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?

Mob Rules (The Law of Fives)

Mob Rules is also available on YouTube, just click here.

Chaos

The world has changed. The world is changing. The world will change a whole lot more. We lucky few, we band of coders, bear witness to the most comprehensive transformation in human communication since the advent of language. We are embedded in the midst of this transition; we make it happen with every script we write and every page we publish and every blog we post and every video we upload. For that reason, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. No wonder it looks so crazy and chaotic.

In the mid 20th century, American philosopher H. Richard Neibur wrote that the first question of ethics is not, “What is right?”, but rather, “What is going on?” This arvo, before we retire to the Shelbourne for drinks and conversation, I’d like to take you on a tour of our very peculiar present. Something’s happening that is so unexpected, most of us don’t even know it’s going on.

Confusion: Three Billion

We begin on the shores of the Indian Ocean, in the south Indian state of Kerala. For at least a thousand years the fishermen of Kerala have sailed their sturdy dhows to sea, lowered their nets, prayed to their gods, and – if their prayers were heard – hauled in a bountiful catch. Fully laden, the fishermen set their sails to shore, to any one of the many fishing villages and fish markets which dot the Kerala coast. The selection of a port is done more or less at random, so throughout all these thousand years too many boats pulled into one port, leaving the markets oversupplied, and the fisherman selling their catch at a loss, while another market, just a few kilometers away, has no fish for sale at any price. This kept the fishermen poor, and the markets consistently either oversupplied or undersupplied.

From 1997 through 2001, as India’s rush to industrialization gathered momentum, several of India’s mobile telecoms firms strung the Kerala coast with GSM towers. GSM is a radio signal, and travels in line-of-sight, which means that, out at sea, the signal can reach 25 kilometers, the point where the curvature of the Earth blocks the view of the shore.

GSM handsets cost a month’s wages for a Kerala fishermen – imagine if a handset here cost four or five thousand dollars. (Even my Nokia N95 didn’t cost that much.) Yet, some wealthy fisherman, somewhere in Kerala, bought a GSM handset and took it to sea. At some point during a fishing voyage that fisherman had some communication with the mainland – perhaps a trivial family matter. But, in the course of that communication, he learned of a village going wanting for fish, at any price. So he made for that port and sold his catch at a tidy profit that day. The next day, perhaps, he called into shore, talking to fish sellers to the various ports, and learned which market needed fish the most – and was willing to pay for it. So it began.

Fishermen form a tight-knit community; while they might be secretive about their favorite spots to fish, they all trade technique with one another, and – within a very short period of time – all the other Kerala fishermen had learned of the power of the GSM handset, and each of them brought their own handset to sea, made calls to the markets, and sold their catch for a tidy profit. Today, the fish markets in Kerala are only rarely oversupplied with fish, and are almost never undersupplied. The network of fish sellers and fishermen have created their own bourse, a marketplace which grows organically out of an emergent web of SMS and voice calls which distribute the catch efficiently across the market. The customers are happy – there’s always fish for sale. The fish sellers are happy – they always have fish to sell, and at a good price. And the fisherman are happy – and earning so much more, these days, that a GSM handset pays for itself in two months’ time.

None of this was predicted. None of this was expected. None of this was anything but shocking to the legion of economists who are now studying this unprecedented phenomenon. To our Western eyes this doesn’t even make much sense. We think of mobile phones as a bit of bling, a technological googaw that makes our lives a bit easier – something that removes the friction from our social interactions. In the age of the mobile, you’re never late, just delayed. You can always call to say you’re sorry. (Or text to say you’ve broken up.) While they can be useful in our economic lives, they’re hardly necessary – and, given that the boss can now reach you 24 hours a day, wherever you are on Earth – they’re often more of a pain in the arse than a blessing. But at the end of the day they’re extraneous. Nice, but non-essential.

Except they’re not.

Study after study is confirming something that many were already beginning to suspect: the very poorest people on Earth – the five billion of us who earn less than a few thousand dollars a year – can benefit enormously from pervasive wireless communications. It seems counterintuitive – why would a subsistence farmer in Kenya need a mobile phone? As it turns out, that farmer – and farmers in Nigeria, and Bangladesh and Peru – will phone ahead to the markets, and learn where their produce will bring the best price. Left to their own devices, human beings with things to trade will create their own markets. When mobile communications enter the mix, their ability to trade effectively increases enormously.

Those who serve the poor – microfinance institutions like Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank – have real experience of the power of mobiles to help the poor. So many of Grameen Bank’s loans went to finance mobile handsets that they recently founded their own telecoms firm – Grameen Phone – to provide services to the poor. None of this is charity work – all of these are profit-making enterprises; but it turns out that helping the poor to communicate is one of the most effective ways to help them to improve their economic effectiveness.

That, too, wasn’t predicted by anyone. After all, don’t the poor need schools, clean water, inoculations and transparent governments? Yes, certainly they need all these things, but they also need the tools that let them help themselves. Near as anyone can tell, a mobile handset pretty much tops that list of tools. And although this singular discovery is nearly unknown in the Western world, the poor of the world know it – because they’ve been snapping up mobiles in unprecedented and unexpected numbers.

Sometime in the next 30 days, the telecoms firms of the world will have reached a new milestone – three billion subscribers. About ten percent of that number are customers who have multiple accounts, but – somewhere in the middle of 2008, half of humanity will own a mobile handset. In just a decade’s time, we’ll have gone from half the world never having made a telephone call to half the world owning a phone. Unprecedented. Unexpected. But, given what we now know, perfectly natural. And it’s not slowing down. It took a decade to get to the first billion mobile subscribers, four years to get to the second billion, and eighteen months to get to three billion. In a year, more or less, we’ll hit four billion, then things will begin to slow, as we reach the ranks of the desperately poor, the two billion who earn less than a dollar a day. Yet these are precisely the people who would most benefit from a mobile. Expect to see some big campaigns in the next few years, from Oxfam and World Vision, asking you to buy mobiles for the poor.

Nokia looked at the curves, figured out what’s going on, and created a mobile handset targeted directly at the emerging markets of the world – the Nokia 1100. It’s cheap, simple, has predictive text for just about any language with more than 10 million speakers, and – in the four years since its introduction – they’ve sold well over 200 million of them. By comparison, Nokia sold twice as many 1100s as Apple sold iPods – in half the time. The most successful consumer electronics device in history, the 1100 is the Model T of wireless networking. Put an 1100 in someone’s hands, and they’ll use it to improve their life. It’s as simple as that.

And – what’s really interesting here – these farmers and fishermen and spice traders and so forth didn’t need an eBay to help them trade. They don’t need fancy services – and wouldn’t use them. They only need to be connected to other people. That in itself is entirely sufficient. People come fully equipped to provide all the services they need. Nothing else is required. Five thousand years of civilization have seen to that. We know how to organize our own affairs – and can do so without any assistance. But now we can do so globally and instantaneously. That’s not a power restricted to the billion richest of us; it’s now within reach of half of us, and improves the lives of the poor far more than it helps us. Our innate capacity for self-organization, now extended and amplified almost infinitely, has itself produced some unpredicted and unexpected effects.

Discord: The Center Will Not Hold

In the Jurassic Era of the Internet, before the Web was more than a few hundred pages in size, and still mostly run off a series of servers in Geneva, John Gilmore, who co-founded SUN Microsystems before going off to found Cygnus Support and the EFF, recognized an inherent quality of networks: they promote the sharing of information. This was codified in what I (only half-jokingly) call Gilmore’s Law:

“The net regards censorship as a failure, and routes around it.”

At the time Gilmore made this statement, he was talking politics. Gilmore is a political animal – many of you probably know of his long-running tangle with US Homeland Security over the free right to travel within the States without having to display ID. And, for many years this aphorism was interpreted as a political maxim – that political censorship of the net was essentially impossible.

As we all know, the Chinese have tried, with their “Great Firewall of China”, but even they’ve given up. Just two months ago, Wang Guoqing, the Vice-Minister for Information in China was quoted as saying, “It has been repeatedly proved that information blocking is like walking into a dead end.”

At around the same time as that shock admission of failure, Senator Coonan introduced the Government’s latest attempt to appease its conservative base by locking down the Australian Internet, because, well, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” Turns out that’s just what the children were doing – it took a 16 year-old Australian boy 30 minutes to crack through that filter, and another 40 minutes to crack it again, after the filter was “upgraded.”

In that same week, a fifteen year-old in the United States got his hands on a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, photographed the entire text, bound it up as a PDF, and uploaded it to the Pirate Bay so that tens of thousands could use BitTorrent and download their own copy – four days before the much-hyped simultaneous international release.

Gilmore, it seems, wasn’t thinking broadly enough. He assumed that censorship necessarily has a political dimension. It doesn’t. Censorship can be driven by a wide range of motives: some are political, some are moral, some are cultural, and some are economic. In the end, it doesn’t matter. All censorship inevitably encounters Gilmore’s Law, and loses. The net finds a way around it.

Before we get all hippy-dippy and attribute agency to something that we all know is really just a collection of wires and routing boxen, we need to clarify what we mean when we use the word “net”. The wiring isn’t the network. The routers aren’t the network. The people are the network. We had social networks ten million years before we ever had a telephone exchange; we carry those networks around in our heads, they’re part of the standard “kit” of our cortical biology. We have been blessed with the biggest and best networking gear of all the hominids, but we all share the same capability. The social sharing of information has played a big part in the success of the hominids, and, in particular, human beings. We are born to plug into the network of other human beings and share information. It’s what we do.

But just now we’re facing increasingly frequent collisions between Gilmore’s Law and old-fashioned and time-tested ways of the world. We’ve long known that there are no secrets in a small town; now that same law of interpersonal relationships are being applied to businesses, to governments, to institutions of every shape and description. Consider these examples:

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica hides behind a walled garden and is subsequently obsolesced by Wikipedia;
  • Television shows and films end up on BitTorrent before they’re broadcast; the torrent for Halo 3 was posted last week. The video game was released on Monday.
  • A tight group of reporters and bloggers just brought down the US Attorney General, who attempted to stonewall all investigations into his politically-motivated firings of eight US Attorneys.
  • And – oh yeah – there’s that whole open-source movement which is, ever so slowly and carefully, eating Microsoft.

What’s happening here? What is it about the network that makes it so potent? Simply this: the network, in every form, is anathema to hierarchy. The network represents the other form of organization, not a contradiction of hierarchy, but, rather, a counterpoint to it. I’ve rewritten Gilmore’s Law to reflect this:

“The net regards hierarchy as a failure, and routes around it.”

For the fifty-five hundred years of human civilization, hierarchy has always had the upper hand. Now the network, amplified by all those wires and routers, is stronger than hierarchy, and battle has been joined. But this isn’t going to be some full-on Armageddon, a battle between the Empire and the Alliance; this is the Death of a Thousand Cuts. The network is simply kicking the legs out from under hierarchies, everywhere they exist, for as long as they exist, until they find themselves unable to rise again. What it really come down to is this: we are assuming management of our own affairs, because we are now empowered to do so. It doesn’t matter if you’re a maize farmer in Kenya or a video producer in Queensland; these mob rules apply to us mob.

Unexpected. Unprecedented.

In a future which looks increasingly like the present, there is no center anywhere, no locus of authority, no controlling power ordering our daily lives. There are no governments, no institutions, no businesses that look anything like the limited liability enterprises born in the Netherlands five hundred years ago. Instead, there are groupings, networks within the network, that come together around a project or ideology, a shared sense of salience – meaning – for that group. The product of that network could be Wikipedia – or it could be al Qaeda. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

And it’s not over yet. The network hasn’t finished changing, and it hasn’t finished changing us.

Bureaucracy: Collapse and How to Profit From It

To recap: we know where we are, and we have some idea of what is really going on. But enough of philosophy: let’s play!

But. Well. One more thing…

Although the network has done a tidy job of disassembling the hierarchies of the world, there is still one hierarchy which remains stubbornly resistant to change, which retains its top-down, command-and-control hierarchical model of authority – and has for well over a hundred years. Telcos.

I find this endlessly ironic: the firms which created the network are somehow immune to the effects of the network. And, in consequence, so are the networks themselves. In fact, you can look at any of the networks – telephone, broadband, or wireless – and see in them the physical embodiment of hierarchy. It’s curious. It’s damned interesting. It’s also over.

Four months ago, a small startup in Silicon Valley named Meraki (Greek for “doing it with love”) for unveiled a cute little device, a wireless router that they simply named the Mini. Inside it has a RISC CPU running a custom version of LINUX which handles all of the routing tasks. That’s where it gets interesting. You see, Meraki have pioneered a new technology known as “wireless mesh networking”. You can power up a Mini in anywhere you like, and if there’s another Mini within distance – and these devices can reach nearly half a kilometer, outdoors – it will connect to it, share routing information, and route packets from one to another – all without any need to configure anything at all. Add another, and another, and another, and all of a sudden you’ve created a very wide area WiFi network. Only one of the Minis needs to be connected to the Internet as a gateway; the others will find it and route traffic through it. The Minis are small – and they’re also cheap. For just $49 dollars US, you can order one complete with an Australian wall wart. That’s cheaper than most access points out there, and because of the mesh networking, it does a whole lot more.

But what does the Meraki Mini have to do with the end of the telcos? Just this: a mesh network is a network that’s been subject to the corrosive effects of a network. There is no center anywhere. There’s no hierarcy or preferred route. There’s no gatekeeper anywhere. You can have one gateway, or twenty. You can have one mesh node or a thousand. Just throw another mesh node into the mix, and it’ll all work seamlessly. And mesh networks scale: the dynamics of a network of a thousand mesh repeaters aren’t substantially different from a network with ten. Packets still find their way, with minimal delay.

What this means is that we all have the capability to create our own large-scale, low-cost wireless networks within our grasp. Meraki is already proving this in San Francisco, where Google and Earthlink had been fighting the telcos for years to get a city-wide free wireless network installed. Last week, Earthlink pulled out – they just couldn’t fight the politically power of AT&T. Meanwhile, since February, Meraki has been offering free Meraki Minis to anyone in San Francisco who wanted to donate a little of their own broadband to a free municipal WiFi network. Lately that network has been growing by leaps and bounds – no easy feat in a city which effectively broken up by a series of large hills. The “Free the Net SF” project already has almost 14,000 users – that’s nearly triple the number two months ago – and hundreds of nodes. It is proof that us mob can seize control of the spectrum and use it for our own ends.

That’s fine and dandy for San Francisco, but what about here in Australia, where we’re suffering under a decade-old peering agreement which makes us pay and pay and pay for every bit we take out of the cloud? Which costs us tens of dollars an hour if we want to use a public WiFi hotspot, or, in the case of the Sydney Convention Centre, $800 for an hour’s access? (That was the quote Maxine received when I asked if we could have public WiFi during my talk.) Internet access in Australia has always been about bending over and taking it like a man.

Or at least it was.

But for the past thirty five minutes, you’ve all been bathing in WiFi, which I’m providing to all of you, free of charge. Here’s how I did it: my Nokia N95 connects to Vodofone’s HSDPA network at a couple of megabits per second. That’s piping through the Bluetooth connection of my mate David’s MacBook Pro, which is Internet Sharing the Bluetooth connection out to his Ethernet port. That Ethernet port is connected to a Meraki Mini, which, in turn, is talking to three more Meraki Minis scattered throughout the auditorium. You’ve all got good signal, and (I hope) plenty of bandwidth to blog, or check email, or whatever you might want to do when I get boring.

But here’s the kicker – it’s all running off batteries. The Meraki Minis only use three watts, so I built some simple power supplies for them. The N95 and the MacBook Pro already have their own batteries built into them. The whole thing is good for at least four hours of fun before someone needs to go find the mains. And, because it’s both entirely battery powered and entirely wireless, I can drop it anywhere in Sydney. Were we out-of-doors, I could probably cover a square kilometer, with just these four Minis. Of course, you can always add a few more. Or a thousand more.

Ok, Mark, that’s nice, you might be saying. That’s kind of cool. But big deal. We don’t own Meraki Minis – and we don’t really plan on buying one. That’s fine, and it doesn’t matter at all. You see, a mesh network node isn’t hardware device. It’s software which runs on arbitrary hardware. You can mesh network WiFi. Or Bluetooth. Or infrared, if you wanted to be perverse. It’s software. Which means that every laptop in this room is potentially another mesh network node, listening to the traffic and passing packets along. Consider the density of laptops and desktops (equipped with WiFi adapters) in Sydney, or Melbourne. Now imagine them as nodes within a vast mesh network. That’s where we’re going – and it’s just a software update away.

When I originally composed this section of the talk, I was going to make a prediction: because mesh networks are just software, and because my Nokia N95 has built-in WiFi, I predicted we’d soon see mesh networks for mobile phones. But I don’t need to make that prediction: a Swedish start-up, TerraNet, came out of stealth mode two weeks ago to announce they were doing precisely this. With their software, the mobile doesn’t even need the carrier’s wireless network. Mobiles simply route packets between themselves until they reach their destination. You wonder why the wireless telcos fought so hard and so long to keep WiFi out of mobiles? Was it just to prevent VOIP? Hardly. The telcos have known about mesh networking for a long time. And they know it spells their doom. So watch now, as the network frees itself from the authoritarian forms of those most hierarchical of organizations, the telcos.

But I said it was time to play. And it is. It’s time to put the mob rules to work for you. Because you all need to earn a living. But this world we’re entering is so chaotic, so accidental and unplanned for, everything we believe to be absolutely true is about to be severely tested.

ONE: The mob is everywhere.

There are very few places left on Earth where you can’t receive a text. Ulaanbataar to Timbuktu, Tierra del Fuego to Vladivostok, the network is truly global, and now encompasses the majority of humanity. It’s interesting to note that within the same year that half of humanity is urbanized, half of humanity will have a mobile handset. That’s not coincidental; they’re two sides of the same process. Just as we’ve been lured out from our villages into the vitality and opportunity of the city, we’re being drawn into the unexpected and unpredictable global mob.

TWO: The mob is faster, smarter and stronger than you are.

William Gibson put this much more elegantly when he wrote, “The street finds its own use for things, uses its manufacturers never intended.” No one set out to create arbitrage markets for the fishermen of Kerala; that’s something that emerged from the mob. SMS was meant to be used for emergency messaging; now the world sends several billion texts a day. Just add mobiles, and you get a mob.

You can’t push a mob any more than you can push a rope; you can pull them, lure them, and, if you’re very lucky, dazzle them for a moment or two, but then, inevitably, they’ll move along. That’s bad news for anyone building web sites. The world of mob rules isn’t about sites; it’s about services, things that the street uses and permutes indefinitely. The idea of web sites dates from a time before the network ate hierarchy; sites are places where you go and follow the rules laid down by some information architect. Well, there’s no way to enforce those rules. The first Google Maps mashup didn’t come from Google. Or the second. Or the third. Or the hundredth. Google resisted the mashup. Claimed mashups violated their terms of use. Mashups come from the mob, the street finding its own use for things. The mob pushed on through; Google bowed down and obeyed. The most powerful institution of the Internet era, pushed around like a child’s toy. Ponder that.

THREE: Advertising is a form of censorship.

The Web of 2007 is a house built upon sand. Nearly everything online hopes to fund itself through some sort of advertising and sponsorship. Advertising is a demand that you pay attention – a demand which can no longer be enforced. But the mob doesn’t like advertisements; it either ignores them or actively filters them away. In just the last few weeks, certain sites have been blocked to Firefox because it frequently incorporates the AdBlock extension. That’s upset some institutions which built their business model on the delivery of ads – demanding the attention of the mob. But the mob doesn’t like that. Even worse, for those who are raising a hew and cry about the “theft” of their precious content, the more they scream, the more they thrash about, the stronger the mob becomes. Consider: filesharing has only grown more pervasive despite every attempt of every copyright holder to bring it to heel. Each move has been met with a counter-move. There is no safety in copyright, nor any arguing with the mob. Music and movies are freely and broadly available, and will remain so into the indefinite future. Sadly, we’re now seeing that same, sorry battle repeated in double-time as advertisers – and those dependent upon them – assert an authority they no longer possess.

FOUR: The mob does not need a business model.

But what about your precious business models? How do you get paid for all this work you’re pouring into your projects? I have to be honest with you: the mob simply doesn’t care. The mob doesn’t need a business model. Heck, the mob doesn’t even need all this lovely wireless technology. If we took the mobiles away from the Kerala fishermen, they’d develop something – semaphores, mirrors, smoke signals – to maintain the integrity of the network. Once networks are created, they can not be destroyed. Networks are intrinsically resilient against all sorts of failures, and they’ll simply find a way to route around them. So if your business goes tits up because you built it around an economic model that is not viable in the era of mob rules, it will make no difference – the mob will simply route around you and find another way to do it.

So forget your business models, and remember the golden rule, as expressed by Talking Heads, in the song “Found a Job”:

“If your work isn’t what you love, then something isn’t right.”

If you – you folks in this room, who have the mob in your hands, who play with it as if it were a toy – if you don’t wake up in the morning completely possessed by the knowledge that what you’re doing is simply the coolest thing ever, you need to quit that job and find another. You need to reach into that bucket of dreams and ambitions and pull something out to share with us mob, something that will dazzle and excite us. It might only do so for a moment, but, in that moment, your social stock will rise so high that you’ll never have to worry about putting food on the table or paying the mortgage. You may not retire a millionaire, but you’ll certainly never go hungry. The mob is a meritocracy – admittedly a very perverse and bizarre meritocracy – but it is the one place where “quality will out”. Quality only comes from the marriage of craft and obsession. You have the craft. Embrace your obsessions. You will be rewarded.

FIVE: Make networks happen.

I need to leave you with one concrete example of how this is all going to work, and for this example I’ve selected the last bastion of authority and hierarchy – after everything else has dissolved into the gray goo of the network, one thing will remain. It won’t be government – that’s half gone already. It’s medicine. Medicine is very nearly the oldest of the professions, and has been a closely held monopoly for half a thousand years – closer to a guild than anything resembling a modern profession. Why? Medicine is guarded by the twin bulwarks of complexity and mortality: medicine is rich and deep body of knowledge, and, if you screw it up, you’ll kill yourself or somebody else. While the pursuit of medical knowledge is conducted within the peer-review frameworks of science, that knowledge is closely held. That leaves all of us – as patients – in a distinctly disempowered position when it comes to medicine. But that is all going to change.

In twenty years’ time, one in four Australians will be 65 or older – and I’ll be one of them. There is no medical authority big enough to deal with such a mass of gerontology; the system will be overloaded, and it will begin to collapse. Out of that collapse, we will see those of us who grew up within the Network Era – and I’m among the oldest of that generation – begin to work the network to our own ends. We will not be alone. There will be tens of millions of us – first in the West, then throughout the world – who will be facing the same problems, and searching for the same answers. We might not get to live forever, but we’ll want to die trying. So we’ll set to work, creating a common base of collective intelligence – think Wikipedia, but with a depth of medical knowledge that it doesn’t even begin to explore – together with strong social networking tools that embeds us deep within a network of experts – who may or may not be “board qualified”. I’ll probably come to expect that my GP and other specialists are members of this network – peers who share their expertise, not experts pronouncing solutions. And this network will never leave me; in fact, it will probably watch every move I make, every breath I take, every calorie I eat, and every heartbeat. It sounds Orwellian, but I will want this – because I will see it as a profoundly empowering form of surveillance. In other words, my wellness becomes a quality of my network.

This is not a website. This is not WebMD or Healtheon or a cancer support group, or anything that looks like anything we’ve seen yet. This is a self-organizing quality of the mob, painfully aware of their own accelerating senescence, and fully empowered to do something about it. And it represents an enormous opportunity for you. In just the last paragraph I’ve dropped a half a dozen strong business ideas onto you; but they’re so different from how we’re thinking about the network today that it will probably take some time to work it all out. But the mob won’t wait forever. Remember: it is smarter and faster and stronger than you. You can try to get in front of it, and get picked up by it – I’ve given you more than enough clues to do that – or you can get run down. That choice is yours. But if I’ve learned anything from my study of mob rules, it’s that the future lies in making networks happen. If you do that, there’s a place for you with us mob.

Aftermath

We live in increasingly interesting times. Half of humanity has suddenly dropped in – uninvited and unannounced – crashing our private party, eager to participate in an exploration of the possibilities of human communication. Whatever they want, they’re going to get. That’s the way things work now. Fortunately, they want what we want: better lives for themselves and their families. How they get it – that’s in their hands. We can assist them, but they don’t really need our help. That mob will work it out for themselves. And in the process, everything will change for us, as well.

Journalist Norman Cousins wrote, “Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.” Sound advice, particularly in an time when everything is fluctuating out of control. We can’t know what to do – there’s too much uncertainty and potency in us mob for that – but we can know what not to do. For now, that will have to be enough.

Still, there is one thing I can recommend: have courage and keep moving. Standing still is not an option. The world has changed. The world is changing. The world will change a whole lot more. Good luck.

Three Billion

 
I: Give the Poor a Helping Hand(set)

For at least the past two thousand years, the traders of Arabia have built small, sturdy sailing ships – known as dhows – and set out across the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean, in search of spices, jewels, and precious metals.  The great trading city-states of the Arabian peninsula – such as Bahrain – gained their prominence as the nexus of the routes for these traders.  Throughout all of Western Asia, these cities were famed for their souks – the marketplaces where buyers and sellers from across the known world came together in profitable exchange.


Traders were humanity’s earliest version of a network; the trader carried material – atoms – from one point to another, but, far more significantly, they transmitted information – bits – in their news, rumour, craft techniques and technologies, which were as much their stock-in-trade as any pearls or cinnamon.  The earliest packet-switched network was, quite literally, composed of packet ships.  Each of the cultures which fronted on these seas and oceans learned something from the traders who came to visit; each of these cultures were influenced, in a “spooky action at a distance”, by each other.  The traders took the best of each culture, editing it down to something compact and transportable, and spread that widely.  Even the dhow evolved, as traders encountered other seafaring cultures, adapting the best improvements into their own design until the dhow itself became a potent bit of information, something that, due to their ubiquity in the seas of West and South Asia, was widely copied.

Dhows are still in widespread use today, around Arabia, and all of the coastlines touched by those traders so many years ago.  It’s a time-tested design that can be hand-built using local materials.  As such, dhows well suit the materially disadvantaged cultures of South Asia, and, in particular, the southern Indian state of Kerala.  There, fishermen have taken their dhows to sea for countless hundreds of years, dropped their nets, hauled their catch, then set their sails back to shore.  The Kerala coastline is dotted with fishing villages, each with its own fish market.  On any given day, any number of fishing dhows might dock at a particular village.  Should too many pick the same port, the market has too many fish, and, while the buyers get a bargain, the fisherman won’t even earn enough to cover the cost of taking the dhow to sea.   Meanwhile, just a few kilometers down the coast, another village has been overlooked by the dhows, and there’s no fish available at any price.  This is the way it ever was in Kerala; a chaotic market which never quite meets the needs of buyers and sellers.  

Just a decade ago, as India began its meteoric rise into industrialization, several of its wireless telecoms firms strung the Kerala coast with GSM transceivers.  Radio signals travel by line-of-sight; this means they reach out over the Indian Ocean to a distance bounded by the curvature of the Earth – around 25 kilometers.  While handsets are, in a relative sense, quite expensive for Indians – they cost about a month’s earnings for a fisherman (or the earned equivalent of nearly AUD $3000) – one relatively wealthy fisherman bought a handset and took it to sea.  At some point, during one of those trips to sea, he got a call or text from the shore – probably something family related.  In the course of that interaction, the fisherman learned that there was a fishing village completely without fish, and ready to pay almost any price for it.  That day, the fisherman headed for that port, and made a tidy profit.  Perhaps, on the next day, he made a few calls, while still out to sea, to find out which village was wanting for fish.  And so on.

This would not have gone unnoticed by the other fishermen in Kerala; they are a community, and while they compete, they also freely share information amongst themselves – that’s what communities do.  The news of this innovation would have spread among them very quickly.  And, despite the staggering cost, each of the fishermen – even the poorest among them – were soon sporting GSM handsets.  Each day, as the fishermen assess their catch, there’s a flurry of communication between these fishermen and the fish markets dotting the coast, as the fishermen learn where their catch will get the best price.  

Kerala in 2007 is a different place.  The markets always have enough fish; no market goes wanting.  But there’s always just enough fish to guarantee a good price – there are only rarely gluts in the market.  The fishermen are getting a good price for their fish; buyers and sellers are both satisfied.  And the fishermen are earning more money; so much more that a handset – as expensive as it is – will be paid for in just two month’s time.  

How did this happen?  Using wireless communications, the fishermen and fish sellers created their own market, practicing the time-honored principles of supply & demand – just like any electronic bourse in the industrialized world.  But this developed on its own, by itself.  It simply emerged, naturally, through the interaction of people and mobiles.

This was not predicted.  Nor was it predicted that farmers in Kenya would use mobiles to phone ahead to the various village and regional markets to learn the going prices for their maize and sorghum, so they too could make markets and maximize their profits.  Or that the spice traders of India and Arabia would use SMS to create far-flung auction networks, their own emergent eBay.  Yet all of these – and much, much more – are now happening.  When you add mobile communications to any culture, a now-recognizable pattern comes into play: some person, through their interaction with the handset, improves their economic fitness; this behavior is then widely copied through the culture.  It happened a thousand years ago, via the great trading cultures of Araby; it’s happening again today.  

Mimesis is the essential human condition; we have recently learned that the one thing that separates us from the chimpanzees is not our ability to use tools, but rather, our ability, from our very youngest years, to imitate behavior.  Behaviors which increase our economic fitness are strongly selected for; we adopt them quickly and pass them along to our peers and children.  

We now know, beyond any argument, that mobile communications inherently increase our economic fitness.  A paper published last month in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, titled The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector takes a look at the Kerala phenomenon in detail, and determines, through an elegant analysis:

The adoption of mobile phones by fishermen and wholesalers was associated with a dramatic reduction in price dispersion, the complete elimination of waste, and near-perfect adherence to the Law of One Price.  Both consumer and producer welfare increased.


The lesson of Kerala is not specific; there is a general economic principle at work.  It is known that the lifeblood of any market is information; when you improve the ability of participants in a market to communicate, you remove many of the inequities which plague markets everywhere.  It has now been demonstrated that such inequities are a major part of the reason why poor populations remain poor.  Simply by improving their ability to communicate, you can improve a person’s economic fitness.  This assertion doesn’t strain credulity: imagine trying to trade at a market in a foreign land; without access to the common language, you’d fail to trade, or, worse, be taken advantage of.  The development of ‘pigins’ – simplified languages – go hand-in-hand with the spread of trading cultures.  Savvy?

The phenomenon officially recognized in Kerala had already been de facto recognized by organizations which participate in microfinance.  Microfinance allows the poorest of the poor access to the minimal amounts of investment funds needed to dramatically improve their economic fitness.  These loans – which can be for as little as the equivalent of ten or twenty dollars – allow the applicant to purchase something which dramatically improves their ability to earn a living – a sewing machine, a milk cow, or – more and more – a mobile handset.  The oldest of these microfinance institutions, Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, found itself lending out so much of its funds for mobiles that it recently started its own telecoms firm, Grameen Phone.  In the first days of microfinance, a loan for a mobile handset would allow that individual to rent time on the handset to the other villages within that community, creating a pervasive, low-cost mobile phone service.  But, as we now know, interaction with the mobile handset produces a rapidly-reinforcing series of feedbacks which end, inevitably, with individuals owning their own handset.  Today, Grameen and other microfinance lenders make loans to individuals who sell new and used mobile handsets, repair broken handsets, and vend prepaid phone cards.

Sometime within the next few days, there will be three billion mobile phone subscribers.  Perhaps 10% of those are subscribers who have multiple accounts, so there are roughly 2.7 billion individual mobile subscribers at present.  It took about ten years to get to the first billion mobile subscribers; about 3 1/2 half years to get to the second billion, and about eighteen months to get to the third billion.  This process is accelerating along the all-too-familiar curve popularized in Crossing the Chasm.  We’re in the midst of an accelerating adoption of mobile communication, and soon – sometime around the middle of next year – half of humanity will own a mobile handset.  In a decade’s time we’ll have gone from half the world never having made a telephone call to half the world owning their own phone.

This is shocking on two grounds: first, there is a deeply-held belief that mobile handsets are the extraneous accessories of a consumption-oriented Western lifestyle, that they are, in short, “bling.”  The hyperbole surrounding the June launch of Apple’s iPhone makes this case convincingly.  For us, here in the West, mobiles are status symbols.  How could the expensive and unnecessary status symbols of the West be of any utility to the two thirds of the world who are, by OECD standards, poor?  Yet, against this, consider the Nokia 1100, introduced in 2003, and designed to be both very inexpensive and – with its entirely sealed case – durable: dirt, dust, and water-resistant.  Last year Nokia had sold its two hundred millionth 1100.  To put that in context, compare it to the iPod – Nokia has sold twice as many 1100s as Apple has sold iPods – in half the time.  It is, by far, the most successful consumer electronics gadget in human history.  Yet, because it is not sexy, because it doesn’t have bling, because it is aimed precisely at those emerging markets in the poor corners of the world, Nokia’s unprecedented milestone went mostly unnoticed.  In the West we are guilty of a willful ignorance; we’ve made our mind up about the value of pervasive wireless communication – that it is a toy to the rich, but worthless to the poor.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  Pervasive wireless communication is of far, far more value to the poor than the rich.

Second, and what I will focus on through the rest of this paper, this rapid deployment of pervasive wireless communication will have unprecedented and largely unpredictable effects on human culture.  We already have some sense of how little we know: we have the example of Kerala – absolutely unpredicted, though, in retrospect, it seems perfectly obvious.  It is not that we are blind to the human capacity for self-organization and emergent behavior – indeed, we practice these behaviors every day – rather, it is that we have never made a study of them, and we certainly don’t understand what happens when this capacity is amplified nearly infinitely by pervasive wireless communication.  We’re going to have to learn all of this, and learn it quickly, because along with the improvement in human economic fitness, another part of the same package, comes a new capacity for chaos, as innate human capacities for both good and bad are amplified almost beyond recognition.


Part Two: The Triumph of Netocracy

In the wake of the May 1968 riots in France, two philosophers stepped back to do an meta-analysis of the cultural processes which led to such a crisis.  France was not under threat; the previous twenty years had seen the longest and strongest sustained growth French history.  Yet the well-educated university-attending children of the bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie were out on the streets, fighting the police, burning cars, striking and shutting down these same universities which freely offered them an education.  Why?  How had this happened?  

Over the next decade, these philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guartari published a two-volume work, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which argued that the riots and youthful revolt were a reaction to a model of authority and hierarchy which the soixante-huitards rejected as inimical to their humanity.  In the first volume, Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari looked at how all structures of authority descend from ancient forms of patriarchy, and that the natural reaction to this authority is the Oedipal desire to kill the father – the archetypal authority figure.  Anti-Oedipus presented a diagnosis of the cultural illness, but it was the second volume, A Thousand Plateaus, which attempted to be prescriptive, outlining a methodology which might cure the patient.  In opposition to hierarchy and authority, which Anti-Oedipus asserted produced a “schizimogenesis”, a rift in the fabric of human being, A Thousand Plateaus asserted the value of the rhizome, the horizontal stem which sends its shoots out laterally.  The rhizome is the antithesis of hierarchy, not because it contradicts it (which is in itself an authoritative position), but rather, because the rhizome presents an alternative to it.  In a collection of rhizomes – that is, a network – there is no top, and no bottom, no master and no slave.
 
Everything and everyone exists within what Deleuze and Guattari identified as the milieu, the middle:

The middle is by no means an average; on the contrary, it is where things pick up speed. Between things does not designate a localizable relation going from one thing to another and back again, but a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle.

 
When A Thousand Plateaus was published, a quarter-century ago, it shook the foundations of philosophy.  Much of the “postmodernism” which cultural conservatives sneer at comes from the pages of the that text.  (This reaction is perfectly in keeping with the recognized conservative tendency to bow to authority, and demonize anything that represents a threat to that authority.)  Yet, although the text presented a sort of “map” of a territory free from the schizimogenic qualities of authority and hierarchy, Deleuze and Guattari were philosophers, not revolutionaries: they did not present a battle plan to manage the transition from hierarchy to milieu.  As it turns out, that roadmap proved unnecessary.  It’s not that the ideas within A Thousand Plateaus were fruitless, but rather, at just the time both philosophers passed from the world, the rhizome rose and subsumed us all into its milieu.  Where is this rhizome?  All around us, now: pervasively, wirelessly, instantly accessible to nearly half the planet.  The rhizome is the network.

This is not an original idea; it has been explored by many philosophers, though, in the earliest flourish of the network era, fifteen years ago, it received more attention than it does today.  At that time, when the frontiers of network culture were first glimpsed, anything seemed possible, including something as profound the end of authority.  But as the network was colonized by hierarchical forces – which had, in themselves, absorbed some of the lessons of the network – it seemed that, for all of its power, the network would simply recapitulate the forms of authority on an even more pervasive basis.  This assessment was premature.

Although the network provides instantaneous connectivity, network effects are not in themselves instantaneous.  These network effects are non-deterministic, and depend on the evolving interactive relationships between the individuals connected through the networks.  It takes time for people, as the loci of agency within the network, to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the network, and translate those experiential lessons into ontological frameworks which guide behavior.  Furthermore, the network is not one thing; it is a collection of things, and it is a growing collection of things.  The network of 2007 is not the same thing as the network of 1993.  This is in some small part due to the evolution of the technology of the network.  It is, more significantly, due to the development of new human behaviors and techniques for using the network.  These techniques, where proven successful, are then rapidly disseminated by the network, and which act as the catalyst for the development of other behaviors and techniques, which, when proven successful, are disseminated by the network.  This is a self-reinforcing process, which had led, in fairly short order, to an enormous and entirely real sense of acceleration around both the network and the idea of the network.
  
This acceleration, like the acceleration of bodies in space, produces its own inertial effects – “gravity,” if you will.  As acceleration increases, gravity increases, weighing down the objects which possess mass.  In this case, and in this context, the massive objects are hierarchies.  Hierarchies are being dragged down by this pseudo-gravitational force, and the life is slowly being crushed out of them.  This is not a political statement: it is a diagnosis of the present.  

Institutions, as the embodiment of hierarchies within human culture, are at this moment facing the growing threat of the network while, at the same time, their ability to move, to adapt, to maintain their self-integrity, is increasingly constrained by a force which makes them slower, heavier, and weaker.  They are more focused on breathing than doing.  This will not change.  There is no magic cure which will revivify hierarchy.  The network is too pervasive, too important, too laden with ever-increasing utility to be overcome, or forgotten.  The cultural incorporation of network ontology was the fatal crisis for hierarchy.  And that point has already passed.

Although I may have overstretched a my metaphors in the preceding paragraphs, it is easy enough to give a few of examples which illustrate my argument:

  • Wikipeida vs Britannica: the “crowdsourced” encyclopedia is now, on average, at least as accurate as the hierarchically produced, peer-reviewed production, and covers a far greater breadth of subject material than Britannica.
  • Television and film distribution: since the advent of Napster in 1999, all attempts to control the distribution of media have met with increasing resistance.  The audience now moves to circumvent any copy-restrictions as soon as they are introduced by copyright holders.
  • Politics: The Attorney General of the United States of America resigned last week, because of the efforts of a few, very dedicated bloggers.

There has never been an interaction between the network and the hierarchy which the hierarchy has won.  Not a single example.  Even the “Great Firewall of China”, which, until last month, was the sterling example for the fans of authority, has now been revealed as a failed technical and cultural project.  Wang Guoqing, the Chinese Vice-Minister for Information was quoted by Reuters, saying: “It has been repeatedly proved that information blocking is like walking into a dead end.”

All of this flows from Gilmore’s Law, which states, “The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”  In light of what we now understand about the network’s relationship to hierarchy, it should now be reframed as, “The net interprets hierarchy as damage and routes around it.

Though it long dominated the organization of human affairs, hierarchy has had its day in the sun, and is passing from the scene.  The pervasive presence of the network killed it.  We now need to focus on the forms which are rising to replace it.


III: The Dictatorship of the Wikitariat

Wikipedia is the poster child for the age of Netocracy.  Its peer-produced, user-generated, freely-editable, open-source collective intelligence hits so many of the tick boxes of the network era that it seems very nearly a miracle suddenly appeared in our midst.  In its first years, Wikipedia was more an act of faith than a useful reference tool.  The continuous efforts of a dedicated community of believers translated a vision for a commonweal of knowledge into reality.  Once it acquired sufficient content – again, best conceptualized as gravity – it began to attract readers, who, in turn, became editors and creators, adding more weight, which in turn attracted more readers, more editors and creators, more content, in a virtuous cycle of positive feedback which seemed to have no where to go but up, up, up.
 
Wikipedia Article Growth 2001 - 2007 
I have some shocking news to report: it hasn’t turned out that way.  Yes, Wikipedia is still growing, but – for at least the last year – the rate of growth has dramatically slowed down.  The acceleration is actually negative.  Wikipedia’s growth is slowing down.  Why did this happen?  Just a few weeks ago Wikipedia passed two million articles in English (all these figures concern the English-language version of Wikipedia), and yes, it will grow for some time into the future.  But the growth of articles in Wikipedia should be steadily accelerating; it should be growing faster as it grows bigger.  It was certainly doing that for several years.  What’s changed?  Is it possible that there are only two million topics of interest to the English-language users of Wikipedia?  That seems unlikely, if only because Wikipedia is the outstanding example of the power and beauty of the miscellaneous.  Yes, all the major topics have been covered, but there’s absolutely no way that two million entries can begin to explore the depth of human experience.  It’s inconceivable that this is all there is to say about Life, Culture, the Universe and Everything.  Nor do I believe it likely that we have “crossed the chasm” into the downward slope – which would imply that four million article entries would pretty much represent the sum total of the English-language experience.

The true answer is far simpler, and, in its own way, far more dire: it is getting harder to create a new article in Wikipedia.  One can still type in a topic, and be presented with an opportunity to create a page if nothing exists under that heading.  It is technically as easy as ever to create a new article in Wikipedia.  It’s what happens after that article is created that has become the sticking point, the sclerotic plaque which is afflicting Wikipedia.  Wikipedia, newly powerful, has engendered the production of its own elites, its own hierarchies – individuals and networks of individuals who have proven, through time, dedication and contribution, that their opinion matters.  These individuals – the Wikipedians – have taken on the task of keeping Wikipedia concise, correct and pure.  While each of these definitions is highly provisional and contestable, it is the last of these, purity, which is causing Wikipedia the greatest problems.  The Wikipedians themselves don’t use that term – in fact, they would object to its usage – but their increasingly dogmatic application of self-derived guidelines for the determination of the “value” or “worth” of knowledge has a nearly religious dimension.  Wikipedians, in this context, are fighting a battle between the forces of chaos, on one hand, who seek to drown the meaningful information in a sea of miscellany and meaninglessness; while on another front, Wikipedians wage a constant war against special interests who seek to shape meaning to their own ideological ends.  This continuing and ever-increasing stress has made the Wikipedians increasingly conservative.  Wikipedians are coming to rely upon themselves more and more; the networked milieu which gave them vitality is rapidly fossilizing into a hierarchy, where certain individuals and groups of individuals assert control over specific topics and articles.  These are the gatekeepers who must be appeased before an article can be approved, or an edit retained.

In the space of just six years, Wikipedia has managed to recapitulate the entire hierarchical structure which frames Britannica, albeit on a much broader basis, but to the same ends, and, in the long term, with the same results. Individuals and organizations are already forking Wikipedia and MediaWiki to produce their own works: Conservapedia, though laughable in some respects, is at least an honest attempt to right the perceived wrongs of the Wikipedians.  Citizendium has taken as its basic premise that hierarchy must be embraced; Citizendium won’t need to grow its own hierarchy, as Wikipedia did – it will have it from the very beginning. 

The drive to keep Wikipedia pure is interesting and indicative of a certain vitality, but in the long run it is also entirely pointless.  You can not censor Wikipedia; or rather, if do attempt to do so, the net will simply route around you.  The chaos and miscellany that Wikipedians reject are, in fact, the lifeblood of a universal encyclopedia.  They will find a home, somewhere: if not in Wikipedia, then in something else, which will begin to grow in ways that Wikipedia refuses to, until it becomes a gravitational center in its own right, and this thing-that-follows-Wikipedia will perform a dance on Wikipedia’s desiccated corpse, much as the Wikipedians have done with respect to Britannica.  The human desire to create order from chaos – this noble desire which is strangling Wikipedia – seems perfectly natural to us; we believe order is a prerequisite to utility.  But we longer have the luxury of thinking in those terms.  Our present and our future are all about the newly empowered netocratic forces loosed in the world.


Conclusion: The War of All Against All

An SMS forwarded through a Chinese city can result in an anti-government demonstration – even when the government censors the messages passed through the state-owned telecoms firm.  Another SMS can send a crowd of white supremacists out to foment a riot in Cronulla.  A ringtone sampled from an illegally taped telephone conversation can bring down a head of state.  A meticulously photographed copy of every page of a purloined copy of the last Harry Potter can be distributed around the world in minutes, days before its publication.  There is no control anywhere in this, no center, no authority.  Things just happen.  In all of this, like-minded individuals come together, across the networks, and, through this “spooky action at a distance,” act in a coordinated fashion even while scattered to the four corners of the Earth.  It might look like Wikipedia – or it could look like al Qaeda.  It matters not: the same forces are at work.  

As we bring individuals into the network, we grant them the perfect tool to resist authority, to hack hierarchy, to make their own way as fully empowered individuals within a globally networked body politic.  For this reason, the 21st century will look a lot like a continuous, low-level civil war.  Imagine the “flame wars” of USENET or even Wikipedia’s discussion pages, amplified and shared, globally and instantaneously.  We already live in this world: a student journalist’s encounter with a taser makes its way onto YouTube minutes after the event; a politician’s racist epithet ruins his career – even without any TV cameras to broadcast the slur; a shadowy, fragmentary, Sharia-inspired resistance cell in Iraq films its latest IED attack, and shares the results with its unknown yet equally-well-connected co-conspirators.  This is the shape of the 21st century.  It is chaotic, and no amount of hand-wringing or wishing for a strong “daddy” of an authority figure will grant any of us any safety whatsoever.  All authority has been hacked.  The Net killed Daddy.

Finally, the net itself represents the last authority, the last hierarchy.  The telecoms firms themselves, and the networks they control, are the last, best hope for hierarchy.  The physical implementation of a telecoms network – where all the end nodes flow though a series of concentrators to a central hub – is the word of hierarchy made flesh.  Although networks have engendered the collapse of hierarchy, the agents of that collapse – these telecoms firms – have been strangely resistant to these same qualities of those networks.  But not for very much longer.  With the recent advent of mesh networking, the networks themselves are now becoming as radically restructured, radically decentralized, and will, in themselves, be as chaotic as the culture they engender.  

Just as the audience seized control over both the creation and distribution of media, this planetary mob is asserting control over the bandwidth and spectrum which have, until now, been the sole province of telcos and governments.  We are gearing up to another fight, hierarchy against network (even now in its opening rounds, in the disguise of “net neutrality”), and once again, if history is any guide, the hierarchy will draw back from the field bloodied and defeated.  At that point, networks will be the physical embodiment of the process they engender.  The network is already pervasive; soon it will also be entirely rhizomic.  The triumph of the network will be complete.