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.