Hyperdemocracy

For the past three hundred years, the relationship between the press and the state has been straightforward: the press tries to publish, the state uses its various mechanisms to thwart those efforts.  This has produced a cat-and-mouse steady-state, a balance where selection pressures kept the press tamed and the state – in many circumstances – somewhat accountable to the governed.  There are, as always, exceptions.

In the last few months, the press has become hyperconnected, using that hyperconnectivity to pierce the veil of secrecy which surrounds the state; using the means available to it to hyperdistribute those secrets.  The press has become hyperempowered, an actor unlike anything ever experienced before.

Wikileaks is the press, but not the press as we have known it.  This is the press of the 21st century, the press that comes after we’re all connected.  Suddenly, all of the friendliest computers have become the deadliest weapons, and we are fenced in, encircled by threats – which are also opportunities.

This threat is two sided, Janus-faced.  The state finds its ability to maintain the smooth functioning of power short-circuited by the exposure of its secrets.  That is a fundamental, existential threat.  In the same moment, the press recognizes that its ability to act has been constrained at every point: servers get shut down, domain names fail to resolve, bank accounts freeze.  These are the new selection pressures on both sides, a sudden quickening of culture’s two-step.  And, of course, it does not end there.

The state has now realized the full cost of digitization, the price of bits.  Just as the recording industry learned a decade ago, it will now have to function within an ecology which – like it or not – has an absolutely fluid quality.  Information flow is corrosive to institutions, whether that’s a record label or a state ministry.  To function in a hyperconnected world, states must hyperconnect, but every point of connection becomes a gap through which the state’s power leaks away.

Meanwhile, the press has come up against the ugly reality of its own vulnerability.  It finds itself situated within an entirely commercial ecology, all the way down to the wires used to carry its signals.  If there’s anything the last week has taught us, it’s that the ability of the press to act must never be contingent upon the power of the state, or any organization dependent upon the good graces of the state.

Both sides are trapped, each with a knife to the other’s throat.  Is there a way to back down from this DEFCON 1-like threat level?  The new press can not be wished out of existence.  Even if the Internet disappeared tomorrow, what we have already learned about how to communicate with one another will never be forgotten.  It’s that shared social learning – hypermimesis – which presents the continued existential threat to the state.  The state is now furiously trying to develop a response in kind, with a growing awareness that any response which extends its own connectivity must necessarily drain it of power.

There is already a movement underway within the state to shut down the holes, close the gaps, and carry on as before.  But to the degree the state disconnects, it drifts away from synchronization with the real.  The only tenable possibility is a ‘forward escape’, an embrace of that which seems destined to destroy it.  This new form of state power – ‘hyperdemocracy’ – will be diffuse, decentralized, and ubiquitous: darknet as a model for governance.

In the interregnum, the press must reinvent its technological base as comprehensively as Gutenberg or Berners-Lee.  Just as the legal strangulation of Napster laid the groundwork for Gnutella, every point of failure revealed in the state attack against Wikileaks creates a blueprint for the press which can succeed where it failed.  We need networks that lie outside of and perhaps even in opposition to commercial interest, beyond the reach of the state.  We need resilient Internet services which can not be arbitrarily revoked.  We need a transaction system that is invisible, instantaneous and convertible upon demand.  Our freedom madates it.

Some will argue that these represent the perfect toolkit for terrorism, for lawlessness and anarchy.  Some are willing to sacrifice liberty for security, ending with neither.  Although nostalgic and tempting, this argument will not hold against the tenor of these times.  These systems will be invented and hyperdistributed even if the state attempts to enforce a tighter grip over its networks.  Julian Assange, the most famous man in the world, has become the poster boy, the Che for a networked generation. Script kiddies everywhere now have a role model.  Like it or not, they will create these systems, they will share what they’ve learned, they will build the apparatus that makes the state as we have known it increasingly ineffectual and irrelevant. Nothing can be done about that.  This has already happened.

We face a choice.  This is the fork, in both the old and new senses of the word.  The culture we grew up with has suddenly shown its age, its incapacity, its inflexibility.  That’s scary, because there is nothing yet to replace it.  That job is left to us.  We can see what has broken, and how it should be fixed.  We can build new systems of human relations which depend not on secrecy but on connectivity.  We can share knowledge to develop the blueprint for our hyperconnected, hyperempowered future.  A week ago such an act would have been bootless utopianism.  Now it’s just facing facts.

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.

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The Unfinished Project: Exploration, Learning and Networks

I: The Educational Field

We live today in the age of networks.  Having grown from nothing just fifteen years ago, the network has become one of the principal influences in our lives.  We trust the network; we depend on the network; we use the network to make ourselves more effective.  This state of affairs did not develop gradually; rather, we have passed through a series of unpredicted and non-linear shifts in the fabric of culture.

The first of these shifts was coincident with the birth of the Web itself, back in the mid-1990s.  From its earliest days the Web was alluring because it represented all things to all people: it could serve as both resource and repository for anything that might interest us, a platform for whatever we might choose to say.  The truth of those earliest days is that we didn’t really know what we wanted to say; the stereotype of the page where one went on long and lovingly about one’s pussy carries an echo of that search for meaning.   The lights were on, but nobody was home.

Drawing the curtain on this more-or-less vapid era of the Web, the second shift began with the collapse of the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s.  The undergrowth cleared away, people could once again focus on the why of the Web.  This was when the Web came into its own as an interactive medium.  The Web could have been an interactive medium from day one – the technology hadn’t changed one bit – but it took time for people to map out the evolving relationship between user and experience.  The Web, we realized, is not a page to read, but rather, a space for exploration, connection and sharing.

This is when things start to get interesting, when ideas like Wikipedia begin to emerge.  Wikipedia is not a technology, at least, it’s not a specific technology.  Wikis have been around since 1995, nearly as old as the Web itself.  Databases are older than the Web, too.  So what is new about Wikipedia?  Simply this: the idea of sharing.  Wikipedia invites us all to share from our expertise, for the benefit of one another.  It is an agreement to share what we know to collectively improve our capability.  If you strip away all of the technology, and all of the hype – both positive and negative –from Wikipedia, what you’re left with is this agreement to share.  In the decade since Wikipedia’s launch we’ve learned to share across a broad range of domains.  This sharing supported by technology is a new thing, and dramatically increases the allure of the network.  What was merely very interesting back in 1995 became almost overpowering in the years since the turn of the millennium.  It has consistently become harder and harder to imagine a life without the network, because the network provides so much usefulness, and so much utility.

The final shift occurred in 2007, as Facebook introduced F8, its plug-in architecture which opened its design – and its data – to outside developers.  Facebook exploded from a few million users to over four hundred million: the third largest nation in the world.  Social networks are significant because they harness and amplify our innate human desire and capability to connect with one another.  We constantly look to our social networks – that is, our real-world networks – to remind us who we are, where we are, and what we’re doing.  These social network provide our ontological grounding.  When translated into cyberspace, these social networks can become almost impossibly potent – which is why, when they’re used to bully or harass someone, they can lead to such disastrous results.  It becomes almost too easy, and we become almost too powerful.

A lot of what we’ll see in this decade is an assessment of what we choose to do with our new-found abilities.  We can use these social networks to transmit pornographic pictures of one another back and forth at such frequency and density that we simply numb ourselves into a kind of fleshy hypnosis.  That is one possible direction for the future.  Or, we could decide that we want something different for ourselves, something altogether more substantial and meaningful.  But in order to get that sort of clarity, we need to be very clear on what we want – both direction and outcome.  At this point we are simply playing around – with a loaded weapon – hoping that it doesn’t accidentally go off.

Of course it does; someone sets up a Facebook page to memorialize a murdered eight year-old, but leaves the door open to all comers (believing, unrealistically, that others will share their desire to mourn together), only to see the overflowing sewage of the Internet spill bile and hatred and psychopathology onto a Web page.  This happens again and again; it happened several times in one week in February.  We are not learning the lesson we are meant to learn.  We are missing something.  Partly this is because it is all so new, but partly it is because we do not know what our own intentions are.  Without that, without a stated goal, we can not winnow the wheat from the chaff.  We will forget to close the windows and lock the doors.  We will amuse ourselves to death.

I mention this because, as educators, it is up to all of us to act as forces for the positive moral good of the culture as a whole.  Cultural values are transmitted by educators; and while parents may be a bigger influence, teachers have their role to play.  Parents are simply overwhelmed by all of this novelty – the Web wasn’t around when they were children, and social networks weren’t around even five years ago.  So, right at this moment in time, educators get to be the adult cultural vanguard, the vital mentoring center.

If we had to do this ourselves, alone, as individuals – or even as individual institutions – the project would almost certainly fail.  After all, how could we hope to balance all of the seductions ‘out there’ against the sense which needs to be taught ‘in here’?  We would simply be overwhelmed – our current condition.  Fortunately, we are as well connected, at least in potential, as any of our students.  We have access to better resources.  And we have more experience, which allows us to put those resources to work.  In short, we are far better placed to make use of social media than our charges, even if they seem native to the medium while we profess to be immigrants.

One thing that has changed, because of the second shift, the trend toward sharing, is that educational resources are available now as never before.  Wikipedia led the way, but it is just small island in a much large sea of content, provided by individuals and organizations throughout the world.  iTunes University, YouTube University, the numberless podcasts and blogs that have sprung up from experts on every subject from macroeconomics to the history of Mesoamerica – all of it searchable by Google, all of it instantaneously accessible – every one of these points to the fact that we have clearly entered a new era, where we are surrounded by and saturated with an ‘educational field’ of sorts.  Whatever you need to know, you’re soaking in it.

This educational field is brand-new.  No one has made systematic use of it, no teacher, no institution, no administration.  But that doesn’t lessen its impact.  We all consult Wikipedia when we have some trivial question to answer; that behavior is the archetype for where education is headed in the 21st century – real-time answers on-demand, drawn from the educational field.

Paired with the educational field is the ability for educators to establish strong social connections – not just with other educators, but laterally, through the student to the parents, through the parents to the community, and so on, so that the educator becomes ineluctably embedded in a web of relationships which define, shape and determine the pedagogical relationship.  Educators have barely begun to make use of the social networking tools on offer; just to have a teacher ‘friend’ a student in Facebook is, to some eyes, a cause for concern – what could possibly be served by that relationship, one which subverts the neat hierarchy of the 19th century classroom?

The relationship is the essence of the classroom, that which remains when all the other trivia of pedagogy are stripped away.  The relationship between the teacher and the student is at the core of the magical moment when knowledge is transmitted between the generations.  We now have the greatest tool ever created by the hand of man to reinforce and strengthen that relationship.  And we need to use it, or else we will all sink beneath a rising tide of noise and filth and distraction.

But how?

II: The Unfinished Project

The roots of today’s talk lie in a public conversation I had with Dr. Evan Arthur, who manages the Digital Education Revolution Group within the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.  As part of this conversation, I asked him about educational styles, and, in particular, Constructivism.  As conceived by Jean Piaget and his successors across the 20th century, Constructivism states that the child learns through play – or rather, through repeated interactions with the world.  Schema are created by the child, put to the test, where they either succeed or fail.  Failed schema are revised and re-tested, while successful schema are incorporated into ever-more-comprehensive schema.  Through many years of research we know that we learn the physics of the real world through a constant process of experimentation.  Every time a toddler dumps a cup of juice all over himself, he’s actually conducting an investigation into the nature of the real.

The basic tenets of Constructivism are not in dispute, although many educators have consistently resisted the underlying idea of Constructivism – that it is the child who determines the direction of learning.  This conflicts directly with the top-down teacher-to-student model of education which we are all intimate familiar with, which has determined the nature of pedagogy and even the architecture of our classrooms.  This is the grand battle between play and work; between ludic exploration and the hard grind of assimilating the skills that situate us within an ever-more-complex culture.

At the moment, this trench warfare has frozen us in a stalemate located, for the most part, between year two and year three.  In the first two years education has a strong ludic component, and students are encouraged to explore.  But in year three the process becomes routinized, formalized and very strict.  Certainly, eight-year-olds are better able to understand restrictions than six-year-olds.  They’re better at following the rules, at colouring within the lines.  But it seems as though we’ve taken advantage of the fact that an older child is a more compliant one.  It is true that as we advance in years, our ludic nature becomes tempered by an adult’s sensibility.  But humans retain the urge to play throughout their lives – to a greater degree than any other species we know of.  It could very well be that our ability to learn is intimately tied to our desire to play.

If we are prepared to swallow this bitter pill, and acknowledge that play is an essential part of the learning process, we have no choice but to follow this idea wherever it leads us.  Which leads me back to my conversation with Dr. Arthur.  I asked him about the necessity of play, and he framed his response by talking about “The Unfinished Constructivist Project”.  It is a revolution trapped in mid-stride, a revelation that, somehow, hasn’t penetrated all the way through our culture.  We still insist that instruction is the preferred mechanism for education, when we have ample evidence to suggest this simply isn’t true.  Let me be clear: instruction is not the same thing as guidance.  I am not suggesting that children simply do as they please.  The more freedom they have, the more need they have for a strong, stabilizing force to guide them as they explore.  This may be the significant (if mostly hidden) objection to the Constructivist project: it is simply too expensive.  The human resources required to give each child their own mentor as they work their way through the corpus of human knowledge would simply overwhelm any current educational model, with the exception of homeschooling.  I don’t know what the student-teacher ratio would need to be in a fully realized Constructivist educational system, but I doubt that twenty-to-one would be sufficient.  That’s the level needed to maintain a semblance of order, more a peacekeeping force than an army of mentors.

There have been occasional attempts to create a fully Constructivist educational system, but these, like the manifold utopian communities which have been founded, flourish briefly, then fade or fracture, and do not survive the test of time.  The level of dedication and involvement required from both educator/mentors and parents is simply too big an ask.  This is the sort of thing that a hunter-gatherer culture has no trouble with: the entire world is the classroom, the child explores it, and an adult is always there to offer an explanation or story to round out the child’s knowledge.  We live in an industrial culture (at least, our classrooms do), where there is strict differentiation between ‘education’ and the other activities in life, where adults are ‘educators’ or they are not, where everything is highly formal, almost ritualized.  (Consider the highly regulated timings of the school day – equal parts order from chaos, and ritual.)  There could never be enough support within such a framework to sustain a Constructivist model.  This is why we have the present stalemate; we know the right thing to do, but, heretofore, we have lacked the resources to actualize this knowledge.

That has now changed.

The educational field must be recognized as the key element which will power the unfinished Constructivist revolution.  The educational field does not recognize the boundaries of the classroom, the institution, or even the nation.  It is simply pervasive, ubiquitous and available as needed.  Within that field, both students and educator/mentors can find all of the resources needed to make the Constructivist project a continuing success.  There need be no rupture between years two and three, no transformation of educational style from inward- to outward-directed.  Instead, there can and should be a continual deepening of the child’s exploration of the corpus of knowledge, under the guidance of a network of mentors who share the burden.  We already have most of the resources in place to assure that the child can have a continuous and continually strengthening relationship with knowledge: Wikipedia, while not perfect, points toward the kinds of knowledge sharing systems which will become both commonplace and easily created throughout the 21st century.

Sharing needs to become a foundational component in a modern educational system.  Every time a teacher finds a resource to aid a student in their exploration, that should be noted and shared broadly.  As students find things on their own – and they will be far better at it than most educators – these, too, should be shared.  We should be creating a great, linked trail behind us as we learn, so that others, when exploring, will have paths to guide them – should they choose to follow.  We have systems that can do this, but we have not applied these systems to education – in large part because this is not how we conceive of education.  Or rather, this is not how we conceive of education in the classroom.  I do a fair bit of corporate consulting, and this sort of ‘knowledge capture’ and ‘knowledge management’ is becoming essential to the operation of a 21st century business.  Many businesses are creating their own, ad-hoc systems to share knowledge resources among their staff, as they understand how important this is for professional development.

This is a new battle line opened up in the war between the unfinished constructivist project and the older, more formal methods of education.  The corporate world doesn’t have time for methodologies which have become obsolete.  Employees must be constantly up-to-date.  Professionals – particularly doctors and lawyers – must remain continuously well-informed about developments in their respective fields.  Those in management need real-time knowledge streams in order recognize and solve problems as they emerge.  This is all much more ludic than formal, much more self-directed than guided, much more juvenile than adult – even though these are all among the most adult of all activities.  This disjunction, this desynchronization between the needs of the world-at-large and the delivery capabilities of an ever-more-obsolete educational system is the final indictment of things-as-they-are.  Things will change; either education will become entirely corporatized, or educators will wholly embrace the unfinished Constructivist project.  Either way the outcome will be the same.

Fortunately, the educational field has something else to offer educators beyond the near-infinite supply of educational resources.  It is a network of individuals.  It is a social network, connected together via bonds of familiarity and affinity.  The student is embedded in a network with his mentors; the mentors are connected to other students, and to other mentors; everyone is connected to the parents, and the community.  In this sense, the formal space of the ‘classroom’ collapses, undone by the pressure provided by the social network, which has effectively caused the classroom walls to implode.  The outside world wants to connect to what happens within the crucible of the classroom, or, more specifically, with the magical moment of knowledge transference within the student’s mind.  This is what we should be building our social networks to support.  At present, social networks like Facebook and Twitter are dull, unsophisticated tools, capable of connecting together, but completely inadequate when it comes to shaping that connection around a task – such as mentoring, or exploring knowledge.  A second generation of social networks is already reaching release.  These tools display a more sophisticated edge, and will help to support the kinds of connections we need within the educational field.

None of this, as wonderful as it might sound (and I admit that it may also seem pretty frightening) is happening in a vacuum.  There are larger changes afoot within Australia, and no vision for the future of education in Australia could ignore them.  We must find a way to harmonize those changes with the larger, more fundamental changes overtaking the entire educational system.

III: The National Curriculum

Underlying fear of a Constructivist educational project is that it would simply give children an excuse to avoid the tough work of education.  There is a persistent belief that children will simply load up on educational ‘candy’, without eating their all-so-essential ‘vegetables’, that is, the basic skills which form the foundation for future learning.  Were children left entirely to their own devices, there might be some danger of this – though, now that we live in the educational field, even that possibility seems increasingly remote.  Children do not live in isolation: they are surrounded by adults who want them to grow into successful adults.  In prehistoric times, adults simply had to be adults around children for the transference of life-skills to take place.  Children copied, imitated, and aped adults – and still do.  This learning-by-mimesis is still a principle factor in the education of the child, though it is not one which is often highlighted by the educational system.  Industrial culture has separated the adult from the child, putting one into the office, the other into the school.  That separation, and the specialization which is the hallmark of the Industrial Age, broke the natural and persistent mentorship of parenting into discrete units: this much in the home, this much in the school.  If we do not trust children to consume a nourishing diet of knowledge, it is because we do not trust ourselves to prepare it for them.  The separation by function led to a situation where no one is responsible for the whole thread of the life.  Parents look to teachers.  Teachers look to parents.  Everyone, everywhere, looks to authority for responsible solutions.

There is no authority anywhere.  Either we do this ourselves, or it will not happen.  We have to look to ourselves, build the networks between ourselves, reach out and connect from ourselves, if we expect to be able to resist a culture which wants to turn the entire human world into candy.  This is not going to be easy; if it were, it would have happened by itself.  Nor is it instantaneous.  Nothing like this happens overnight.  Furthermore, it requires great persistence.  In the ideal situation, it begins at birth and continues on seamlessly until death.  In that sense, this connected educational field mirrors and is a reflection of our human social networks, the ones we form from our first moments of awareness.  But unlike that more ad-hoc network, this one has a specific intent: to bring the child into knowledge.

Knowledge, of course, is very big, very vague, mostly undefined.  Meanwhile, there are specific skills and bodies of knowledge which we have nominated as important: the ability to read and write; to add and subtract, multiply and divide; a basic understanding of the physical and living worlds; the story of the nation and its peoples.  These have very recently been crystallized in a ‘National Curriculum’, which seeks to standardize the pedagogical outcomes across Australia for all students in years 1 through 10.  Parents and educators have already begun to argue about the inclusion or exclusion of elements within that curriculum.  I was taught phonics over forty years ago, but apparently it’s still a matter of some debate.  The teaching of history is always going to be contentious, because the story we tell ourselves about who we are is necessarily political.  So the adults will argue it out – year after year, decade after decade – while the educators and students face this monolithic block of text which seems to be the complete antithesis of the Constructivist project.  And, looked at one way, the National Curriculum is exactly the type of top-down, teacher-to-student, sit-down-and-shut-up sort of educational mandate which is no longer effective in the business world.

All of which means its probably best that we avoid viewing up the National Curriculum as a validation, encouraging us to continue on with things as they are.  Instead, it should be used as mandate for change.  There are several significant dimensions to this mandate.

First, putting everyone onto the same page, pedagogically, opens up an opportunity for sharing which transcends anything before possible.  Teachers and students from all over Australia can contribute to or borrow from a wealth of resources shared by those who have passed before them through the National Curriculum.  Every teacher and every student should think of themselves as part of a broader collective of learners and mentors, all working through the same basic materials.  In this sense, the National Curriculum isn’t a document so much as it is the architecture of a network.  It is the way all things educational are connected together.  It is the wiring underneath all of the pedagogy, providing both a scaffolding and a switchboard for the learning moment.

Is it possible to conceive of a library organized along the lines of the National Curriculum?  Certainly a librarian would have no problem configuring a physical library to meet the needs of the curriculum.  It’s even easier to organize similar sorts of resources in cyberspace.  Not only is it easy, there’s now a mandate to do so.  We know what sorts of resources we’ll need, going forward.  Nothing should be stopping us from creating collective resources – similar to an Australian Wikipedia, and perhaps drawing from it – which will serve the pedagogical requirements of the National Curriculum.  We should be doing this now.

Second, we need to think of the National Curriculum as an opportunity to identify all of the experts in all of the areas covered by the curriculum, and, once they’ve been identified, we must create a strong social network, with them inside, giving them pride of place as ‘nodes of expertise’.  Knowledge is not enough; it must be paired with mentors who have been able to put that knowledge into practice with excellence.  The National Curriculum is the perfect excuse to bring these experts together, to make them all connected and accessible to everyone throughout the nation who could benefit from their wisdom.

Here, once again, it is best to think of the National Curriculum not as a document but as a network – a way to connect things, and people, together.  The great strength of the National Curriculum is, as Dr. Evan Arthur put it, that it is a ‘greenfields’.  Literally anything is possible.  We can go in any direction we choose.  Inertia would have us do things as we’ve always done them, even as the centrifugal forces of culture beyond the classroom point in a different direction.  Inertia can not be a guiding force.  It must be resisted, at every turn, not in the pursuit of some educational utopia or false revolution, but rather because we have come to realize that the network is the educational system.

Moving from where we are to where need to be seems like a momentous transition.  But the Web saw repeated momentous transitions in its first fifteen years and we managed all of those successfully.  We can absorb huge amounts of change and novelty so long as the frame which supports us is strong and consistent.  That’s the essence of the parent-child relationship: so long as the child feels it is being cared for, it can endure almost anything.  This means that we shouldn’t run around freaking out.  The sky is not falling.  The world is not ending.  If anything, we are growing closer together, more connected, becoming more important to one another.  It may feel a bit too close from time to time, as we learn how to keep a healthy distance in these new relationships, but that closeness supports us all.  It can keep children from falling through the net of opportunity.  It can see us advance into a culture where every child has the full benefit of an excellent education, without respect to income or circumstance.

That is the promise.  We have the network.  We live in the educational field.  We now have the National Curriculum to wire it all together.  But can we marry the demands of the National Curriculum with the ludic call of Constructivism?  Can we create a world where literally we play into learning?  This is more than video games that have math drills embedded into them.  It’s about capturing the interests of a child and using that as a springboard for the investigation of their world, their nation, their home.  That can only happen if mentors are deeply involved and embedded in the child’s life from its earliest years.

I don’t have any easy answers here.  There is no magic wand to wave over this whole uncoordinated mess to make it all cohere.  No one knows what’s expected of them anymore – educators least of all.  Are we parents?  Are we ‘friends’?  Where do we stand?  I know this: we stand most securely when we stand connected.