Power vs People(Now look what YOU made me do!)

*

In the beginning, there is perfect Power, Power with a Thousand Faces: pharaoh, padishah, emperor, king, Lord Protector, Generalissimo, El Presidente.   Power pure and uninterrupted.  We have but to think the word and it is so.  We are in a world apart, protected by G*d, by ritual, by blades and dumb muscle.  Nothing enters save by Our permission, and then only when stripped naked, bound, and bowing.  This is the perfect relation of perfect power: absolute and absolutely asymmetric.

While we have him questioned, Our leading economist relates a report, recently received, tying the wealth of nations to their connectivity.  The people need no one else, he tells Me with his dying breath, but We need the money.  He spoke the truth: We need the instruments of Power to reinforce Our reality, and these do not come cheaply.  Our remaining advisers, chastened and respectful, suggest beginning with television – projecting Our Presence into the homes of Our people – and an auction (to Our most loyal friends) of radio spectrum suitable for mobile communication.

Our eyes, downcast, unable to look upon the Power except in its perfect portraits, had never seen the frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command that cameras captured, passions read and broadcast: a heart that mocked us, a hand always raised in reproach, as if we, ungrateful children, needed the constant admonition of the rod.  This plain as nakedness: all the smooth words of newscasters, commentators, spokespeople and ministers could not remove that stain from Power.  Each thought ourselves alone in this treason, and quickly burying it beneath other, safer thoughts.

Hidden truths undermine us in our humour, moments of lèse majesté, whispered giggles hidden behind our hands, scribbled graffiti above the pissoir, so shocking they made us gasp, and then, thereafter, we knew them as truth.  Other lines joined them, more foul, funny, shocking and true, a vast fabric of written rebellion, expressions of everything we had always known.  On the day the first text message arrives, with a joke that could get us killed, we delete it – though not before we forward it along to a few of our friends, who send it along, who send it along.  Suddenly the secret insult is common knowledge.

**

Those who mock Us seek to destroy Us.  Those loyal to Us scrub treasonous filth from walls and streets.  We secure and question anyone nearby, their confessions Our entry points into a hidden nest of radicals, revolutionaries, and anarchists.  These We monitor closely, tapping their mobiles, looking to whom they contact, building a map from these connections, tracing the outlines of their conspiracies.  Our friends who own the telcos willingly hand over the information which spell out comings and goings of these traitors.  In one sudden strike we take them, whole, to summary judgement.  Treason troubles us no more.

They came in the night, roused us from sleep, and took him away.  We never saw him again.  Without a body, how could we mourn?  How could we bury our grief?  We could not speak of it, lest we ourselves disappear.  Someone – we know not whom – set up a memorial on Facebook, inviting those who knew him to share themselves.  We stayed away, but were told that one, then two, five, ten, fifteen, fifty, hundreds and finally uncountable thousands came to share; those who knew him, and those who only knew what he believed in.  We were afraid, but content.

Those who love traitors are traitors themselves.  We have no love for them, but We are thankful for their foolishness.  Facebook reveals them to Us, and everyone they know.  Treason breeds treason.  Traitors hang together.  We friend, and listen, and draw another map of another conspiracy until the picture, finely detailed, demands action.  Another night of gathering, judgement and cleansing.  This ends that.  There are not even whispers against Us.

Internet dating – has there been a greater invention?  Men and women who would not normally find one another can seek each other out in the privacy of their own homes.  Here, this one is pretty.  Such lovely green eyes.  And what a lovely green jacket.  And beautiful fingers, held up in such an attractive pose, count them: one, two.  And the photo, taken in the Capitol Square?  How interesting.  I’ll tell all my friends that I have a date, a Green Date, in Capitol Square, on the 2nd.  Yes.  I’ll tell them all.  They’ll want a date as well.

***

Inconceivable! They gather in My capitol, in My square, in their tens of thousands, to make demands. Impudence!  They should thank the heavens for their homes and daily bread.  Ingratitude!  By what witchcraft have they come together?  We tapped the phones, blocked the websites, and still they come, in their hundreds of thousands.  Some advise it must all be unplugged – at once – but others tell Us we have grown too dependent on the network.  Flip the switch, and We blind Ourselves, dragging Our loyal subjects into darkness, Our economy into ruin.  But the storm must be stopped, the plug pulled.

It didn’t surprise us when the network failed: half amazed it took so long. We found ourselves thrown back into another time: before instantly, before everywhere, before all-at-once.  But lessons learned lingered, taking on different forms: graffiti in hidden places, posters in public, chalk laid out on the sidewalk so anyone could add their own voice, so we could to move together, in unity.  This grew into a code: jumbled letters and numbers in text messages and spray painted street signs, which told us where and when.

And still they keep coming, in their millions.  How?  Without eyes to see and ears to hear, how do they know?  Our friends grow concerned, see Us sinking beneath this rising storm, but We apprehend the root of Our troubles, and will root it out.  This all began when We foolishly permitted our people to connect.  That must now stop, to preserve Us. Against the wishes of My friends – who will lose their fortunes so We might maintain control – We have mobile networks shut down, and wait for the inevitable collapse, as those against Us lose contact.

It took a few moments to realize that these handheld lifelines had become useless lumps of silicon and plastic.  It seemed like silence had descended in the midst of the crowd.  Then someone said, ‘Here, take this’, and gave me something that brought my mobile back to life, allowed it to connect with everyone else in the crowd, and to the world beyond.  In lieu of thanks I was asked to pass it along, and did, with the same instruction, so it spread like wildfire.  We could see around the tanks, around the police, around everything, moving faster, moving everywhere, moving NOW.

The guards join with us as we storm the palace.

****

We The People, in order to form a more perfect union, choose from amongst ourselves those fit to represent our franchise.  The elections, free, fair and hard-fought, divide, inevitably, along a spectrum from left to right.  But whatever ideology, no one argues the need to reframe power as governance, making a mystery of the obvious, placing it beyond reproach. Power – however dressed – draws those who lust for it, who benefit from the application of it, and this, too obvious, would ruin everything, igniting another Revolution.  In secrecy and silence, safety.

You can only be told ‘No!’ so many times before the blood begins to boil and overflows into action.  They’ll let us march in the streets now, but leave us impotent at the seats of government, demanding ‘process’ and ‘decorum’.  How can we be polite as our future is stolen away? This shell of democracy – perfect in form but crowded with corruption – needs to be punctured, so the rot beneath the skin can be exposed and excised.  Thankfully, someone with conscience – sick to death with the stench of power – comes forward with evidence enough to condemn everyone, bringing them down.

Madness!  How can anything be stable when everything is exposed? How can we guide the nation into prosperity with saboteurs underfoot? Incredible. The government will go on, will nail down roof nearly shorn off by these ‘revelations’.  We will ensure those who work for the government remain true to it: by oath and affirmation, surveillance and monitoring, force of law and pain of imprisonment.  Only when guaranteed privacy can we work to preserve the continued security of the nation.  It’s in these moments our democracy proves itself supple enough to meet the challenges of our times.  We can all congratulate ourselves on a crisis successfully overcome.

They threw him in jail – of course – claiming espionage, charging treason, crying for his head.  The message was clear, and silence descended, a curtain protecting them from us.  Behind it, they grow deaf and arrogant, manufacturing a managed dissent, bringing their full power down upon on anything else.  Still, a friend showed me something: a magic box.  Anything placed into that box finds finds its way to magazine editors and newspaper reporters and bloggers and loudmouthed radicals, no questions asked, in perfect anonymity.  That could prove irresistible.

*****

If secrets they want, secrets they shall have, by the hundreds of thousands, a tsunami broken silences, signifying nothing.  All of the effluvia and trivia of state, dressed up as meaning, each item seeming significant, demanding more attention than even a planet of mischief-makers, continuously clicking through pages, could possibly hope to digest.  Let them chew on that as the government draws these paranoids closer, tantalizing them with the shadows of conspiracies, just beyond the horizons of reason, yet believable enough that they will inevitably overreach into folly.  As they implode in a ruin of accusations and mistrust, the government will step in, bringing order to chaos, carrying on as before.

Do I know you?  How do I know you?  Who knows you that I know?

We have two choices before us: closely bound, connected at a thousand points of past and presence; or atomized, invisible, and ANONYMOUS.  On one hand, the tribe; on the other, legion.  The tribe is loyal, safe and steadfast, the legion strong, but mercurial and diffident.  We can subvert from within, or pervert from without.  In the right circumstances, we might even do both at once.  We might not always get our way, but we can resist, redirect, repurpose, and sometimes win.  Success is our greatest threat: the enemy learns, and nothing works twice.

Credentials, please.  Access granted.  You are now logged into the government.  You will need to re-authorize your credentials every fifteen minutes to prevent unauthorized access.  Today’s status report: sixty-five percent of systems are functioning normally; twenty percent are undergoing integrity checks, ten percent are under persistent attack, and five percent are compromised.  As a security measure your access has been temporarily restricted.  Please confine your activities to the indicated systems.  WARNING: There has been an intrusion detection. All system access has been restricted until further notice.  Thank you and have a nice day!

I ask for a password.  It comes along a few hours later, buried in the back-end bits of a cute little image of a wet kitten.  That’s a start, enough to log in.  But what then, as the network watches my every move, measuring me against the real person behind this account?  How should I behave? I whisper. Just above the throbbing dubstep soundtrack of this shooter, my fellow players feed me replies which could be actions within the gameworld – or something else entirely.  I make my moves, as advised, and when I see WARNING: There has been an intrusion detection, I know we have won.

How Not To Be Seen

I: The Comfy Chair

Back in 1978 – when I was just fifteen – I begged my parents to let me enroll in a course at the local community college (the equivalent of TAFE) so that I could take ‘Data Processing with RPG II’.  I wrote my first computer program in RPG II.  I typed that program onto a series of punched cards, one statement per punched card.  Once I’d completed typing the deck of cards which comprised my program, I dropped them off at the college’s data processing center, where they went into the batch queue.  You returned in 24 hours and were returned your deck of punched cards, along with a long string of ‘green-bar’ paper, which printed the results (or errors) in your program.  If you’d made a mistake on one of the cards – a spelling error, or a syntactical no-no, you’d be forced to repeat the process, as needed, until you got it right.

Woohoo.  Sign me up.

From around 1980 – when I went off to MIT to study computer science – computers have been my constant companions.  I’ve owned cheap ones (Commodore’s VIC-20), expensive ones (one of the first Macintosh IIs to roll off the assembly line), tiny ones (iPhone), and big ones (SparcStation 3).  I have never owned a computer that I have not written code for.  In my mind, the computer and the act of programming are inseparable.

Programming languages are something one acquires, like computers; but you don’t put those languages in the bin – mostly.  In preparation for this talk, I made up a list of all the programming languages I’ve learned over the years, beginning with RPG II – which I’ve since forgotten.  BASIC came next, and I thought it a wonderful, useful, incredible language, my true starting point.

I spent many years programming in assembly language on a variety of systems – CP/M, MS-DOS, embedded microcontrollers.  I bought a cheap C compiler in 1982, a copy of Kernighan & Ritchie, learned pointer arithmetic, and crashed my computer repeatedly in the process.  Now that was fun.

I did take up C++ when it was still new, when Stroustrup was still implementing features of the language.  (Oh, wait, he’s still doing that, isn’t he?)  Buried myself in class designs and object hierarchies and delegation models.  I can probably still program in C++.  If someone were to threaten me with a taser.

In the 1990s along came the Web and LINUX, the open computing platform.  Suddenly a language was more useful for its ability to communicate with other entities than for its raw processing power.

I sat down at the 3rd International World Wide Web conference with a few folks from SUN Microsystems, who were touting this new, portable programming language they’d invented, which they called ‘Oak‘.  I wonder whatever became of that?

Each new language is supposed to conquer the world.  Each new language is meant to subdue all before it.  And I have to admit that I had my share of fun with PERL – the bastard child of BASIC and C – and, later PHP.  I’ve written a lot of JavaScript, because that’s the programming language of choice that brings VRML to life.  Oh, and that’s right: along the way I invented a language, a portable language for interactive 3D computer graphics, a language that now, with WebGL about to become part of HTML5, looks less a damp squib than fifteen years ahead of its time.

Oh well.

Just a few years ago I decided that I needed to learn Python.  I don’t remember the reason.  I don’t even know that there was a reason.  Python was there, and that was enough.

It didn’t take long to learn – Python isn’t a difficult language – but for just that little bit of learning I got so much power, well – I don’t have to explain it to you.  You understand.  It’s a bit like crack, Python is.  Once you’ve had that first hit, you’re never quite the same again.

I put Python on everything: on my Macs, on my servers, on my mobile – everything I owned got a Python install.  I didn’t know exactly what I’d do with all this Python, but somehow that seemed unimportant.  Just get it everywhere.  You’ll figure something out.

In some ways discovering Python was very frustrating.  By my early 40s I’d basically stopped programming; not because I hated coding, but because my life had turned in other directions.  I teach, I research, I lecture, I write, I do a little TV on the side.  None of that has anything to do with coding.  I had the best tool for a grand bit of hackery, and no time to do anything with it, nor any real reason to drive me to make time.

My biggest Python project (before last week) was a simple script to create a video used in the opening of my 2008 WebDirections South keynote.  I wanted to show the ‘cloud’ of Twitter followers I had started to accumulate – around 1500.  Not just a ‘wall’ of different faces, but a film, an animation, where each person I followed on Twitter had their moment in the sun.  The script retrieved the list of people I follow, then iterated through this list, getting profile information for each individual, extracting from that the URL for the user’s avatar, which it then retrieved, Using Python Imaging Library, it then embossed the user’s handle onto the image.  After that it was a basic drag-and-drop operation into Adobe Premiere.  Presto! – I had a movie.  Thank you, Python.

For half a decade I’ve been thinking about social networks.  This little film project allowed me to tie my research together with my desire to have a pleasant excuse to hack. When I sat back and watched the film I’d algorithmically pieced together, I began to get a deeper sense of the value of my ‘social graph’.  That’s a new phrase, and it means the set of human relationships we each carry with us.  Until just a few years ago, these relationships lived wholly between our ears; we might augment our memories with an address book or a Rolodex, but these paper trails were only ever a reflection of our embodied relationships.  Ever since Friendster, these relationships have exteriorized, leaped out of our heads (like Athena from Zeus) and crawled into our computers.

This makes them both intimately familiar and eerily pluripotent.  We are wired from birth to connect with one another: to share what we know, to listen to what others say.  This is what we do, a knowledge so essential, so foundational, it never needs to be taught.  When this essential feature of being human gets accelerated by the speed of the computer, then amplified by a global network that now connects about five billion people (counting both  mobile or Internet), all sorts of unexpected things begin to happen.  The entire landscape of human knowledge – how we come to know something, how we come to share what we know – has been utterly transformed over the last decade.  Were we to find a convenient TARDIS and take ourselves back to the world of 1999, it would be almost unrecognizable.  The media landscape was as it always had been, though the print component had hesitatingly migrated onto the Web.  To learn about the world around us, we all looked up – to the ABC, to the New York Times, to the BBC World Service.

Then the world exploded.

We don’t look up anymore. We look around – we look to one another – to learn what’s going on.  Sometimes we share what we hear on the ABC or the Times or the World Service.  But what’s important is that we share it.  There is no up, there is no centre.  There is only a vast sea of hyperconnected human nodes.

The most alluring and seductive of all of the hyperconnecting services is unquestionably Facebook.  In three years it has grown from just fifteen million to nearly half a billion users.  It might be the most visited website in the world, just now surpassing Google.  Facebook has become the nexus, the connecting point for one person in every fourteen on Earth.  Facebook is the place where the social graph has come to life, where the potency of sharing and listening can be explored in depth.  But it is a life lived out in public.  Facebook is not really geared toward privacy, toward the intimacies that we expect as a necessary quality of our embodied relationships.  Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is on the record talking about ‘the end of privacy’, and how he sees it that a side-effect of Facebook’s mission ‘to give people the power to share, and make the world more open and connected’.

A world more open could be a good thing, but only if the openness is wholly multilateral.  We don’t want to end up in a world where our secrets as individuals have been revealed, while those who have the concentrations of capital and power, and their supporting organizations and networks, manage to continue to remain obscure and occult.  This kind of ‘privacy asymmetry’ will only work against the individuals who have surrendered their privacy.

This is precisely where we seem to be headed.  Facebook wants us to connect and share and reveal, but – particularly around privacy, user confidentiality, and the way they put that vast amount of user-generated data to work for themselves and their advertisers – Facebook’s business practices are entirely opaque.  Openness must be met with openness, sharing with sharing.  Anything else creates a situation where one side is – quite literally – holding all the cards.

I have been pondering the power of social networks for six years, so I am peculiarly conscious of the price you pay for participation in someone else’s network.  I’ve come to realized your social graph is your most important possession.  In a very real way, your social graph is who you are.  Until a few years ago we never gave this much thought because we carried our graphs with us everywhere, inside our heads.  But now that these graph live elsewhere – under the control of someone else – we’re confronted with a dilemma :we want to turbocharge our social graphs, but we don’t want anyone else having any access to something so fundamental and intimate.  If the CIA and NSA use social graphs to find and combat terrorists, if smoking, obesity and divorce spread through social graphs, why would we hand something so personal and so potent to anyone else?  What kind of value would we receive for surrendering our crown jewels?

By the end of last month it was clear that Facebook had become dangerous.  Something had to be done.  People had to be warned.  In a Melbourne hotel room, I drafted a manifesto.  Here’s how I closed it:

There is only one solution.  We must take the thing which is inalienable from us – our presence – and remove it from those who would use that presence for their own gain.  We must move, migrate, become digital refugees, fleeing a regime which seeks only its own best interests, to the detriment of our own… We may be the first, but we will not be the last.  We must map the harbors, clear the woods, and make virgin lands inviting enough that it will be an easy decision for those who will come to join us in this new country, where freedom goes hand-in-hand with presence, where privacy is not a dirty word, and where the future knows no bounds.

So I quit.  But I didn’t do it suddenly or rashly.  I’d been using Facebook to share media – links and articles and videos – so I set up a Posterous account, where I could do exactly the same kind of sharing.  Over the course of two weeks, I posted a series of Facebook updates, telling everyone in my social graph that I’d be quitting Facebook – beginning by posting that manifesto – and giving them the link to my Posterous account.  I did this on five separate occasions in the week leading up to my account deletion.

The responses were interesting.  Most of the folks in my social graph who bothered to respond were in various stages of mourning.  My own aunt – whom I’ve been corresponding with via email for twenty years – wrote how much she’d miss me.  Another individual expressed regret at my leave-taking, given that we’d only just reconnected after many years.  “But,” I responded, “I’ve shown you how we can stay in touch.  Just follow the link.”  “That’s too hard,” he replied, “I like that Facebook gives me everyone in one place.  I don’t have to remember to check here for you, or over there for someone else.  This is just easy.”

I can’t fault his logic: Facebook is just like the comfy chair.  It’s a pleasant place to be – even when surrounded by Inquisitors.  Facebook users are simply so grateful that such an amazing service is on offer – seemingly for free – that they haven’t thought through the price of their participation.  And unless something else comes along that’s as powerful and easy as Facebook, things will go on just as are.  Unless a disruptive innovation upends all the apple carts.

This is when I had a brainwave.

II:  And Now For Something Completely Different

What is the social graph?  At its essence, it is a set of connections, connections which define certain flows of information.  These connections are both figurative and literal.  If I say that I am connected to someone, I mean that we have some sort of relationship.  But I also means that we have established protocols for communication, channels that can be used to send messages back and forth.  For the last three hundred years this has been embodied in the ‘visiting card’, presented at all occasions when there is an invitation to connect.  The ‘visiting card’ evolved into the ‘business card’ we share freely and promiscuously when there’s money to be made, or a connection to be had.  The business card of 2010 must provide four significant pieces of information: a) the name of the caller; b) the address of the caller; c) the telephone number(s) of the caller; and d) the email address of the caller.  Other information can be provided on the card – and often is – but if a card is missing any of these four essentials, it is incomplete.  Each item represents a separate sphere of connectivity: the name is the necessary prerequisite for social connectivity; the address for postal connectivity; the telephone number and email addresses are self-explanatory.  Each entry has a one-to-one correspondence with some form of connectivity.  When we exchange business cards, we are providing the information necessary to establish connectivity.

We now have digital versions of the business card; we hand out vCards, or provide QR Codes that can be scanned and translated into a pointer to a vCard.  Yet what we do with these  digital versions of the business card not has changed: we stuff them into ‘address books’, or into the contact lists on our mobiles.  If we have the right tools, we can upload them to Plaxo or LinkedIn.  There they sit, static and essentially useless.  A database with no applications.

That’s kind of weird, isn’t it?  I mean, here we are, each of us walking around with a few hundred contacts on our mobiles, and essentially doing nothing with them unless we need to make a phone call or send an email.  It doesn’t make sense.  Somehow we’ve lost sight of the  fact that the digital item is active in a way the physical object is not.   Facebook understands this.  Facebook takes your ‘calling card’ – the profile that you loaded up with your personal information – and makes it the foundation of your social graph.  Everyone connects to your profile (which is you), and these connections become the cornerstone of fully bilateral sharing relationships.  Anyone connected to you can send you a message, or initiate a chat, or look at the photos you uploaded of your holiday in the fleshpots of Bangkok.   That one connection becomes the cornerstone for a whole range of opportunities to share media – text, images, video, links, music, events, etc. – and equally an opportunity to listen to what others are sharing.  That’s what Facebook is, really, a giant, centralized switchboard which connects its members to one another.  That’s all any social network is.

It’s easy – really easy – to connect together.  We have so many ways to do so, through so many mechanisms, that really we’re drowning in choice, rather than a poverty of options.  Instead of a monolithic solution, the Internet, like nature, tends to favor diversity and heterogeneity.  Diversity creates the space for play and exploration; a tolerance for heterogeneity allows that there is no right answer, no one way to play the game.  Is it possible to design an architecture for human connectivity which favors diversity and heterogeneity.

For the past few weeks those of you following me on Twitter have seen me tweet about ‘Project Thunderware’, which was the silliest code-name I could think up for a project that is actually entirely serious.  The real name is Plexus.  Plexus is design for a second-generation social network.  It is personal – everyone runs their own Plexus.  It is portable – written entirely in Python so you can drop it onto a USB key (if you want), and take it with you anywhere you can get Python running.  It is private – no one else has access to your Plexus, unless you want them to.  It’s completely open and completely modular.  Plexus is designed to take the passive social graph we’ve all got tucked away in our various devices, translating it into something active, vital, and essential.

There are three components within Plexus.  First and most important is the social graph, a database of connections known as the ‘Plex’.  Each of these connections, like a business card, comes with a list of connection points.  These connection points can be outgoing – ‘this is how I will speak to you’, or incoming – ‘this is how I will listen to you’.  They can be unilateral or bilateral.  They can be based on standard protocols – such as SMTP or XMPP, or the APIs of the rapidly-multiplying set of social services already available in the wilds of the Internet, or they can be something entirely home-grown and home-brewed.  They can be wide open, or encrypted with GPG.  Everything is negotiable.  That’s the point: something’s in the Plex because there’s an active connection and relationship between two parties.

The Plex is only a database.  To bring that database to life, two other components are required.  The first of these is the ‘Sharer’.  The Sharer, as the name implies, makes sure that something to be shared – be it a string of text, or a link, or a video, or a blog post, or whatever – ends up going out over the negotiated channels.  The Sharer is built out of a set of Python modules, with each particular sharing service handled by its own module.  This means that there is no limit or artificial constraint on what kinds of services Plexus can share with.

Conversely, the third component, the Listener, monitors all of the negotiated channels for any activity by any of the connections in the Plex.  When the Listener hears something, it sends that to the user – to be displayed or saved or ignored according to the needs of the moment.  Like the Sharer, the Listener is also a set of Python modules, with each monitored service handled by its own module.  The Listener should be able to listen to anything that has a clearly defined interface.

When Plexus starts up, it reads through the Plex, instancing the appropriate Sharer and Listener objects on a connection-by-connection basis.  Everything after initialization is event-driven: the Plexus user shares something, or the Listener hears something and offers that to the Plexus user.

That’s it.  That’s the whole of the design.  As always, the devil is in the details, but the essential architecture will probably remain unchanged.  Plexus creates your own, self-managed social network, both entirely self-contained, and also acts as a connected node within a broader network.  Because Plexus functions as plumbing – wiring together social services that haven’t been designed to talk to one another – it performs a service that is badly needed, filling a growing void.  Plexus is your own plumbing, under your own control.

Let’s talk through a use case.  I give a lot of lectures, and I make sure to put my contact details – email, blog and Twitter – on my slides.  I meet two people at a lecture – we’ll call one of them Nick, and the other one Anthony.  (Those names just came to me.)  Nick is an affable person, he just wants to be able to follow all of my output, as I put it out.  He needs are a list of the dozen-or-so public contact points where I present myself.  That’d be my name, the six or seven blogs I write, my Twitter feed, my Posterous, my YouTube account, and Viddler account, and so forth.  He gets that nugget of data off of markpesce.com/markpesce.plx – it’s basically a nice little bit of JSON (I don’t care for XML, but you can microformat to your heart’s content) that he can drop directly into Plexus, where it will go into the Plex.  As the Plex digests it, this nugget instances the necessary Listeners.  Now, whenever I say anything – anywhere – Nick knows about it.  Which makes Nick happy.

Anthony is a different story.  He’s a l33t user, and doesn’t want to be forced to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi at any of the normal social web services.  Instead, Anthony wants to get a personally-addressed email from me every time I have something to share.  Apparently he’s developed some excellent email filtering and management tools, so that even if I get quite chatty, it won’t clog up his inbox.  So, he negotiates with me – Plexus-to-Plexus – and goes into my Plex as a contact, so that when I instance my Sharers, one is specifically set up to send him anything I share via SMTP.  He doesn’t have to do anything to his Plexus, because he’s not using his Plexus to listen to me.

Use cases are all the more meaningful when they’re backed up by working code.  Hence, I went back to the code mines last weekend – with a spring in my step and a song in my heart – and created a very, very embryonic version of Plexus.  In just a little over two days, I created Sharer modules for Twitter, Posterous, Tumblr and SMTP, and Listener modules for Twitter and RSS.  I reckoned that would be sufficient for the purposes of a demonstration – though if I’d had more time I could easily have wired in a few hundred other web social services.

[ To see the demo, go here. ]

There you go.  That’s Plexus.  The project is open source – after all, why would you trust a social network when you can’t inspect the code?

III:  How Not To Be Seen

Plexus is grass-roots, bottom-up, and radically decentralized.  That means the big boys will probably try to ignore it.  Social media isn’t about the people, after all.  It’s about humungous accumulations of capital going hand-in-hand with impossibly large collections of data, and, somewhere in the background, all the spooks, reading the paper trail.  Social media is an instrument of control, the latest and the greatest.  Sit still, read your feed, and comply.

But what if we refuse to comply?  Is that even an option?  Is it possible to be disconnected and influential?  That’s the Faustian bargain being offered to us: join with the collective and you will be heard.  And managed.  And herded.  Or suit yourself, and weep and gnash your teeth in the outer darkness.  But in that Interzone, outside the smooth functioning of power, what happens when we connect there?

Reflect back on March of 2000.  Napster, the centralized filesharing network, had recently be shut down by court order.  A different crew created a decentralized filesharing tool, known as Gnutella, releasing both the tool and the source code to the world on March 14th.  When AOL/TimeWarner – parent company of the folks who wrote Gnutella – found out about and put a stop to the source code release, it was too late.  It couldn’t be recalled.  The bomb couldn’t be un-invented.  The music industry is more authentic than it was a decade ago, more open to innovation, to outsiders, to diversity and heterogenetity.  All because a few hackers decided to change the way people share their music.

History never repeats, but it does rhyme.  We share everything now; we worry that we overshare.  Now it’s time to take our sharing to the next level.  We need a social2.0, something that reflects what we’ve learned in the past half-dozen years.  That’s not just a slew of new services.  That’s an attitude change.  Consider: the wiki was invented in 1995.  It’s Precambrian web tech.  But we didn’t start using wikis until after 2001, when Wikipedia began to take off.  Why?  It took us a while – and a lot of interactions – to understand how to use the tools on offer.  Social technology is uniquely potent – so much so that we’ll be learning its strengths and weakness for a decade or more.  The time has come to step out, seize the means of communication, and make them our own.

I reckon you can now understand why Python was such an obvious choice for Plexus.  In no other language, with no other community, is the idea of sharing so much at the core.  There is a Python module or code sample to do nearly every task under the sun, precisely because sharing is a core ethic of the Python community.  Python is the language of the Web because it lends itself to the same sharing that the Web fosters.  Python is the language of Plexus because Plexus needs to inherit all of Python’s best qualities, needs to be straightforward and open and flexible and extensible and easily shared.  I need to be able to drop a Plexus module into an email and know, at the other end, that it will just work.  ‘Take this,’ I’ll say, ‘and feed it to your Plexus.’  You’ll do that, and suddenly you’ll find that we have a secure, obscure and nearly invisible means of sharing – a darknet, how not to be seen – that can be as private and personal or open and public as we agree it should be.  And you can turn around, think up something else, and mail that to me, or to someone else, or to the world.

The social web must be a social project, an opportunity to embody exactly what we’re trying to create as we are creating it.  It’s the ultimate dogfooding.  Success requires a willing surrender that rejoices in cooperation.

So here it is.  This is the best I can do.  It may be the best that I will ever do.  I place it before you this morning, a humble offering, written in a language that I barely know, but which I’ve used to express my highest aspirations.  Plexus is naked, newborn, and needs help.  It will only benefit from your input, comments, recommendations, pointers and critiques.  It is an idea that can only grow and mature as it is shared.  That’s what this is all about.  It always has been.

The slides for this presentation can be found here.

Hyperconnected Health

I: My Cloud

This is the age of networks, and we are always connected.  If that seems fanciful, ask yourself how often you are parted from your mobile, and for how long?  All of our hours – even as we sleep – the mobile is within arm’s reach for almost all of us.  A few months ago a woman asked me when we might expect to have implants, to close the loop, and make the connection permanent.  “We’re already there,” I responded.  “It’s wedded to the palm of your hand.”  In a purely functional sense this is the truth, and it has been the case for several years.

Connection to the network is neither an instantaneous nor absolute affair.  It takes time to establish the protocols for communication.  We understand many of these protocols without explanation: we do not telephone someone at three o’clock in the morning unless vitally important.  Three o’clock in the afternoon, however, is open season.  Lately, there are newer, technologically driven protocols: I can look at a caller’s number, and decide whether I want to take that call or direct it to voice mail.  The caller has no idea I’ve made any decision.  From their point of view, it’s simply a missed call.  Similarly, I have friends I can not text before 10 AM unless it’s quite urgent, and I ask my friends not to text me after 10 PM for the same reason.  We set our boundaries with technology, boundaries which determine how we connect.  We can choose to be entirely connected, or entirely disconnected.  We can let the batteries run flat on our mobile, or simply turn it off and put it away.  But there’s a price to be paid.  Absence from connection incurs a cost.  To be disconnected is to cede your ability to participate in the flow of affairs.  Thus, the modern condition is a dilemma, where we balance the demands of our connectedness against the desire to be free from its constraints.

Connectedness is not simply a set of pressures; it is equally a range of capabilities.  As our connectedness grows, so our capabilities grow in lock-step.  What we could achieve with the landline was immeasurably beyond what was possible with the post, yet doesn’t compare with what we can do with email, mobile voice, SMS, or, now, any of a hundred thousand different sorts of activities, from banking to dating to ordering up a taxi.  The device has become a platform, a social nexus, the point where we find ourselves attached to the universe of others.  Consider the address book that lives on your mobile.  Mine has about 816 entries.  Those are all connections that were made at some point in my life.  (Admittedly, I haven’t been weeding them out as vigorously as I should, so some of those contact are duplicates or no longer accurate.)  That’s just what’s on my mobile.  If I go out to Twitter, I have rather more connections in my ‘social graph’ – about 6700.  These connections aren’t quiescent, waiting to be dialed, but are constantly listening in to what I have to say, just as I am constantly listening to them.

No one can give their full-time attention to that sort of cacophony of human voices.  Some are paid more attention, others, rather less.  Sometimes there’s no spare attention to be given to any of these voices, and what they say is lost to me.  Yet, on the whole, I can maintain some form of continuous partial attention with this ‘cloud’ of others.  They are always with me, and I with them.  This is a new thing (I view myself as a sort of guinea pig in a lab experiment) and it has produced some rather unexpected results.

At the end of last year I went on a long road trip with a friend from the US.  On our first day, we struck out from Sydney and drove to Canberra, arriving, tired and hungry at quarter to six.  Where do you eat dinner in a town that closes down at 5 pm?  I went online and put the question out to Twitter, then ducked into the shower.  By the time I’d dried off, I had a whole suite of responses from native Canberrans, several of whom pointed me to the Civic Asian Noodle House.  Thirty minutes later, my American friend was enjoying his first bowl of seafood laksa – which was among the best I’ve had in Australia.

A few days later, at the end of the road trip, when we’d reached the Barossa Valley, I put another question out to Twitter: what wineries should we visit?  The top five recommendations were very good indeed.  Each of these ‘cloud moments’, by themselves, seems relatively trivial.  Both together begin to mark the difference between an ordinary holiday and a most excellent one.

Another case in point: two weeks ago today, my washing machine gave up the ghost.  What to replace it with?  I asked Twitter.  Within a few hours, and some back-and-forth, I decided upon a Bosch.  Some of that was based on direct input from Bosch owners, some of that came from a CHOICE survey of washing machine owners.  I was pointed to that survey by someone on Twitter.

As I experiment, and learn how to query my cloud, I have sbecome more dependent upon the good advice it can provide.  My cloud extends my reach, my experience and my intelligence, making me much more effective as some sort of weird ‘colony individual’ than I could be on my own.   I have no doubt that within a few years, as the tools improve, nearly every decision I make will be observed and improved upon by my cloud.  Which is wonderful, incredible, and – to quote Tony Abbott – very confronting.

Let me turn things around a bit, to show another side of the cloud, specifically the cloud of my good friend Kate Carruthers.  Last year Kate found herself in Far North Queensland on a business trip and discovered that her American Express card credit limit had summarily been cut in half – with no advance warning – leaving her far away from home and potentially caught in a jam.  When she called American Express to make an inquiry – and found that their consumer credit division closed at 5 pm on a Friday evening – she lost her temper.  The 7500 people who follow Kate on Twitter heard a solid rant about the evils of American Express, a rant that they will now remember every time they find an American Express invitation letter in the post, or even when they decide which credit card to select while making a purchase.

Hollywood has been forced to take note of the power of these clouds.  There’s a direct correlation between the speed at which a motion picture bombs and the rise in the number of users of Twitter.  It used to take a few days for word-of-mouth to kill a movie’s box office:  now it takes a few minutes.  As the first showing ends, friends text friends, people post to Twitter and Facebook, and the news spreads.  After the second or third showing, the crowds have dropped off: word has gotten out that the film stinks.  Where just a few years ago a film could coast for an entire weekend, now the Friday matinee has become a make-or-break affair.  An opinion, multiplied by hundreds or thousands of connections, carries a lot of weight.

That amplification effect has been particularly visible to me over the last week.   I’ve been participating in a ‘social review program’ sponsored by Telstra, who sought reviewers for the handset du jour, the HTC Desire.  I received a free handset – worth about $800 – in exchange for a promise to do a thorough, but honest review.  This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, and when I started to post my thoughts to Twitter, I immediately got a big pushback.  Some of my cloud considered it an unacceptable commercialization of a space they consider essentially private and personal.  I spruik The New Inventors on Twitter every Wednesday.  That’s just as commercial, but Telstra is held out for particular contempt by a broad swath of the Australian public, so any association with them carries it own opprobrium.  I’ve come to realize that I’ve tarred myself with the same brush that others use for Telstra.  Although I did this accidentally and innocently, some of that tar will continue to stick to me.  I have suffered the worst fate that can befall anyone who lives life with a cloud: reputational damage.  Some people have made it perfectly clear that they will never again regard me with the same benevolence.  That damage is done.  All I can do is learn from it, and work to not repeat the same mistakes.

This marked the first time that I’d been ‘chastised’ by my cloud.  I’ve always operated within the bounds of propriety – the protocols of civilized behavior – but in this case I found I’d stumbled into a minefield, a danger zone filled with obstacles that I’d created for myself by presenting myself not just as Mark Pesce, but as Telstra.  I’ve learned new limits, new protocols, and, for the first time, I can begin to sense the constraints that come hand-in-hand with my new capabilities.  I can do a lot, but I can not do as I please.

II: Share the Health

Social networks are nothing new.  We’ve carried them around inside our heads from a time long before we were recognizably human.  They are the secret to our success, and always have been.  We’re the most social of all the of the mammals, and while the bees may put us to shame, we also have big brains to develop distinct personalities and unique strengths, which we have always shared, so that our expertise becomes an asset to the whole of society, whether that is a tribe, a city, or a nation.

Others have been studying these ‘old-school’ human social networks, and they’ve learned some surprising things.  Harvard internist and social scientist Dr. Nicholas Christakis has published a series of papers that illustrate the power of the connection.  In his first paper, he studied how smoking behaviors – both starting and quitting – spread through social networks.  It turns out that if a sufficient number of your friends start to smoke, you’re more likely to begin yourself.  Conversely, if enough of your friends quit, you’re more likely to quit.  This makes sense when you consider the reinforcing nature of social relationships; we each send one another a forest of subtle cues about the ‘right’ way to behave, fit in, and get along.  Those cues shape our choices and behaviors.  Hang out with smokers and you’re more likely to smoke.  Hang out with non-smokers, and you’re likely to quit smoking.

Dr. Christakis also found that the same phenomenon appears to hold true for obesity.  Again, people look to one another for cues about body image.  If all of your peers are obese, you are more likely to be obese yourself.  If your peers are thin, you’re more likely to be thin.  And if your peers go on a diet, you’re likely to join them in slimming.  The connections between us are also the transmitters of behavior.  (It may be the secret to the success of other groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.)  This is a powerful insight, one which caused me to have a bit of a brainwave, a few months ago, as I began planning this talk: what happens when we take what we know about our human social networks as behavioral transmitters and apply that to our accelerated, amplified digital selves?

I can take any bit of data I like and share it out through Twitter to 6700 connections, and I frequently do.  I post articles I’ve read, interesting films I’ve watched, photographs I’ve taken, and so forth.  My cloud is an opportunity to share what I encounter in my life.  Probably many of you do precisely the same thing.  But let’s take it a step further.  Let’s say that my doctor wants me to lose 15 kilos, in order to help me lower my blood pressure.  I agree to his request, and perhaps see a nutritionist, but after that I’m pretty much own my own.  I could spend some money to join a ‘group’ like Weight Watchers or whatnot; essentially purchasing a peer group with whom I will connect.  That will work for the duration of the weight loss, but once the support ends, the weight comes piles on.

Instead of this (or, perhaps, in addition to it), what I need to do is to bind my cloud to my intention to lose weight. I need to share this information, but I need to do it meaningfully.  This is more than simply saying, ‘Hey, I need to drop some pounds.’  More than posting the weekly weigh-in figures.  It means using the cloud intelligently, sharing with the cloud what can and should be shared – that is, what I eat and what exercise I get.

When I say ‘my cloud’ in this context, I doubt that I’m speaking about the full complement of 6700 souls.  Although all of them wish me well, this sort of detail is simply noise to many of them.  Instead, I need to go to a smaller cohort: my close friends, and those within my cloud who share a similar affinity – who are also working to lose weight.  These connections – a cloud within my cloud – are the ones who will be best served by my sharing.  I now keep track of what I eat and how I exercise, using some collaborative tool developed an some enterprising entrepreneur to track it all, and everyone sees what kind of progress I’m making toward my goal.  I also see everyone else’s progress toward their own goals.  We reinforce, we reassure, we share both new-found strengths and our moments of weakness.  As we share, we grow closer.  The network is reinforced.  All along, my friends (and my GP) are looking in, monitoring, happy to see that I’m on track toward my goal.

None of this is rocket science.  It’s good social science, and plain common sense.  It needs to be supported by tools.  At this point, I began to think about the kinds of tools that would be useful.  First and most useful would be a food diary.   Rather than a text-based listing of everything eaten, I reckon this will be a bit more up-to-date; there’ll be photographs, taken with my mobile, of everything that goes into my mouth.  As a bit of an experiment, I tried photographing everything I ate from the beginning of this month.  I always got breakfast, mostly lunch, and by dinner had forgotten completely.  My records are incomplete.  That wouldn’t do for any sharing system like this, and it points to the fact that technology is no substitute for effective habits, and those habits don’t develop overnight.  They require some peer support.

As I was beginning to think through the requirements of such a hypothetical system – so that I could share that system with you– I learned that someone had already implemented a real-world system along similar lines.  Jon Cousins, an entrepreneur from Cambridgeshire recently launched a website known as Moodscope.  This site allows individuals who have mood disorders to track their moods daily, and then shares those daily updates with a circle of up to five trusted individuals.

It’s known that individuals with mood disorders can be supported by a network – if that network is kept abreast of that individual’s changes in mood.  I decided to give Moodscope a try, and have been charting my daily moods (which average around the baseline of 50%) for the past 26 days, sharing those results with a close friend.  Although it’s early days, Moodscope is showing promise as a tool that can support people in their struggle for mood regulation and overall mental health, and might even do so better than some pharmaceutical treatments.

In these two examples – one imaginary and one wholly real – we have a pattern for health care in the 21st century, a model which doesn’t supplant the existing systems, but rather, works alongside them to improve outcomes and to keep patient care costs down, by spreading the burden of care throughout a community.  This model could be repeated to cover diabetics, or hypertensives, or asthmatics, or arthritics, and so on.  It is a generic model which can be applied to every patient and each disorder.

We’ve already seen the birth of ‘Wikimedicine’, where individuals connect together to try to learn more about their diseases than their treating physicians.  This is sometimes a recipe for disaster, but that’s because this is all so new.  Within a few years, doctors, nurse practitioners and patients will be connected through dense networks of knowledge and need.  The doctor and nurse practitioner will help guide the patient into knowledge using the wealth of online resources.  That’s not often happening at present, and this means that patients fall prey to all sorts of bad information.  In our near future, medical knowledge isn’t simply locked away in the physician’s head; it’s shared through a connected community for the benefit of all.  The doctor still treats, while the patient – and the patient’s connections – learn.  From that learning comes the lifestyle changes and reinforcements in behavior that lead to better outcomes.

We have the networks in place, both human and virtual.  We merely need to institute some new practices to reap the benefit of our connections.  As the population ages, these sorts of innovations will seem both natural – relying on others is an essentially human characteristic – and cost-effective.  The population will adopt these measures because they find them empowering (and because their GPs will recommend them), while governments and insurance companies will adopt them because they keep a lid on medical costs.  The forces of culture and technology are converging on a shared, hyperconnected future which aims to keep us as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

III:  The Ministry of Love

I have a good friend who was diagnosed with a mood disorder sixteen years ago.  A few months ago he decided his psychiatric medication was doing him more harm than good, and took himself off of it.  Although it’s been a difficult process, so far he’s been reasonably stable.  When I found Moodscope, I told him about it.  “Sounds good,” he responded, “I can’t wait until they have it as a Facebook app.”  I hadn’t thought about that, but it does make perfect sense: your social graph is already right there, embedded into Facebook, and Facebook applications have access to your social graph: why not create a version of Moodscope that ties the two together?  It sounds very compelling, a sure winner.

But do you really want Facebook to have access to highly privileged medical information, information about your mental state?  That information can be used to help you, but it could also be used against you.   Sydney teenager Nona Belomesoff was lured to her death by a man who used information gleaned from Facebook to befriend her.  Consider: If someone wanted to cause my friend some distress, they could use that shared mood data as a key indicator which would guide them to time their destabilizing efforts for maximum effectiveness.  They could kick him when he was down, and make sure he stayed down.  Giving someone insight into our emotional state gives them the upper hand.

Were that not dangerous enough, just last Friday the Wall Street Journal reported the results of an investigation, which revealed that Facebook was sharing confidential user data with advertisers – data which they’d legally agreed to hold in closest confidence.  The advertisers themselves had no idea that this information was provided illegally.  Facebook, the supreme collector of marketing data, simply didn’t know when or even how to restrain itself.

With that in mind, let’s imagine a situation bound to happen sometime in the next few years.  You and your Facebook friends decide that you want to quit smoking.  It’s too expensive, it’s too hard to find a smoking area, your clothes stink, and you’re starting to get a hacking cough in the mornings.  Enough.  So you tell your friends – over Facebook – that you’re thinking of quitting.  And they think that’s a great idea.  They want to quit, too.  So you all set a date to quit.  That’s all well and good, but then an invitation arrives to a very swanky party in the City, an exclusive affair.  You go, and find that the whole space is a smoking area!  All of these elegant people, puffing away.  Because smoking is glamorous.  And you begin to reconsider.  Your resolve begins to weaken.

Or you want to lose weight.  You even add the Facebook ‘Drop the Fat’ app to your account, to help you achieve your weight loss goals.  But, just as soon as you do that, you start seeing lots more Facebook advertisements for biscuits and ice cream and fresh pizzas.  That has an effect.  It weakens your willpower, and makes those slightly-hungry hours seem more unbearable.

This is the friendly version of ‘Room 101’ from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In that room, you met your greatest fear.  In this one, you meet your greatest weakness.  When a tobacco company has access to a social network which is trying to quit smoking, it will be tempted to disrupt that network.  When a soft drink company has access to a social network which is trying to lose weight, it will be tempted to disrupt that network.  Our social networks are too potent and too powerful to leave exposed to anyone, for any reason whatsoever.  Yet we leave them lying around, open to public inspection, and we allow Facebook to own them outright, to exploit them as it sees fit, to its own ends, and for its own profit.  Hopefully that will come to an end, unless we’re too far down the rabbit hole to pull out of Facebook and into something else that preserves the integrity of our social graph while granting us control over how we share our inmost selves.

This is where you come in.  You’re the policy folks, and I’ve just thrown a whopper into your lap.  Securing the safety and prosperity of our social future means that we need to establish clear guidelines on how these networks can be used, by whom, and to what ends.  As I’ve explained, there is enormous potential for these networks to lead to breakthroughs in public health, disease prevention, and medical cost management.  That’s just the beginning.  These same networks can organize toward political ends.  We got just a taste of that in the Obama presidential campaign, but the next decade will see its full flower, whether in America or in Iran or in Australia.  As social networks become identified with power networks, all of the conservative and power-seeking interests of culture will work to interfere with them as a means of control.

As public servants and policy makers, you will see the politicians, the doctors, and the advertisers come to you crying, ‘Can’t we do something?’  All of them will want you to weaken the protections for social networks, in order to make them more permeable and less resilient.  In this present moment, and with our current laws, social networks have no protections whatsoever.  They used to live inside our heads, where they needed few protections.  Now they live in public, and with every day that passes we come to understand that they are perhaps our most important possession, the doorway to ourselves.  First you must protect.  Then you must defend.

Protection is not enough.  It’s not clear that any commercial interest can be trusted with the social graphs of a community.  There’s too much potential for mischief, particularly right now, when everything is so new and so raw.  Government must play a role in this revolution, encouraging government-affiliated NGOs and other not-for-profits to foster networks of connections to spring up around communities which need the empowerment that comes with hyperconnectivity.  In the absence of this sort of gardening, the ground will be ceded to commercial forces which may not have the best interests of the citizenry foremost in mind.  By doing nothing, we lay the foundation for a new generation of grifters, criminals, and brainwashers.  But if these networks are built securely – by people who believe in them, and believe in what is possible with them – they become hyper-potent, capable of transforming the lives of everyone connected to them.  It’s a short path from hyperconnectivity to hyperempowerment, a path which will be well-trodden in the coming years.

The 21st century will look very different from the century just passed.  Instead of big wars and major powers, we’ll see different ‘gangs’ of hyperempowered social networks having a rumble, networks that look a lot like families, towns, or nations.  We’ll all be connected by similar principles, for similar reasons, and we will use similar tools to rally together and mobilize our strengths.  As is the nature of power, power will seek to use power to undermine the power of others.  Facebook is already doing this, though they seem to have stumbled into it.  The next time it happens it will be more deliberate, and more diabolical.

That’s it.  The future is much bigger than hyperconnected health, but as someone who will be a senior in just 20 years, hyperconnected health means more to me than whatever might happen to politics or business.  I need the support that will keep me healthy long into my sunset years, and I will join with others to build those systems.  If we build from corruption, corruption will be the fruit.  We must be honest with ourselves, acknowledge the dangers even as we laud the benefits, and build ourselves systems which do not play into human weaknesses, or avarice, or megalomania.  This is a project fit for a culture, a project worthy of a nation, a people who understand that together we can accomplish whatever we set our sights upon, if we build from a foundation of trust, respect and privacy.

Calculated Risks

I:  Baby Books

Forty-eight years ago, when my mother was pregnant with me, her friends and family threw her a baby shower.  Among the gifts, she received a satin-covered ‘Baby Book’, with spaces to record all of the minutiae of the early days of my existence.  I know for a fact that Dr. No and Lawrence of Arabia were playing in the movie theatres in Massachusetts at the time I was born, because it is neatly recorded on a page of my baby book.  I know how much I weighed when I was born (7 lbs, 7 oz – or 3.3 kg), when I got my first tooth, when I started to walk, and so on.  All of it is there, because my mother took the time to write it down as it happened.

What my mother didn’t write down – because it isn’t at all remarkable – was that I was busy reaching out, making connections with everyone I came into contact with.  Those connections began with my mother and my father, then my aunts and uncles and grandparents, and, just a year later, my sister.  I made those connections because that’s what humans do.  It sounds perfectly ordinary because it comes so naturally: in fact, it’s quite profound.  From the moment we’re born, we work to embed ourselves within a deep, strong and complex web of social relationships.

This isn’t a recent innovation, something that we ‘thought up’ the way we dreamed up art or writing or the steam engine; you need to go way, way back – at least ten million years, and probably a great deal more – before you get to any of our ancestors who wasn’t thoroughly social.  A social animal will, on the whole, outperform a loner.  A social animal can harness resources outside of themselves to ensure their survival and the survival of their children.  Ten million years ago, a social animal could share the hunting and gathering of food, childcare, or lookout duties.  Those with the best social skills – the best ability to communicate, coordinate, and function effectively as a unit – did better than their less-well-socialized relatives.  They survived to pass their genes and behaviors along, down the generations.  All along, a constant pressure accompanied them, driving them to become ever more social, better coordinated, and more effective.  At some point – no one knows how long ago, or even how it happened – this pressure overflowed, creating the infinitely flexible form of communication we call language.

The more we study other animals – particularly chimpanzees – the less unique we seem to ourselves.  Animals think, they even reason.  They can carry around within themselves a model of how others think and think about them.  They can deceive.  They even appear to have empathy and a sense of fairness.  But no other animal has the perfect tool of language.  Animals can think and feel, but they can not express themselves, at least, not as comprehensively as we can.  The expressiveness of language has one overriding aim: it allows us to connect very effectively.

The more we study ourselves, the more we understand how our need to connect has worked its way into our bodies, colonizing our nervous system.  Our big brains are the hardware for our connection into the human network: there’s a direct correlation between the amount of grey matter in our prefrontal cortex and the number of individuals we can maintain connections with.  Anthropologist Robin Dunbar came up with a figure of 148, plus or minus a few.  That’s the number of individuals you carry around in your head with you, all the time.  For a long, long time – tens of thousands of years – that was the largest a tribe of humans could grow, before they hived off into two tribes.  When a tribe grows so big you can’t know all of its members, it’s time to divide.

We’ve grown used to being surrounded by people we have no connection with.  That’s what cities are all about.  We’ve been building them for close to ten thousand years, and in that time we’ve learned how to live with those we don’t know.  It’s not easy – it requires police and courts and prisons – but the advantages of coming together in such great numbers outweigh the disadvantages.  In 2008, for the first time in history, half of humanity lived in cities.  We’re in the final stages of the urban revolution – a revolution in the making for the past hundred centuries.  Urban life is now the default human condition.

Just as that revolution reaches is climax, we find ourselves presented with a new technology, which takes all of our human connections and digitizes them, creating an electronic representation of what we each carry around in our heads.  We call this ‘social networking’, though, as I’ve explained, social networks are actually older than our species.  Stuffing them into a computer doesn’t change them: We are our connections.  They are what make us human.  But the computer speeds up and amplifies those connections, taking something natural and ordinary and turning it into something freakish and – hopefully – wonderful.

Before we discuss how these newly amplified connections can be used, it may be useful to step back, and reframe this latest revolution – just three years old – in the context of a child born, not in the early 1960s, but in 2010.  I have good friends in Melbourne who are expecting their first child in early September.  For the sake of today’s talk, let’s use this child (we’ll call her a daughter, though no one yet knows) as an example of what is now happening, and what is to come.

Will this child have a baby book?  Certainly, some beloved relative may provide one to the lucky parents, and mom and dad may even take the time to fill it in – between the 3 AM feedings and the nappy changes.  But the true baby book for this child will be the endless stream of digital media created in her wake.  From a few minutes after birth, she will be photographed, recorded, videoed, measured and captured in ways that would seem inconceivable (and obsessive) just a generation ago.  Yet today think nothing of a parent who follows a child everywhere with a video camera.

As parents collect that all of that media, they’re going to want somewhere to show it off.  An eponymous website. YouTube is already cluttered with videos of babies doing the most mundane sorts of things, precisely so they can be shown off to proud grandparents. Photo galleries on Picasa and Snapfish and Flickr exist for precisely the same reason – they provide a venue for sharing.  Parents post to blogs documenting every move, every fitful crawl, every illness.  What’s the difference between this and what we think of as a baby book?  Nothing at all.

It seems natural and wonderful to gather all of this documentation about her.  This is who she is in her youngest years.  But there’s other information that her parents do not document, at least not yet: who does she connect with?  This list is small in her very first years, but as she grows into a toddler and heads off to day care and pre-kindy and grade school, that list grows rather longer.  Will her parents keep track of these relationships?  Even if they do not, at some point, she will.  She’ll go online to a site patrolled by Disney or Apple or Google or Microsoft and be invited to ‘friend’ others on the site, and enroll her own real-world friends.  Her social network will begin to twin into its physical and virtual selves.  Much of each will be a reflection of the other, but some connections will exist purely in one realm.  Some friends or family members will have no presence online; a few friends might remain life-long ‘pen pals’, never meeting in the flesh, but maintaining constant, connected contact.

The most significant difference between these real-world and virtual networks centers on persistence.  We only have room for 150 people in our heads.  When we fill up, people start to get pushed out, crossing that invisible yet absolutely real line between friend and acquaintance.  We may have a lot of acquaintances, but these relationships, in the real world, don’t consist of very much beyond a greeting and a few polite words.  Contrast this to the virtual world, the world of Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, where connections persist forever unless explicitly deleted by one of the parties to that connection.  There is no upper limit to the number of connections a computer can remember.  (Facebook has an upper limit of 5000 friends, but that’s entirely artificial and will eventually be abandoned.)

As she passes through life, this child will continue to accrue connections, and these connections will be digitized for safekeeping – just like the photos and videos her parents shot in her youngest years.  That list will naturally grow and grow and grow, as she passes through years 1 through 12, moves on to university, and out into the world of adults.  By the time she’s 25, she’ll likely have thousands of connections that accreted just by living her life.  Each of these people will be able to peer in, and see how she’s doing; she’ll be able to do the same with each of them.

Managing the difference between our real-world connections, which top out, and our virtual connections, which do not, is a task that we’ll be mastering over the next decade.  Right now, we’re not very good at it.  By the time she’s grown up enough to understand the different qualities of real and virtual connections, we will be able to teach her behaviors appropriate to each sphere of connection.  At present there’s a lot of confusion, a fair bit of chaos, and a healthy helping of ignorance around all of this.  We can give ourselves a pass: it’s brand new.  But already we’re beginning to see that this is a real revolution.  In the social sphere, nothing will look like the past.

II:  Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire

On Friday evening, my washing machine – which I bought, used, just after I moved to Australia – finally gave up the ghost.  The motor on my front loader seemed less and less likely to make it through an entire spin cycle, so I knew this day was coming, and had some thoughts about what I’d do for a replacement.  One of my very good friends recommended that I buy a Simpson brand washer, just as she owned, just as her mother owned.  ‘Years of trouble-free service,’ she said.  ‘It’ll last forever.’  I took that suggestion under advisement.  But I knew that I had a larger pool of individuals to interrogate.  About thirty minutes after the unfortunate passing of the washer, I posted a message to Twitter, asking for recommendations.  Within minutes I was pointed to Choice Magazine, wher I read their reliability survey.  Many people chimed in with their own love or horror stories about particular brands of washers.  I was quickly dissuaded from Simpson: ‘There’s a reason they’re cheap,’ one person replied.  A furious argument raged about whether LG should be purchased by anyone, for any reason whatsoever, given that they were caught cheating on a refrigerator efficiency test.  Miele owners seemed fanatically in love with their washers – but acknowledged that they paid a big premium for that love.  And so on.  After reviewing the input from Twitter (and Choice), I made a decision to purchase a Bosch, which seemed both highly reliable and not too expensive, good value for money.  I put my decision out to Twitter, and the Bosch owners all chimed in: very happy, except for one, who seemed to have gotten one of those units that inevitably break down a few days after the warrantee expires.  That settled it.  On Saturday morning I played Bing Lee off Harvey Norman, talked one down to a very good price, and made the purchase.  Crisis resolved.

Let’s step back from the immediate and get a good look at this whole process.  In considering what to replace my dead washing machine with, I first consulted my real-world network – my friend who recommended Simpson.  Then I went out to my virtual network, a network which is much, much larger.  I follow about 5700 people on Twitter.  This means I have access, potentially, to 5700 opinions, 5700 sets of experiences, 5700 people who may be willing to help.  Even if only a small proportion of those do decide to offer assistance, that’s a lot of help, and it comes to me more or less immediately.  The entire process took about half an hour – and this on a Friday night.  If it’d been on a Tuesday afternoon, when people idly monitor Twitter while they work, I would have received double the response.

Wherever I go, I carry this ‘cloud’ of connections with me.  These connections have value in themselves – they are a record of my passage through the human universe – but they have far greater value when put to work to accomplish some task.  This is it; this is the knife-edge of the present: We have been busily building up our social networks, and though I freely admit that I am better connected than most, this will not long remain the case, as a generation grows into adulthood keeping a perfect record of all of their connections.  Within a few years, nearly everyone who wills it will enter every situation with the same cloud of connections, the same reliable web of helpers who can respond to requests as the need arises.  That fundamental transition – at the heart of this latest revolution – makes each of us much more effective.  We’re carrying around a whole stadium of individuals, who can be called upon as needed to help us make the best decision in every situation.  As we grow more comfortable with this new power, every decision of significance we make will be done in consultation with this network of effectiveness.  This is already transforming the way we operate.

Some more examples, drawn from my own experience, will help illuminate this transformation.  In December I found myself in Canberra for a few days.  Where to eat dinner in a town that shuts down at 5 pm?  I asked Twitter, and forty-five minutes later I was enjoying some of the best seafood laksa I’ve had in Australia.  A few days later, in the Barossa Valley, I asked Twitter which wineries I should visit – and the top five recommendations were very good indeed.  In the moment these can seem like trivial affairs, but both together begin to mark the difference between an ordinary holiday and an awesome one.  Imagine this stretching out, minute after minute, throughout our lives.  We’re not used to thinking in such terms.  But just twenty years ago we weren’t used to the idea that we could reach anyone else instantly from wherever we were, or be reached by anyone else, anywhere.  Then the mobile came along, and now that’s an accepted part of our reality.  We’d find it difficult to go back to a time before the mobile became such an essential tool in our lives.  This is the same transition we’re in the midst of right now with social networks.  We look at Twitter and Facebook and find them charming ways to stay in touch and while away some empty time.  A social network isn’t charming, and it certainly isn’t a waste of time.  We are like children, playing with very powerful weapons.  And sometimes they go off.

Before we explore that more explosive side to social networks, the ‘pillar of fire’ to this ‘pillar of cloud’, I want to introduce you to one more social networking technology, one which is brand-new, and which you may not have heard of yet.   Just over the past month, I’ve become a big fan of Foursquare, a location-based ‘social network’.  Using the GPS on my mobile, Foursquare allows me to ‘check in’ when I go to a restaurant, a store, or almost anywhere else.  That is, Foursquare records the fact that I am at a particular place at a particular time.  Once I’ve checked in, I can then make a recommendation – a ‘tip’ in Foursquare lingo – and share something I’ve observed about that place.  It could be anything – something absurdly trivial, or something very relevant.  As others have likely been to this place before me, there is already a list of tips.  If I peek through those tips, I can learn something that could prove very useful.

As every day passes, and more people use Foursquare (over a million at present, all around the world) this list of tips is rapidly growing longer, more substantial, and more useful.  What does this mean?  Well, I could walk into a bar that I’ve never been to before and know exactly which cocktail I want to order.  I would know which table at a restaurant offers the quietest corner for a romantic date.  Or which salesperson to talk to for a good deal on that washing machine.  And so on.  With Foursquare have immediate and continuous information in depth, information provided by the hundreds or thousands in my own social network, plus everyone else who chooses to contribute.  Foursquare turns the real world into a kind of Wikipedia, where everyone contributes what they know to improve the lot of all.  I have a growing range of information about the world around me in my hands.  If I put it to work, it will improve my effectiveness.

Last weekend I went to the cinema, to see Iron Man 2.  As soon as I left the theatre, I sent out a message to Twitter: “Thought Iron Man 2 better than original.  Snappier.  Funnier.  More comic-book-y.”  That recommendation – high praise from me – went out to the 6550 people who follow me.  Many of those folks are Australians, who might have been looking for a film to see last weekend.  My positive review would have influenced them.  I know for a fact that it did influence some, because they sent me messages telling me this.

On the other hand, if I’d sent out a message saying, ‘Worst. Movie. Ever.’ that also would have reached 6550 people, who would, once again, consider it.  It might have even dissuaded some from paying the $17.50 to see Iron Man 2 on the big screen.  If enough people said the same thing, that could kill the box office.  This is precisely what we’ve seen.  There’s a direct correlation between the speed at which a motion picture bombs and the rise in the number of users of Twitter.  It used to take a few days for word-of-mouth to kill a movie’s box office (think Godzilla).  Now it takes a few minutes. As the first showing ends, friends text friends, people post to Twitter and Facebook, and the story spreads.  After the second or third showing, the crowds have dropped off: word has gotten out that the film stinks.  Where a film could coast an entire weekend, now it has just a Friday matinee to succeed or fail.  Positive word-of-mouth kept Avatar at the #1 spot for nine weeks, and the film remained a trending topic on Twitter for half of that time; conversely, The Back-Up Plan disappeared almost without a trace.  An opinion, multiplied by hundreds or thousands of connections, carries a lot of weight.

These connections always come with us, part of who we are now.  If we have an experience we find objectionable, our connections have a taste of that.  A few months ago a friend found herself in Far North Queensland with an American Express card whose credit limit had summarily been cut in half with no warning, leaving her far away from home and potentially caught in a jam.  When she called American Express to make an inquiry – and found that their consumer credit division closed at 5 pm on a Friday evening – she lost her temper.  The 7500 people who follow her on Twitter heard a solid rant about the evils of American Express, a rant that they will now remember every time they find an American Express invitation letter in the post, or even when they decide which credit card to select while making a purchase.

Every experience, positive or negative, is now amplified beyond all comprehension.  We sit here with the social equivalent of tactical nuclear weapons in our hands, toying with the triggers, and act surprised when occasionally they go off.  Catherine Deveny, a weekly columnist for The AGE, was summarily dismissed last week because of some messages she posted over Twitter during the Logies broadcast.  It seems she hadn’t thought through the danger of sending an obscene – but comedic – message to thousands of people, a message that would be picked up and sent again, and sent again, and sent again, until the tabloid newspapers and television shows, smelling blood in the water, got in on the action.  When you’re well-connected, everything is essentially public.  There’s no firm boundary between your private sphere and your public life once you allow thousands of others a look in.  That can be a good thing if one is hungry for celebrity and fame – Kim Kardashian is an excellent example of this – but it can also accelerate a drive to self-destruction (witness Miranda Devine’s comments from Sunday).  We live within a social amplifier, and it’s always turned up to 11.  When we scream, we can be heard around the world, but now our whispers sound like shouts.

This means that no one can be silenced, anywhere.  Last June, the entire world watched as an abortive Iranian revolution broke out on the streets of Tehran, viewing clips shot on mobile handsets, uploaded to YouTube, tagged, then picked up and shared throughout social networks like Twitter, which brought them to the attention of CNN, the New York Times, and the US State Department. Mobiles brought into North Korea puncture the tightly held reins of state control as information and news seeps across the border with China, the human connection amplified by a social technology. It’s no longer the CIA or ASIO station chief who gathers intelligence from far-flung places.  It courses through our human networks.

You can begin to see the shape of this revolution-in-progess.  Everything is so new, so rough, so raw, so innocent of intention that we really don’t know where we are going.  We’re all stumbling through this doorway together.  Each of us hold our connections to one another; like balloons that, in sufficient numbers, might cause us to take flight.  We’re lifting off and gaining speed.  Whether we’re a glider or a guided missile is up to us.  We must pause, take stock, and ask ourselves what we want from these powerful new tools.  And, in return, ask what we must be prepared to accept.

III:  Threat Assistment

Individuals are becoming radically hyper-empowered.  Our connections give us capabilities undreamt of a generation ago.  As individuals who assess the various risks for your organizations, you’ve just learned about a brand new one, a threat that will – relatively quickly – dwarf nearly all others.  The risk of hyperconnectivity is coming at you from three distinct but interrelated axes: hyper-empowered individuals who want to interact with your organizations; hyper-empowered individuals who compose your organizations; and your organizations, when they grasp the nettle of hyperconnectivity.

What do you do when a hyperconnected individual wants to become a customer, or just interact in some way with your organization?  What happens when an existing customer becomes hyperconnected?  Both of these situations are becoming commonplace affairs.  My friend who had her troubles with American Express typifies this sort of threat.  She had a long-term relationship with the company, but in the last years of that relationship she became hyperempowered.  American Express didn’t know this – probably wouldn’t have understood it – and failed to manage the relationship when she ran into trouble.

The key attitudes for managing external relationships with hyperconnected individuals are humility and openness.  American Express had no idea what was going on because they weren’t plugged into what my friend was saying to thousands of her followers.   They didn’t consider her worth listening to.  There’s no reason for this sort of thing to happen.  Excellent tools exist that allow you to monitor what is being said about your organization, right now, who is saying it, and where.  You can keep your finger on the pulse; when a customer has an issue, you can respond in a timely manner, humbly and transparently.  Social media places an enormous value on transparency: unless someone’s motives – and connections – are apparent to you, you have no real reason to trust them, and no basis upon which to build that trust.

This isn’t a difficult policy to implement, but the responsibility for listening doesn’t lie with a single individual or department within your organization.  Responsibility is spread throughout the organization; that’s the only way your organization will be able to handle all of the hyperconnected customers you do business with.  Spread the load.  The Chinese have a proverb: ‘Many hands make light work.’  That same rule applies here.  Make listening to customers a priority throughout your organizations.  If you don’t, those customers will use their amplified capabilities to make your life a living hell.

Employees within your organizations don’t leave their own networks at the door when they walk into the office.  Although employers often block access to services like Facebook and Twitter from employee workstations, mobiles and pervasive high speed wireless connectivity make that restriction increasingly meaningless.  Employees will connect and stay connected throughout the day, regardless of your stated policy.  Soon enough, you will be encouraging them to stay connected, in order to share the burden of all that listening.  Right now, your employees are well connected, but poorly disciplined.  They don’t know the right way to do things.  Don’t blame them for this.  It’s all very new, and there hasn’t been a lot of guidance.

If you walk out of today’s talk with any one thing buzzing in your head, let it be this: develop a social media policy for your employees.  Employees want to know how they can be connected in the office without damaging your reputation or their position.  In the absence of a social media policy, organizations will get into all sorts of prangs that could have been avoided.  Case in point: last week’s sacking of AGE columnist Catherine Deveny happened, in large part, because Fairfax has no social media policy.  There were no guidelines for what constituted acceptable behavior, or even which behavior was ‘on the clock’ versus ‘off the clock’.  Without these sorts of guidelines, hyperconnected employees will make their own decisions – putting your organizations, your stakeholders and your brands at risk.

Two well-known Australian organizations have established their own social media policies.  The ABC boiled theirs down to four simple rules:

1)    Do not mix the personal and the professional in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute;

2)    Do not undermine your effectiveness at work;

3)    Do not imply ABC endorsement of your personal views;

4)    Do not disclose confidential information obtained through work.

This could be summed up with ‘use common sense’, but spelled out as it is here, the ABC has given its employees a framework that allows them to both regulate and embrace social media.

Telstra’s policy is wordier – it runs to five pages – but it is, in essence, very similar.  It is good that Telstra has a social media policy, but that policy was only developed after a very public and very embarrassing incident.  Last year, Telstra employee Leslie Nassar, who posted to Twitter pseduonymously  under the account ‘Fake Stephen Conroy’, revealed his identity.  When Telstra realized that one of their employees daily satirized the senator charged with ministerial oversight of their organization, the company was appalled, and quickly moved to fire Nassar – only to find that it couldn’t, because Nassar had violated no stated policy or conditions of employment.  Shortly after that, Telstra developed and promulgated its social media guidelines.  Learn from Telstra’s mistake.  This same sort of PR and political catastrophe needn’t happen in your organizations, but I guarantee that it will, if you do not develop a social media policy.  So please, get started immediately.

Finally, what happens when organizations hyperconnect?  For hundreds of years, organizations have been based on rigid hierarchies and restricted flows of information.  Hyperconnectivity puts paid to the org chart, replacing it with a dense set of hyperconnections between individuals within the organization, and between organizations: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.  We don’t really understand much about this new form of organization, other than to say that it looks very little like what we are familiar with today.  But the pressure from hyperconnected individuals – both within and outside of the organization – will only increase, and to accommodate this pressure, the organization will increasingly find itself embedded in hyperconnections.  This is the final leg of the revolution, still some years away, but one which requires careful planning today.  Can your organization handle itself as it connects broadly to a planet where everyone is connected broadly?  Will it maintain its own integrity, will it dissolve, merge, or disintegrate?  This is a question that businesses need to ask, that schools need to ask, that governments need to ask.  Everything from mass production to service delivery is being re-thought and re-shaped by our hyperconnectivity.

Organizations that master hyperconnectivity, putting social media to work, experience a leap forward in productivity.  That leap forward comes at a price.  Every tool that enhances productivity also changes everyone who uses it.  None of us, as individuals or organizations, will be left behind, even if we choose to unplug, because we remain completely connected to a human world which is increasing hyperconnected.  There is no going back, nor any particular safety in the present.  Instead, we need to connect, and together use the best of what we’ve got – which is substantial, because there are plenty of smart people in all your organizations, throughout the nation, and the world – to mange this transition.  This could be a nearly bloodless revolution, if we can remember that, at our essence, we are the connected species.  Thought it may seem chaotic, this is not a collapse.  It is a culmination.

The slides for this talk can be found here.

Sharing Power (Global Edition)

My keynote for the Personal Democracy Forum, in New York.

Introduction: War is Over (if you want it)

Over the last year we have lived through a profound and perhaps epochal shift in the distribution of power. A year ago all the talk was about how to mobilize Facebook users to turn out on election day. Today we bear witness to a ‘green’ revolution, coordinated via Twitter, and participate as the Guardian UK crowdsources the engines of investigative journalism and democratic oversight to uncover the unpleasant little secrets buried in the MPs expenses scandal – secrets which the British government has done everything in its power to withhold.

We’ve turned a corner. We’re on the downward slope. It was a long, hard slog to the top – a point we obviously reached on 4 November 2008 – but now the journey is all about acceleration into a future that looks almost nothing like the past. The configuration of power has changed: its distribution, its creation, its application. The trouble with circumstances of acceleration is that they go hand-in-hand with a loss of control. At a certain point our entire global culture is liable to start hydroplaning, or worse, will go airborne. As the well-oiled wheels of culture leave the roadbed of civilization behind, we can spin the steering wheel all we want. Nothing will happen. Acceleration has its own rationale, and responds neither to reason nor desire. Force will meet force. Force is already meeting force.

What happens now, as things speed up, is a bit like what happens in the guts of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Different polities and institutions will smash and reveal their inner workings, like parts sprung from crashed cars. We can learn a lot – if we’re clever enough to watch these collisions as they happen. Some of these particles-in-collision will recognizably be governments or quasi-governmental organizations. Some will look nothing like them. But before we glory, Ballard-like, in the terrible beauty of the crash, we should remember that these institutions are, first and foremost, the domain of people, individuals ill-prepared for whiplash or a sudden impact with the windshield. No one is wearing a safety belt, even as things slip noticeably beyond control. Someone’s going to get hurt. That much is already clear.

What we urgently need, and do not yet have, is a political science for the 21st century. We need to understand the autopoietic formation of polities, which has been so accelerated and amplified in this era of hyperconnectivity. We need to understand the mechanisms of knowledge sharing among these polities, and how they lead to hyperintelligence. We need to understand how hyperintelligence transforms into action, and how this action spreads and replicates itself through hypermimesis. We have the words – or some of them – but we lack even an informal understanding of the ways and means. As long as this remains the case, we are subject to terrible accidents we can neither predict nor control. We can end the war between ourselves and our times. But first we must watch carefully. The collisions are mounting, and they have already revealed much. We have enough data to begin to draw a map of this wholly new territory.

I: The First Casualty of War

Last month saw an interesting and unexpected collision. Wikipedia, the encyclopedia created by and for the people, decreed that certain individuals and a certain range of IP addresses belonging to the Church of Scientology would hereafter be banned from the capability to edit Wikipedia. This directive came from the Arbitration Committee of Wikipedia, which sounds innocuous, but is in actuality the equivalent the Supreme Court in the Wikipediaverse.

It seems that for some period of time – probably stretching into years – there have been any number of ‘edit wars’ (where edits are made and reverted, then un-reverted and re-reverted, ad infinitum) around articles concerning about the Church of Scientology and certain of the personages in the Church. These pages have been subject to fierce edit wars between Church of Scientology members on one side, critics of the Church on the other, and, in the middle, Wikipedians, who attempted to referee the dispute, seeking, above all, to preserve the Neutral Point-of-View (NPOV) that the encyclopedia aspires to in every article. When this became impossible – when the Church of Scientology and its members refused to leave things alone – a consensus gradually formed within the tangled adhocracy of Wikipedia, finalized in last month’s ruling from the Arbitration Committee. For at least six months, several Church of Scientology members are banned by name, and all Church computers are banned from making edits to Wikipedia.

That would seem to be that. But it’s not. The Church of Scientology has been diligent in ensuring that the mainstream media (make no mistake, Wikipedia is now a mainstream medium) do not portray characterizations of Scientology which are unflattering to the Church. There’s no reason to believe that things will simply rest as they are now, that everyone will go off and skulk in their respective corners for six months, like children given a time-out. Indeed, the Chairman of Scientology, David Miscavidge, quickly issued a press release comparing the Wikipedians to Nazis, asking, “What’s next, will Scientologists have to wear yellow, six-pointed stars on our clothing?”

How this skirmish plays out in the months and years to come will be driven by the structure and nature of these two wildly different organizations. The Church of Scientology is the very model of a modern religious hierarchy; all power and control flows down from Chairman David Miscavidge through to the various levels of Scientology. With Wikipedia, no one can be said to be in charge. (Jimmy Wales is not in charge of Wikipedia.) The whole things chugs along as an agreement, a social contract between the parties participating in the creation and maintenance of Wikipedia. Power flows in Wikipedia are driven by participation: the more you participate, the more power you’ll have. Power is distributed laterally: every individual who edits Wikipedia has some ultimate authority.

What happens when these two organizations, so fundamentally mismatched in their structures and power flows, attempt to interact? The Church of Scientology uses lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits as a coercive technique. But Wikipedia has thus far proven immune to lawsuits. Although there is a non-profit entity behind Wikipedia, running its servers and paying for its bandwidth, that is not Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not the machines, it is not the bandwidth, it is not even the full database of articles. Wikipedia is a social agreement. It is an agreement to share what we know, for the greater good of all. How does the Church of Scientology control that? This is the question that confronts every hierarchical organization when it collides with an adhocracy. Adhocracies present no control surfaces; they are at once both entirely transparent and completely smooth.

This could all get much worse. The Church of Scientology could ‘declare war’ on Wikipedia. A general in such a conflict might work to poison the social contract which powers Wikipedia, sewing mistrust, discontent and the presumption of malice within a community that thrives on trust, consensus-building and adherence to a common vision. Striking at the root of the social contract which is the whole of Wikipedia could possibly disrupt its internal networks and dissipate the human energy which drives the project.

Were we on the other side of the conflict, running a defensive strategy, we would seek to reinforce Wikipedia’s natural strength – the social agreement. The stronger the social agreement, the less effective any organized attack will be. A strong social agreement implies a depth of social resources which can be deployed to prevent or rapidly ameliorate damage.

Although this conflict between the Church of Scientology and Wikipedia may never explode into a full-blown conflict, at some point in the future, some other organization or institution will collide with Wikipedia, and battle lines will be drawn. The whole of this quarter of the 21st century looks like an accelerating series of run-ins between hierarchical organizations and adhocracies. What happens when the hierarchies find that their usual tools of war are entirely mismatched to their opponent?

II: War is Hell

Even the collision between friendly parties, when thus mismatched, can be devastating. Rasmus Klies Nielsen, a PhD student in Columbia’s Communications program, wrote an interesting study a few months ago in which he looked at “communication overload”, which he identifies as a persistent feature of online activism. Nielsen specifically studied the 2008 Democratic Primary campaign in New York, and learned that some of the best-practices of the Obama campaign failed utterly when they encountered an energized and empowered public.

The Obama campaign encouraged voters to communicate through its website, both with one another and with the campaign’s New York staff. Although New York had been written off by the campaign (Hilary Clinton was sure to win her home state), the state still housed many very strong and vocal Obama supporters (apocryphally, all from Manhattan’s Upper West Side). These supporters flooded into the Obama campaign website for New York, drowning out the campaign itself. As election day loomed, campaign staffers retreated to “older” communication techniques – that is, mobile phones – while Obama’s supporters continued the conversation through the website. A complete disconnection between campaign and supporters occurred, even though the parties had the same goals.

Political campaigns may be chaotic, but they are also very hierarchically structured. There is an orderly flow of power from top (candidate) to bottom (voter). Each has an assigned role. When that structure is short-circuited and replaced by an adhocracy, the instrumentality of the hierarchy overloads. We haven’t yet seen the hybrid beast which can function hierarchically yet interaction with an adhocracy. At this point when the two touch, the hierarchy simply shorts out.

Another example from the Obama general election campaign illustrates this tendency for hierarchies to short out when interacting with friendly adhocracies. Project Houdini was touted as a vast, distributed GOTV program which would allow tens of thousands of field workers to keep track of who had voted and who hadn’t. Project Houdini was among the most ambitious of the online efforts of the Obama campaign, and was thoroughly tested in the days leading up to the general election. But, once election day came, Project Houdini went down almost immediately under the volley of information coming in from every quadrant of the nation, from fieldworkers thoroughly empowered to gather and report GOTV data to the campaign. A patchwork backup plan allowed the campaign to tame the torrent of data, channeling it through field offices. But the great vision of the Obama campaign, to empower the individuals with the capability to gather and report GOTV data, came crashing down, because the system simply couldn’t handle the crush of the empowered field workers.

Both of these collisions happened in ‘friendly fire’ situations, where everyone’s eyes were set on achieving the same goal. But these two systems of organization are so foreign to one another that we still haven’t seen any successful attempt to span the chasm that separates them. Instead, we see collisions and failures. The political campaigns of the future must learn how to cross that gulf. While some may wish to turn the clock back to an earlier time when campaigns respected carefully-wrought hierarchies, the electorates of the 21st century, empowered in their own right, have already come to expect that their candidate’s campaigns will meet them in that empowerment. The next decade is going to be completely hellish for politicians and campaign workers of every party as new rules and systems are worked out. There are no successful examples – yet. But circumstances are about to force a search for solutions.

III: War is Peace

As governments release the vast amounts of data held and generated by them, communities of interest are rising up to work with that data. As these communities become more knowledgeable, more intelligent – hyperintelligent – via this exposure, this hyperintelligence will translate into action: hyperempowerment. This is all well and good so long as the aims of the state are the same as the aims of the community. A community of hyperempowered citizens can achieve lofty goals in partnership with the state. But even here, the hyperempowered community faces a mismatch with the mechanisms of the state. The adhocracy by which the community thrives has no easy way to match its own mechanisms with those of the state. Even with the best intentions, every time the two touch there is the risk of catastrophic collapse. The failures of Project Houdini will be repeated, and this might lead some to argue that the opening up itself was a mistake. In fact, these catastrophes are the first sign of success. Connection is being made.

In order to avoid catastrophe, the state – and any institution which attempts to treat with a hyperintelligence – must radically reform its own mechanisms of communication. Top-down hierarchies which order power precisely can not share power with hyperintelligence. The hierarchy must open itself to a more chaotic and fundamentally less structured relationship with the hyperintelligence it has helped to foster. This is the crux of the problem, asking the leopard to change its spots. Only in transformation can hierarchy find its way into a successful relationship with hyperintelligence. But can any hierarchy change without losing its essence? Can the state – or any institution – become more flexible, fluid and dynamic while maintaining its essential qualities?

And this is the good case, the happy outcome, where everyone is pulling in the same direction. What happens when aims differ, when some hyperintelligence for some reason decides that it is antithetical to the interests of an institution or a state? We’ve seen the beginnings of this in the weird, slow war between the Church of Scientology and ANONYMOUS, a shadowy organization which coordinates its operations through a wiki. In recent weeks ANONYMOUS has also taken on the Basidj paramilitaries in Iran, and China’s internet censors. ANONYMOUS pools its information, builds hyperintelligence, and translates that hyperintelligence into hyperempowerment. Of course, they don’t use these words. ANONYMOUS is simply a creature of its times, born in an era of hyperconnectivity.

It might be more profitable to ask what happens when some group, working the data supplied at Recovery.gov or Data.gov or you-name-it.gov, learns of something that they’re opposed to, then goes to work blocking the government’s activities. In some sense, this is good old-fashioned activism, but it is amplified by the technologies now at hand. That amplification could be seen as a threat by the state; such activism could even be labeled terrorism. Even when this activism is well-intentioned, the mismatch and collision between the power of the state and any hyperempowered polities means that such mistakes will be very easy to make.

We will need to engage in a close examination of the intersection between the state and the various hyperempowered actors which rising up over next few years. Fortunately, the Obama administration, in its drive to make government data more transparent and more accessible (and thereby more likely to generate hyperintelligence around it) has provided the perfect laboratory to watch these hyperintelligences as they emerge and spread their wings. Although communication’s PhD candidates undoubtedly will be watching and taking notes, public policy-makers also should closely observe everything that happens. Since the rules of the game are changing, observation is the first most necessary step toward a rational future. Examining the pushback caused by these newly emerging communities will give us our first workable snapshot of a political science for the 21st century.

The 21st century will continue to see the emergence of powerful and hyperempowered communities. Sometimes these will challenge hierarchical organizations, such as with Wikipedia and the Church of Scientology; sometimes they will work with hierarchical organizations, as with Project Houdini; and sometimes it will be very hard to tell what the intended outcomes are. In each case the hierarchy – be it a state or an institution – will have to adapt itself into a new power role, a new sharing of power. In the past, like paired with like: states shared power with states, institutions with institutions, hierarchies with hierarchies. We are leaving this comfortable and familiar time behind, headed into a world where actors of every shape and description find themselves sufficiently hyperempowered to challenge any hierarchy. Even when they seek to work with a state or institution, they present challenges. Peace is war. In either direction, the same paradox confronts us: power must surrender power, or be overwhelmed by it. Sharing power is not an ideal of some utopian future; it’s the ground truth of our hyperconnected world.

Sharing Power (Aussie Rules)

I: Family Affairs

In the US state of North Carolina, the New York Times reports, an interesting experiment has been in progress since the first of February. The “Birds and Bees Text Line” invites teenagers with any questions relating to sex or the mysteries of dating to SMS their question to a phone number. That number connects these teenagers to an on-duty adult at the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign. Within 24 hours, the teenager gets a reply to their text. The questions range from the run-of-the-mill – “When is a person not a virgin anymore?” – and the unusual – “If you have sex underwater do u need a condom?” – to the utterly heart-rending – “Hey, I’m preg and don’t know how 2 tell my parents. Can you help?”

The Birds and Bees Text Line is a response to the slow rise in the number of teenage pregnancies in North Carolina, which reached its lowest ebb in 2003. Teenagers – who are given state-mandated abstinence-only sex education in school – now have access to another resource, unmediated by teachers or parents, to prevent another generation of teenage pregnancies. Although it’s early days yet, the response to the program has been positive. Teenagers are using the Birds and Bees Text Line.

It is precisely because the Birds and Bees Text Line is unmediated by parental control that it has earned the ire of the more conservative elements in North Carolina. Bill Brooks, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council, a conservative group, complained to the Times about the lack of oversight. “If I couldn’t control access to this service, I’d turn off the texting service. When it comes to the Internet, parents are advised to put blockers on their computer and keep it in a central place in the home. But kids can have access to this on their cell phones when they’re away from parental influence – and it can’t be controlled.”

If I’d stuffed words into a straw man’s mouth, I couldn’t have come up with a better summation of the situation we’re all in right now: young and old, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. There are certain points where it becomes particularly obvious, such as with the Birds and Bees Text Line, but this example simply amplifies our sense of the present as a very strange place, an undiscovered country that we’ve all suddenly been thrust into. Conservatives naturally react conservatively, seeking to preserve what has worked in the past; Bill Brooks speaks for a large cohort of people who feel increasingly lost in this bewildering present.

Let us assume, for a moment, that conservatism was in the ascendant (though this is clearly not the case in the United States, one could make a good argument that the Rudd Government is, in many ways, more conservative than its predecessor). Let us presume that Bill Brooks and the people for whom he speaks could have the Birds and Bees Text Line shut down. Would that, then, be the end of it? Would we have stuffed the genie back into the bottle? The answer, unquestionably, is no.

Everyone who has used or even heard of the Birds and Bees Text Line would be familiar with what it does and how it works. Once demonstrated, it becomes much easier to reproduce. It would be relatively straightforward to take the same functions performed by the Birds and Bees Text Line and “crowdsource” them, sharing the load across any number of dedicated volunteers who might, through some clever software, automate most of the tasks needed to distribute messages throughout the “cloud” of volunteers. Even if it took a small amount of money to setup and get going, that kind of money would be available from donors who feel that teenage sexual education is a worthwhile thing.

In other words, the same sort of engine which powers Wikipedia can be put to work across a number of different “platforms”. The power of sharing allows individuals to come together in great “clouds” of activity, and allows them to focus their activity around a single task. It could be an encyclopedia, or it could be providing reliable and judgment-free information about sexuality to teenagers. The form matters not at all: what matters is that it’s happening, all around us, everywhere throughout the world.

The cloud, this new thing, this is really what has Bill Brooks scared, because it is, quite literally, ‘out of control’. It arises naturally out of the human condition of ‘hyperconnection’. We are so much better connected than we were even a decade ago, and this connectivity breeds new capabilities. The first of these capabilities are the pooling and sharing of knowledge – or ‘hyperintelligence’. Consider: everyone who reads Wikipedia is potentially as smart as the smartest person who’s written an article in Wikipedia. Wikipedia has effectively banished ignorance born of want of knowledge. The Birds and Bees Text Line is another form of hyperintelligence, connecting adults with knowledge to teenagers in desperate need of that knowledge.

Hyperconnectivity also means that we can carefully watch one another, and learn from one another’s behaviors at the speed of light. This new capability – ‘hypermimesis’ – means that new behaviors, such as the Birds and Bees Text Line, can be seen and copied very quickly. Finally, hypermimesis means that that communities of interest can form around particular behaviors, ‘clouds’ of potential. These communities range from the mundane to the arcane, and they are everywhere online. But only recently have they discovered that they can translate their community into doing, putting hyperintelligence to work for the benefit of the community. This is the methodology of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign. This is the methodology of Wikipedia. This is the methodology of Wikileaks, which seeks to provide a safe place for whistle-blowers who want to share the goods on those who attempt to defraud or censor or suppress. This is the methodology of ANONYMOUS, which seeks to expose Scientology as a ridiculous cult. How many more examples need to be listed before we admit that the rules have changed, that the smooth functioning of power has been terrifically interrupted by these other forces, now powers in their own right?

II: Affairs of State

Don’t expect a revolution. We will not see masses of hyperconnected individuals, storming the Winter Palaces of power. This is not a proletarian revolt. It is, instead, rather more subtle and complex. The entire nature of power has changed, as have the burdens of power. Power has always carried with it the ‘burden of omniscience’ – that is, those at the top of the hierarchy have to possess a complete knowledge of everything of importance happening everywhere under their control. Where they lose grasp of that knowledge, that’s the space where coups, palace revolutions and popular revolts take place.

This new power that flows from the cloud of hyperconnectivity carries a different burden, the ‘burden of connection’. In order to maintain the cloud, and our presence within it, we are beholden to it. We must maintain each of the social relationships, each of the informational relationships, each of the knowledge relationships and each of the mimetic relationships within the cloud. Without that constant activity, the cloud dissipates, evaporating into nothing at all.

This is not a particularly new phenomenon; Dunbar’s Number demonstrates that we are beholden to the ‘tribe’ of our peers, the roughly 150 individuals who can find a place in our heads. In pre-civilization, the cloud was the tribe. Should the members of tribe interrupt the constant reinforcement of their social, informational, knowledge-based and mimetic relationships, the tribe would dissolve and disperse – as happens to a tribe when it grows beyond the confines of Dunbar’s Number.

In this hyperconnected era, we can pick and choose which of our human connections deserves reinforcement; the lines of that reinforcement shape the scope of our power. Studies of Japanese teenagers using mobiles and twenty-somethings on Facebook have shown that, most of the time, activity is directed toward a small circle of peers, perhaps six or seven others. This ‘co-presence’ is probably a modern echo of an ancient behavior, presumably related to the familial unit.

While we might desire to extend our power and capabilities through our networks of hyperconnections, the cost associated with such investments is very high. Time spent invested in a far-flung cloud is time that lost on networks closer to home. Yet individuals will nonetheless often dedicate themselves to some cause greater than themselves, despite the high price paid, drawn to some higher ideal.

The Obama campaign proved an interesting example of the price of connectivity. During the Democratic primary for the state of New York (which Hilary Clinton was expected to win easily), so many individuals contacted the campaign through its website that the campaign itself quickly became overloaded with the number of connections it was expected to maintain. By election day, the campaign staff in New York had retreated from the web, back to using mobiles. They had detached from the ‘cloud’ connectivity they used the web to foster, instead focusing their connectivity on the older model of the six or seven individuals in co-present connection. The enormous cloud of power which could have been put to work in New York lay dormant, unorganized, talking to itself through the Obama website, but effectively disconnected from the Obama campaign.

For each of us, connectivity carries a high price. For every organization which attempts to harness hyperconnectivity, the price is even higher. With very few exceptions, organizations are structured along hierarchical lines. Power flows from bottom to the top. Not only does this create the ‘burden of omniscience’ at the highest levels of the organization, it also fundamentally mismatches the flows of power in the cloud. When the hierarchy comes into contact with an energized cloud, the ‘discharge’ from the cloud to the hierarchy can completely overload the hierarchy. That’s the power of hyperconnectivity.

Another example from the Obama campaign demonstrates this power. Project Houdini was touted out by the Obama campaign as a system which would get the grassroots of the campaign to funnel their GOTV results into a centralized database, which could then be used to track down individuals who hadn’t voted, in order to offer them assistance in getting to their local polling station. The campaign grassroots received training in Project Houdini, when through a field test of the software and procedures, then waited for election day. On election day, Project Houdini lasted no more than 15 minutes before it crashed under the incredible number of empowered individuals who attempted to plug data into Project Houdini. Although months in the making, Project Houdini proved that a centralized and hierarchical system for campaign management couldn’t actually cope with the ‘cloud’ of grassroots organizers.

In the 21st century we now have two oppositional methods of organization: the hierarchy and the cloud. Each of them carry with them their own costs and their own strengths. Neither has yet proven to be wholly better than the other. One could make an argument that both have their own roles into the future, and that we’ll be spending a lot of time learning which works best in a given situation. What we have already learned is that these organizational types are mostly incompatible: unless very specific steps are taken, the cloud overpowers the hierarchy, or the hierarchy dissipates the cloud. We need to think about the interfaces that can connect one to the other. That’s the area that all organizations – and very specifically, non-profit organizations – will be working through in the coming years. Learning how to harness the power of the cloud will mark the difference between a modest success and overwhelming one. Yet working with the cloud will present organizational challenges of an unprecedented order. There is no way that any hierarchy can work with a cloud without becoming fundamentally changed by the experience.

III: Affair de Coeur

All organizations are now confronted with two utterly divergent methodologies for organizing their activities: the tower and the cloud. The tower seeks to organize everything in hierarchies, control information flows, and keep the power heading from bottom to top. The cloud isn’t formally organized, pools its information resources, and has no center of power. Despite all of its obvious weaknesses, the cloud can still transform itself into a formidable power, capable of overwhelming the tower. To push the metaphor a little further, the cloud can become a storm.

How does this happen? What is it that turns a cloud into a storm? Jimmy Wales has said that the success of any language-variant version of Wikipedia comes down to the dedicated efforts of five individuals. Once he spies those five individuals hard at work in Pashtun or Khazak or Xhosa, he knows that edition of Wikipedia will become a success. In other words, five people have to take the lead, leading everyone else in the cloud with their dedication, their selflessness, and their openness. This number probably holds true in a cloud of any sort – find five like-minded individuals, and the transformation from cloud to storm will begin.

At the end of that transformation there is still no hierarchy. There are, instead, concentric circles of involvement. At the innermost, those five or more incredibly dedicated individuals; then a larger circle of a greater number, who work with that inner five as time and opportunity allow; and so on, outward, at decreasing levels of involvement, until we reach those who simply contribute a word or a grammatical change, and have no real connection with the inner circle, except in commonality of purpose. This is the model for Wikipedia, for Wikileaks, and for ANONYMOUS. This is the cloud model, fully actualized as a storm. At this point the storm can challenge any tower.

But the storm doesn’t have things all its own way; to present a challenge to a tower is to invite the full presentation of its own power, which is very rude, very physical, and potentially very deadly. Wikipedians at work on the Farsi version of the encyclopedia face arrest and persecution by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and religious police. Just a few weeks ago, after the contents of the Australian government’s internet blacklist was posted to Wikileaks, the German government invaded the home of the man who owns the domain name for Wikileaks in Germany. The tower still controls most of the power apparatus in the world, and that power can be used to squeeze any potential competitors.

But what happens when you try to squeeze a cloud? Effectively, nothing at all. Wikipedia has no head to decapitate. Jimmy Wales is an effective cheerleader and face for the press, but his presence isn’t strictly necessary. There are over 2000 Wikipedians who handle the day-to-day work. Locking all of them away, while possible, would only encourage further development in the cloud, as other individuals moved to fill their places. Moreover, any attempt to disrupt the cloud only makes the cloud more resilient. This has been demonstrated conclusively from the evolution of ‘darknets’, private file-sharing networks, which grew up as the legal and widely available file-sharing networks, such as Napster, were shut down by the copyright owners. Attacks on the cloud only improve the networks within the cloud, only make the leaders more dedicated, only increase the information and knowledge sharing within the cloud. Trying to disperse a storm only intensifies it.

These are not idle speculations; the tower will seek to contain the storm by any means necessary. The 21st century will increasingly look like a series of collisions between towers and storms. Each time the storm emerges triumphant, the tower will become more radical and determined in its efforts to disperse the storm, which will only result in a more energized and intensified storm. This is not a game that the tower can win by fighting. Only by opening up and adjusting itself to the structure of the cloud can the tower find any way forward.

What, then, is leadership in the cloud? It is not like leadership in the tower. It is not a position wrought from power, but authority in its other, and more primary meaning, ‘to be the master of’. Authority in the cloud is drawn from dedication, or, to use rather more precise language, love. Love is what holds the cloud together. People are attracted to the cloud because they are in love with the aim of the cloud. The cloud truly is an affair of the heart, and these affairs of the heart will be the engines that drive 21st century business, politics and community.

Author and pundit Clay Shirky has stated, “The internet is better at stopping things than starting them.” I reckon he’s wrong there: the internet is very good at starting things that stop things. But it is very good at starting things. Making the jump from an amorphous cloud of potentiality to a forceful storm requires the love of just five people. That’s not much to ask. If you can’t get that many people in love with your cause, it may not be worth pursing.

Conclusion: Managing Your Affairs

All 21st century organizations need to recognize and adapt to the power of the cloud. It’s either that or face a death of a thousand cuts, the slow ebbing of power away from hierarchically-structured organizations as newer forms of organization supplant them. But it need not be this way. It need not be an either/or choice. It could be a future of and-and-and, where both forms continue to co-exist peacefully. But that will only come to pass if hierarchies recognize the power of the cloud.

This means you.

All of you have your own hierarchical organizations – because that’s how organizations have always been run. Yet each of you are surrounded by your own clouds: community organizations (both in the real world and online), bulletin boards, blogs, and all of the other Web2.0 supports for the sharing of connectivity, information, knowledge and power. You are already halfway invested in the cloud, whether or not you realize it. And that’s also true for people you serve, your customers and clients and interest groups. You can’t simply ignore the cloud.

How then should organizations proceed?

First recommendation: do not be scared of the cloud. It might be some time before you can come to love the cloud, or even trust it, but you must at least move to a place where you are not frightened by a constituency which uses the cloud to assert its own empowerment. Reacting out of fright will only lead to an arms race, a series of escalations where the your hierarchy attempts to contain the cloud, and the cloud – which is faster, smarter and more agile than you can ever hope to be – outwits you, again and again.

Second: like likes like. If you can permute your organization so that it looks more like the cloud, you’ll have an easier time working with the cloud. Case in point: because of ‘message discipline’, only a very few people are allowed to speak for an organization. Yet, because of the exponential growth in connectivity and Web2.0 technologies, everyone in your organization has more opportunities to speak for your organization than ever before. Can you release control over message discipline, and empower your organization to speak for itself, from any point of contact? Yes, this sounds dangerous, and yes, there are some dangers involved, but the cloud wants to be spoken to authentically, and authenticity has many competing voices, not a single monolithic tone.

Third, and finally, remember that we are all involved in a growth process. The cloud of last year is not the cloud of next year. The answers that satisfied a year ago are not the same answers that will satisfy a year from now. We are all booting up very quickly into an alternative form of social organization which is only just now spreading its wings and testing its worth. Beginnings are delicate times. The future will be shaped by actions in the present. This means there are enormous opportunities to extend the capabilities of existing organizations, simply by harnessing them to the changes underway. It also means that tragedies await those who fight the tide of times too single-mindedly. Our culture has already rounded the corner, and made the transition to the cloud. It remains to be seen which of our institutions and organizations can adapt themselves, and find their way forward into sharing power.

This, That, and the Other

I. THIS.

If a picture paints a thousand words, you’ve just absorbed a million, the equivalent of one-and-a-half Bibles. That’s the way it is, these days. Nothing is small, nothing discrete, nothing bite-sized. Instead, we get the fire hose, 24 x 7, a world in which connection and community have become so colonized by intensity and amplification that nearly nothing feels average anymore.

Is this what we wanted? It’s become difficult to remember the before-time, how it was prior to an era of hyperconnectivity. We’ve spent the last fifteen years working out the most excellent ways to establish, strengthen and multiply the connections between ourselves. The job is nearly done, but now, as we put down our tools and pause to catch our breath, here comes the question we’ve dreaded all along…

Why. Why this?

I gave this question no thought at all as I blithely added friends to Twitter, shot past the limits of Dunbar’s Number, through the ridiculous, and then outward, approaching the sheer insanity of 1200 so-called-“friends” whose tweets now scroll by so quickly that I can’t focus on any one saying any thing because this motion blur is such that by the time I think to answer in reply, the tweet in question has scrolled off the end of the world.

This is ludicrous, and can not continue. But this is vital and can not be forgotten. And this is the paradox of the first decade of the 21st century: what we want – what we think we need – is making us crazy.

Some of this craziness is biological.

Eleven million years of evolution, back to Proconsul, the ancestor of all the hominids, have crafted us into quintessentially social creatures. We are human to the degree we are in relationship with our peers. We grew big forebrains, to hold banks of the chattering classes inside our own heads, so that we could engage these simulations of relationships in never-ending conversation. We never talk to ourselves, really. We engage these internal others in our thoughts, endlessly rehearsing and reliving all of the social moments which comprise the most memorable parts of life.

It’s crowded in there. It’s meant to be. And this has only made it worse.

No man is an island. Man is only man when he is part of a community. But we have limits. Homo Sapiens Sapiens spent two hundred thousand years exploring the resources afforded by a bit more than a liter of neural tissue. The brain has physical limits (we have to pass through the birth canal without killing our mothers) so our internal communities top out at Dunbar’s magic Number of 150, plus or minus a few.

Dunbar’s Number defines the crucial threshold between a community and a mob. Communities are made up of memorable and internalized individuals; mobs are unique in their lack of distinction. Communities can be held in one’s head, can be tended and soothed and encouraged and cajoled.

Four years ago, when I began my research into sharing and social networks, I asked a basic question: Will we find some way to transcend this biological limit, break free of the tyranny of cranial capacity, grow beyond the limits of Dunbar’s Number?

After all, we have the technology. We can hyperconnect in so many ways, through so many media, across the entire range of sensory modalities, it is as if the material world, which we have fashioned into our own image, wants nothing more than to boost our capacity for relationship.

And now we have two forces in opposition, both originating in the mind. Our old mind hews closely to the community and Dunbar’s Number. Our new mind seeks the power of the mob, and the amplification of numbers beyond imagination. This is the central paradox of the early 21st century, this is the rift which will never close. On one side we are civil, and civilized. On the other we are awesome, terrible, and terrifying. And everything we’ve done in the last fifteen years has simply pushed us closer to the abyss of the awesome.

We can not reasonably put down these new weapons of communication, even as they grind communities beneath them like so many old and brittle bones. We can not turn the dial of history backward. We are what we are, and already we have a good sense of what we are becoming. It may not be pretty – it may not even feel human – but this is things as they are.

When the historians of this age write their stories, a hundred years from now, they will talk about amplification as the defining feature of this entire era, the three hundred year span from industrial revolution to the emergence of the hyperconnected mob. In the beginning, the steam engine amplified the power of human muscle – making both human slavery and animal power redundant. In the end, our technologies of communication amplified our innate social capabilities, which eleven million years of natural selection have consistently selected for. Above and beyond all of our other natural gifts, those humans who communicate most effectively stand the greatest chance of passing their genes along to subsequent generations. It’s as simple as that. We talk our partners into bed, and always have.

The steam engine transformed the natural world into a largely artificial environment; the amplification of our muscles made us masters of the physical world. Now, the technologies of hyperconnectivity are translating the natural world, ruled by Dunbar’s Number, into the dominating influence of maddening crowd.

We are not prepared for this. We have no biological defense mechanism. We are all going to have to get used to a constant state of being which resembles nothing so much as a stack overflow, a consistent social incontinence, as we struggle to retain some aspects of selfhood amidst the constantly eroding pressure of the hyperconnected mob.

Given this, and given that many of us here today are already in the midst of this, it seems to me that the most useful tool any of us could have, moving forward into this future, is a social contextualizer. This prosthesis – which might live in our mobiles, or our nettops, or our Bluetooth headsets – will fill our limited minds with the details of our social interactions.

This tool will make explicit that long, Jacob Marley-like train of lockboxes that are our interactions in the techno-social sphere. Thus, when I introduce myself to you for the first or the fifteen hundredth time, you can be instantly brought up to date on why I am relevant, why I matter. When all else gets stripped away, each relationship has a core of salience which can be captured (roughly), and served up every time we might meet.

I expect that this prosthesis will come along sooner rather than later, and that it will rival Google in importance. Google took too much data and made it roughly searchable. This prosthesis will take too much connectivity and make it roughly serviceable. Given that we primarily social beings, I expect it to be a greater innovation, and more broadly disruptive.

And this prosthesis has precedents; at Xerox PARC they have been looking into a ‘human memory prosthesis’ for sufferers from senile dementia, a device which constantly jogs human memories as to task, place, and people. The world that we’re making for ourselves, every time we connect, is a place where we are all (in some relative sense) demented. Without this tool we will be entirely lost. We’re already slipping beneath the waves. We need this soon. We need this now.

I hope you’ll get inventive.

II. THAT.

Now that we have comfortably settled into the central paradox of our current era, with a world that is working through every available means to increase our connectivity, and a brain that is suddenly overloaded and sinking beneath the demands of the sum total of these connections, we need to ask that question: Exactly what is hyperconnectivity good for? What new thing does that bring us?

The easy answer is the obvious one: crowdsourcing. The action of a few million hyperconnected individuals resulted in a massive and massively influential work: Wikipedia. But the examples only begin there. They range much further afield.

Uni students have been sharing their unvarnished assessments of their instructors and lecturers. Ratemyprofessors.com has become the bête noire of the academy, because researchers who can’t teach find they have no one signing up for their courses, while the best lecturers, with the highest ratings, suddenly find themselves swarmed with offers for better teaching positions at more prestigious universities. A simply and easily implemented system of crowdsourced reviews has carefully undone all of the work of the tenure boards of the academy.

It won’t be long until everything else follows. Restaurant reviews – that’s done. What about reviews of doctors? Lawyers? Indian chiefs? Politicans? ISPs? (Oh, wait, we have that with Whirlpool.) Anything you can think of. Anything you might need. All of it will have been so extensively reviewed by such a large mob that you will know nearly everything that can be known before you sign on that dotted line.

All of this means that every time we gather together in our hyperconnected mobs to crowdsource some particular task, we become better informed, we become more powerful. Which means it becomes more likely that the hyperconnected mob will come together again around some other task suited to crowdsourcing, and will become even more powerful. That system of positive feedbacks – which we are already quite in the midst of – is fashioning a new polity, a rewritten social contract, which is making the institutions of the 19th and 20th centuries – that is, the industrial era – seem as antiquated and quaint as the feudal systems which they replaced.

It is not that these institutions are dying, but rather, they now face worthy competitors. Democracy, as an example, works well in communities, but can fail epically when it scales to mobs. Crowdsourced knowledge requires a mob, but that knowledge, once it has been collected, can be shared within a community, to hyperempower that community. This tug-of-war between communities and crowds is setting all of our institutions, old and new, vibrating like taught strings.

We already have a name for this small-pieces-loosely-joined form of social organization: it’s known as anarcho-syndicalism. Anarcho-Syndicalism emerged from the labor movements that grew in numbers and power toward the end of the 19th century. Its basic idea is simply that people will choose to cooperate more often than they choose to compete, and this cooperation can form the basis for a social, political and economic contract wherein the people manage themselves.

A system with no hierarchy, no bosses, no secrets, no politics. (Well, maybe that last one is asking too much.) Anarcho-syndicalism takes as a given that all men are created equal, and therefore each have a say in what they choose to do.

Somewhere back before Australia became a nation, anarcho-syndicalist trade unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (or, more commonly, the ‘Wobblies’) fought armies of mercenaries in the streets of the major industrial cities of the world, trying get the upper hand in the battle between labor and capital. They failed because capital could outmaneuver labor in the 19th century. Today the situation is precisely reversed. Capital is slow. Knowledge is fast, the quicksilver that enlivens all our activities.

I come before you today wearing my true political colors – literally. I did not pick a red jumper and black pants by some accident or wardrobe malfunction. These are the colors of anarcho-syndicalism. And that is the new System of the World.

You don’t have to believe me. You can dismiss my political posturing as sheer radicalism. But I ask you to cast your mind further than this stage this afternoon, and look out on a world which is permanently and instantaneously hyperconnected, and I ask you – how could things go any other way? Every day one of us invents a new way to tie us together or share what we know; as that invention is used, it is copied by those who see it being used.

When we imitate the successful behaviors of our hyperconnected peers, this ‘hypermimesis’ means that we are all already in a giant collective. It’s not a hive mind, and it’s not an overmind. It’s something weirdly in-between. Connected we are smarter by far than we are as individuals, but this connection conditions and constrains us, even as it liberates us. No gift comes for free.

I assert, on the weight of a growing mountain of evidence, that anarcho-syndicalism is the place where the community meets the crowd; it is the environment where this social prosthesis meets that radical hyperempowerment of capabilities.

Let me give you one example, happening right now. The classroom walls are disintegrating (and thank heaven for that), punctured by hyperconnectivity, as the outside world comes rushing in to meet the student, and the student leaves the classroom behind for the school of the world. The student doesn’t need to be in the classroom anymore, nor does the false rigor of the classroom need to be drilled into the student. There is such a hyperabundance of instruction and information available, students needs a mentor more than a teacher, a guide through the wilderness, and not a penitentiary to prevent their journey.

Now the students, and their parents – and the teachers and instructors and administrators – need to find a new way to work together, a communion of needs married to a community of gifts. The school is transforming into an anarcho-syndicalist collective, where everyone works together as peers, comes together in a “more perfect union”, to educate. There is no more school-as-a-place-you-go-to-get-your-book-learning. School is a state of being, an act of communion.

If this is happening to education, can medicine, and law, and politics be so very far behind? Of course not. But, unlike the elites of education, these other forces will resist and resist and resist all change, until such time as they have no choice but to surrender to mobs which are smarter, faster and more flexible than they are. In twenty years time they all these institutions will be all but unrecognizable.

All of this is light-years away from how our institutions have been designed. Those institutions – all institutions – are feeling the strain of informational overload. More than that, they’re now suffering the death of a thousand cuts, as the various polities serviced by each of these institutions actually outperform them.

You walk into your doctor’s office knowing more about your condition than your doctor. You understand the implications of your contract better than your lawyer. You know more about a subject than your instructor. That’s just the way it is, in the era of hyperconnectivity.

So we must band together. And we already have. We have come together, drawn by our interests, put our shoulders to the wheel, and moved the Earth upon its axis. Most specifically, those of you in this theatre with me this arvo have made the world move, because the Web is the fulcrum for this entire transformation. In less than two decades we’ve gone from physicists plaything to rewriting the rules of civilization.

But try not to think about that too much. It could go to your head.

III. THE OTHER.

Back in July, just after Vodafone had announced its meager data plans for iPhone 3G, I wrote a short essay for Ross Dawson’s Future of Media blog. I griped and bitched and spat the dummy, summing things up with this line:

“It’s time to show the carriers we can do this ourselves.”

I recommended that we start the ‘Future Australian Carrier’, or FAUC, and proceeded to invite all of my readers to get FAUCed. A harmless little incitement to action. What could possibly go wrong?

Within a day’s time a FAUC Facebook group had been started – without my input – and I was invited to join. Over the next two weeks about four hundred people joined that group, individuals who had simply had enough grief from their carriers and were looking for something better. After that, although there was some lively discussion about a possible logo, and some research into how MVNOs actually worked, nothing happened.

About a month later, individuals began to ping me, both on Facebook and via Twitter, asking, “What happened with that carrier you were going to start, Mark? Hmm?” As if somehow, I had signed on the dotted line to be chief executive, cheerleader, nose-wiper and bottle-washer for FAUC.

All of this caught me by surprise, because I certainly hadn’t signed up to create anything. I’d floated an idea, nothing more. Yet everyone was looking to me to somehow bring this new thing into being.

After I’d been hit up a few times, I started to understand where the epic !FAIL! had occurred. And the failure wasn’t really mine. You see, I’ve come to realize a sad and disgusting little fact about all of us: We need and we need and we need.

We need others to gather the news we read. We need others to provide the broadband we so greedily lap up. We need other to govern us. And god forbid we should be asked to shoulder some of the burden. We’ll fire off a thousand excuses about how we’re so time poor even the cat hasn’t been fed in a week.

So, sure, four hundred people might sign up to a Facebook group to indicate their need for a better mobile carrier, but would any of them think of stepping forward to spearhead its organization, its cash-raising, or it leasing agreements? No. That’s all too much hard work. All any of these people needed was cheap mobile broadband.

Well, cheap don’t come cheaply.

Of course, this happens everywhere up and down the commercial chain of being. QANTAS and Telstra outsource work to southern Asia because they can’t be bothered to pay for local help, because their stockholders can’t be bothered to take a small cut in their quarterly dividends.

There’s no difference in the act itself, just in its scale. And this isn’t even raw economics. This is a case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Carve some profit today, spend a fortune tomorrow to recover. We see it over and over and over again (most recently and most expensively on Wall Street), but somehow the point never makes it through our thick skulls. It’s probably because we human beings find it much easier to imagine three months into the future than three years. That’s a cognitive feature which helps if you’re on the African savannah, but sucks if you’re sitting in an Australian boardroom.

So this is the other thing. The ugly thing that no one wants to look at, because to look at it involves an admission of laziness. Well folks, let me be the first one here to admit it: I’m lazy. I’m too lazy to administer my damn Qmail server, so I use Gmail. I’m too lazy to setup WebDAV, so I use Google Docs. I’m too lazy to keep my devices synced, so I use MobileMe. And I’m too lazy to start my own carrier, so instead I pay a small fortune each month to Vodafone, for lousy service.

And yes, we’re all so very, very busy. I understand this. Every investment of time is a tradeoff. Yet we seem to defer, every time, to let someone else do it for us.

And is this wise? The more I see of cloud computing, the more I am convinced that it has become a single-point-of-failure for data communications. The decade-and-a-half that I spent as a network engineer tells me that. Don’t trust the cloud. Don’t trust redundancy. Trust no one. Keep your data in the cloud if you must, but for goodness’ sake, keep another copy locally. And another copy on the other side of the world. And another under your mattress.

I’m telling you things I shouldn’t have to tell you. I’m telling you things that you already know. But the other, this laziness, it’s built into our culture. Socially, we have two states of being: community and crowd. A community can collaborate to bring a new mobile carrier into being. A crowd can only gripe about their carrier. And now, as the strict lines between community and crowd get increasingly confused because of the upswing in hyperconnectivity, we behave like crowds when we really ought to be organizing like a community.

And this, at last, is the other thing: the message I really want to leave you with. You people, here in this auditorium today, you are the masters of the world. Not your bosses, not your shareholders, not your users. You. You folks, right here and right now. The keys to the kingdom of hyperconnectivity have been given to you. You can contour, shape and control that chaotic meeting point between community and crowd. That is what you do every time you craft an interface, or write a script. Your work helps people self-organize. Your work can engage us at our laziest, and turn us into happy worker bees. It can be done. Wikipedia has shown the way.

And now, as everything hierarchical and well-ordered dissolves into the grey goo which is the other thing, you have to ask yourself, “Who does this serve?”

At the end of the day, you’re answerable to yourself. No one else is going to do the heavy lifting for you. So when you think up an idea or dream up a design, consider this: Will it help people think for themselves? Will it help people meet their own needs? Or will it simply continue to infantilize us, until we become a planet of dummy-spitting, whinging, wankers?

It’s a question I ask myself, too, a question that’s shaping the decisions I make for myself. I want to make things that empower people, so I’ve decided to take some time to work with Andy Coffey, and re-think the book for the 21st century. Yes, that sounds ridiculous and ambitious and quixotic, but it’s also a development whose time is long overdue. If it succeeds at all, we will provide a publishing platform for people to share their long-form ideas. Everything about it will be open source and freely available to use, to copy, and to hack, because I already know that my community is smarter than I am.

And it’s a question I have answered for myself in another way. This is my third annual appearance before you at Web Directions South. It will be the last time for some time. You people are my community; where I knew none of you back in 2006; I consider many of you friends in 2008. Yet, when I talk to you like this, I get the uncomfortable feeling that my community has become a crowd. So, for the next few years, let’s have someone else do the closing keynote. I want to be with my peeps, in the audience, and on the Twitter backchannel, taking the piss and trading ideas.

The future – for all of us – is the battle over the boundary between the community and the crowd. I am choosing to embrace the community. It seems the right thing to do. And as I walk off-stage here, this afternoon, I want you to remember that each of you holds the keys to the kingdom. Our community is yours to shape as you will. Everything that you do is translated into how we operate as a culture, as a society, as a civilization. It can be a coming together, or it can be a breaking apart. And it’s up to you.

Not that there’s any pressure.

Hyperpolitics (American Style)

Part One: Hyperconnected

We have been human beings for perhaps sixty thousand years. In all that time, our genome, the twenty-five thousand genes and three billion base pairs which comprise the source code for Homo Sapiens Sapiens has hardly changed.

For at least three thousand generations, we’ve had big brains to think with, a descended larynx to speak with, and opposable thumbs to grasp with. Yet, for almost ninety percent of that enormous span of time, humanity remained a static presence.

Our ancestors entered the world and passed on from it, but the patterns of culture remained remarkably stable, persistent and conservative. This posed a conundrum for paleoanthropologists, long known as ‘the sapient paradox’: if we had the “kit” for it, why did civilization take so long to arise?

Cambridge archeologist Colin Renfrew (more formally, Baron Renfrew of Kamisthorn) recently proposed an answer. We may have had great hardware, but it took a long, long time for humans to develop software which made full use of it.

We had to pass through symbolization, investing the outer world with inner meaning (in the process, creating some great art), before we could begin to develop the highly symbolic processes of cities, culture, law, and government.

About ten thousand years ago, the hidden interiority of humanity, passed down through myths and teachings and dreamings, built up a cultural reservoir of social capacity which overtopped the dam of the conservative patterns of humanity. We booted up (as it were) into a culture now so familiar we rarely take notice of it.

In Guns, Germs and Steel, evolutionary biologist and geographer Jared Diamond presented a model which elegantly explains how various peoples crossed the gap into civilization.

Cultures located along similar climatic regions on the planet’s surface could and did share innovations, most significantly along the broad swath of land from the Yangtze to the Rhine. This sharing accelerated the development of each of the populations connected together through the material flow of plants and animals and the immaterial flow of ideas and symbols. Where sharing had been a local and generational project for fifty thousand years, it suddenly became a geographical project across nearly half the diameter of the planet. Cities emerged in Anatolia, Palestine and the Fertile Crescent, and civilization spread out, over the next five hundred generations, to cover all of Eurasia.

Civilization proved another conservative force in human culture; despite the huge increases in population, the social order of Jericho looks little different from those of Imperial Rome or the Qin Dynasty or Medieval France.

But when Gutenberg (borrowing from the Chinese) perfected moveable type, he led the way to another and even broader form of cultural sharing; literacy became widespread in the aftermath of the printing press, and savants throughout the Europe published their insights, sharing their own expertise, producing the Enlightenment and igniting the Scientific Revolution. Peer-review, although portrayed today as a conservative force, initially acted as a radical intellectual accelerant, a mental hormone which again amplified the engines of human culture, leading directly to the Industrial Age.

The conservative empires fell, replaced by demos, the people: the cogs and wheels of a new system of the world which allowed for massive cities, massive markets, mass media, massive growth in human knowledge, and a new type of radicalism, known as Liberalism, which asserted the freedom of capital, labor, and people. That Liberalism, after two hundred and fifty years of ascendancy, has become the conservative order of culture, and faces its own existential threat, the result of another innovation in sharing.

Last month, The Economist, that fountainhead of Ur-Liberalism, proclaimed humanity “halfway there.” Somewhere in the last few months, half the population of the planet became mobile telephone subscribers. In a decade’s time we’ve gone from half the world having never made a telephone call to half the world owning their own mobile.

It took nearly a decade to get to the first billion, four years to the second, eighteen months to the third, and – sometime during 2011 – over five billion of us will be connected. Mobile handsets will soon be in the hands of everyone except the billion and a half extremely poor; microfinance organizations like Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank work hard to ensure that even this destitute minority have access to mobiles. Why? Mobiles may be the most potent tool yet invented for the elimination of poverty.

To those of us in the developed word this seems a questionable assertion. For us, mobiles are mainly social accelerants: no one is ever late anymore, just delayed. But, for entire populations who have never had access to instantaneous global communication, the mobile unleashes the innate, inherent and inalienable capabilities of sociability. Sociability has always been the cornerstone to human effectiveness. Being social has always been the best way to get ahead.

Until recently, we’d seen little to correlate mobiles with human economic development. But, here again, we see the gap between raw hardware capabilities and their expression in cultural software. Handing someone a mobile is not the end of the story, but the beginning. Nor is this purely a phenomenon of the developing world, or of the poor. We had the Web for almost a decade before we really started to work it toward its potential. Wikis were invented in 1995, marking it as an early web technology; the idea of Wikipedia took another six years.

Even SMS, the true carrier of the Human Network, had been dismissed by the telecommunications giants as uninteresting, a sideshow. Last year we sent forty three billion text messages.

We have a drive to connect and socialize: this drive has now been accelerated and amplified as comprehensively as the steam engine amplified human strength two hundred and fifty years ago. Just as the steam engine initiated the transformation of the natural landscape into man-made artifice, the ‘hyperconnectivity’ engendered by these new toys is transforming the human landscape of social relations. This time around, fifty thousand years of cultural development will collapse into about twenty.

This is coming as a bit of a shock.

Part Two: Hypermimesis

I have two nephews, Alexander and Andrew, born in 2001, and 2002. Alexander watched his mother mousing around on her laptop, and – from about 18 months – reached out to play with the mouse, imitating her actions. By age three Alex had a fair degree of control over the mouse; his younger brother watched him at play, and copied his actions. Soon, both wrestled for control of a mouse that both had mastered. Children are experts in mimesis – learning by imitation. It’s been shown that young chimpanzees regularly outscore human toddlers on cognitive tasks, while the children far surpass the chimps in their ability to “ape” behavior. We are built to observe and reproduce the behaviors of our parents, our mentors and our peers.

Our peers now number three and a half billion.

Whenever any one of us displays a new behavior in a hyperconnected context, that behavior is inherently transparent, visible and observed. If that behavior is successful, it is immediately copied by those who witnessed the behavior, then copied by those who witness that behavior, and those who witnessed that behavior, and so on. Very quickly, that behavior becomes part of the global behavioral kit. As its first-order emergent quality, hyperconnectivity produces hypermimesis, the unprecedented acceleration of the natural processes of observational learning, where each behavioral innovation is distributed globally and instantaneously.

Only a decade ago the network was all hardware and raw potential, but we are learning fast, and this learning is pervasive. Behaviors, once slowly copied from generation to generation, then, still slowly, from location to location, now ‘hyperdistribute’ themselves via the Human Network. We all learn from each other with every text we send, and each new insight becomes part of the new software of a new civilization.

We still do not know much about this nascent cultural form, even as its pieces pop out of the ether all around us. We know that it is fluid, flexible, mobile, pervasive and inexorable. We know that it does not allow for the neat proprieties of privacy and secrecy and ownership which define the fundamental ground of Liberal civilization. We know that, even as it grows, it encounters conservative forces intent on moderating its impact. Yet every assault, every tariff, every law designed to constrain this Human Network has failed.

The Chinese, who gave it fair go, have conceded the failure of their “Great Firewall,” relying now on self-censorship, situating the policeman within the mind of the dissident netizen.

Record companies and movie studios try to block distribution channels they can not control and can not tariff; every attempt to control distribution only results in an ever-more-pervasive and ever-more-difficult to detect “Darknet.”

A band of reporters and bloggers (some of whom are in this room today) took down the Attorney General of the United States, despite the best attempts of Washington’s political machinery to obfuscate then overload the processes of transparency and oversight. Each of these singular examples would have been literally unthinkable a decade ago, but today they are the facts on the ground, unmistakable signs of the potency of this new cultural order.

It is as though we have all been shoved into the same room, a post-modern Panopticon, where everyone watches everyone else, can speak with everyone else, can work with everyone else. We can send out a call to “find the others,” for any cause, and watch in wonder as millions raise their hands. Any fringe (noble or diabolical) multiplied across three and a half billion adds up to substantial numbers. Amplified by the Human Network, the bonds of affinity have delivered us over to a new kind of mob rule.

This shows up, at its most complete, in Wikipedia, which (warts and all) represents the first attempt to survey and capture the knowledge of the entire human race, rather than only its scientific and academic elites. A project of the mob, for the mob, and by the mob, Wikipedia is the mob rule of factual knowledge. Its phenomenal success demonstrates beyond all doubt how the calculus of civilization has shifted away from its Liberal basis. In Liberalism, knowledge is a scarce resource, managed by elites: the more scarce knowledge is, the more highly valued that knowledge, and the elites which conserve it. Wikipedia turns that assertion inside out: the more something is shared the more valuable it becomes. These newly disproportionate returns on the investment in altruism now trump the ‘virtue of selfishness.’

Paradoxically, Wikipedia is not at all democratic, nor is it actually transparent, though it gives the appearance of both. Investigations conducted by The Register in the UK and other media outlets have shown that the “encyclopedia anyone can edit” is, in fact, tightly regulated by a close network of hyperconnected peers, the “Wikipedians.”

This premise is borne out by the unpleasant fact that article submissions to Wikipedia are being rejected at an ever-increasing rate. Wikipedia’s growth has slowed, and may someday grind to a halt, not because it has somehow encompassed the totality of human knowledge, but because it is the front line of a new kind of warfare, a battle both semantic and civilizational. In this battle, we can see the tracings of hyperpolitics, the politics of era of hyperconnectivity.

To outsiders like myself, who critique their increasingly draconian behavior, Wikipedians have a simple response: “We are holding the line against chaos.” Wikipedians honestly believe that, in keeping Wikipedia from such effluvia as endless articles on anime characters, or biographies of living persons deemed “insufficiently notable,” they keep their resource “pure.” This is an essentially conservative impulse, as befits the temperament of a community of individuals who are, at heart, librarians and archivists.

The mechanisms through which this purity is maintained, however, are hardly conservative.

Hyperconnected, the Wikipedians create “sock puppet” personae to argue their points on discussion pages, using back-channel, non-transparent communications with other Wikipedians to amass the support (both numerically and rhetorically) to enforce their dictates. Those who attempt to counter the fixed opinion of any network of Wikipedians encounter a buzz-saw of defiance, and, almost invariably, withdraw in defeat.

Now that this ‘Great Game’ has been exposed, hypermimesis comes into play. The next time an individual or community gets knocked back, they have an option: they can choose to “go nuclear” on Wikipedia, using the tools of hyperconnectivity to generate such a storm of protest, from so many angles of attack, that the Wikipedians find themselves overwhelmed, backed into the buzz-saw of their own creation.

This will probably engender even more conservative reaction from the Wikipedians, until, in fairly short order, the most vital center of human knowledge creation in the history of our species becomes entirely fossilized.

Or, just possibly, Wikipedians will bow to the inevitable, embrace the chaos, and find a way to make it work.

That choice, writ large, is the same that confronts us in every aspect of our lives. The entire human social sphere faces the increasing pressures of hyperconnectivity, which arrive hand-in-hand with an increasing empowerment (‘hyperempowerment’) by means of hypermimesis. All of our mass social institutions, developed at the start of the Liberal era, are backed up against the same buzz saw.

Politics, as the most encompassing of our mass institutions, now balances on a knife edge between a past which no longer works and a future of chaos.

Part Three: No Governor

Last Monday, as I waited at San Francisco International for a flight to Logan, I used my mobile to snap some photos of the status board (cheerfully informing me of my delayed departure), which I immediately uploaded to Flickr. As I waited at the gate, I engaged in a playful banter with two women d’un certain age, that clever sort of casual conversation one has with fellow travelers. After we boarded the flight, one of the women approached me. “I just wanted you to know, that other woman, she works for the Treasury Department. And you were making her nervous when you took those photos.”

Now here’s the thing: I wanted to share the frustrations of my journey with my many friends, both in Australia and America, who track my comings and goings on Twitter, Flickr and Facebook. Sharing makes the unpleasant endurable. In that moment of confrontation, I found myself thrust into a realization that had been building over the last four years: Sharing is the threat. Not just a threat. It is the whole of the thing.

A photo snapped on my mobile becomes instantaneously and pervasively visible. No wonder she’s nervous: in my simple, honest and entirely human act of sharing, it becomes immediately apparent that any pretensions to control, or limitation, or the exercise of power have already collapsed into shell-shocked impotence.

We are asked to believe that hyperconnectivity can be embraced by political campaigns, and by politicians in power. We are asked to believe that everything we already know to be true about the accelerating disintegration of hierarchies of all kinds – economic, academic, cultural – will somehow magically suspend itself for the political process. That, somehow, politics will be different.

Bullshit. Ladies and gentlemen, don’t believe a word of it. It’s whistling past the graveyard. It’s clapping for Tinkerbelle. Obama may be the best thing since sliced bread, but this isn’t a crisis of leadership. This is not an emergency. And my amateur photography did not bring down the curtain on the Republic.

For the first time, we have a political campaign embracing hyperconnectivity. As is always the case with political campaigns, it is a means to an end. The Obama campaign has built a nationwide social network (using lovely, old-fashioned, human techniques), then activated it to compete in the primaries, dominate in the caucuses, and secure the Democratic nomination. That network is being activated again to win the general election.

Then what? Three months ago, I put this question directly to an Obama field organizer. He paused, as if he’d never given the question any thought, before answering, “I don’t know. I don’t believe anyone’s thought that far ahead.” There are now some statements from candidate Obama about what he’d like to see this network become. They are, of course, noble sentiments. They matter not at all. The mob, now mobilized, will do as it pleases. Obama can lead by example, can encourage or scold as occasion warrants, but he can not control. Not with all the King’s horses and all the King’s men.

And yes, that’s scary.

Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a rapid descent into the Bellum omnia contra omnes, Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all.” A hyperconnected polity – whether composed of a hundred individuals or a hundred thousand – has resources at its disposal which exponentially amplify its capabilities. Hyperconnectivity begets hypermimesis begets hyperempowerment. After the arms race comes the war.

Conserved across nearly four thousand generations, the social fabric will warp and convulse as various polities actualize their hyperempowerment in the cultural equivalent of nuclear exchanges. Eventually (one hopes, with hypermimesis, rather quickly) we will learn to contain these most explosive forces. We will learn that even though we can push the button, we’re far better off refraining. At that point, as in the era of superpower Realpolitik, the action will shift to a few tens of thousands of ‘little’ conflicts, the hyperconnected equivalents of the endless civil wars which plagued Asia, Africa and Latin America during the Cold War.

Naturally, governments will seek to control and mediate these emerging conflicts. This will only result in the guns being trained upon them. The power redistributions of the 21st century have dealt representative democracies out. Representative democracies are a poor fit to the challenges ahead, and ‘rebooting’ them is not enough. The future looks nothing like democracy, because democracy, which sought to empower the individual, is being obsolesced by a social order which hyperempowers him.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously pronounced that we should “Never underestimate the ability of a small group of committed individuals to change the world.” Mead spoke truthfully, and prophetically. We are all committed, we are all passionate. We merely lacked the lever to effectively translate the force of our commitment and passion into power. That lever has arrived, in my hand and yours.

And now, the world’s going to move – for all of us.

Slides for the presentation at the Personal Democracy Forum are now available on SlideShare.

Little, Big

Introduction: Constructing a Child

In November of 1998, I attended a conference on technology and design in Amsterdam, and brought along two mates itching for an excuse to visit Europe. We all stayed at the flat of my good friends, Neil and Kylin. I dutifully attended the conference every day as the rest of them went out carousing through the various less-reputable quarters of Amsterdam, and we all had a great time. As Kylin tells it – given that she was the only woman on this Cook’s Tour – when we departed, we left a lingering residue of testosterone in their flat, and (if they calculated correctly) the very day after we departed for Los Angeles, they conceived their daughter Bey.

In February 1999, Neil and Kylin emailed all their friends, telling us of their plans to move – immediately – from Amsterdam to Florida. No explanation given. Through some weird intuition, I figured it out: Kylin was pregnant. I called her, and put the question to her directly. “How did you know?” she gasped. “We’ve been keeping it top secret.”

I don’t know how I knew. But I was overjoyed: I’m part of a generation who waited a long, long time to have children – my own nephews weren’t born until 2001 and 2002; none of my close friends had children in 1999. Neil and Kylin were the first.

It got me to pondering, as I ran a little thought experiment: what would the world of their daughter, still in utero, look like? What would her experience of that world be?

A month earlier, my friend Terence McKenna had challenged me to write a book. “You mouth off enough,” he suggested, “so maybe you should get it all down?” When he laid that challenge before me, I had no idea what I’d write a book about.

Somehow, as soon as I heard about Kylin’s pregnancy, I knew. I had to write a book about the world that child would grow up into, because that world would look nothing like the world I had been born into back in 1962. That child wouldn’t need this book. Her parents would.

A few months later I attended another conference, at MIT, where I heard psychologist Sherry Turkle talk about her work with young children. Turkle has been exploring how technology changes children’s behaviors, and, in this specific case, she’d taken a long look at a brand new toy: in fact, that season’s “hot” toy, the “Furby”.

Furby is an electromechanical plush toy, capable of responding to various actions by the child, but Furby also presents the child with demands – to be fed, to be played with, to be put to sleep when tired. More than interactive, the Furby presented children with some of the qualities we recognize as innate to living things. Would a small child recognize furby as inanimate, like a doll, or animate, like a pet?

From research in developmental psychology we know that children develop the categories of “inanimate” and “animate” when they’re around four years old. The development of these categories is a “constructivist” process – children do not need to be taught the difference between these two states; rather, they intuit the difference through continued interactions with animate and inanimate objects. Thus, an object, like Furby, which displays characteristics associated with both categories, should pose quite a philosophical conundrum for a small child.

Turkle put the question to these children: is Furby like your puppy? Is it like your doll? These children, little philosophical geniuses, gave her an answer she never expected to receive. They said it’s like neither of them. It is a thing itself, something in-between. They had no name for this third category between animate and inanimate, but they knew it existed, for they had direct experience of it.

This was my penny-drop moment: constructivism states that all children learn how the world works through their interactions within it. And we had suddenly changed the rules. We had infused the material world with the fairy dust of interactivity, creating the Pinocchio-like Furby, and, in so doing, at created a new ontological category. It is not a category that adults acknowledge – in fact, many adults find Furby slightly “creepy” precisely because it straddles two very familiar categories – but, in another generation, by the time these children are our age, that category will have a name, and will be accepted as a matter of course.

This is what Neil and Kylin – and, really, parents everywhere – need to know: the world has changed, the world is changing, and the world’s going to change a whole lot more. We may be the first beneficiaries of this great upwelling of technology, but the lasting benefits will be conferred upon our posterity, for it is changing the way they think. Their understanding to the world is, in some ways, utterly different from our own. And, just now, just over the last year or two, we’ve thrown a new element into the mix. We’re gracing ourselves with a new kind of connectivity – I call it “hyperconnectivity” which turbocharges some of the most essential features of human beings. This newest frontier – which did not exist even a decade ago – is what I want to focus upon this morning.

I: Who Are We?

We human beings are smart. Very smart. So smart we run the joint. But there’s a heavy price to be paid for all those brains. To start with, our heads our so big that we very nearly kill our mothers in the act of giving birth. Human births are so dangerous that we’re the only species we know of which can’t handle the act of birth alone.

We need others around – historically, other women – assisting us in the process. This point is essential to our humanity: we need other people. There is no way that a human, alone, can survive.

Yes, there are a few isolated incidence of “wolf boys” and Robinson Crusoe-types, battling against the odds in an indifferent or inimical environment, but, for far longer than we have been human, we have been social.

You can go back through the tree of life, a full eleven million years, to Proconsul, the common ancestor of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and humans, and that animal was a social animal. It’s in our genes. It’s what we are. But why?

The answer is simple enough: eleven million years ago, those of our ancestors with the best social skills could most dependably count on help from others. That help was essential to their survival. That help allowed them to live long enough to pass those social genes and social behaviors along to their children. That help was essential, once our brains grew big enough to create trouble in the birth canal, for the next generation of human beings to come into the world. Cleverly, nature has crafted a species which, from the moment of the first birth pangs, must be social in order to survive. That pressure – a “selection pressure”, as it’s known in biology – is probably the essential, defining feature of humanity.

In an article in the May 17 2008 issue of New Scientist, an author rhapsodized about the end of “human exceptionalism”. Ethology and zoology have taught us that all of the behaviors we consider uniquely human do, in fact, exist broadly among other species. Whales have culture, of a sort. Chimpanzees use gestures to communicate their needs and wants, just like a child does. Dolphins have names. But each of these species, smart as they may be, deliver their young unassisted. They do not need help from their fellows to enter this world.

We are delivered by social means, and live our entire lives in a social order. What was essential at birth becomes even more important as an infant and toddler: because of our huge brains we remain helpless far longer than any other species.

A mother caring for a newborn infant has a full-time task on her hands. She can not devote her energies to finding food or shelter. Her attention is divided, but mostly focused on her child. Here again, the strong bonds of socialization create an environment where women (again) will altruistically bear some of the burden for mother and newborn. This altruism is reciprocal: as other women bear children, these mothers, with older children, will bear some of the burden for them.

This means that the mothers best able to forge strong social bonds with other women will have the most help at hand when they need it. This means, al things being equal, their children will be more likely to survive, and the chain of genes and behaviors gets passed along to another generation. This is another selection pressure which has, over millions of years, turned us into thoroughly social animals.

An interesting point to note here is that women have always had stronger selection pressures toward social behavior than men. I will come back to this.

Given that so much of our success is based upon our ability to socialize with others, and given that additional social skills confer additional advantage which increases selection success, as we evolved into our modern form – Homo Sapiens Sapiens – natural selection tended to emphasize our social characteristics. Being social has ever been the best way to get ahead.

In the last million years, as our brains grew explosively – as one scientist put it, “perhaps the most improbable event in all of evolution, anywhere” – much of the potential of all that new gray matter was put to work for social benefit. The “new brain” or neocortex, which is the most dramatically enlarged portion of the human brain, seems to be the area dedicated to our social relationships.

We know this because, in 1992, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar compared the average troop size of gorillas and chimpanzees against the average tribe sizes of humans. He found that there was a direct correlation between the volume of the neocortex in these three species and their average troop or tribe size. This value, known as “Dunbar’s Number”, is roughly 20 for gorillas, who have the smallest neocortex, about 35 for chimpanzees, and – for us lucky human beings, who have the greatest selection pressures on our social behavior – just under one hundred and fifty. We may not be entirely exceptional, but we’re doing quite well.

Essentially, inside of each one of our heads, there are a hundred and fifty other people running around. Yes, that sounds a bit crowded (particularly when they’re up partying all night long with their mates), but it’s actually imminently practical. These “little people” inside our heads are models of each person we know well: our family, our friends, our colleagues. For each of these people we build mental model which helps us to predict their behavior. (It isn’t really them, but rather, our image of them.) This predictive capability smoothes our social interactions. We know how to interact with people whom we have in our heads; with others we remain demure, reserved – in a word, predictable. Only with intimacy do we express the quirks of behavior which make us unique, only with intimacy do we take note of them in others.

We all know more than a hundred and fifty people. Some folks on FaceBook and MySpace claim thousands of “friends”. But most of these folks aren’t in our heads. There’s a simple rule you can use, to tell whether one of these folks is in your head: I call it the “sharing test”. Let’s suppose you see something – on the Web, in the newspaper, on the telly – that is so meaningful (funny, or poignant, or just so salient to whatever passions drive you), and in the next moment you think, “Wow, I know Dazza would really enjoy that.” And you flip the link along in an email. Or you send Dazza a text message with, “Hey, mate, did you see that thing just now on TEN?” And if he didn’t see it, you ring and fill him in. It’s that moment of unrestrained sharing – it feels almost automatic, and it’s entirely an essential part of what we are – which defines the most visible quality of those people inside our heads.

Every time when we share something with those little people in our head, we reinforce that relationship; we strengthen the social bonds which tie us to one another. Fifty thousand years ago this had enormous practical benefits: sharing where the best fruit grew – or the location of a predator in the tall grass – kept everyone alive and healthy. The selection pressure for sociability made us expert at sharing.

It’s interesting to watch this behavior as expressed by children; in some ways they share automatically – children love to share their experiences. In other situations – such as with a favorite toy – children must be taught to share, to override the natural selfishness of the singular animal, overruling that intrinsic behavior with the altruistic behavior of the social human. Sharing is one of the most important lessons parents teach their children, and if that lesson is poorly taught, it leaves a child at a permanent disadvantage.

While our genes make us sociable, our sharing behaviors are more software than hardware; this is why they must be taught. It takes time for any child to learn that lesson, just as it took quite a while for humans, as a species, to learn it. Geneticists know that human beings haven’t changed at all in at least 60,000 years, but civilization didn’t kick off in a meaningful way until about ten thousand years ago.

This has been an a bit of a puzzler for paleoanthropologists, but a new theory – which I also read about in New Scientist – seems to make sense of that gap: while we had the raw capacity for civilized behavior long ago, it took us 50,000 years to write the cultural software for civilization. Over those years, as we learned about ourselves and our world, our behavior changed and we taught these changes to our children, who improved upon them, passing those changes along.

In short, our entire species spent a long time in primary school (and might even have been kept back a few grades) before graduation. The incredible wealth of cultural learning – which we don’t really even reflect on, because it seems so essential and obvious to us – was painstaking developed across two thousand generations.

Our secondary studies, as a species, included that most unique of human institutions: the city. The earliest cities, such as Jericho and Çatal Höyük, already housed thousands of inhabitants – far beyond the reach of Dunbar’s Number.

That in itself presented a singular challenge for humanity, because, as near as we can tell, humans in pre-civilization lived in a perpetual state of war – the “war of all against all” – waged against all those not in their own tribes.

At the end of May 2008, we saw photos of a newly discovered tribe in the far reaches of the Amazon, who reacted to the presence of an aircraft by firing bows at it. Human beings possess an inherent xenophobia, and the boundaries those in the “in group” conform to the limits of Dunbar’s Number.

Given this, how did we all come to live together in ever-greater numbers? Simply this: the cultural software of civilization provided a greater selection advantage than that afforded by the tribal order which preceded it. Civilization is a broader form of sharing, where altruism is replaced by roles: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. In civilization we share the manifold burdens of life by specializing, then we trade these specialized goods and services amongst ourselves. And it works.

Civilized human beings live in greater numbers, with greater population density, than pre-civilized cultures. It does not work perfectly: we have crime and poverty precisely because there are people in our cities who can fall through the “safety net” of civilized society. These eternal blights are the specific diseases of civilization. Yet the upsides of this broader and more diffuse form of sharing so outweighed the downsides that these evils have been tacitly acknowledged as the “price of progress.”

So things continued, merrily, for the last ten thousand years. Cities rose and fell; empires rose and fell; cultures and languages and entire peoples rose up suddenly, only to vanish just as quickly. All along the way, we continued adding to our cultural software. We learned – fairly early on – to record our learning in permanent form. We codified the essential elements of the software of civilization in laws and commandments.

We experimented with every form of human social organization, from the military dictatorship of Sparta, to the centralized bureaucracy of China, to the open democracy of Athens, to the chaotic anarchism of the Paris Commune. At each step along the way, we passed these lessons along, in a unbroken chain, to the generations that followed.

We are the children of nearly five hundred generations of civilization. The lessons learned over that immense span of time have brought us to the threshold of a revolution as comprehensive as that which obsolesced our tribal natures and replaced them with more civilized forms. Once again, the selection pressures of sociability force us into a narrow passage, toward another birth.

II: Where Are We Going?

We know that our amazingly comprehensive social skills are located in the newest part of our brain; we also know that they are among the last capabilities to mature during our cognitive development. Our sociability depends upon so much: a strong command of language, the ability to empathize and sympathize, the ability to consider the wants and needs of others, the ability to give freely of one’s self – altruism. At any point this complex and delicate process can be interrupted, by nature or by nurture.

My own nephew, Alexander, was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder at the end of 2005. For leading-edge brain researchers, autism represents a natural failure of the brain’s inherent capability to model the behavior of others. The hundred and fifty people running around inside of the head of someone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder are shaped differently than the ones running about in mine; they still exist, but they are not (in an admittedly subjective assessment) as complete. Now that we know roughly what autism is, we work with these children intensively, because, while they lack certain inherent features we associate with normalcy, these children, if diagnosed early enough, can learn to become much more sensitive to the world-views and feelings of others.

My nephew attended a state-of-the-art pre-school in his San Diego suburb, where autistic children and “normal” children (such as his year-younger brother, Andrew) mix freely, because it is now known that the autistic children can and will learn necessary social skills through this continuous interaction. Alexander has now been mainstreamed, while my younger nephew remains as a “peer” in this school, showing other children how to be a fully socialized human being.

Then there are the children who have suffered neglect or abuse. Not having been nurtured themselves, they have not learned how to nurture others. This deficit manifests as emotional withdrawal, or in anti-social behaviors. Children who have not received love can not find it within themselves to love others. It is not that love is learned, per se, but rather, that we learn to recognize it as others demonstrate it toward us. The drive to connect with another human being, although entirely inherent, can be so confused, or so atrophied through disuse (these areas of the brain, if under-stimulated, will die away, leaving the child with a permanent deficit), that the child essentially becomes locked into a solitary world, unable to initiate or maintain the social relationships essential to success.

None of us are perfect; all of us feel embarrassment and disappointment and awkwardness in a range of social situations. Yet those sensations, of themselves, are proof our normalcy: we sense our social shortcomings. We had little awareness of our social nature when we were young. Only as we matured, turning the corner into tweenhood, did we rise into an awareness of the strong social bonds which form the largest part of our experience as human beings. For each and every one of us, this is a painful experience.

The brain, furiously making connections between regions which have been developing from before birth, integrates our comprehensive understanding of human behavior, our own emotional state, and our perceptions of the actions and emotions of others to create a model of how we are viewed by others, our “social standing”. It is this that natural selection has driven us to optimize: individuals with the highest social standing get the lion’s share of attention, affection and resources.

In particular, this burden lies heaviest on young women, who have the additional selection pressure (now more-or-less vestigial) driving them to form the social bonds of altruism with their peers which would, in prehistoric times, lead to greater help with childbearing and child-rearing. Young women emerge into a social consciousness so rich and so complex it makes young men look nearly autistic in comparison.

It is the reason why young woman invest themselves so wholly in their looks, in their friends, in their cliques, in the “in group” and the “out group”. Films like Heathers (one of my personal favorites) and Mean Girls tell tales as old as humanity: the rise into social consciousness of that most social of all the animals on the planet – the young woman.

It also provides some explanation for why young women are often emotionally overwrought. It isn’t just hormones. It’s the rising awareness of a vast social game that they don’t know how to play, with rules taught only through trial and error. Every mistake is potentially fatal, every success fleeting. And each of these moments of singular significance are amplified by a genetic imperative, a drive to connect, which leaves them helpless. Resistance is futile, and engagement only brings more learning, and more pain.

Oh, and we just made things a whole lot more complicated.

This generation of young adults, coming of age just now, have access to the best tools for connection and communication created by our species.

A few years ago, these kids, bounded by proximity and temporality, took their cues from their immediate peers. But now these connections can be forged via text messages, or MySpace pages, or YouTube videos, and so on. An average fifteen year-old girl might send and receive a hundred text messages in a single day and think nothing of it. Her inherent drive to connect has been freed from space and time; she can reach out everywhere, at any time; she can be reached anywhere, anytime. We have added a technological dimension – an intense and comprehensive acceleration – to a wholly natural process.

During the two hundred years of the industrial revolution, we amplified our capability for physical work. Steam engines and electric motors replaced muscle. As we moved from physical labor to monitoring and control of our machines, our capacity for work exploded, transforming the world. Still, these changes were entirely external. They did not affect our nature as social beings, but simply extended our physical capabilities. Now – just now – we have moved beyond the physical extension of our capabilities into a comprehensive amplification of our social nature. The mobile and the Internet are already transforming the human world as utterly as the steam engine transformed the landscape; but this transformation is happening in eighth-time.

The transition to industrialization, which took about a hundred years to complete, seems slow when compared to the rise of the Human Network, which will take about fifteen years, end-to-end.

Already, half of humanity owns a mobile phone; within about three years, three-quarters of the planet will own a mobile. That’s everyone except for the most desperately poor among us. No one, anywhere, expected this, because no one reckoned on this most basic of all human drives – the need to connect. The mobile is the steam engine, the electric motor, and the internal combustion engine of the 21st century: every bit of the potential framed by each of these enormous innovations now rests comfortably in the palm of three and a half billion hands.

Getting the tools for the amplification of our social natures is only half the story. That’s just hardware. What really counts is the software. And that’s why we turn, at the end of this tale, to Bey, the child conceived by Neil and Kylin, back in the last days of 1998.

III: Who Will Lead the Way?

Hardware is not enough. We spent fifty thousand years in idle, despite the best cognitive hardware on the planet, before anything truly interesting occurred. We are ensuring that every single person on Earth has a connection to the Human Network, but that doesn’t mean any of us know how to use it. Still, we are learning. And humans excel at learning from one another.

A recent study run with young chimps and toddlers showed that the chimps surpassed the toddlers in their cognitive capabilities, but that the toddlers far surpassed the chimpanzees in their ability to “ape” behavior. Humans learn by mimesis: the observation of our parents, our peers, our mentors and teachers. (Which is why the injunction, “Do as I say, not as I do,” never works.) As such, we closely observe each other to learn what works, and we copy it. This mimetic behavior, which used to be constrained by distance, has itself become a global phenomenon. Whatever works gets copied widely. It could be a good behavior, or a bad behavior: the only metric is the success of the behavior. If it achieves its ends, it will be observed and copied, widely and nearly instantaneously.

It took us two thousand generations to build up the cognitive software for civilization, as individual tribes made the same discoveries, independently, but lacked the means to share them. Even the diffusion of agriculture depended more on the migration of whole peoples than the dissemination of knowledge.

Today, a clever tip finds its way onto YouTube in minutes, a rumor can sweep through a nation in the time it takes to forward a text message, and a blog post can cut billions off the valuation of a publicly listed firm. We are “hyperconnected,” but, newly delivered into this state of being, we are still quite immature.

We know how to be social beings, but never before have we been globally and instantaneously social. For this reason, we are learning – and each of are intensely involved in this education. We are learning from ourselves, applying the lessons of our own socialization, to see if these lessons work in this new world. That’s pure constructivism. We are learning from each other, watching our peers as intently as any young woman would, when desperately trying to defend her position in an ever-more-competitive social circle. That’s pure mimesis. Together they’re a potent combination, and, when multiplied by the accelerator of the Human Network, it means we’re learning very rapidly indeed. Learning is never complete: ignorance is a permanent feature of the human condition. That said, competence can come quickly, when the students are wholly engaged in learning. As we are.

This means that, in another two or three years, when Bey is old enough to get her first mobile phone, at precisely the moment that she begins to awaken to her intense cognitive capabilities as social animal, those abilities will have been so comprehensively rewritten and transformed by the new software of sociability that she will find herself suddenly both intensely empowered and, most likely, entirely overwhelmed.

Bey will be among the first children who become socially aware within a world where the definition, rules and operating principles of the social universe have utterly changed. That transformation will not be complete, by any means, but it will be far enough along that the basic features and outlines of 21st century social civilization will be present.

This is the only social world that she will ever know. For her, social connections will not end with the classroom and the home. Social connectivity is already edging toward a state where everyone is directly connected to everyone else, all six point eight billion of us, a world where each of us can directly forge a relationship with everyone else. Bey will not know any of the boundaries we consider natural and solid, the boundaries of the classroom, the suburb, the family, or the nation: under the pressure of this intense hyperconnectivity, all of those boundaries dissolve, or are blown over. Only connect. Connection is all that matters. The social instinct, hyperempowered and taken to an entirely new level by hyperconnectivity, is rewriting the rules of culture.

This world looks utterly alien to us, yet it is already here. Author William Gibson says, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” We have moments of hyperconnectivity – as in the thirty-six hours after the Sichuan earthquake, when text messaging and other tools for hyperconnectivity spontaneously created a Human Network, sharing news of the tragedy and working to locate missing people. Such moments are becoming more frequent, gradually merging into a continuum.

But what about Bey? What lessons can we offer her? She will learn everything she can from everyone, everywhere. She will span the planet for best practices in sociability, because she can, and because she must. She will outpace us in every way, because the simultaneous emergence of the Human Network and her own social capabilities makes her potent in ways we can’t wholly predict. Her powers will be greater, but that also means that her crash will be more spectacular – apocalyptic, really – when she tries something, and fails.

We do know this: just as Furby created a new ontological class of being, a nether zone between animate and inanimate which children instinctively recognized and embraced, Bey will be living a new ontology of sociability, connection and relationship. These girls, just on the verge of becoming young women, will lead the way into this new world. They will be the first masters of the Human Network.

I want to close this essay with both a warning — and a hope. The warning is simply this: these young women will be vastly more powerful than we are. Harnessing the immense energies of the Human Network will be, quite literally, child’s play to them. If they sense they are being wronged, and can build a network of peers who concur in this assessment, you will need to watch out, because they will have the capacity to destroy you with a word. We already see students threatening educators with damage to their reputations; multiply that a billion-fold and you can sense the potential for catastrophe. I am not saying that this will inevitably happen, only that it can.

At the same time, despite their thermonuclear potential, it would be a mistake to handle these kids too delicately. Children are all passion, but lack wisdom. Adults have plenty of wisdom, but, all too often, we lack passion.

We need to build strong relationships with these children, using the Human Network of hyperconnectivity, so that each of us can infect the other. We need their passion to move forward without fear in a world where the human universe has shifted beneath our feet. They desperately need our wisdom to guide them into healthy and stable relationships throughout the Human Network. To do this, we need to bring these kids inside our heads, and we need to get ourselves into theirs, so that, together, we can make sense of a world so new, and so different, that we all seem but little children in a big world.