Calculated Risks

I:  Baby Books

Forty-eight years ago, when my mother was pregnant with me, her friends and family threw her a baby shower.  Among the gifts, she received a satin-covered ‘Baby Book’, with spaces to record all of the minutiae of the early days of my existence.  I know for a fact that Dr. No and Lawrence of Arabia were playing in the movie theatres in Massachusetts at the time I was born, because it is neatly recorded on a page of my baby book.  I know how much I weighed when I was born (7 lbs, 7 oz – or 3.3 kg), when I got my first tooth, when I started to walk, and so on.  All of it is there, because my mother took the time to write it down as it happened.

What my mother didn’t write down – because it isn’t at all remarkable – was that I was busy reaching out, making connections with everyone I came into contact with.  Those connections began with my mother and my father, then my aunts and uncles and grandparents, and, just a year later, my sister.  I made those connections because that’s what humans do.  It sounds perfectly ordinary because it comes so naturally: in fact, it’s quite profound.  From the moment we’re born, we work to embed ourselves within a deep, strong and complex web of social relationships.

This isn’t a recent innovation, something that we ‘thought up’ the way we dreamed up art or writing or the steam engine; you need to go way, way back – at least ten million years, and probably a great deal more – before you get to any of our ancestors who wasn’t thoroughly social.  A social animal will, on the whole, outperform a loner.  A social animal can harness resources outside of themselves to ensure their survival and the survival of their children.  Ten million years ago, a social animal could share the hunting and gathering of food, childcare, or lookout duties.  Those with the best social skills – the best ability to communicate, coordinate, and function effectively as a unit – did better than their less-well-socialized relatives.  They survived to pass their genes and behaviors along, down the generations.  All along, a constant pressure accompanied them, driving them to become ever more social, better coordinated, and more effective.  At some point – no one knows how long ago, or even how it happened – this pressure overflowed, creating the infinitely flexible form of communication we call language.

The more we study other animals – particularly chimpanzees – the less unique we seem to ourselves.  Animals think, they even reason.  They can carry around within themselves a model of how others think and think about them.  They can deceive.  They even appear to have empathy and a sense of fairness.  But no other animal has the perfect tool of language.  Animals can think and feel, but they can not express themselves, at least, not as comprehensively as we can.  The expressiveness of language has one overriding aim: it allows us to connect very effectively.

The more we study ourselves, the more we understand how our need to connect has worked its way into our bodies, colonizing our nervous system.  Our big brains are the hardware for our connection into the human network: there’s a direct correlation between the amount of grey matter in our prefrontal cortex and the number of individuals we can maintain connections with.  Anthropologist Robin Dunbar came up with a figure of 148, plus or minus a few.  That’s the number of individuals you carry around in your head with you, all the time.  For a long, long time – tens of thousands of years – that was the largest a tribe of humans could grow, before they hived off into two tribes.  When a tribe grows so big you can’t know all of its members, it’s time to divide.

We’ve grown used to being surrounded by people we have no connection with.  That’s what cities are all about.  We’ve been building them for close to ten thousand years, and in that time we’ve learned how to live with those we don’t know.  It’s not easy – it requires police and courts and prisons – but the advantages of coming together in such great numbers outweigh the disadvantages.  In 2008, for the first time in history, half of humanity lived in cities.  We’re in the final stages of the urban revolution – a revolution in the making for the past hundred centuries.  Urban life is now the default human condition.

Just as that revolution reaches is climax, we find ourselves presented with a new technology, which takes all of our human connections and digitizes them, creating an electronic representation of what we each carry around in our heads.  We call this ‘social networking’, though, as I’ve explained, social networks are actually older than our species.  Stuffing them into a computer doesn’t change them: We are our connections.  They are what make us human.  But the computer speeds up and amplifies those connections, taking something natural and ordinary and turning it into something freakish and – hopefully – wonderful.

Before we discuss how these newly amplified connections can be used, it may be useful to step back, and reframe this latest revolution – just three years old – in the context of a child born, not in the early 1960s, but in 2010.  I have good friends in Melbourne who are expecting their first child in early September.  For the sake of today’s talk, let’s use this child (we’ll call her a daughter, though no one yet knows) as an example of what is now happening, and what is to come.

Will this child have a baby book?  Certainly, some beloved relative may provide one to the lucky parents, and mom and dad may even take the time to fill it in – between the 3 AM feedings and the nappy changes.  But the true baby book for this child will be the endless stream of digital media created in her wake.  From a few minutes after birth, she will be photographed, recorded, videoed, measured and captured in ways that would seem inconceivable (and obsessive) just a generation ago.  Yet today think nothing of a parent who follows a child everywhere with a video camera.

As parents collect that all of that media, they’re going to want somewhere to show it off.  An eponymous website. YouTube is already cluttered with videos of babies doing the most mundane sorts of things, precisely so they can be shown off to proud grandparents. Photo galleries on Picasa and Snapfish and Flickr exist for precisely the same reason – they provide a venue for sharing.  Parents post to blogs documenting every move, every fitful crawl, every illness.  What’s the difference between this and what we think of as a baby book?  Nothing at all.

It seems natural and wonderful to gather all of this documentation about her.  This is who she is in her youngest years.  But there’s other information that her parents do not document, at least not yet: who does she connect with?  This list is small in her very first years, but as she grows into a toddler and heads off to day care and pre-kindy and grade school, that list grows rather longer.  Will her parents keep track of these relationships?  Even if they do not, at some point, she will.  She’ll go online to a site patrolled by Disney or Apple or Google or Microsoft and be invited to ‘friend’ others on the site, and enroll her own real-world friends.  Her social network will begin to twin into its physical and virtual selves.  Much of each will be a reflection of the other, but some connections will exist purely in one realm.  Some friends or family members will have no presence online; a few friends might remain life-long ‘pen pals’, never meeting in the flesh, but maintaining constant, connected contact.

The most significant difference between these real-world and virtual networks centers on persistence.  We only have room for 150 people in our heads.  When we fill up, people start to get pushed out, crossing that invisible yet absolutely real line between friend and acquaintance.  We may have a lot of acquaintances, but these relationships, in the real world, don’t consist of very much beyond a greeting and a few polite words.  Contrast this to the virtual world, the world of Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, where connections persist forever unless explicitly deleted by one of the parties to that connection.  There is no upper limit to the number of connections a computer can remember.  (Facebook has an upper limit of 5000 friends, but that’s entirely artificial and will eventually be abandoned.)

As she passes through life, this child will continue to accrue connections, and these connections will be digitized for safekeeping – just like the photos and videos her parents shot in her youngest years.  That list will naturally grow and grow and grow, as she passes through years 1 through 12, moves on to university, and out into the world of adults.  By the time she’s 25, she’ll likely have thousands of connections that accreted just by living her life.  Each of these people will be able to peer in, and see how she’s doing; she’ll be able to do the same with each of them.

Managing the difference between our real-world connections, which top out, and our virtual connections, which do not, is a task that we’ll be mastering over the next decade.  Right now, we’re not very good at it.  By the time she’s grown up enough to understand the different qualities of real and virtual connections, we will be able to teach her behaviors appropriate to each sphere of connection.  At present there’s a lot of confusion, a fair bit of chaos, and a healthy helping of ignorance around all of this.  We can give ourselves a pass: it’s brand new.  But already we’re beginning to see that this is a real revolution.  In the social sphere, nothing will look like the past.

II:  Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire

On Friday evening, my washing machine – which I bought, used, just after I moved to Australia – finally gave up the ghost.  The motor on my front loader seemed less and less likely to make it through an entire spin cycle, so I knew this day was coming, and had some thoughts about what I’d do for a replacement.  One of my very good friends recommended that I buy a Simpson brand washer, just as she owned, just as her mother owned.  ‘Years of trouble-free service,’ she said.  ‘It’ll last forever.’  I took that suggestion under advisement.  But I knew that I had a larger pool of individuals to interrogate.  About thirty minutes after the unfortunate passing of the washer, I posted a message to Twitter, asking for recommendations.  Within minutes I was pointed to Choice Magazine, wher I read their reliability survey.  Many people chimed in with their own love or horror stories about particular brands of washers.  I was quickly dissuaded from Simpson: ‘There’s a reason they’re cheap,’ one person replied.  A furious argument raged about whether LG should be purchased by anyone, for any reason whatsoever, given that they were caught cheating on a refrigerator efficiency test.  Miele owners seemed fanatically in love with their washers – but acknowledged that they paid a big premium for that love.  And so on.  After reviewing the input from Twitter (and Choice), I made a decision to purchase a Bosch, which seemed both highly reliable and not too expensive, good value for money.  I put my decision out to Twitter, and the Bosch owners all chimed in: very happy, except for one, who seemed to have gotten one of those units that inevitably break down a few days after the warrantee expires.  That settled it.  On Saturday morning I played Bing Lee off Harvey Norman, talked one down to a very good price, and made the purchase.  Crisis resolved.

Let’s step back from the immediate and get a good look at this whole process.  In considering what to replace my dead washing machine with, I first consulted my real-world network – my friend who recommended Simpson.  Then I went out to my virtual network, a network which is much, much larger.  I follow about 5700 people on Twitter.  This means I have access, potentially, to 5700 opinions, 5700 sets of experiences, 5700 people who may be willing to help.  Even if only a small proportion of those do decide to offer assistance, that’s a lot of help, and it comes to me more or less immediately.  The entire process took about half an hour – and this on a Friday night.  If it’d been on a Tuesday afternoon, when people idly monitor Twitter while they work, I would have received double the response.

Wherever I go, I carry this ‘cloud’ of connections with me.  These connections have value in themselves – they are a record of my passage through the human universe – but they have far greater value when put to work to accomplish some task.  This is it; this is the knife-edge of the present: We have been busily building up our social networks, and though I freely admit that I am better connected than most, this will not long remain the case, as a generation grows into adulthood keeping a perfect record of all of their connections.  Within a few years, nearly everyone who wills it will enter every situation with the same cloud of connections, the same reliable web of helpers who can respond to requests as the need arises.  That fundamental transition – at the heart of this latest revolution – makes each of us much more effective.  We’re carrying around a whole stadium of individuals, who can be called upon as needed to help us make the best decision in every situation.  As we grow more comfortable with this new power, every decision of significance we make will be done in consultation with this network of effectiveness.  This is already transforming the way we operate.

Some more examples, drawn from my own experience, will help illuminate this transformation.  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 Valley, I asked Twitter which wineries I should visit – and the top five recommendations were very good indeed.  In the moment these can seem like trivial affairs, but both together begin to mark the difference between an ordinary holiday and an awesome one.  Imagine this stretching out, minute after minute, throughout our lives.  We’re not used to thinking in such terms.  But just twenty years ago we weren’t used to the idea that we could reach anyone else instantly from wherever we were, or be reached by anyone else, anywhere.  Then the mobile came along, and now that’s an accepted part of our reality.  We’d find it difficult to go back to a time before the mobile became such an essential tool in our lives.  This is the same transition we’re in the midst of right now with social networks.  We look at Twitter and Facebook and find them charming ways to stay in touch and while away some empty time.  A social network isn’t charming, and it certainly isn’t a waste of time.  We are like children, playing with very powerful weapons.  And sometimes they go off.

Before we explore that more explosive side to social networks, the ‘pillar of fire’ to this ‘pillar of cloud’, I want to introduce you to one more social networking technology, one which is brand-new, and which you may not have heard of yet.   Just over the past month, I’ve become a big fan of Foursquare, a location-based ‘social network’.  Using the GPS on my mobile, Foursquare allows me to ‘check in’ when I go to a restaurant, a store, or almost anywhere else.  That is, Foursquare records the fact that I am at a particular place at a particular time.  Once I’ve checked in, I can then make a recommendation – a ‘tip’ in Foursquare lingo – and share something I’ve observed about that place.  It could be anything – something absurdly trivial, or something very relevant.  As others have likely been to this place before me, there is already a list of tips.  If I peek through those tips, I can learn something that could prove very useful.

As every day passes, and more people use Foursquare (over a million at present, all around the world) this list of tips is rapidly growing longer, more substantial, and more useful.  What does this mean?  Well, I could walk into a bar that I’ve never been to before and know exactly which cocktail I want to order.  I would know which table at a restaurant offers the quietest corner for a romantic date.  Or which salesperson to talk to for a good deal on that washing machine.  And so on.  With Foursquare have immediate and continuous information in depth, information provided by the hundreds or thousands in my own social network, plus everyone else who chooses to contribute.  Foursquare turns the real world into a kind of Wikipedia, where everyone contributes what they know to improve the lot of all.  I have a growing range of information about the world around me in my hands.  If I put it to work, it will improve my effectiveness.

Last weekend I went to the cinema, to see Iron Man 2.  As soon as I left the theatre, I sent out a message to Twitter: “Thought Iron Man 2 better than original.  Snappier.  Funnier.  More comic-book-y.”  That recommendation – high praise from me – went out to the 6550 people who follow me.  Many of those folks are Australians, who might have been looking for a film to see last weekend.  My positive review would have influenced them.  I know for a fact that it did influence some, because they sent me messages telling me this.

On the other hand, if I’d sent out a message saying, ‘Worst. Movie. Ever.’ that also would have reached 6550 people, who would, once again, consider it.  It might have even dissuaded some from paying the $17.50 to see Iron Man 2 on the big screen.  If enough people said the same thing, that could kill the box office.  This is precisely what we’ve seen.  There’s a direct correlation between the speed at which a motion picture bombs and the rise in the number of users of Twitter.  It used to take a few days for word-of-mouth to kill a movie’s box office (think Godzilla).  Now it takes a few minutes. As the first showing ends, friends text friends, people post to Twitter and Facebook, and the story spreads.  After the second or third showing, the crowds have dropped off: word has gotten out that the film stinks.  Where a film could coast an entire weekend, now it has just a Friday matinee to succeed or fail.  Positive word-of-mouth kept Avatar at the #1 spot for nine weeks, and the film remained a trending topic on Twitter for half of that time; conversely, The Back-Up Plan disappeared almost without a trace.  An opinion, multiplied by hundreds or thousands of connections, carries a lot of weight.

These connections always come with us, part of who we are now.  If we have an experience we find objectionable, our connections have a taste of that.  A few months ago a friend found herself in Far North Queensland with an American Express card whose credit limit had summarily been cut in half with no warning, leaving her far away from home and potentially caught in a jam.  When she called American Express to make an inquiry – and found that their consumer credit division closed at 5 pm on a Friday evening – she lost her temper.  The 7500 people who follow her on Twitter heard a solid rant about the evils of American Express, a rant that they will now remember every time they find an American Express invitation letter in the post, or even when they decide which credit card to select while making a purchase.

Every experience, positive or negative, is now amplified beyond all comprehension.  We sit here with the social equivalent of tactical nuclear weapons in our hands, toying with the triggers, and act surprised when occasionally they go off.  Catherine Deveny, a weekly columnist for The AGE, was summarily dismissed last week because of some messages she posted over Twitter during the Logies broadcast.  It seems she hadn’t thought through the danger of sending an obscene – but comedic – message to thousands of people, a message that would be picked up and sent again, and sent again, and sent again, until the tabloid newspapers and television shows, smelling blood in the water, got in on the action.  When you’re well-connected, everything is essentially public.  There’s no firm boundary between your private sphere and your public life once you allow thousands of others a look in.  That can be a good thing if one is hungry for celebrity and fame – Kim Kardashian is an excellent example of this – but it can also accelerate a drive to self-destruction (witness Miranda Devine’s comments from Sunday).  We live within a social amplifier, and it’s always turned up to 11.  When we scream, we can be heard around the world, but now our whispers sound like shouts.

This means that no one can be silenced, anywhere.  Last June, the entire world watched as an abortive Iranian revolution broke out on the streets of Tehran, viewing clips shot on mobile handsets, uploaded to YouTube, tagged, then picked up and shared throughout social networks like Twitter, which brought them to the attention of CNN, the New York Times, and the US State Department. Mobiles brought into North Korea puncture the tightly held reins of state control as information and news seeps across the border with China, the human connection amplified by a social technology. It’s no longer the CIA or ASIO station chief who gathers intelligence from far-flung places.  It courses through our human networks.

You can begin to see the shape of this revolution-in-progess.  Everything is so new, so rough, so raw, so innocent of intention that we really don’t know where we are going.  We’re all stumbling through this doorway together.  Each of us hold our connections to one another; like balloons that, in sufficient numbers, might cause us to take flight.  We’re lifting off and gaining speed.  Whether we’re a glider or a guided missile is up to us.  We must pause, take stock, and ask ourselves what we want from these powerful new tools.  And, in return, ask what we must be prepared to accept.

III:  Threat Assistment

Individuals are becoming radically hyper-empowered.  Our connections give us capabilities undreamt of a generation ago.  As individuals who assess the various risks for your organizations, you’ve just learned about a brand new one, a threat that will – relatively quickly – dwarf nearly all others.  The risk of hyperconnectivity is coming at you from three distinct but interrelated axes: hyper-empowered individuals who want to interact with your organizations; hyper-empowered individuals who compose your organizations; and your organizations, when they grasp the nettle of hyperconnectivity.

What do you do when a hyperconnected individual wants to become a customer, or just interact in some way with your organization?  What happens when an existing customer becomes hyperconnected?  Both of these situations are becoming commonplace affairs.  My friend who had her troubles with American Express typifies this sort of threat.  She had a long-term relationship with the company, but in the last years of that relationship she became hyperempowered.  American Express didn’t know this – probably wouldn’t have understood it – and failed to manage the relationship when she ran into trouble.

The key attitudes for managing external relationships with hyperconnected individuals are humility and openness.  American Express had no idea what was going on because they weren’t plugged into what my friend was saying to thousands of her followers.   They didn’t consider her worth listening to.  There’s no reason for this sort of thing to happen.  Excellent tools exist that allow you to monitor what is being said about your organization, right now, who is saying it, and where.  You can keep your finger on the pulse; when a customer has an issue, you can respond in a timely manner, humbly and transparently.  Social media places an enormous value on transparency: unless someone’s motives – and connections – are apparent to you, you have no real reason to trust them, and no basis upon which to build that trust.

This isn’t a difficult policy to implement, but the responsibility for listening doesn’t lie with a single individual or department within your organization.  Responsibility is spread throughout the organization; that’s the only way your organization will be able to handle all of the hyperconnected customers you do business with.  Spread the load.  The Chinese have a proverb: ‘Many hands make light work.’  That same rule applies here.  Make listening to customers a priority throughout your organizations.  If you don’t, those customers will use their amplified capabilities to make your life a living hell.

Employees within your organizations don’t leave their own networks at the door when they walk into the office.  Although employers often block access to services like Facebook and Twitter from employee workstations, mobiles and pervasive high speed wireless connectivity make that restriction increasingly meaningless.  Employees will connect and stay connected throughout the day, regardless of your stated policy.  Soon enough, you will be encouraging them to stay connected, in order to share the burden of all that listening.  Right now, your employees are well connected, but poorly disciplined.  They don’t know the right way to do things.  Don’t blame them for this.  It’s all very new, and there hasn’t been a lot of guidance.

If you walk out of today’s talk with any one thing buzzing in your head, let it be this: develop a social media policy for your employees.  Employees want to know how they can be connected in the office without damaging your reputation or their position.  In the absence of a social media policy, organizations will get into all sorts of prangs that could have been avoided.  Case in point: last week’s sacking of AGE columnist Catherine Deveny happened, in large part, because Fairfax has no social media policy.  There were no guidelines for what constituted acceptable behavior, or even which behavior was ‘on the clock’ versus ‘off the clock’.  Without these sorts of guidelines, hyperconnected employees will make their own decisions – putting your organizations, your stakeholders and your brands at risk.

Two well-known Australian organizations have established their own social media policies.  The ABC boiled theirs down to four simple rules:

1)    Do not mix the personal and the professional in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute;

2)    Do not undermine your effectiveness at work;

3)    Do not imply ABC endorsement of your personal views;

4)    Do not disclose confidential information obtained through work.

This could be summed up with ‘use common sense’, but spelled out as it is here, the ABC has given its employees a framework that allows them to both regulate and embrace social media.

Telstra’s policy is wordier – it runs to five pages – but it is, in essence, very similar.  It is good that Telstra has a social media policy, but that policy was only developed after a very public and very embarrassing incident.  Last year, Telstra employee Leslie Nassar, who posted to Twitter pseduonymously  under the account ‘Fake Stephen Conroy’, revealed his identity.  When Telstra realized that one of their employees daily satirized the senator charged with ministerial oversight of their organization, the company was appalled, and quickly moved to fire Nassar – only to find that it couldn’t, because Nassar had violated no stated policy or conditions of employment.  Shortly after that, Telstra developed and promulgated its social media guidelines.  Learn from Telstra’s mistake.  This same sort of PR and political catastrophe needn’t happen in your organizations, but I guarantee that it will, if you do not develop a social media policy.  So please, get started immediately.

Finally, what happens when organizations hyperconnect?  For hundreds of years, organizations have been based on rigid hierarchies and restricted flows of information.  Hyperconnectivity puts paid to the org chart, replacing it with a dense set of hyperconnections between individuals within the organization, and between organizations: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.  We don’t really understand much about this new form of organization, other than to say that it looks very little like what we are familiar with today.  But the pressure from hyperconnected individuals – both within and outside of the organization – will only increase, and to accommodate this pressure, the organization will increasingly find itself embedded in hyperconnections.  This is the final leg of the revolution, still some years away, but one which requires careful planning today.  Can your organization handle itself as it connects broadly to a planet where everyone is connected broadly?  Will it maintain its own integrity, will it dissolve, merge, or disintegrate?  This is a question that businesses need to ask, that schools need to ask, that governments need to ask.  Everything from mass production to service delivery is being re-thought and re-shaped by our hyperconnectivity.

Organizations that master hyperconnectivity, putting social media to work, experience a leap forward in productivity.  That leap forward comes at a price.  Every tool that enhances productivity also changes everyone who uses it.  None of us, as individuals or organizations, will be left behind, even if we choose to unplug, because we remain completely connected to a human world which is increasing hyperconnected.  There is no going back, nor any particular safety in the present.  Instead, we need to connect, and together use the best of what we’ve got – which is substantial, because there are plenty of smart people in all your organizations, throughout the nation, and the world – to mange this transition.  This could be a nearly bloodless revolution, if we can remember that, at our essence, we are the connected species.  Thought it may seem chaotic, this is not a collapse.  It is a culmination.

The slides for this talk can be found here.

Inflection Points

I: The Universal Solvent

I have to admit that I am in awe of iTunes University. It’s just amazing that so many well-respected universities – Stanford, MIT, Yale, and Uni Melbourne – are willing to put their crown jewels – their lectures – online for everyone to download. It’s outstanding when even one school provides a wealth of material, but as other schools provide their own material, then we get to see some of the virtues of crowdsourcing. First, you have a virtuous cycle: as more material is shared, more material will be made available to share. After the virtuous cycle gets going, it’s all about a flight to quality.

When you have half a dozen or have a hundred lectures on calculus, which one do you choose? The one featuring the best lecturer with the best presentation skills, the best examples, and the best math jokes – of course. This is my only complaint with iTunes University – you can’t rate the various lectures on offer. You can know which ones have been downloaded most often, but that’s not precisely the same thing as which calculus seminar or which sociology lecture is the best. So as much as I love iTunes University, I see it as halfway there. Perhaps Apple didn’t want to turn iTunes U into a popularity contest, but, without that vital bit of feedback, it’s nearly impossible for us to winnow out the wheat from the educational chaff.

This is something that has to happen inside the system; it could happen across a thousand educational blogs spread out across the Web, but then it’s too diffuse to be really helpful. The reviews have to be coordinated and collated – just as with

Say, that’s an interesting point. Why not create, a website designed to sit right alongside iTunes University? If Apple can’t or won’t rate their offerings, someone has to create the one-stop-shop for ratings. And as iTunes University gets bigger and bigger, becomes ever more important, the ultimate guide to the ultimate source of educational multimedia on the Internet. One needs the other to be wholly useful; without ratings iTunes U is just an undifferentiated pile of possibilities. But with ratings, iTunes U becomes a highly focused and effective tool for digital education.

Now let’s cast our minds ahead a few semesters: iTunes U is bigger and better than ever, and has benefited from the hundreds of thousands of contributed reviews. Those reviews extend beyond the content in iTunes U, out into YouTube and Google Video and Vimeo and and where ever people are creating lectures and putting them online. Now anyone can come by the site and discover the absolute best lecture on almost any subject they care to research. The net is now cast globally; I can search for the best lecture on Earth, so long as it’s been captured and uploaded somewhere, and someone’s rated it on

All of a sudden we’ve imploded the boundaries of the classroom. The lecture can come from the US, or the UK, or Canada, or New Zealand, or any other country. Location doesn’t matter – only its rating as ‘best’ matters. This means that every student, every time they sit down at a computer, already does or will soon have on available the absolute best lectures, globally. That’s just a mind-blowing fact. It grows very naturally out of our desire to share and our desire to share ratings about what we have shared. Nothing extraordinary needed to happen to produce this entirely extraordinary state of affairs.

The network is acting like a universal solvent, dissolving all of the boundaries that have kept things separate. It’s not just dissolving the boundaries of distance – though it is doing that – it’s also dissolving the boundaries of preference. Although there will always be differences in taste and delivery, some instructors are simply better lecturers – in better command of their material – than others. Those instructors will rise to the top. Just as has created a global market for the lecturers with the highest ratings, will create a global market for the best performances, the best material, the best lessons.

That is only a hypothetical shouldn’t put you off. Part of what’s happening at this inflection point is that we’re all collectively learning how to harness the network for intelligence augmentation – Engelbart’s final triumph. All we need do is identify an area which could benefit from knowledge sharing and, sooner rather than later, someone will come along with a solution. I’d actually be very surprised if a service a lot like doesn’t already exist. It may be small and unimpressive now. But Wikipedia was once small and unimpressive. If it’s useful, it will likely grow large enough to be successful.

Of course, lectures alone do not an education make. Lectures are necessary but are only one part of the educational process. Mentoring and problem solving and answering questions: all of these take place in the very real, very physical classroom. The best lectures in the world are only part of the story. The network is also transforming the classroom, from inside out, melting it down, and forging it into something that looks quite a bit different from the classroom we’ve grown familiar with over the last 50 years.

II: Fluid Dynamics

If we take the examples of and and push them out a little bit, we can see the shape of things to come. Spearheaded by Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both of which have placed their entire set of lectures online through iTunes University, these educational institutions assert that the lectures themselves aren’t the real reason students spend $50,000 a year to attend these schools; the lectures only have full value in context. This is true, but it discounts the possibility that some individuals or group of individuals might create their own context around the lectures. And this is where the future seems to be pointing.

When broken down to its atomic components, the classroom is an agreement between an instructor and a set of students. The instructor agrees to offer expertise and mentorship, while the students offer their attention and dedication. The question now becomes what role, if any, the educational institution plays in coordinating any of these components. Students can share their ratings online – why wouldn’t they also share their educational goals? Once they’ve pooled their goals, what keeps them from recruiting their own instructor, booking their own classroom, indeed, just doing it all themselves?

At the moment the educational institution has an advantage over the singular student, in that it exists to coordinate the various functions of education. The student doesn’t have access to the same facilities or coordination tools. But we already see that this is changing; points the way. Why not create a new kind of “Open” school, a website that offers nothing but the kinds of scheduling and coordination tools students might need to organize their own courses? I’m sure that if this hasn’t been invented already someone is currently working on it – it’s the natural outgrowth of all the efforts toward student empowerment we’ve seen over the last several years.

In this near future world, students are the administrators. All of the administrative functions have been “pushed down” into a substrate of software. Education has evolved into something like a marketplace, where instructors “bid” to work with students. Now since most education is funded by the government, there will obviously be other forces at play; it may be that “administration”, such as it is, represents the government oversight function which ensures standards are being met. In any case, this does not look much like the educational institution of the 20th century – though it does look quite a bit like the university of the 13th century, where students would find and hire instructors to teach them subjects.

The role of the instructor has changed as well; as recently as a few years ago the lecturer was the font of wisdom and source of all knowledge – perhaps with a companion textbook. In an age of Wikipedia, YouTube and Twitter this no longer the case. The lecturer now helps the students find the material available online, and helps them to make sense of it, contextualizing and informing their understanding. even as the students continue to work their way through the ever-growing set of information. The instructor can not know everything available online on any subject, but will be aware of the best (or at least, favorite) resources, and will pass along these resources as a key outcome of the educational process. The instructors facilitate and mentor, as they have always done, but they are no longer the gatekeepers, because there are no gatekeepers, anywhere.

The administration has gone, the instructor’s role has evolved, now what happens to the classroom itself? In the context of a larger school facility, it may or may not be relevant. A classroom is clearly relevant if someone is learning engine repair, but perhaps not if learning calculus. The classroom in this fungible future of student administrators and evolved lecturers is any place where learning happens. If it can happen entirely online, that will be the classroom. If it requires substantial presence with the instructor, it will have a physical locale, which may or may not be a building dedicated to education. (It could, in many cases, simply be a field outdoors, again harkening back to 13th-century university practices.) At one end of the scale, students will be able work online with each other and with an lecturer to master material; at the other end, students will work closely with a mentor in a specialist classroom. This entire range of possibilities can be accommodated without much of the infrastructure we presently associate with educational institutions. The classroom will both implode, vanishing online, and explode: the world will become the classroom.

This, then, can already be predicted from current trends; as the network begins to destabilizing the institutional hierarchies in education, everything else becomes inevitable. Because this transformation lies mostly in the future, it is possible to shape these trends with actions taken in the present. In the worst case scenario, our educational institutions to not adjust to the pressures placed upon them by this new generation of students, and are simply swept aside by these students as they rise into self-empowerment. But the worst case need not be the only case. There are concrete steps which institutions can take to ease the transition from our highly formal present into our wildly informal future. In order to roll with the punches delivered by these newly-empowered students, educational institutions must become more fluid, more open, more atomic, and less interested the hallowed traditions of education than in outcomes.

III: Digital Citizenship

Obviously, much of what I’ve described here in the “melting down” of the educational process applies first and foremost to university students. That’s where most of the activity is taking place. But I would argue that it only begins with university students. From there – just like Facebook – it spreads across the gap between tertiary and secondary education, and into the high schools and colleges.

This is significant an interesting because it’s at this point that we, within Australia, run headlong into the Government’s plan to provide laptops for all year 9 through year 12 students. Some schools will start earlier; there’s a general consensus among educators that year 7 is the earliest time a student should be trusted to behave responsibility with their “own” computer. Either way, the students will be fully equipped and capable to use all of the tools at hand to manage their own education.

But will they? Some of this is a simple question of discipline: will the students be disciplined enough to take an ever-more-active role in the co-production of their education? As ever, the question is neither black nor white; some students will demonstrate the qualities of discipline needed to allow them to assume responsibility for their education, while others will not.

But, somewhere along here, there’s the presumption of some magical moment during the secondary school years, when the student suddenly learns how to behave online. And we already know this isn’t happening. We see too many incidents where students make mistakes, behaving badly without fully understanding that the whole world really is watching.

In the early part of this year I did a speaking tour with the Australian Council of Educational Researchers; during the tour I did a lot of listening. One thing I heard loud and clear from the educators is that giving a year 7 student a laptop is the functional equivalent of giving them a loaded gun. And we shouldn’t be surprised, when we do this, when there are a few accidental – or volitional – shootings.

I mentioned this in a talk to TAFE educators last week, and one of the attendees suggested that we needed to teach “Digital Citizenship”. I’d never heard the phrase before, but I’ve taken quite a liking to it. Of course, by the time a student gets to TAFE, the damage is done. We shouldn’t start talking about digital citizenship in TAFE. We should be talking about it from the first days of secondary education. And it’s not something that should be confined to the school: parents are on the hook for this, too. Even when the parents are not digitally literate, they can impart the moral and ethical lessons of good behavior to their children, lessons which will transfer to online behavior.

Make no mistake, without a firm grounding in digital citizenship, a secondary student can’t hope to make sense of the incredibly rich and impossibly distracting world afforded by the network. Unless we turn down the internet connection – which always seems like the first option taken by administrators – students will find themselves overwhelmed. That’s not surprising: we’ve taught them few skills to help them harness the incredible wealth available. In part that’s because we’re only just learning those skills ourselves. But in part it’s because we would have to relinquish control. We’re reluctant to do that. A course in digital citizenship would help both students and teachers feel more at ease with one another when confronted by the noise online.

Make no mistake, this inflection point in education is going inevitably going to cross the gap between tertiary and secondary school and students. Students will be able to do for themselves in ways that were never possible before. None of this means that the teacher or even the administrator has necessarily become obsolete. But the secondary school of the mid-21st century may look a lot more like a website than campus. The classroom will have a fluid look, driven by the teacher, the students and the subject material.

Have we prepared students for this world? Have we given them the ability to make wise decisions about their own education? Or are we like those university administrators who mutter about how has ruined all their carefully-laid plans? The world where students were simply the passive consumers of an educational product is coming to an end. There are other products out there, clamoring for attention – you can thank Apple for that. And YouTube.

Once we get through this inflection point in the digital revolution in education, we arrive in a landscape that’s literally mind-blowing. We will each have access to educational resources far beyond anything on offer at any other time in human history. The dream of life-long learning will be simply a few clicks away for most of the billion people on the Internet, and many of the four billion who use mobiles. It will not be an easy transition, nor will it be perfect on the other side. But it will be incredible, a validation of everything Douglas Engelbart demonstrated forty years ago, and an opportunity to create a truly global educational culture, focused on excellence, and dedicated to serving all students, everywhere.