Paperworks / Padworks

I: Paper, works

At the end of May I received an email from a senior official at the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.  DEECD was in the midst of issuing an RFP, looking for new content to populate FUSE (Find, Use, Share, Education), an important component of ULTRANET, the mega-über-supremo educational intranet meant to solve everyone’s educational problems for all time.  Or, well, perhaps I overstate the matter.  But it could be a big deal.

The respondents to the RFP were organizations who already had working relationships with DEECD, and therefore were both familiar with DEECD processes and had been vetted in their earlier relationships.  This meant that the entire RFP to submissions could be telescoped down to just a bit less than three weeks.  The official asked me if I’d be interested in being one of the external reviewers for these proposals as they passed through an official evaluation process.  I said I’d be happy to do so, and asked how many proposals I’d have to review.  “I doubt it will be more than thirty or forty,” he replied.  Which seemed quite reasonable.

As is inevitably the case, most of the proposals landed in the DEECD mailbox just a few hours before the deadline for submissions.  But the RFP didn’t result in thirty or forty proposals.  The total came to almost ninety.  All of which I had to review and evaluate in the thirty-six hours between the time they landed in my inbox and the start of the formal evaluation meeting.  Oh, and first I needed to print them out, because there was no way I’d be able to do that much reading in front of my computer.

Let’s face it – although we do sit and read our laptop screens all day long, we rarely read anything longer than a few paragraphs.  If it passes 300 words, it tips the balance into ‘tl;dr’ (too long; didn’t read) territory, and unless it’s vital for our employment or well-being, we tend to skip it and move along to the next little tidbit.  Having to sit and read through well over nine hundred pages of proposals on my laptop was a bridge too far. I set off to the print shop around the corner from my flat, to have the whole mess printed out.  That took nearly 24 hours by itself – and cost an ungodly sum.  I was left with a huge, heavy box of paper which I could barely lug back to my flat.  For the next 36 hours, this box would be my ball and chain.  I’d have to take it with me to the meeting in Melbourne, which meant packing it for the flight, checking it as baggage, lugging it to my hotel room, and so forth, all while trying to digest its contents.

How the heck was that going to work?

This is when I looked at my iPad.  Then I looked back at the box.  Then back at the iPad.  Then back at the box.  I’d gotten my iPad barely a week before – when they first arrived in Australia – and I was planning on taking it on this trip, but without an accompanying laptop.  This, for me, would be a bit of a test.  For the last decade I’d never traveled anywhere without my laptop.  Could I manage a business trip with just my iPad?  I looked back at the iPad.  Then at the box.  You could practically hear the penny drop.

I immediately began copying all these nine hundred-plus pages of proposals and accompanying documentation from my laptop to the storage utility Dropbox.  Dropbox gives you 2 GB of free Internet storage, with an option to rent more space, if you need it.  Dropbox also has an iPad app (free) – so as soon as the files were uploaded to Dropbox, I could access them from my iPad.

I should take a moment and talk about the model of the iPad I own.  I ordered the 16 GB version – the smallest storage size offered by Apple – but I got the 3G upgrade, paired with Telstra’s most excellent pre-paid NextG service.  My rationale was that I imagined this iPad would be a ‘cloud-centric’ device.  The ‘cloud’ is a term that’s come into use quite recently.  It means software is hosted somewhere out there on the Internet – the ‘cloud’ – rather than residing locally on your computer.  Gmail is a good example of a software that’s ‘in the cloud’.  Facebook is another.  Twitter, another.   Much of what we do with our computers – iPad included – involves software accessed over the Internet.  Many of the apps for sale in Apple’s iTunes App Store are useless or pointless without an Internet connection – these are the sorts of applications which break down the neat boundary between the computer and the cloud.  Cloud computing has been growing in importance over the last decade; by the end of this one it will simply be the way things work.  Your iPad will be your window onto the cloud, onto everything you have within that cloud: your email, your documents, your calendar, your contacts, etc.

I like to live in the future, so I made sure that my iPad didn’t have too much storage – which forces me to use the cloud as much as possible.  In this case, that was precisely the right decision, because I ditched the ten-kilo box of paperwork and boarded my flight to Melbourne with my iPad at my side.  I poured through the proposals, one after another, bringing them up in Dropbox, evaluating them, making some notes in my (paper) notebook, then moving along to the next one.  My iPad gave me a fluidity and speed that I could never have had with that box of paper.

When I arrived at my hotel, I had another set of two large boxes waiting for me.  Here again were the proposals, carefully ordered and placed into several large, ringed binders.  I’d be expected to tote these to the evaluation meeting.  Fortunately, that was only a few floors above my hotel room.  That said, it was a bit of a struggle to get those boxes and my luggage into the elevator and up to the meeting room.  I put those boxes down – and never looked at them again.  As the rest of the evaluation panel dug through their boxes to pull out the relevant proposals, I did a few motions with my fingertips, and found myself on the same page.

Yes, they got a bit jealous.

We finished the evaluation on time and quite successfully, and at the end of the day I left my boxes with the DEECD coordinator, thanking her for her hard work printing all these materials, but begging off.  She understood completely.  I flew home, lighter than I might otherwise have, had I stuck to paper.

For at least the past thirty years – which is about the duration of the personal computer revolution – people have been talking about the advent of the paperless office.  Truth be told, we use more paper in our offices than ever before, our printers constantly at work with letters, notices, emails, and so forth.  We haven’t been able to make the leap to a paperless office – despite our comprehensive ability to manipulate documents digitally – because we lacked something that could actually replace paper.  Computers as we’ve known them simply can’t replace a piece of paper. For a whole host of reasons, it just never worked.  To move to a paperless office – and a paperless classroom – we had to invent something that could supplant paper.  We have it now.  After a lot of false starts, tablet computing has finally arrived –– and it’s here to stay.

I can sit here, iPad in hand, and have access to every single document that I have ever written.  You will soon have access to every single document you might ever need, right here, right now.  We’re not 100% there yet – but that’s not the fault of the device.  We’re going to need to make some adjustments to our IT strategies, so that we can have a pervasively available document environment.  At that point, your iPad becomes the page which contains all other pages within it.  You’ll never be without the document you need at the time you need it.

Nor will we confine ourselves to text.  The world is richer than that.  iPad is the lightbox that contains all photographs within it, it is the television which receives every bit of video produced by anyone – professional or amateur – ever.  It is already the radio (Pocket Tunes app) which receives almost every major radio station broadcasting anywhere in the world.  And it is every one of a hundred-million-plus websites and maybe a trillion web pages.  All of this is here, right here in the palm of your hand.

What matters now is how we put all of this to work.

II: Pad, works

Let’s project ourselves into the future just a little bit – say around ten years.  It’s 2020, and we’ve had iPads for a whole decade.  The iPads of 2020 will be vastly more powerful than the ones in use today, because of something known as Moore’s Law.  This law states that computers double in power every twenty-four months.  Ten years is five doublings, or 32 times.  That rule extends to the display as well as the computer.  The ‘Retina Display’ recently released on Apple’s iPhone 4 shows us where that technology is going – displays so fine that you can’t make out the individual pixels with your eye.  The screen of your iPad version 11 will be visually indistinguishable from a sheet of paper.  The device itself will be thinner and lighter than the current model.  Battery technology improves at about 10% a year, so half the weight of the battery – which is the heaviest component of the iPad – will disappear.  You’ll still get at least ten hours of use, that’s something that’s considered essential to your experience as a user.  And you’ll still be connected to the mobile network.

The mobile network of 2020 will look quite different from the mobile network of 2010.  Right now we’re just on the cusp of moving into 4th generation mobile broadband technology, known colloquially as LTE, or Long-Term Evolution.   Where you might get speeds of 7 megabits per second with NextG mobile broadband – under the best conditions – LTE promises speeds of 100 megabits.  That’s as good as a wired connection – as fast as anything promised by the National Broadband Network!  In a decade’s time we’ll be moving through 5th generation and possibly into 6th generation mobile technologies, with speeds approaching a gigabit, a billion bits per second.  That may sound like a lot, but again, it represents roughly 32 times the capacity of the mobile broadband networks of today.  Moore’s Law has a broad reach, and will transform every component of the iPad.

iPad will have thirty-two times the storage, not that we’ll need it, given that we’ll be connected to the cloud at gigabit speeds, but if it’s there, someone will find use for the two terabytes or more included in our iPad.  (Perhaps a full copy of Wikipedia?  Or all of the books published before 1915?)  All of this still cost just $700.  If you want to spend less – and have a correspondingly less-powerful device, you’ll have that option.  I suspect you’ll be able to pick up an entry-level device – the equivalent of iPad 7, perhaps – for $49 at JB HiFi.

What sorts of things will the iPad 10 be capable of?  How do we put all of that power to work?  First off, iPad will be able to see and hear in meaningful ways.  Voice recognition and computer vision are two technologies which are on the threshold of becoming ‘twenty year overnight successes’.  We can already speak to our computers, and, most of the time, they can understand us.  With devices like the Xbox Kinect, cameras allow the computer to see the world around, and recognize bits of it.  Your iPad will hear you, understand your voice, and follow your commands.  It will also be able to recognize your face, your motions, and your emotions.

It’s not clear that computers as we know them today – that is, desktops and laptops – will be common in a decade’s time.  They may still be employed in very specialized tasks.  For almost everything else, we will be using our iPads.  They’ll rarely leave our sides.  They will become so pervasive that in many environments – around the home, in the office, or at school – we will simply have a supply of them sufficient to the task.  When everything is so well connected, you don’t need to have personal information stored in a specific iPad.  You will be able to pick up any iPad and – almost instantaneously – the custom features which mark that device as uniquely yours will be downloaded into it.

All of this is possible.  Whether any of it eventuates depends on a whole host of factors we can’t yet see clearly.  People may find voice recognition more of an annoyance than an affordance.  The idea of your iPad watching you might seem creepy to some people.  But consider this: I have a good friend who has two elderly parents: his dad is in his early 80s, his mom is in her mid-70s.  He lives in Boston while they live in Northern California.  But he needs to keep in touch, he needs to have a look in.  Next year, when iPad acquires a forward-facing camera – so it can be used for video conferencing – he’ll buy them an iPad, and install it on the wall of their kitchen, stuck on there with Velcro, so that he can ring in anytime, and check on them, and they can ring him, anytime.  It’s a bit ‘Jetsons’, when you think about it.  And that’s just what will happen next year.  By 2020 the iPad will be able to track your progress around the house, monitor what prescriptions you’ve taken (or missed), whether you’ve left the house, and for how long.  It’ll be a basic accessory, necessary for everyone caring for someone in their final years – or in their first ones.

Now that we’ve established the basic capabilities and expectations for this device, let’s imagine them in the hands of students everywhere throughout Australia.  No student, however poor, will be without their own iPad – the Government of the day will see to that.  These students of 2020 are at least as well connected as you are, as their parents are, as anyone is.  To them, iPads are not new things; they’ve always been around.  They grew up in a world where touch is the default interface.  A computer mouse, for them, seems as archaic as a manual typewriter does to us.  They’re also quite accustomed to being immersed within a field of very-high-speed mobile broadband.  They just expect it to be ‘on’, everywhere they go, and expect that they will have access to it as needed.

How do we make education in 2020 meet their expectations?  This is not the universe of ‘chalk and talk’.  This is a world where the classroom walls have been effectively leveled by the pervasive presence of the network, and a device which can display anything on that network.  This is a world where education can be provided anywhere, on demand, as called for.  This is a world where the constructivist premise of learning-by-doing can be implemented beyond year two.  Where a student working on an engine can stare at a three-dimensional breakout model of the components while engaging in a conversation with an instructor half a continent away.  Where a student learning French can actually engage with a French student learning English, and do so without much more than a press of a few buttons.  Where a student learning about the Eureka Stockade can survey the ground, iPad in hand, and find within the device hidden depths to the history.  iPad is the handheld schoolhouse, and it is, in many ways, the thing that replaces the chalkboard, the classroom, and the library.

But iPad does not replace the educator.  We need to be very clear on that, because even as educational resources multiply beyond our wildest hopes –more on that presently – students still need someone to guide them into understanding.  The more we virtualize the educational process, the more important and singular our embodied interactions become.  Some of this will come from far away – the iPad offers opportunities for distance education undreamt of just a few years ago – but much more of it will be close up.  Even if the classroom does not survive (and I doubt it will fade away completely in the next ten years, but it will begin to erode), we will still need a place for an educator/mentor to come into contact with students.  That’s been true since the days of Socrates (probably long before that), and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.  We learn best when we learn from others.  We humans are experts in mimesis, in learning by imitation.  That kind of learning requires us to breathe the same air together.

No matter how much power we gain from the iPad, no matter how much freedom it offers, no device offers us freedom from our essential nature as social beings.  We are born to work together, we are designed to learn from one another.  iPad is an unbelievably potent addition to the educator’s toolbox, but we must remember not to let it cloud our common sense.  It should be an amplifier, not a replacement, something that lets students go further, faster than before.  But they should not go alone.

The constant danger of technology is that it can interrupt the human moment.  We can be too busy checking our messages to see the real people right before our eyes.  This is the dilemma that will face us in the age of the iPad.  Governments will see them as cost-saving devices, something that could substitute for the human touch.  If we lose touch, if we lose the human moment, we also lose the biggest part of our ability to learn.

III:  The Work of Nations

We can reasonably predict that this is the decade of the tablet, and the decade of mobile broadband.  The two of them fuse in the iPad, to produce a platform which will transform education, allowing it to happen anywhere a teacher and a student share an agreement to work together.  But what will they be working on?  Next year we’ll see the rollout of the National Curriculum, which specifies the material to be covered in core subject areas in classrooms throughout the nation.

Many educators view the National Curriculum as a mandate for a bland uniformity, a lowest-common denominator approach to instruction, which will simply leave the teacher working point-by-point through the curriculum’s arc.  This is certainly not the intent of the project’s creators.  Dr. Evan Arthur, who heads up the Digital Educational Revolution taskforce in the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, publicly refers to the National Curriculum as a ‘greenfields’, as though all expectations were essentially phantoms of the mind, a box we draw around ourselves, rather than one that objectively exists.

The National Curriculum outlines the subject areas to be covered, but says very little if anything about pedagogy.  Instructors and school systems are free to exercise their own best judgment in selecting an approach appropriate to their students, their educators, and their facilities.  That’s good news, and means that any blandness that creeps into pedagogy because of the National Curriculum is more a reflection of the educator than the educational mandate.

Precisely because it places educators and students throughout the nation onto the same page, the National Curriculum also offers up an enormous opportunity.  We know that all year nine students in Australia will be covering a particular suite of topics.  This means that every educator and every student throughout the nation can be drawing from and contributing to a ‘common wealth’ of shared materials, whether they be podcasts of lectures, educational chatrooms, lesson plans, and on and on and on.  As the years go by, this wealth of material will grow as more teachers and more students add their own contributions to it.  The National Curriculum isn’t a mandate, per se; it’s better to think of it as an empty Wikipedia.  All the article headings are there, all the taxonomy, all the cross references, but none of the content.  The next decade will see us all build up that base of content, so that by 2020, a decade’s worth of work will have resulted in something truly outstanding to offer both educators and students in their pursuit of curriculum goals.
Well, maybe.

I say all of this as if it were a sure thing.  But it isn’t.  Everyone secretly suspects the National Curriculum will ruin education.  I ask that we can see things differently.  The National Curriculum could be the savior of education in the 21st century, but in order to travel the short distance in our minds between where we are (and where we will go if we don’t change our minds) and where we need to be, we need to think of every educator in Australia as a contributor of value.  More than that, we need to think of every student in Australia as a contributor of value.  That’s the vital gap that must be crossed.  Educators spend endless hours working on lesson plans and instructional designs – they should be encouraged to share this work.  Many of them are too modest or too scared to trumpet their own hard yards – but it is something that educators and students across the nation can benefit from.  Students, as they pass through the curriculum, create their own learning materials, which must be preserved, where appropriate, for future years.

We should do this.  We need to do this.  Right now we’re dropping the best of what we have on the floor as teachers retire or move on in their careers.  This is gold that we’re letting slip through our fingers. We live in an age where we only lose something when we neglect to capture it. We can let ourselves off easy here, because we haven’t had a framework to capture and share this pedagogy.  But now we have the means to capture, a platform for sharing – the Ultranet, and a tool which brings access to everyone – the iPad.  We’ve never had these stars aligned in such a way before.  Only just now – in 2010 – is it possible to dream such big dreams.  It won’t even cost much money.  Yes, the state and federal governments will be investing in iPads and superfast broadband connections for the schools, but everything else comes from a change in our behavior, from a new sense of the full value of our activities.  We need to look at ourselves not merely as the dispensers of education to receptive students, but as engaged participant-creators working to build a lasting body of knowledge.

In so doing we tie everything together, from library science to digital citizenship, within an approach that builds shared value.  It allows a student in Bairnsdale to collaborate with another in Lorne, both working through a lesson plan developed by an educator in Katherine.  Or a teacher in Lakes Entrance to offer her expertise to a classroom in Maffra.  These kinds of things have been possible before, but the National Curriculum gives us the reason to do it.  iPad gives us the infrastructure to dream wild, and imagine how to practice some ‘creative destruction’ in the classroom – tearing down its walls in order to make the classroom a persistent, ubiquitous feature of the environment, to bring education everywhere it’s needed, to everyone who needs it, whenever they need it.

This means that all of the preceding is really part of a larger transformation, from education as this singular event that happens between ages six and twenty-two, to something that is persistent and ubiquitous; where ‘lifelong learning’ isn’t a catchphrase, but rather, a set of skills students begin to acquire as soon as they land in pre-kindy.  The wealth of materials which we will create as we learn how to share the burden of the National Curriculum across the nation have value far beyond the schoolhouse.  In a nation of immigrants, it makes sense to have these materials available, because someone is always arriving in the middle of their lives and struggling to catch up to and integrate themselves within the fabric of the nation.  Education is one way that this happens.  People also need to have increasing flexibility in their career choices, to suit a much more fluid labor market.  This means that we continuously need to learn something new, or something, perhaps, that we didn’t pay much attention to when we should have.  If we can share our learning, we can close this gap.  We can bring the best of what we teach to everyone who has the need to know.

And there we are.  But before I conclude, I should bring up the most obvious point –one so obvious that we might forget it.  The iPad is an excellent toy.  Please play with it.  I don’t mean use it.  I mean explore it.  Punch all the buttons.  Do things you shouldn’t do.  Press the big red button that says, “Don’t press me!”  Just make sure you have a backup first.

We know that children learn by exploration – that’s the foundation of Constructivism – but we forget that we ourselves also learn by exploration. The joy we feel when we play with our new toy is the feeling a child has when he confronts a box of LEGOs, or new video game – it’s the joy of exploration, the joy of learning.  That joy is foundational to us.  If we didn’t love learning, we wouldn’t be running things around here.  We’d still be in the trees.

My favorite toys on my iPad are Pocket Universe – which creates an 360-degree real-time observatory on your iPad; Pulse News – which brings some beauty to my RSS feeds; Observatory – which turns my iPad into a bit of an orrery; Air Video – which allows me to watch videos streamed from my laptop to my iPad; and GoodReader – the one app you simply must spend $1.19 on, because it is the most useful app you’ll ever own.  These are my favorites, but I own many others, and enjoy all of them.  There are literally tens of thousands to choose from, some of them educational, some, just for fun.  That’s the point: all work and no play makes iPad a dull toy.

So please, go and play.  As you do, you’ll come to recognize the hidden depths within your new toy, and you’ll probably feel that penny drop, as you come to realize that this changes everything.  Or can, if we can change ourselves.

Blue Skies

I: Cloud People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II: Eyjafjallajökull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III: Services With a Smile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everywhere

I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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