Part One: Hyperconnected
We have been human beings for perhaps sixty thousand years. In all that time, our genome, the twenty-five thousand genes and three billion base pairs which comprise the source code for Homo Sapiens Sapiens has hardly changed.
For at least three thousand generations, we’ve had big brains to think with, a descended larynx to speak with, and opposable thumbs to grasp with. Yet, for almost ninety percent of that enormous span of time, humanity remained a static presence.
Our ancestors entered the world and passed on from it, but the patterns of culture remained remarkably stable, persistent and conservative. This posed a conundrum for paleoanthropologists, long known as ‘the sapient paradox’: if we had the “kit” for it, why did civilization take so long to arise?
Cambridge archeologist Colin Renfrew (more formally, Baron Renfrew of Kamisthorn) recently proposed an answer. We may have had great hardware, but it took a long, long time for humans to develop software which made full use of it.
We had to pass through symbolization, investing the outer world with inner meaning (in the process, creating some great art), before we could begin to develop the highly symbolic processes of cities, culture, law, and government.
About ten thousand years ago, the hidden interiority of humanity, passed down through myths and teachings and dreamings, built up a cultural reservoir of social capacity which overtopped the dam of the conservative patterns of humanity. We booted up (as it were) into a culture now so familiar we rarely take notice of it.
Cultures located along similar climatic regions on the planet’s surface could and did share innovations, most significantly along the broad swath of land from the Yangtze to the Rhine. This sharing accelerated the development of each of the populations connected together through the material flow of plants and animals and the immaterial flow of ideas and symbols. Where sharing had been a local and generational project for fifty thousand years, it suddenly became a geographical project across nearly half the diameter of the planet. Cities emerged in Anatolia, Palestine and the Fertile Crescent, and civilization spread out, over the next five hundred generations, to cover all of Eurasia.
Civilization proved another conservative force in human culture; despite the huge increases in population, the social order of Jericho looks little different from those of Imperial Rome or the Qin Dynasty or Medieval France.
But when Gutenberg (borrowing from the Chinese) perfected moveable type, he led the way to another and even broader form of cultural sharing; literacy became widespread in the aftermath of the printing press, and savants throughout the Europe published their insights, sharing their own expertise, producing the Enlightenment and igniting the Scientific Revolution. Peer-review, although portrayed today as a conservative force, initially acted as a radical intellectual accelerant, a mental hormone which again amplified the engines of human culture, leading directly to the Industrial Age.
The conservative empires fell, replaced by demos, the people: the cogs and wheels of a new system of the world which allowed for massive cities, massive markets, mass media, massive growth in human knowledge, and a new type of radicalism, known as Liberalism, which asserted the freedom of capital, labor, and people. That Liberalism, after two hundred and fifty years of ascendancy, has become the conservative order of culture, and faces its own existential threat, the result of another innovation in sharing.
Last month, The Economist, that fountainhead of Ur-Liberalism, proclaimed humanity “halfway there.” Somewhere in the last few months, half the population of the planet became mobile telephone subscribers. In a decade’s time we’ve gone from half the world having never made a telephone call to half the world owning their own mobile.
It took nearly a decade to get to the first billion, four years to the second, eighteen months to the third, and – sometime during 2011 – over five billion of us will be connected. Mobile handsets will soon be in the hands of everyone except the billion and a half extremely poor; microfinance organizations like Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank work hard to ensure that even this destitute minority have access to mobiles. Why? Mobiles may be the most potent tool yet invented for the elimination of poverty.
To those of us in the developed word this seems a questionable assertion. For us, mobiles are mainly social accelerants: no one is ever late anymore, just delayed. But, for entire populations who have never had access to instantaneous global communication, the mobile unleashes the innate, inherent and inalienable capabilities of sociability. Sociability has always been the cornerstone to human effectiveness. Being social has always been the best way to get ahead.
Until recently, we’d seen little to correlate mobiles with human economic development. But, here again, we see the gap between raw hardware capabilities and their expression in cultural software. Handing someone a mobile is not the end of the story, but the beginning. Nor is this purely a phenomenon of the developing world, or of the poor. We had the Web for almost a decade before we really started to work it toward its potential. Wikis were invented in 1995, marking it as an early web technology; the idea of Wikipedia took another six years.
Even SMS, the true carrier of the Human Network, had been dismissed by the telecommunications giants as uninteresting, a sideshow. Last year we sent forty three billion text messages.
We have a drive to connect and socialize: this drive has now been accelerated and amplified as comprehensively as the steam engine amplified human strength two hundred and fifty years ago. Just as the steam engine initiated the transformation of the natural landscape into man-made artifice, the ‘hyperconnectivity’ engendered by these new toys is transforming the human landscape of social relations. This time around, fifty thousand years of cultural development will collapse into about twenty.
This is coming as a bit of a shock.
Part Two: Hypermimesis
I have two nephews, Alexander and Andrew, born in 2001, and 2002. Alexander watched his mother mousing around on her laptop, and – from about 18 months – reached out to play with the mouse, imitating her actions. By age three Alex had a fair degree of control over the mouse; his younger brother watched him at play, and copied his actions. Soon, both wrestled for control of a mouse that both had mastered. Children are experts in mimesis – learning by imitation. It’s been shown that young chimpanzees regularly outscore human toddlers on cognitive tasks, while the children far surpass the chimps in their ability to “ape” behavior. We are built to observe and reproduce the behaviors of our parents, our mentors and our peers.
Our peers now number three and a half billion.
Whenever any one of us displays a new behavior in a hyperconnected context, that behavior is inherently transparent, visible and observed. If that behavior is successful, it is immediately copied by those who witnessed the behavior, then copied by those who witness that behavior, and those who witnessed that behavior, and so on. Very quickly, that behavior becomes part of the global behavioral kit. As its first-order emergent quality, hyperconnectivity produces hypermimesis, the unprecedented acceleration of the natural processes of observational learning, where each behavioral innovation is distributed globally and instantaneously.
Only a decade ago the network was all hardware and raw potential, but we are learning fast, and this learning is pervasive. Behaviors, once slowly copied from generation to generation, then, still slowly, from location to location, now ‘hyperdistribute’ themselves via the Human Network. We all learn from each other with every text we send, and each new insight becomes part of the new software of a new civilization.
We still do not know much about this nascent cultural form, even as its pieces pop out of the ether all around us. We know that it is fluid, flexible, mobile, pervasive and inexorable. We know that it does not allow for the neat proprieties of privacy and secrecy and ownership which define the fundamental ground of Liberal civilization. We know that, even as it grows, it encounters conservative forces intent on moderating its impact. Yet every assault, every tariff, every law designed to constrain this Human Network has failed.
Record companies and movie studios try to block distribution channels they can not control and can not tariff; every attempt to control distribution only results in an ever-more-pervasive and ever-more-difficult to detect “Darknet.”
A band of reporters and bloggers (some of whom are in this room today) took down the Attorney General of the United States, despite the best attempts of Washington’s political machinery to obfuscate then overload the processes of transparency and oversight. Each of these singular examples would have been literally unthinkable a decade ago, but today they are the facts on the ground, unmistakable signs of the potency of this new cultural order.
It is as though we have all been shoved into the same room, a post-modern Panopticon, where everyone watches everyone else, can speak with everyone else, can work with everyone else. We can send out a call to “find the others,” for any cause, and watch in wonder as millions raise their hands. Any fringe (noble or diabolical) multiplied across three and a half billion adds up to substantial numbers. Amplified by the Human Network, the bonds of affinity have delivered us over to a new kind of mob rule.
This shows up, at its most complete, in Wikipedia, which (warts and all) represents the first attempt to survey and capture the knowledge of the entire human race, rather than only its scientific and academic elites. A project of the mob, for the mob, and by the mob, Wikipedia is the mob rule of factual knowledge. Its phenomenal success demonstrates beyond all doubt how the calculus of civilization has shifted away from its Liberal basis. In Liberalism, knowledge is a scarce resource, managed by elites: the more scarce knowledge is, the more highly valued that knowledge, and the elites which conserve it. Wikipedia turns that assertion inside out: the more something is shared the more valuable it becomes. These newly disproportionate returns on the investment in altruism now trump the ‘virtue of selfishness.’
Paradoxically, Wikipedia is not at all democratic, nor is it actually transparent, though it gives the appearance of both. Investigations conducted by The Register in the UK and other media outlets have shown that the “encyclopedia anyone can edit” is, in fact, tightly regulated by a close network of hyperconnected peers, the “Wikipedians.”
This premise is borne out by the unpleasant fact that article submissions to Wikipedia are being rejected at an ever-increasing rate. Wikipedia’s growth has slowed, and may someday grind to a halt, not because it has somehow encompassed the totality of human knowledge, but because it is the front line of a new kind of warfare, a battle both semantic and civilizational. In this battle, we can see the tracings of hyperpolitics, the politics of era of hyperconnectivity.
To outsiders like myself, who critique their increasingly draconian behavior, Wikipedians have a simple response: “We are holding the line against chaos.” Wikipedians honestly believe that, in keeping Wikipedia from such effluvia as endless articles on anime characters, or biographies of living persons deemed “insufficiently notable,” they keep their resource “pure.” This is an essentially conservative impulse, as befits the temperament of a community of individuals who are, at heart, librarians and archivists.
The mechanisms through which this purity is maintained, however, are hardly conservative.
Hyperconnected, the Wikipedians create “sock puppet” personae to argue their points on discussion pages, using back-channel, non-transparent communications with other Wikipedians to amass the support (both numerically and rhetorically) to enforce their dictates. Those who attempt to counter the fixed opinion of any network of Wikipedians encounter a buzz-saw of defiance, and, almost invariably, withdraw in defeat.
Now that this ‘Great Game’ has been exposed, hypermimesis comes into play. The next time an individual or community gets knocked back, they have an option: they can choose to “go nuclear” on Wikipedia, using the tools of hyperconnectivity to generate such a storm of protest, from so many angles of attack, that the Wikipedians find themselves overwhelmed, backed into the buzz-saw of their own creation.
This will probably engender even more conservative reaction from the Wikipedians, until, in fairly short order, the most vital center of human knowledge creation in the history of our species becomes entirely fossilized.
Or, just possibly, Wikipedians will bow to the inevitable, embrace the chaos, and find a way to make it work.
That choice, writ large, is the same that confronts us in every aspect of our lives. The entire human social sphere faces the increasing pressures of hyperconnectivity, which arrive hand-in-hand with an increasing empowerment (‘hyperempowerment’) by means of hypermimesis. All of our mass social institutions, developed at the start of the Liberal era, are backed up against the same buzz saw.
Politics, as the most encompassing of our mass institutions, now balances on a knife edge between a past which no longer works and a future of chaos.
Part Three: No Governor
Last Monday, as I waited at San Francisco International for a flight to Logan, I used my mobile to snap some photos of the status board (cheerfully informing me of my delayed departure), which I immediately uploaded to Flickr. As I waited at the gate, I engaged in a playful banter with two women d’un certain age, that clever sort of casual conversation one has with fellow travelers. After we boarded the flight, one of the women approached me. “I just wanted you to know, that other woman, she works for the Treasury Department. And you were making her nervous when you took those photos.”
Now here’s the thing: I wanted to share the frustrations of my journey with my many friends, both in Australia and America, who track my comings and goings on Twitter, Flickr and Facebook. Sharing makes the unpleasant endurable. In that moment of confrontation, I found myself thrust into a realization that had been building over the last four years: Sharing is the threat. Not just a threat. It is the whole of the thing.
A photo snapped on my mobile becomes instantaneously and pervasively visible. No wonder she’s nervous: in my simple, honest and entirely human act of sharing, it becomes immediately apparent that any pretensions to control, or limitation, or the exercise of power have already collapsed into shell-shocked impotence.
We are asked to believe that hyperconnectivity can be embraced by political campaigns, and by politicians in power. We are asked to believe that everything we already know to be true about the accelerating disintegration of hierarchies of all kinds – economic, academic, cultural – will somehow magically suspend itself for the political process. That, somehow, politics will be different.
Bullshit. Ladies and gentlemen, don’t believe a word of it. It’s whistling past the graveyard. It’s clapping for Tinkerbelle. Obama may be the best thing since sliced bread, but this isn’t a crisis of leadership. This is not an emergency. And my amateur photography did not bring down the curtain on the Republic.
For the first time, we have a political campaign embracing hyperconnectivity. As is always the case with political campaigns, it is a means to an end. The Obama campaign has built a nationwide social network (using lovely, old-fashioned, human techniques), then activated it to compete in the primaries, dominate in the caucuses, and secure the Democratic nomination. That network is being activated again to win the general election.
Then what? Three months ago, I put this question directly to an Obama field organizer. He paused, as if he’d never given the question any thought, before answering, “I don’t know. I don’t believe anyone’s thought that far ahead.” There are now some statements from candidate Obama about what he’d like to see this network become. They are, of course, noble sentiments. They matter not at all. The mob, now mobilized, will do as it pleases. Obama can lead by example, can encourage or scold as occasion warrants, but he can not control. Not with all the King’s horses and all the King’s men.
And yes, that’s scary.
Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a rapid descent into the Bellum omnia contra omnes, Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all.” A hyperconnected polity – whether composed of a hundred individuals or a hundred thousand – has resources at its disposal which exponentially amplify its capabilities. Hyperconnectivity begets hypermimesis begets hyperempowerment. After the arms race comes the war.
Conserved across nearly four thousand generations, the social fabric will warp and convulse as various polities actualize their hyperempowerment in the cultural equivalent of nuclear exchanges. Eventually (one hopes, with hypermimesis, rather quickly) we will learn to contain these most explosive forces. We will learn that even though we can push the button, we’re far better off refraining. At that point, as in the era of superpower Realpolitik, the action will shift to a few tens of thousands of ‘little’ conflicts, the hyperconnected equivalents of the endless civil wars which plagued Asia, Africa and Latin America during the Cold War.
Naturally, governments will seek to control and mediate these emerging conflicts. This will only result in the guns being trained upon them. The power redistributions of the 21st century have dealt representative democracies out. Representative democracies are a poor fit to the challenges ahead, and ‘rebooting’ them is not enough. The future looks nothing like democracy, because democracy, which sought to empower the individual, is being obsolesced by a social order which hyperempowers him.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously pronounced that we should “Never underestimate the ability of a small group of committed individuals to change the world.” Mead spoke truthfully, and prophetically. We are all committed, we are all passionate. We merely lacked the lever to effectively translate the force of our commitment and passion into power. That lever has arrived, in my hand and yours.
And now, the world’s going to move – for all of us.