanism, and although it is possible that one could be hacked into our current models, it seems very unlikely that this will happen.  This is the intuitive fear of the commercial publishers: they see their market dissolving as the sharp edges disappear.  Hence, they tightly grasp their publications and copyrights, publishing in light because it at least presents no slippery slope into financial catastrophe.

We come now to a line which we need to cross very carefully and very consciously, the ‘Schwarzschild Radius’ of electronic books.  (For those not familiar with astrophysics, the Schwarzschild Radius is the boundary to a black hole.  Once you’re on the wrong side you’re doomed to fall all the way in.)  On one side – our side – things look much as they do today.  Books are published in light, the economic model is preserved, and readers enjoy a digital experience which is a facsimile of the physical.  On the other side, electronic books rapidly become almost completely unrecognizable.  It’s not just the financial model which disintegrates.  As everything becomes more densely electrified, more subject to the centrifugal force of the medium, and as we become more familiar with the medium itself, everything begins to deform.  The text, linear for tens or hundreds of thousands of words, fragments into convenient chunks, the shortest of which looks more like a tweet than a paragraph, the longest of which only occasionally runs for more than a thousand words.  Each of these fragments points directly at its antecedent and descendant, or rather at its antecedents and descendants, because it is quite likely that there is more than one of each, simply because there can be more than one of each.  The primacy of the single narrative can not withstand the centrifugal force of the medium, any more than the newspaper or the magazine could.  Texts will present themselves as intense multiplicity, something that is neither a branching narrative nor a straight line, but which possesses elements of both.  This will completely confound our expectations of linearity in the text.

We are today quite used to discontinuous leaps in our texts, though we have not mastered how to maintain our place as we branch ever outward, a fault more of our nervous systems than our browsers.  We have a finite ability to track and backtrack; even with the support of the infinitely patient and infinitely impressionable computer, we lose our way, become distracted, or simply move on.  This is the greatest threat to the book, that it simply expands beyond our ability to focus upon it.  Our consciousness can entertain a universe of thought, but it can not entertain the entire universe at once.  Yet our electronic books, as they thread together and merge within the greater sea of hyperdocuments, will become one with the universe of human thought, eventually becoming inseparable from it.  With no beginning and no ending, just a series of ‘and-and-and’, as the various nodes, strung together by need or desire, assemble upon demand, the entire notion of a book as something discrete, and for that reason, significant, is abandoned, replaced by a unity, a nirvana of the text, where nothing is really separate from anything else.

What ever happened to the book?  It exploded in a paroxysm of joy, dissolved into union with every other human thought, and disappeared forever.  This is not an ending, any more than birth is an ending.  But it is a transition, at least as profound and comprehensive as the invention of moveable type.  It’s our great good luck to live in the midst of this transition, astride the dilemmas of hypertext and the contradictions of the electronic book.  Transitions are chaotic, but they are also fecund.  The seeds of the new grow in the humus of the old.  (And if it all seems sudden and sinister, I’ll simply note that Nietzsche said that new era nearly always looks demonic to the age it obsolesces.)

III:  Finnegans Wiki

So what of Aristotle?  What does this mean for the narrative?  It is easy to conceive of a world where non-fiction texts simply dissolve into the universal sea of texts.  But what about stories?  From time out of mind we have listened to stories told by the campfire.  The Iliad, The Mahabharata, and Beowolf held listeners spellbound as the storyteller wove the tale.  For hours at a time we maintained our attention and focus as the stories that told us who we are and our place in the world traveled down the generations.

Will we lose all of this?  Can narratives stand up against the centrifugal forces of hypertext?  Authors and publishers both seem assured that whatever happens to non-fiction texts, the literary text will remain pure and untouched, even as it becomes a wholly electronic form.  The lure of the literary text is that it takes you on a singular journey, from beginning to end, within the universe of the author’s mind.  There are no distractions, no interruptions, unless the author has expressly put them there in order to add tension to the plot.  A well-written literary text – and even a poorly-written but well-plotted ‘page-turner’ – has the capacity to hold the reader tight within the momentum of linearity. Something is a ‘page-turner’ precisely because its forward momentum effectively blocks the centrifugal force.  We occasionally stay up all night reading a book that we ‘couldn’t put down’, precisely because of this momentum.  It is easy to imagine that every literary text which doesn’t meet this higher standard of seduction will simply fail as an electronic book, unable to counter the overwhelming lure of the medium.

This is something we never encountered with printed books: until the mid-20th century, the only competition for printed books was other printed books.  Now the entire Web – already quite alluring and only growing more so – offers itself up in competition for attention, along with television and films and podcasts and Facebook and Twitter and everything else that has so suddenly become a regular feature of our media diet.  How can any text hope to stand against that?

And yet, some do.  Children unplugged to read each of the increasingly-lengthy Harry Potter novels, as teenagers did for the Twilight series.  Adults regularly buy the latest novel by Dan Brown in numbers that boggle the imagination.  None of this is high literature, but it is literature capable of resisting all our alluring distractions.  This is one path that the book will follow, one way it will stay true to Aristotle and the requirements of the narrative arc.  We will not lose our stories, but it may be that, like blockbuster films, they will become more self-consciously hollow, manipulative, and broad.  That is one direction, a direction literary publishers will pursue, because that’s where the money lies.

There are two other paths open for literature, nearly diametrically opposed.  The first was taken by JRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.  Although hugely popular, the three-book series has never been described as a ‘page-turner’, being too digressive and leisurely, yet, for all that, entirely captivating.  Tolkien imagined a new universe – or rather, retrieved one from the fragments of Northern European mythology – and placed his readers squarely within it.  And although readers do finish the book, in a very real sense they do not leave that universe.  The fantasy genre, which Tolkien single-handedly invented with The Lord of the Rings, sells tens of millions of books every year, and the universe of Middle-earth, the archetypal fantasy world, has become the playground for millions who want to explore their own imaginations.  Tolkien’s magnum opus lends itself to hypertext; it is one of the few literary works to come complete with a set of appendices to deepen the experience of the universe of the books.  Online, the fans of Middle-earth have created seemingly endless resources to explore, explain, and maintain the fantasy.  Middle-earth launches off the page, driven by its own centrifugal force, its own drive to unpack itself into a much broader space, both within the reader’s mind and online, in the collective space of all of the work’s readers.  This is another direction for the book.  While every author will not be a Tolkien, a few authors will work hard to create a universe so potent and broad that readers will be tempted to inhabit it.  (Some argue that this is the secret of JK Rowling’s success.)

Finally, there is another path open for the literary text, one which refuses to ignore the medium that constitutes it, which embraces all of the ambiguity and multiplicity and liminality of hypertext.  There have been numerous attempts at ‘hypertext fiction’; nearly all of them have been unreadable failures.  But there is one text which stands apart, both because it anticipated our current predicament, and because it chose to embrace its contradictions and dilemmas.  The book was written and published before the digital computer had been invented, yet even features an innovation which is reminiscent of hypertext.  That work is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and it was Joyce’s deliberate effort to make each word choice a layered exploration of meaning that gives the text such power.  It should be gibberish, but anyone who has read Finnegans Wake knows it is precisely the opposite.  The text is overloaded with meaning, so much so that the mind can’t take it all in.  Hypertext has been a help; there are a few wikis which attempt to make linkages between the text and its various derived meanings (the maunderings of four generations of graduate students and Joycephiles), and it may even be that – in another twenty years or so – the wikis will begin to encompass much of what Joyce meant.  But there is another possibility.  In so fundamentally overloading the text, implicitly creating a link from every single word to something else, Joyce wanted to point to where we were headed.  In this, Finnegans Wake could be seen as a type of science fiction, not a dystopian critique like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, nor the transhumanist apotheosis of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (both near-contemporary works) but rather a text that pointed the way to what all texts would become, performance by example.  As texts become electronic, as they melt and dissolve and  link together densely, meaning multiplies exponentially.  Every sentence, and every word in every sentence, can send you flying in almost any direction.  The tension within this text (there will be only one text) will make reading an exciting, exhilarating, dizzying experience – as it is for those who dedicate themselves to Finnegans Wake.

It has been said that all of human culture could be reconstituted from Finnegans Wake.  As our texts become one, as they become one hyperconnected mass of human expression, that new thing will become synonymous with culture.  Everything will be there, all strung together.  And that’s what happened to the book.

Using the Network for Business Success

I.  My, How Things Have Changed

When I came to Australia six years ago, to seek my fame and fortune, business communications had remained largely unchanged for nearly a century.  You could engage in face-to-face conversation – something humans have been doing since we learned to speak, countless thousands of years ago – or, if distance made that impossible, you could drop a letter into the post.  Australia Post is an excellent organization, and seems to get all of the mail delivered within a day or two – quite an accomplishment in a country as dispersed and diffuse as ours.

In the twentieth century, the telephone became the dominant form of business communication; Australia Post wired the nation up, and let us talk to one another.  Conversation, mediated by the telephone, became the dominant mode of communication.  About twenty years ago the facsimile machine dropped in price dramatically, and we could now send images over phone lines.

The facsimile translates images into data and back into images again.  That’s when the critical threshold was crossed: from that point on, our communications have always centered on data.  The Internet arrived in 1995, and broadband in 2001.  In the first years of Internet usage, electronic mail was both the ‘killer app’ and the thing that began to supplant the telephone for business correspondence.  Electronic mail is asynchronous – you can always pick it up later.  Email is non-local, particularly when used through a service such as Hotmail or Gmail – you can get it anywhere.  Until mobiles started to become pervasive for business uses, the telephone was always a hit-or-miss affair.  Electronic mail is a hit, every time.

Such was the business landscape when I arrived in Australia.  The Web had arrived, and businesses eagerly used it as a publishing medium – a cheap way of getting information to their clients and customers.  But the Web was changing.  It had taken nearly a decade of working with the Web, day-to-day, before we discovered that the Web could become a fully-fledged two-way medium: the Web could listen as well as talk.  That insight changed everything.  The Web morphed into a new beast, christened ‘Web 2.0’, and everywhere the Web invited us to interact, to share, to respond, to play, to become involved.  This transition has fundamentally changed business communication, and it’s my goal this morning to outline the dimensions of that transformation.

This transformation unfolds in several dimensions.  The first of these – and arguably the most noticeable – is how well-connected we are these days.  So long as we’re in range of a cellular radio signal, we can be reached.  The number of ways we can be reached is growing almost geometrically.  Five years ago we might have had a single email address.  Now we have several – certainly one for business, and one for personal use – together with an account on Facebook (nearly eight million of the 22 million Australians have Facebook accounts), perhaps another account on MySpace, another on Twitter, another on YouTube, another on Flickr.  We can get a message or maintain contact with someone through any of these connections.  Some individuals have migrated to Facebook for the majority of their communications – there’s no spam, and they’re assured the message will be delivered.  Among under-25s, electronic mail is seen as a technology of the ‘older generation’, something that one might use for work, but has no other practical value.  Text messaging and messaging-via-Facebook have replaced electronic mail.

This increased connectivity hasn’t come for free.  Each of us are now under a burden to maintain all of the various connections we’ve opened.  At the most basic level, we must at least monitor all of these channels for incoming messages.  That can easily get overwhelming, as each channel clamors for attention.

But wait.  We’ve dropped Facebook and Twitter into the conversation before I even explained what they are and how they work.  We just take them as a fact of life these days, but they’re brand new.  Facebook was unknown just three years ago, and Twitter didn’t zoom into prominence until eighteen months ago.  Let’s step back and take a look at what social networks are.  In a very real way, we’ve always known exactly what a social network is: since we were very small we’ve been reaching out to other people and establishing social relationships with them.  In the beginning that meant our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers.  As we grew older that list might grow to include some of the kids in the neighborhood, or at pre-kindy, and then our school friends.  By the time we make it to university, that list of social relationships is actually quite long.  But our brains have limited space to store all those relationships – it’s actually the most difficult thing we do, the most cognitively all-encompassing task.  Forget physics – relationship are harder, and take more brainpower.

Nature has set a limit of about one hundred and fifty on the social relationships we can manage in our heads.  That’s not a static number – it’s not as though as soon as you reach 150, you’re done, full.  Rather, it’s a sign of how many relationships of importance you can manage at any one time.  None of us, not even the most socially adept, can go very much beyond that number.  We just don’t have the grey matter for it.

Hence, fifty years ago mankind invented the Rolodex – a way of keeping track of all the information we really should remember but can’t possibly begin to absorb.  A real, living Rolodex (and there are few of them, these days) are a wonder to behold, with notes scribbled in the margins, business cards stapled to the backs of the Rolodex cards, and a glorious mess of information, all alphabetically organized.  The Rolodex was mankind’s first real version of the modern, digital, social network.  But a Rolodex doesn’t think for itself; a Rolodex can not draw out the connections between the different cards.  A Rolodex does not make explicit what we know – we live in a very interconnected world, and many of our friends and associates are also friends and associates with our friends and associates.

That is precisely what Facebook gives us.  It makes those implicit connections explicit.  It allows those connections to become conduits for ever-greater-levels of connection.  Once those connections are made, once they become a regular feature of our life, we can grow beyond the natural limit of 150.  That doesn’t mean you can manage any of these relationships well – far from it.  But it does mean that you can keep the channels of communication open.  That’s really what all of these social networks are: turbocharged Rolodexes, which allow you to maintain far more relationships than ever before possible.

Once these relationships are established, something beings to happen quite naturally: people begin to share.  What they share is often driven by the nature of the relationship – though we’ve all seen examples where individuals ‘over-share’ inappropriately, confusing business and social channels of communication.  That sort of thing is very easy to do with social networks such as Facebook, because it doesn’t provide an easy method to send messages out to different groups of friends.  We might want a social network where business friends might get something very formal, while close friends might that that photo of you doing tequila shots at last weekend’s birthday party.  It’s a great idea, isn’t it?  But it can’t be done.  Not on Facebook, not on Twitter.  Your friends are all lumped together into one undifferentiated whole.  That’s one way that those social networks are very different from the ones inside our heads.  And it’s something to be constantly aware of when sharing through social networks.

That said, this social sharing has become an incredibly potent force.  More videos are uploaded to YouTube every day than all television networks all over the world produce in a year.  It may not be material of the same quality, but that doesn’t matter – most of those videos are only meant to be seen among a small group of family or friends.  We send pictures around, we send links around, we send music around (though that’s been cause for a bit of trouble), we share things because we care about them, and because we care about the people we’re sharing with.  Every act of sharing, business or personal, brings the sharer and the recipient closer together.  It truly is better to give than receive.  On the other hand, we’re also drowning in shared material.  There’s so much, coming from every corner, through every one of these social networks, there’s no possible way to keep up.  So, most of us don’t.  We cherry-pick, listening to our closest friends and associates: the things they share with us are the most meaningful.  We filter the noise and hope that we’re not missing anything very important.  (We usually are.)

In certain very specific situations, sharing can produce something greater than the sum of its parts.  A community can get together and decide to pool what it knows about a particular domain of knowledge, can ‘wise up’ by sharing freely.  This idea of ‘collective intelligence’ producing a shared storehouse of knowledge is the engine that drives sites like Wikipedia.  We all know Wikipedia, we all know how it works – anyone can edit anything in any article within it – but the wonder of Wikipedia is that it works so well.  It’s not perfectly accurate – nothing ever is  – but it is good enough to be useful nearly all the time.  Here’s the thing: you can come to Wikipedia ignorant and leave it knowing something.  You can put that knowledge to work to make better decisions than you would have in your state of ignorance.  Wikipedia can help you wise up.

Wikipedia isn’t the only example of shared knowledge.  A decade ago a site named TeacherRatings.com went online, inviting university students to provide ratings of their professors, lecturers and instructors.  Today it’s named RateMyProfessor.com, is owned by MTV Networks, and has over ten million ratings of one million instructors.  This font of shared knowledge has become so potent that students regularly consult the site before deciding which classes they’ll take next semester at university.  Universities can no longer saddle student with poor teachers (who may also be fantastic researchers).  There are bidding wars taking place for the lecturers who get the highest ratings on the site.  This sharing of knowledge has reversed the power relationship between a university and its students which stretches back nearly a thousand years.

Substitute the word ‘business’ for university and ‘customers’ for students and you see why this is so significant.  In an era where we’re hyperconnected, where people share, and share knowledge, things are going to work a lot differently than they did before.  These all-important relationships between businesses and their customers (potential and actual) have been completely rewritten.  Let’s talk about that.

II.  Breaking In

The most important thing you need to know about the new relationship between yourselves and your customers is that your customers are constantly engaging in a conversation about you.  At this point, you don’t know where those customers are, and what they’re saying.  They could be saying something via a text message, or a Facebook post, or an email, or on Twitter.  Any and all of these conversations about you are going on right now.  But you don’t know, so there’s no way you can participate in them.

I’ll give you an example I used my column in NETT magazine.  My mate John Allsopp (a big-time Web developer, working on the next generation of Web technologies) travels a lot for business.  Back in June, on a trip the US, he decided to give VAustralia’s Premium Economy class a try.  He was so pleased about the service – and the sleep he got – he immediately sent out a tweet: “At LAX waiting for flight to Denver. Best flight ever on VAustralia Premium Economy. Fantastic seat, service, and sleep. Hooked.”  That message went out to twelve hundred of John’s Twitter followers – many of whom are Australians.  It was quickly answered by a tweet from Cheryl Gledhill: “isn’t VAustralia the bomb!! My favourite airline at the moment… so roomy, and great entertainment, nice hosties, etc.”  That message went to Cheryl’s 250 followers.  I chimed in, too: “Precisely how I felt after my VA flights last month: hooked. Got 7 hours sleep each way. Worth the price.”  That message went out to fifty-two hundred of my followers – who are disproportionately Australian.

Just between the three of us, we might have reached as many as seven thousand people – individuals who are like ourselves – because like connects to like in social networks.  That means these are individuals who are likely to take advantage of VAustralia the next time they fly the transpacific route.  But here’s the sad thing: VAustralia had no idea this wonderful and loving conversation about their product was going on.  No idea at all.  You know what they were involved in?  An ad-agency dreamed-up ‘4320SYD’ campaign, which flew four mates to Los Angeles for three days, promising them free round-the-world flights on the various Virgin airlines if they sent at least two thousand tweets during their trip.  VAustralia – or rather, VAustralia’s ad agency – presumed that people with busy lives would spend some of their precious time and attention following four blokes spewing out line after line of inane chatter.  Naturally, the campaign disappeared without a trace.

If VAustralia had asked its agency to monitor Twitter, to keep its finger to the pulse of what was being said online, things could have turned out very differently.  Perhaps a VAustralia rep would have contacted John Allsopp directly, thanked him for his kind words, and offered him a $100 coupon for his next flight on V Australia Premium Economy.  VAustralia would have made a customer for life – and for a lot less than they spent on the ‘4320SYD’ campaign.

Marketers and agencies are still thinking in terms of mass markets and mass media.  While both do still exist, they don’t shape perception as they did a generation ago.  Instead, we turn to the hyperconnections we have with one another.  I can instantly ask Twitter for a review of a restaurant, a gadget, or a movie, and I do.  So do millions of others.  This is the new market, and this is the place where marketing – at least as we’ve known it – can not penetrate.

That’s one problem.  There’s another, and larger problem: what happens when you have an angry customer?  Let me tell you a story about my friend Kate Carruthers, who will be speaking with you later this morning.  On a recent trip to Queensland, she pulled out her American Express credit card to pay for a taxi fare.  Her card was declined.  Kate paid with another card and thought little of it until the next time she tried to use the card – this time to pay for something rather pricier, and more sensitive – only to find her card declined once again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate is both a prolific user of Twitter and a very well connected individual.  There are over seven thousand individuals reading her tweets.  Seven thousand people who saw Kate ‘go nuclear’ over her bad treatment at the hands of AMEX.  Seven thousand people who will now think twice when an AMEX offer comes in the post, or when they pass by the tables that are ubiquitously in every airport and mall.  Everyone one of them will remember the ordeal Kate suffered – almost as if Kate were a close friend.

Does AMEX know that Kate went nuclear?  Almost certainly not.  They didn’t make any attempt to contact her after her outburst, so it’s fairly certain that this flew well underneath their radar.  But the damage to AMEX’s reputation is quantifiable: Kate is simply too hyperconnected to be ignored, or mistreated.  And that’s the world we’re all heading into.  As we all grow more and more connected, as we each individually reach thousands of others, slights against any one of us have a way of amplifying into enormous events, the kinds of mistakes that could, if repeated, bring a business to its knees.  AMEX, in its ignorant bliss, has no idea that it has shot itself in the foot.

While Kate expressed her extreme dissatisfaction with AMEX, its own marketing arm was busily cooking up a scheme to harness Twitter.  It’s Open Forum Pulse website shows you tweets from small businesses around the world.  It’s ironic, isn’t it?  AMEX builds a website to show us what others are saying on Twitter, all the while ignoring about what’s being said about it.  Just like VAustralia.  Perhaps that’s simply the way Big Business is going to play the social media revolution – like complete idiots.  You have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

There is a whole world out there engaging in conversation about you.  You need to be able to recognize that.  There are tools out there – like PeopleBrowsr – which make it easy for you to monitor those conversations.  You’ll need to think through a strategy which allows you to recognize and promote those positive conversations, while – perhaps more importantly – keeping an eye on the negative conversations.  An upset customer should be serviced before they go nuclear; these kinds of accidents don’t need to happen.  But you’ll need to be proactive in your listening.  Customers will no longer come to you to talk about you or your business.

III.  Breaking Out

The first step in any social media strategy for business is to embrace the medium.  Many business ban social media from their corporate networks, seeing them as a drain of time and attention.  Which is, in essence, saying that you don’t trust your own employees.  That you’re willing to infantilize them by blocking their network access.  This won’t work.  ‘Smartphones’ – that is, mobiles which have big screens, broadband connections, and full web browsers – have become increasingly popular in Australia.  Perhaps one third of all mobile handsets now qualify as smartphones.  Apple’s iPhone is simply the most visible of these devices, but they’re sold by many manufacturers, and, within a few years, they’ll be entirely pervasive: every mobile will be a smartphone.  A smartphone can access a social network just as easily – often more easily – than a desktop web browser.  Your employees have access to social networks all day long, unless you ask them to leave their mobiles at the front desk.

Just as we expect that employees won’t spend their days sending text messages to the friends, so an employer can expect that employees are sensible enough to regulate their own net usage.  A ‘net nanny’ is not required.  Mutual respect is.  Yes, the network is a powerful thing – it can be used to spread rumor and innuendo, can be used to promote or undermine – but employees understand this.  We all use the network at home.  We know what it’s good for.  Bringing it into the office requires some common sense, and perhaps a few guidelines.  The ABC recently released their own guidelines for social media, and they’re a brilliant example of the parsimony and common sense which need to underwrite all of our business efforts online.  Here they are:

•                do not mix professional and personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute,

•                do not undermine your effectiveness at work,

•                do not imply ABC endorsement of personal views, and,

•                do not disclose confidential information obtained at work.

There’s nothing hard about this list – for either employer or employee – yet it tells everyone exactly where they stand and what’s expected of them.  Employers are expected to trust their employees.  Employees are expected to reciprocate that trust by acting responsibly.  All in all, a very adult relationship.

Once that adult relationship has been established around social media, you have a unique opportunity to let your employees become your eyes and ears online.  Most small to medium-sized businesses have neither the staff nor the resources to dedicate a specific individual to social media issues.  In fact, that’s not actually a good idea.  When things ‘hot up’ for your business, any single individual charged with handling all things social media will quickly overload, with too much coming in through too many channels simultaneously.  That means something will get overlooked.  Something will get dropped.  And a potential nuclear event – something that could be defused or forestalled if responded to in a timely manner – will slip through the cracks.

Social media isn’t a one-person job.  It’s a job for the entire organization.  You need to give your employees permission to be out there on Facebook, on Twitter, on the blogs and in the net’s weirder corners – wherever their searches might lead them.  You need to charge them with the responsibility of being proactive, to go out there and hunt down those conversations of importance to your and your business.  Of course, they should be polite, and only offer help where it is needed, but, if they can do that, you will increase your reach and your presence immeasurably.  And you will have done it without spending a dime.

Those of you with a background in marketing have just broken out in cold sweat.  This is nothing like what they taught you at university, nothing like what you learned on the job.  That’s the truth of it.  But what you learned on the job is what VAustralia and AMEX are now up to – that is, complete and utter failure.  But, you’re thinking, what about message discipline?  How can we have that many people speaking for the organization?  Won’t it be chaos?

The answer, in short, is yes.  It will be chaos.  But not in a bad way.  You’ll have your own army out there, working for you.  Employees will know enough to know when they can speak for the organization, and when they should be silent.  (If they don’t know, they’ll learn quickly.)  Will it be messy?  Probably.  But the world of social media is not neat.  It is not based on image and marketing and presentation.  It is based on authenticity, on relationships that are established and which develop through time.  It is not something that can be bought or sold like an ad campaign.  It is, instead, something more akin to friendship – requiring time and tending and more than a little bit of love.

This means that employees will need some time to spend online, probably a few minutes, several times a day, to keep an eye on things.  To keep watch.  To make sure a simmering pot doesn’t suddenly boil over.

That’s the half of it.  The other half is how you use social media to reach out.  Many companies set up Twitter and Facebook accounts and use them to send useless spam-like messages to anyone who cares to listen.  Please don’t do this. Social media is not about advertising.  In fact, it’s anti-advertising.  Social media is an opportunity to connect.  If you’re a furniture maker, for example, perhaps you’d like to have a public conversation with designers and homeowners about the art and business of making furniture.  Social media is precisely where you get to show off the expertise which keeps you in business – whatever that might be.  Lawyers can talk about law, accountants about accounting, and printers about printing.  Business, especially small business, is all about passion, and social media is a passion amplifier.  Let your passions show and people will respond.  Some of them will become customers.

So please, when you leave here today, setup those Facebook and Twitter accounts.  But when you’ve done that, step back and have a think.  Ask yourself, “How can I represent my business in a way that invites conversation?”  Once you’ve answered that, you’ve also answered the other important question – how do you translate that conversation into business.  Without the conversation you’ve got nothing.  But, once that conversation has begun, you have everything you need.

Those are the basics.  Everything else you’ll learn as you go along.  Social media isn’t difficult, though it takes time to master.  Just like any relationship, you’ll get out of it what you put into it.  And it isn’t going away.  It’s not a fad.  It’s the new way of doing business.  The efforts you make today will, in short order, reward you a hundred-fold.  That’s the promise of network: it will bring you success.

Collisions & Smash Repairs

My brief keynote to the ICT Roundtable of the TAFE Sydney Institute. Recorded on Wednesday, 13 August 2008. Many thanks to Trish James and Stephan Ridgway for arranging the audio recording!

Everywhere

I.

Sydney looks very little different from the city of Gough Whitlam’s day. Although almost forty years have passed, we see most of the same concrete monstrosities at the Big End of town, the same terrace houses in Surry Hills and Paddington, the same mile-after-mile of brick dwellings in the outer suburbs. Sydney has grown a bit around the edges, bumping up against the natural frontiers of our national parks, but, for a time-traveler, most things would appear nearly exactly the same.

That said, the life of the city is completely different. This is not because a different generation of Australians, from all corners of the world, inhabit the city. Rather, the city has acquired a rich inner life, an interiority which, though invisible to the eye, has become entirely pervasive, and completely dominates our perceptions. We walk the streets of the city, but we swim through an invisible ether of information. Just a decade ago we might have been said to have jumped through puddles of data, hopping from one to another as a five year-old might in a summer rainstorm. But the levels have constantly risen, in a curious echo of global warming, until, today, we must swim hard to stay afloat.

The individuals in our present-day Sydney stride the streets with divided attention, one eye scanning the scene before them, and another almost invariably fiddling with a mobile phone: sending a text, returning a call, using the GPS satellites to locate an address. Where, four decades ago, we might have kept a wary eye on passers-by, today we focus our attentions into the palms of our hands, playing with our toys. The least significant of these toys are the stand-alone entertainment devices; the iPods and their ilk, which provide a continuous soundtrack for our lives, and which insulate us from the undesired interruptions of the city. These are pleasant, but unimportant.

The devices which allow us to peer into and sail the etheric sea of data which surrounds us, these are the important toys. It’s already become an accepted fact that a man leaves the house with three things in his possession: his wallet, his keys, and his mobile. I have a particular pat-down I practice as the door to my flat closes behind me, a ritual of reassurance that tells me that yes, I am truly ready for the world. This behavioral transformation was already well underway when I first visited Sydney in 1997, and learned, from my friends’ actions, that mobile phones acted as a social lubricant. Dates could be made, rescheduled, or broken on the fly, effortlessly, without the painful social costs associated with standing someone up.

This was not a unique moment; it was simply the first in an ever-increasing series of transformations of human behavior, as the social accelerator of continuous communication became a broadly-accepted feature of civilization. The transition to frictionless social intercourse was quickly followed by a series of innovations which removed much of the friction from business and government. As individuals we must work with institutions and bureaucracies, but we have more ways to reach into them – and they, into us – than ever before. Businesses, in particular, realized that they could achieve both productivity gains and cost savings by leveraging the new facilities of communication. This relationship between commerce and the consumer produced an accelerating set of feedbacks which translated the very physical world of commerce into an enormous virtual edifice, one which sought every possible advantage of virtualization, striving to reach its customers through every conceivable mechanism.

Now, as we head into the winter of 2008, we live in a world where a seemingly stable physical environment is entirely overlaid and overweighed by a virtual world of connection and communication. The physical world has, in large part, lost its significance. It’s not that we’ve turned away from the physical world, but rather, that the meaning of the physical world is now derived from our interactions within the virtual world. The conversation we have, between ourselves, and with the institutions which serve us, frame the world around us. A bank is no longer an imposing edifice with marble columns, but an EFTPOS swipe or a statement displayed in a web browser. The city is no longer streets and buildings, but flows of people and information, each invisibly connected through pervasive wireless networks.

It is already a wireless world. That battle was fought and won years ago; truly, before anyone knew the battle had been joined, it was effectively over. We are as wedded to this world as to the physical world – perhaps even more so. The frontlines of development no longer concern themselves with the deployment of wireless communications, but rather with their increasing utility.

II.

Utility has a value. How much is it worth to me to be able to tell a mate that I’m delayed in traffic and can’t make dinner on time? Is it worth a fifty-cent voice call, or a twenty-five cent text (which may go through several iterations, and, in the end, cost me more)? Clearly it is; we are willing to pay a steep price to keep our social relationships on an even keel. What about our business relationships? How much is it worth to be able to take a look at the sales brochure for a store before we enter it? How much is it worth to find it on a map, or get directions from where we are? How much is it worth to send an absolutely vital email to a business client?

These are the economics that have ruled the tariff structures of wireless communications, both here in Australia and in the rest of the world. Bandwidth, commonly thought of as a limited resource, must be paid for. Infrastructure must be paid for. Shareholders must receive a fair return on their investments. All of these points, while valid, do not tell the whole story. The tariff structure acts as a barrier to communication, a barrier which can only be crossed if the perceived value is greater than the costs incurred. In the situations outlined above, this is often the case, and is thus the basis for the wireless telelcomms industry. But there are other economics at work, and these economics dictate a revision to this monolithic ordering of business affairs.

Chris Anderson, the editor of WIRED magazine, has been writing a series of essays in preparation for the publication of his next book, Free: Why $0.00 is the Future of Business. In his first essay – published in WIRED magazine, of course – Anderson takes a look at Moore’s Law, which promises a two-fold decrease in transistor cost every eighteen months, a rule that’s proven continuously true since Intel co-founder Gordon Moore proposed it, back in 1965. Somewhere around 1973, Anderson notes, Carver Mead, the father of VLSI, realized that individual transistors were becoming so small and so cheap as to be essentially free. Yes, in aggregates of hundreds of millions, transistors cost a few tens of dollars. But at the level of single circuits, these transistors are free, and can be “wasted” to provide some additional functionality at essentially zero additional cost. When, toward the end of the 1970s, the semiconductor industry embraced Mead’s design methodology, the silicon revolution began in earnest, powered by ever-cheaper transistors that could, as far as the designer was concerned, be considered entirely expendable.

Google has followed a similar approach to profitability. Pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a distributed, networked architecture which crawls and indexes the Web, Google provides its search engine for free, in the now-substantiated belief that something made freely available can still generate a very decent profit. Google designed its own, cheap computers, its own, cheap operating system, and fit these into its own, expensive data centers, linked together with relatively inexpensive bandwidth. Yahoo! and Microsoft – and Baidu and Facebook and MySpace – have followed similar paths to profitability. Make it free, and make money.

This seems counterintuitive, but herein is the difference between the physical and virtual worlds; the virtual world, insubstantial and pervasive, has its own economies of scale, which function very differently from the physical world. In the virtual world, the more a resource is shared, the more valuable it becomes, so ubiquity is the pathway to profitability.

We do not think of bandwidth as a virtual resource, one that can simply be burned. In Australia, we think of bandwidth as being an expensive and scarce resource. This is not true, and has never been particularly true. Over the time I’ve lived in this country (four and a half years) I’ve paid the same fixed amount for my internet bandwidth, yet today I have roughly six times the bandwidth, and seven times the download cap. Bandwidth is following the same curve as the transistor, because the cost of bandwidth is directly correlated to the cost of transistors.

Last year I upgraded to a 3G mobile handset, the Nokia N95, and immediately moved from GPRS speeds to HSDPA speeds – roughly 100x faster – but I am still spending the same amount for my mobile, on a monthly basis. I know that some Australian telcos see Vodafone’s tariff policy as sheer lunacy. But I reckon that Vodafone understands the economics of bandwidth. Vodafone understands that bandwidth is becoming free; the only way they can continue to benefit from my custom is if they continuously upgrade my service – just like my ISP.

Telco tariffs are predicated on the basic idea that spectrum is a limited resource. But spectrum is not a limited resource. Allocations are limited, yes, and licensed from the regulatory authorities for many millions of dollars a year. But spectrum itself is not in any wise limited. The 2.4 Ghz band is proof positive of this. Just that tiny slice of spectrum is responsible for more revenue than any other slice of spectrum, outside of the GSM and 3G bands. Why is this? Because the 2.4 Ghz band is unregulated, engineers and designers have had to teach their varied devices to play well with one another, even in hostile environments. I can use a Bluetooth headset right next to my WiFi-enabled MacBook, and never experience any problems, because these devices use spread-spectrum and spectrum-hopping to behave politely. My N95 can use WiFi and Bluetooth networking simultaneously – yet there’s never interference.

Unlicensed spectrum is not anarchy. It is an invitation to innovate. It is an open door to the creative engines of the economy. It is the most vital part of the entire wireless world, because it is the corner of the wireless world where bandwidth already is free.

III.

And so back to the city outside the convention center walls, crowded with four million people, each eagerly engaged in their own acts of communication. Yet these moments are bounded by an awareness of the costs of this communication. These tariffs act as a fundamental brake on the productivity of the Australian economy. They fetter the means of production. And so they must go.

I do not mean that we should nationalize the telcos – we’ve already been there – but rather, that we must engage in creating a new generation of untarriffed networks. The technology is already in place. We have cheap and durable mesh routers, such as the Open-Mesh and the Meraki, which can be dropped almost anywhere, powered by sun or by mains, and can create a network that spans nearly a quarter kilometer square. We can connect these access points to our wired networks, and share some small portion of our every-increasing bandwidth wealth with the public at large, so that no matter where they are in this city – or in this nation – they can access the wireless world. And we can secure these networks to prevent fraud and abuse.

Such systems already exist. In the past eight months, Meraki has given their $50 WiFi mesh routers to any San Franciscan willing to donate some of their ever-cheaper bandwidth to a freely available municipal network. When I started tracking the network, it had barely five thousand users. Today, it has over seventy thousand – that’s about one-tenth of the city. San Francisco is a city of hills and low buildings – it’s hard to get real reach from a wireless signal. In Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth – which are all built on flats – a little signal goes a long, long way. From my flat in Surry Hills I can cover my entire neighborhood. If another of my neighbors decides to contribute, we can create a mesh which reaches further into my neighborhood, where it can link up with another volunteer, further in the neighborhood, and so on, and so on, until the entirety of my suburb is bathed in freely available wireless connectivity.

While this may sound like a noble idea, that is not the reason it is a good idea. Free wireless is a good idea because it enables an entirely new level of services, which would not, because of tariffs, make economic sense. This type of information has value – perhaps great value, to some – but no direct economic value. This is where the true strength of free wireless shows itself: it enables a broad participation in the electronic life of the city by all participants – individuals, businesses, and institutions – without the restraint of economic trade-offs.

This unlicensed participation has no form as yet, because we haven’t deployed the free wireless network beyond a few select spots in Australia’s cities. But, once the network has been deployed, some enterprising person will develop the “killer app” for this network, something so unexpected, yet so useful, that it immediately becomes apparent that the network is an incredibly valuable resource, one which will improve human connectivity, business productivity, and the delivery of services. Something that, once established, will be seen as an absolutely necessary feature in the life of the city.

Businessmen hate to deal in intangibles, or wild-eyed “science projects.” So instead, let me present you with a fait accompli: This is happening. We’re reaching a critical mass of Wifi devices in our dense urban cores. Translating these devices into nodes within city-spanning mesh networks requires only a simple software upgrade. It doesn’t require a hardware build-out. The transformation, when it comes, will happen suddenly and completely, and it will change the way we view the city.

The question then, is simple: are you going to wait for this day, or are you going to help it along? It could be slowed down, fettered by lawsuits and regulation. Or it could be accelerated into inevitability. We’re at a transition point now, between the tariffed networks we have lived with for the last decade, and the new, free networks, which are organically popping up in Australia and throughout the world. Both networks will co-exist; a free network actually increases the utility of a tariffed mobile network.

So, do you want to fight it? Or do you want to switch it on?