I: The Dhow de Ring
For the past few thousand years, life in the southern Indian state of Kerala has followed the natural flow of tides and seasons. The coast, facing out into the Indian Ocean, is dotted with small ports crowded with ancient, tried-and-true sailing craft, known as dhows. Originally piloted by Arabian traders, the dhow has become the workhorse of the Kerala fishermen, who, when winds and tides comply, sail out into the Ocean, drop their nets, and reap a bountiful harvest of fish. Their boats full, they set sail back to shore, to the fish markets that adjoin the ports of Kerala. The fisherman have their choice of ports and markets; nothing compels them to go to a particular market to sell their fish. They might remember that their fish fetched a good price at a particular market last week, and decide to return to that port – only to find that half a dozen other dhows had the same idea. Now the market is flooded with fish. The fisherman must sell their catch – at almost any price – lest it spoil. So it’s a good day for buyers, but the fisherman won’t cover their expenses. Meanwhile, just a few miles down the coast, there’s a market which has been abandoned by the fleet – perhaps too many dhows showed up there last week – and there’s no fish to be had, at any price. If a dhow pulled into that port, their catch would fetch a pretty price. But none does, so the market and buyers are frustrated. It’s been this way along the Kerala coast for thousands of years, the imperfect meeting of sellers and buyers in markets are all too often oversupplied or undersupplied.
Just a few years ago, some of India’s many telecoms companies blanketed the Kerala coast with GSM mobile service. Nothing particularly unusual in that – India is right behind China as the fastest-growing market for wireless telephony. In the entirely deregulated Indian market, price competition is fierce; call rates average just a penny or two for an SMS, and just a few cents a minute for voice calls. That seems incredibly inexpensive to us – but when you factor in the poverty of most Indians, it’s actually a fairly substantial economic barrier. Nonetheless, the allure of instantaneous and pervasive wireless communication seduced at least one of the Kerala fishermen – probably one of the more successful ones – and a handset made its way onto a dhow. (The GSM signal can reach as far as 25 km offshore.) And, when that handset made its way onto that dhow, something unexpected – yet perfectly predictable – happened. That fisherman made a call into shore. That first call might have been entirely innocuous; perhaps calling a relative, or a friend. And perhaps, during the course of that conversation, the fisherman learned that the market nearest the recipient of that call had no fish that day. So that fisherman set for that port, and made a good bounty on his catch.
Fishermen do not work in isolation; they form a community, and share a lot of their knowledge between them. So, in fairly short order, it would have become common knowledge that a mobile handset on a dhow was a potent combination – it could greatly increase a fisherman’s profits. Soon, even the lowliest of the fisherman had their own handsets, and – once they came into range of those ubiquitous GSM towers, called into port. The fisherman argued and bargained with the fish mongers in the markets onshore – who also realized that a mobile handset could lead to better profits – and, although each fisherman acted independently, created an arbitrage network of sorts. These days, if the catch is good, there’s enough fish in each of Kerala’s fish markets – but only just enough to ensure a good price at that market. The markets are satisfied, and so are the fishermen. Profits are up, for buyers and sellers – so much so that a mobile handset – which cost about a month’s profits for a fisherman – pays for itself in about two months.
Kerala is a fine example of the self-organizing human behaviors that emerge naturally when human beings are connected into far-flung networks, but it is far from the only one. Farmers in Kenya phone ahead to learn which markets are offering the best prices for onions and maize. Spice traders – again in Kerala – send texts back and forth as they bargain and trade their wares. This is all wholly new – and yet these are simply basic human cultural behaviors that have simply been amplified by the omnipresent network.
Here in the Western world, we simply accepted the fact that as mobiles became more widespread, some of the friction of social intercourse disappeared. No one, in a well-networked world, is truly late for an appointment, a meeting, or a date. We can be delayed, yes, but we can also deliver moment-to-moment updates of our progress. We made that transition gently, gradually, but are now so bound to the incorporated environment of the network that we do allow ourselves a flourish of anger when someone who should have called doesn’t. That’s rude behavior in the 21st century – the network has changed our expectations for how we should interact in polite society.
Roughly three months from now, we’ll see the third billionth mobile phone subscriber on the network. That person will probably be somewhere in the developing world; almost all of us in the developed world already have handsets. In a decade we have made an enormous transition: back in 1997 half of humanity had never made a phone call. Sometime in 2007 half of humanity will own a phone. And despite all of the “bling” aspects of the culture surrounding mobile telephony – the hubbub surrounding the recent US release of Apple’s iPhone being only the latest example – these are not just the toys of us decadent Western types. Far from it. Mobile networks are essential tools for human productivity – tools as profound as any yet developed.
If I’d made such a statement a few months ago – and I did, at a conference at UTS – I would expect a strong reaction about the privileged position from which I made this assessment, and how it fed into certain very Western-centric assumptions about productivity and culture. Well, folks, that argument is bullshit. It relies on a culturally-constrained definition of the capabilities of the impoverished, and only tends to keep them impoverished. A poor person with a mobile handset usually becomes less poor – moving up a step or two on the income ladder. In fact, quite a number of the microfinance loans made in Bangladesh and India and Africa pay for the initial purchase of a mobile handset – the first step to improving an individual’s economic effectiveness in the 21st century, irrespective of income level, or nationality, or sex, or culture. This fact is already abundantly clear to the two-thirds of humanity who are nowhere near as rich as those of us in the West. Hence the drive to connect, to become part of the network. It isn’t being driven by marketing, or mobile carriers, or governments. It is a migration of the mass of humanity, onto the network, driven by individual economic interests. It is interesting to note that the same year that saw the majority of humanity living in urban areas will also see the majority of humanity connected into the network; these seemingly-separate phenomena are actually two sides of the same process. We are drawing together, in the perfectly connected hyperspace of the network, and into our ever-more-sprawling urban environments.
While economics provides a frame to understand the unpredictable quality of self-organization that goes hand-in-hand with the network, it is not necessarily the most significant emergent behavior of individuals broadly connected together. When people change the way they communicate, they must necessarily all facets of culture. Some of these transformations are decidedly more problematic.
II: This A Private Fight, Or Can Anyone Join In?
“The second police defense line has been dispersed. There is pushing and shoving. The police wall has broken down.”
That reads as though it might be the live broadcast from a reporter covering some sort of riot – or political agitation. Is this a BBC reporter? Someone from CNN or Reuters?
Or just someone standing in the crowd?
This live coverage was, in fact, a text message, sent by Wen Yunchow, a resident of the Chinese city of Xiamen, to a friend of his, hundreds of miles away, in Guangzhow. Xiamen has been a troubled city for the last several months – starting with an announcement by the local council to construct a gigantic plastics factory in Haicang, which sits just across a narrow straight from downtown Xiamen. While the Chinese are rapidly industrializing, city-dwelling, middle-class Chinese are also becoming increasingly aware of the environmental deterioration which has accompanied industrialization. They’ve seen rivers polluted with industrial effluent and sewage, coastal beaches with great heaps of trash washed on shore, and farmland, expropriated from peasants, turned into luxury homes.
China, like Great Britain in the 19th century, has become an industrialist’s playground. In the UK that led to marches and strikes and the beginnings of the labor movement. But in China, unions are banned, and the state isn’t exactly directly accountable to the people. All over China there are tens of thousands of low-level incidents of protest every year – and some of these turn violent. In the absence of a mechanism to vent the political heat generated by this rush of progress, the energy just builds up until it boils over.
China is industrializing in the 19th-century mode – with big factories. But it is also industrializing in the 21st-century mode – with pervasive wireless networks. China is the world’s largest market for wireless communications – growing faster than India – and it’s a mark of one’s emergence into the middle class to be able to afford at least one mobile. (Many Chinese own more than one handset, and buy a new handset every eight months – far more often than in the West.) China Mobile – the world’s largest mobile carrier, with over three hundred million subscribers – provides wireless services to Xiamen. Over the past few years, urban life in Xiamen, as in the West, has re-organized itself around the incorporated environment of wireless communications – they, too, are no longer late, only delayed.
After the chemical plant in Haicang had been announced, it undoubtedly became a topic of conversation in Xiamen – both in person and via mobile. Now that there’s an established record of industrial abuse in China, people know what to expect – and what to fear – from industrialization. This surely featured in those conversations. People traded what bits of information they knew for sure – and also passed along rumors. In the absence of a strong, critical press, rumors tend to flourish. That’s the price you always pay for centrally controlled distribution of information. The drive to know the truth doesn’t disappear, nor is it assuaged by propaganda; it is channeled into other forms of expression. So, as the local officials stonewalled, pressure built up – and the conversations grew more heated. Finally, someone – somewhere – composed the following text message:
“Xianglu Group joint venture has already begun investing in a benzene project. Once this kind of heavily poisonous chemical is manufactured, it will be like all of Xiamen has been hit with an atomic bomb, and Xiamen people’s lives will be full of leukemia and deformed children. We want to live, we want to be healthy! International organizations require this sort of project to be developed a distance of 100 km outside of a city. Our Xiamen is just 16 km away! For our children and grandchildren, send this message to all your Xiamen friends! For our children and grandchildren, act! Participate among 10,000 people, June 1 at 8am, opposite the municipal government building! Hand tie yellow ribbons! SMS all your Xiamen friends!”
The logic of viral media distribution is very straightforward. You find something – in this case, an SMS – and, if it excites you, your next thought is who you’d like to share it with. You filter the message against that social network we all carry around in your heads – and in the address books of or mobile handsets – then you forward the message along. And while that’s explicitly called for in this text message, it’s not at all necessary to be so explicit; when people are excited enough by something, they do it all on their own. Finding, filtering, forwarding. It’s an antique human behavior, but it’s now been accelerated to escape velocity by pervasive wireless networks. This is the engine that made YouTube such a success. And, in this case, it produced a small revolution.
The city officials in Xiamen knew about his text message – it had been forwarded about so widely it would have been difficult for them not to take note of it. They took the first, natural reaction of a censored state – and asked China Mobile to block all text messages to Xiamen mobiles which had the words “benzene”, “atomic”, “demonstration” or “leukemia” in them. By this time, however, that message had been forwarded on at least a million times; the populace of Xiamen all knew about the event, whether or not they’d received a text message. Since that didn’t work, they forbade any demonstrations on the 1st of June, then announced that work on the plant had been “postponed” – hoping the population would soon forget the issue. Another government newspaper openly attacked an individual known only by their handle – XiamenWave22, the purported author of the text message. The people-powered politics of SMS self-organization were about to collide with the power of the Chinese state.
At 8 AM on the 1st of June, a crowd began to build opposite the municipal government building in Xiamen; yellow ribbons were passed around the crowd; red banners were unfurled, proclaiming “Project Xiamen, Everyone Has a Responsibility”. At 9 AM, as if by some sudden, unspoken and spontaneous decision, the crowd – now numbering several thousand – began to march. While the police kept a watchful eye on the crowd, they did nothing to interfere – and this marked it as singular. In most situations the police would attempt to disburse an illegal demonstration such as this one, but the crowd marched peacefully, and the police did not interfere. Instead of an atmosphere of fear and violence, marchers reported an almost jubilant feel to the crowd. Shopkeepers and passers-by joined with the throng, as it grew to perhaps 5000 strong. Protests continued through the afternoon, trailing off toward the end of the day.
(Something else worth noting: the protest march was shot by someone – presumably participating in the protest – from their mobile handset. There are at least 200 million mobile handsets capable of shooting video, and all of this substantially interferes with the state’s ability to control the flow of information.)
And that was that. The national government has put the Haicang plant on permanent hold, pending a review. Municipal officials are being investigated for corruption. For now, the people of Xiamen have won their cause – though everyone touched by this event has learned a lesson. The people of Xiamen (and broadly, across China) have learned that they can self-organize against a government which provides no redress for grievances; the government has learned that although wireless communications reduce friction in social and business relations, these benefits comes at a price. Next time – and there will be a next time, for as long as the government turns a deaf ear to a people empowered by wireless communications, they will continue to use that technology to self-organize – the government might just turn off the wireless services, or censor them so heavily that protesters will adopt a secret language. Both sides have learned, and both sides will continue to adapt their behaviors to meet their ends.
If this example were specific to China, we could adopt a more sanguine point of view, like cultural anthropologists, just noting the intersection of technology and politics in a culture very different from our own. But this example is our example, these people are our people, as became abundantly clear in early December of 2005:
“Come to Cronulla this weekend to take revenge. This Sunday every Aussie in the Shire get down to North Cronulla to support Leb and wog bashing day.”
This text message made its way from the hard-right racist cliques of New South Wales (such as the Australia First Party, Blood and Honour, and the Patriotic Youth League) out into the greater community of the Sutherland Shire. We all know well enough what followed – one day and two nights of rioting and revenge. Self-organizing protests do occur, even in nations which have adequate and well-tested mechanisms for the redress of grievances; all it takes is a minority sufficiently energized and empowered – with wireless technologies – to spread the word.
While the vast majority of Australians might be horrified at the results of such a spontaneous act of self-organization, the power to do so is always latent, wherever pervasive wireless networking has become part of the incorporated environment. Call it democracy, call it fascism, call it freedom, call it terrorism. The labels matter not at all. We don’t have a good name yet for just what this is; it isn’t mass action – not in the sense that we knew it in the 20th century. These are not peasants storming the barricades, nor unionists fighting private security forces at the gates of the factory. These are arisings, not uprisings. They are the unpredictable moments of emergence, sudden stirrings of self-organization. As each one occurs, we learn a little bit more about how they work. But they can not be predicted, nor can they be controlled. And that means the 21st-century – now that half of us are effectively wired into a whole – is going to be very unpredictable indeed.
III: Us Mob
In January of 2007, a reader of the political news blog Talking Points Memo, sent an email to the editor-in-chief of the blog, Josh Marshall. The reader noted that the US Attorney for his district – in Minnesota – had just been fired and replaced. US Attorneys are powerful individuals, tasked with overseeing the Federal Government’s caseload in 93 districts. Firings of US Attorneys are rare events – a total of three happened during the eight years of the Clinton administration – and are generally surrounded by a halo of press coverage. In this case – as the email noted – no explanation had been forthcoming from the US Department of Justice. The reader asked Josh Marshall if he knew anything about it. Josh didn’t, so he threw the question out to his readership – some hundred thousand people. The answer Marshall received has nearly brought down the US government.
While no reader of Talking Points Memo knew anything about the specifics of the US Attorney fired in Minnesota, other readers had just read about firings of other US Attorneys – in New Mexico, California, Arkansas – a total of eight, six of whom were fired in the same week. Such a blood-letting was unprecedented in the history of the Justice Department, and the fact that it happened without any announcement to the press seemed downright suspicious. The truth, as it has slowly been ferreted out, first by Talking Points Memo, then by the McClatchy news service, and finally, by congressional committees, seems to indicate that, beyond the normal political considerations of appointments to these highly-visible postings, the US Attorneys in question were replaced because they were not sufficiently “Bushie”, and disagreed with the administration’s line on matters larger or small.
Once the congressional committees got involved, document requests were issued to the relevant government agencies – in particular, the Justice Department. Immediately, the Justice Department resorted to a tried-and-true technique for obfuscating the truth in the face of persistent attempts to reveal it: the dreaded “document dump”. In mid-March, the Justice Department released over 3000 pages of documents at 11 PM on Friday evening – to “help” congressional investigators prepare for a hearing to be held at 10 AM on the following Tuesday morning. Document dumps have historically proven effective because they present congressional investigators with too much paperwork to be effectively analyzed; it ruins the investigators’ weekend, and inhibits their performance.
The documents were released on the Justice Department website, free for anyone to download. So Josh Marshall invited the readers of Talking Points Memo to do just that: grab any or all of the 3000 pages, begin reading, and share the results with other TPM readers, in a special area set aside on the blog. There’s a Chinese proverb: “Many hands make light work.” In a few hours, the amateur investigators working on Talking Points Memo had conducted a thorough analysis of the document dump – something that was well beyond the capability of the investigators. The document dump is now a failed strategy – because individuals can now self-organize to handle nearly any task required in the pursuit of truth.
As of today, the Bush administration and the US Congress are in a stand-off; the Congress has subpoenaed records which the administration claims are covered under “Executive Privilege” as the work-product of deliberations within the White House, and therefore won’t be shared with Congress – which has constitutionally-mandated oversight authority over all branches of government. Both sides are nearing a judicial abyss which could transform Bush’s presidency into a carbon copy of Nixon’s. How did this happen? This, too, is an unpredicted consequence of individuals connected together in pervasive networks.
We have seen how more-or-less anonymous individuals can collude to create a shared information resource such as Wikipedia; we are now seeing how a self-selected group of well-networked individuals can dedicate themselves to a specific task, all the while developing and adopting techniques that make them continuously more effective. Josh Marshall realized that he could harness the intelligence of his audience, through the network, to shine a light on the hidden corners of the Bush Administration. In the aftermath of this scandal, we can all repeat Josh’s experiment. And we will.
In 2007, with half of humanity wired into the network, there are a lot of different techniques in practice, constantly being refined, and they’re being shared widely. Every time one of those techniques succeeds wildly – anywhere – it is rapidly replicated across the entire length of the network. Political groups of all flavors and sizes have learned the lesson of Talking Points Memo, just as Chinese protesters have learned the lesson of Xiamen, and Kerala fisherman have learned how to become their own market-makers.
There are three billion nodes on this network now. Three billion highly intelligent, highly active nodes, each optimizing their own behavior, their group behavior, and the behavior of the network. The network itself is relatively unimportant; the services which carriers and ISPs are queuing up to offer don’t matter a good-god-damn, because services mean nothing to the users of the network. The connection of individuals is everything.
Back in 1995, LambdaMOO creator Pavel Curtis informed us that, “People are the killer app.” But somehow we still don’t believe him. We stubbornly believe that there is some magic inside the network itself, a quintessence within the wiring, the routers, the transponders and repeaters, that make the network something more than the sum of its parts. But this has never been true, nor will it ever be true. The value of the network is entirely in its ability to connect us together. Only insofar as a service makes it easier to connect people together – a service, like, say, SMS – will that service be adopted by the users of the network. Digital social networks such as MySpace and Facebook hold out a tantalizing promise of greater connectivity, but so far that promise has gone entirely unrealized. We don’t need them, and we never have. All we need is the means to connect. We’re perfectly able to handle all the rest.
What’s more, once individuals have adapted to the incorporated environment of the network, they resist all attempts to block or censor the network. This is a lesson that Telstra is learning right now, as they attempt to use a combination of economic and political influence to dictate the future direction of Australian broadband. What Telstra has encountered – to its great surprise – is a population who has learned the lessons of the network, and who are capable of out-thinking, out-flanking and out-competing a large, centralized telecoms firm. It won’t be very long now until the individuals on the network start to build their own networks – from wireless mesh technologies such as Meraki, or WiMax, or something entirely new and unexpected – and wrest the final control of the network away from the incumbent carriers who futilely try to steer a ship that they don’t even realize they no longer control. A company can set its own tariff rates, or build out a high-speed infrastructure, but that is not the network. The network is us mob, a mass of individuals connected together in ever-evolving configurations of purpose, with ever-expanding capabilities.
Our capabilities have grown so enormously, so quickly, that all institutions constituted in earlier times, around older and now quite frankly antique ideas of social organization, will be very hard-pressed to adapt to us mob. At the very least, governments will tumble, and businesses will crumble. This is not the hippie-dippy anarcho-syndicalism predicted by Stuart Brand or Ted Nelson or any of the first generation of Internet gurus; this is something more raw, more vital and more dangerous. Us mob still don’t know our own strength; we haven’t really flexed our muscles yet. When we do, there’ll be quite a dust-up. Things will come crashing down: some on purpose, and some quite by accident. This can’t be avoided: the future is entirely unpredictable, contingent upon the spontaneous emergence of behaviors we’ve never seen before, behaviors which will spread like wildfire, transforming all three billion of us nearly instantaneously.
It seems apocalyptic. It seems impossible. But it is already happening. We have so many examples we can point to now – beyond just the few I’ve covered here – that we must admit something new is being born. A new social organization is emerging, thoroughly global, and ignorant of class or race. There’s some cause for hope in that. But the near future is going to be so different from the recent past that we will lack reference points. It will seem as though all of culture is coming to a short, sharp end. It is not. But we do not yet understand what is rising to replace the world we know.