This article will be published in the Blackwell Companion to New Media Dynamics.
Introduction: The Age of Connection
Anthropologists have appropriated the word ‘toolkit’ to describe the suite of technologies that accompanies a particular grouping of humans. Fifty thousand years ago, this toolkit would have encompassed stone implements of various sorts, together with items fashioned from bone, and perhaps some early fabrics. By five thousand years ago, the toolkit had exploded with innovations in agriculture, urbanization, transport and culture. Five hundred years ago, this toolkit begins to look recognizably modern, with the printing press, gunpowder, steel, and massive warships. Fifty years ago we could find much of our common culture within that toolkit, with one notable exception, an innovation that doesn’t begin to appear in any numbers until just five years ago. Identified by the decidedly vague words ‘new media’ (justifying McLuhan’s observation that the first content of a new medium is the medium it obsolesces1, down to its name) this newest toolkit promises to restructure human cultural relations as broadly as agriculturalization, urbanization, or industrialization.
The roots of the current transformation lie within the Urban Revolution, the gathering of humanity into cities, a process nearly ten thousand years old, yet only halfway complete. The tribal model of human organization – coeval with the emergence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens – likely began to fracture under the stresses introduced by the emergence of agricultural practices. Agriculture leads toward sedentary populations with higher birth rates, producing greater concentrations of humanity than had theretofore been sustainable. These population centers rapidly transcended the human capability for modeling peer behavior as expressed in Dunbar’s Number2, and in so doing drove innovations in the human toolkit intended to conserve stability and safety within an environment of strangers. Before the Urban Revolution, human culture is ruled by custom; afterward, it is ruled by law, and all that law implies: law-giving authorities, law-enforcing police, courts, jails and lawyers. This gap between custom and law is the most visible discontinuity between hunter-gatherer cultures and agricultural-urban civilization, forming a source of constant irritation between them.
Marshal McLuhan first noted the retribalizing effect of electric technologies3; they collapse space to a point, effectively recreating the continuous, ambient (aural) awareness of the tribe. The tribe is completely connected. All of its members have direct access to one another; there is little hierarchy, instead, there is an intricate set of social relations. Everyone thoroughly understands one’s own place, and that position is constantly reinforced by the other members of the tribe. Tribal society is static, which is to say stable, over long stretches of time – at least tens of thousands of years.
Urban society is dynamic; the principle actor is the individual (often backed by an extended family unit), who works to build and extend a set of social relations which improve his own circumstances (in the language of sociobiology, selection fitness). As a consequence of the continuous actions of a dynamic network of actors, the history of the city is the history of crisis. Only a very few civilizations have maintained any sort of stability for a period of a more than a few hundred years. Egypt, China, India, Rome, Maya and Inca each experienced dizzying climbs to power and terrifying collapses into ruin. The uncertainties of the Postmodern period, with its underlying apocalyptic timbre, reflect several thousand years of inevitable, unavoidable rise and fall.
The Age of Connection now takes its place alongside these earlier epochs in humanity’s story. We are being retribalized, in the midst of rising urbanization. The dynamic individuality of the city confronts the static conformity of the tribe. This basic tension forms the fuel of 21st century culture, and will continue to generate both heat and light for at least the next generation. Human behavior, human beliefs and human relations are all reorganizing themselves around connectivity. It is here, therefore, that we must begin our analysis of the toolkit.
How many people can any given person on Earth reach directly? Before the Urban Revolution that value had a strict upper bound in Dunbar’s Number. This number sets an functional limit on the troupe (tribe) size of Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Human units larger than this fragment and bifurcate along lines of relation and communication. One tribe grows from stability into instability, and fissions into two. In the transition to the city, humanity developed other mechanisms for communication to compensate for our lack of cognitive capacity; the birth of writing proceeds directly from the informational and connective pressure of dense communities.
The city is as much a network as a residence, perhaps even more so. The city is comprised of neighborhoods – recapitulating the tribal within the urban – which, grouped together, form the larger conurbation of the metropolis. Each of these neighborhoods are tightly connected (the older the city, the older the neighborhood, the more likely this is to be true), and each maintains connectivity with near neighborhoods and the greater urban whole. Where one might have direct and immediate connectivity to a hundred and fifty members of a tribe, one has some degree of mediated connectivity to thousands or tens of thousands within a city. It is possible to get a message to the other side of town, through a chain of intermediaries, the ‘degrees of separation’ explored by Stanley Milgram4.
Until the modern era, human connectivity stopped at the city’s gates. Only a very few powerful individuals or institutions, able to afford their own messengers, could expect to have connectivity beyond the confines of a given urban area. Postal services extended this connectivity within the boundaries of then-emerging nation-states, at a price that made connectivity affordable to the new working classes. The telegraph gave connectivity global reach, and collapsed the time for message transmission from months to minutes. Yet the telegraph was highly centralized; until the widespread adoption of the telephone, about fifty years later, direct and instantaneous person-to-person communication remained impractical.
The landline telephone provided direct, instantaneous, global connectivity, but to a place, not a person. If you are not in range of a landline telephone, you gain no benefit from its connectivity. Even so, the lure of that connectivity was enough that it drew the landline into nearly a billion offices and dwellings throughout the 20th century. The landline telephone colonized all of the Earth’s surface where its infrastructure could be afforded. This created a situation (reflective of so many others) where there were connected ‘haves’ and un-connected ‘have nots’.
The mobile telephone spreads connectivity directly to the person. The mobile creates the phenomenon of direct human addressability. The mobile is an inherently personal device; each mobile and SIM is associated with a single person. With this single innovation, the gap is spanned between tribal and urban organizational forms. Everyone is directly connected, as in the tribe, but in unknowably vast numbers, as in the city.
The last decade has seen an accelerating deployment of direct human addressability. As of June 2011, there are roughly six billion mobile subscribers5. Roughly ten percent of these individuals have more than one subscription, a phenomenon becoming commonplace in the richer corners of the planet. This means that there are roughly 5.4 billion directly addressable individuals on the planet, individuals who can be reached with the correct series of numbers.
The level of direct human addressability of the species in toto can be calculated as the ratio of total number of subscribers versus the total world population: 5,400,000,000 / 6,900,000,000 or 0.7826. As we move deeper into the 21st century, this figure will approach 1.0: all individuals, rich or poor, young or old, post-graduate or illiterate, will be directly connected through the network. This type of connectivity is not simply unprecedented, nor just a unique feature in human history, this is the kind of qualitative change that leads to a fundamental reorganization in human culture. This, the logical culmination in the growth in human connectivity from the aural tribe to the landline telephone, can be termed hyperconnectivity, because it represents the absolute amplification of all the pre-extant characteristics in human communication, extending them to ubiquity and speed-of-light instantaneity.
Every person now can connect directly with well over three-quarters of the human race. We may not choose to do so, but our networks of human connections overlap (as Milgram demonstrated), so we always have the option of jumping through our network of connections, short circuiting the various degrees-of-separation, to make contact. Or we can simply wait as this connectivity, coursing through the networks, brings everyone in the world to us.
What happens after we are all connected? For an answer to this, we must look back to the original human network, language. Our infinitely flexible linguistic capability allows us to put words and descriptions to anything real or imagined, transmitting experience from mind to mind. Language allows us to forge, maintain and strengthen social bonds6 in a mechanism analogous to the ‘grooming behaviors’ of other primates. The voices of others remind us that we belong to a cohesive social unit, that we are safe and protected.
Most mammals have a repertoire of vocal signals they use to signal danger. Humans can be incredibly precise, and although this is important in moments of immediate peril, language serves principally as the vehicle of human cultural transmission: don’t eat this plant; don’t walk across this river; don’t talk with your mouth full. This linguistic transmission gives human culture a depth unknown in other animals. Language is a distribution medium, a mechanism to replicate the experience of one person throughout a community.
This replication activity confers an enormous selection advantage: communities who share what they know will have increased their selection fitness versus communities that do not, so this behavioral tendency toward sharing becomes an epigenetic marker of the human species, persistent and conserved throughout its entirety. As a consequence, any culture which develops effective new mechanisms for knowledge sharing will have greater selection fitness than others that do not, forcing those relatively less fit cultures to either adopt the innovation, in order to preserve themselves, or find themselves pushed to the extreme margins of human existence.
As a result, two selection pressures push humans toward linguistic connectivity: the desire of individuals to connect for their own safety; and the desire of the community to increase its group selection fitness7, for its own long-term viability. These twin selection pressures makes humans extraordinarily social, the ‘social instinct’ part of the essential human template. Humans do not need to be taught to share knowledge of the world around them. This comes freely and instinctively. Socialization places normative constraints around this sharing. Such constraints are both amplified and removed in the presence of hyperconnectivity.
Where humans are hyperconnected via mobile, a recapitulation of primate ‘grooming behaviors’ appears almost immediately. Mizuko Ito, in Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, noted the behavior of Japanese teenagers8, sending hundreds of text messages a day to a close circle of friends, messages lacking significant extrinsic meaning, serving simply as a reassurance of presence, even at distance, a phenomenon she termed ‘co-presence’. The behavior Ito observed among Japanese teenagers is now ubiquitous among teenagers within the developed world: American teenagers send well over 3000 text messages per month.
Hyperconnected via mobile and perhaps via electronic mail, we repeatedly witness a familiar phenomenon: someone new to the medium begins to ‘overshare’, sending along bad jokes, cute photographs of furry animals, and the occasional chain letter. This is the sharing instinct, caught up and amplified by hyperconnectivity, producing the capability to send something everywhere, instantaneously: hyperdistribution.
Embarrassing photographs and treacherous text messages, ‘sexting’ and damaging audio recordings, forwarded over and over through all the mechanisms of hyperconnectivity, are examples of hyperdistribution. When any digital artifact encounters a hyperconnected human, that artifact is disseminated through their network, unless it is so objectionable that it is censored, or so pedestrian it provokes no response. The human instinct is to share that which piques our interest with those to whom we are connected, to reinforce our relations, and to increase our credibility within our networks of relations, both recapitulations of the dual nature of the original human behaviors of sharing.
The instinctual sharing behavior of humans remains as strong as ever before, but has extended to encompass communities beyond those within range of our voices. We share without respect to distance. Our voices can be heard throughout the world, provided what we say provokes those we maintain relations with. Provocation carries with it the threat of ostracism; if a provocation proves unwarranted, relations will be damaged, and further provocations ignored. This functions as a selection pressure on hyperconnected sharing, which over time tends toward ever-greater salience.
As far back as we can look into prehistory, concentrated acts of knowledge sharing within a specific domain have been framed by ritual practices. Indigenous Australians continue the Paleolithic traditions of “women’s business” and “men’s business”, which refer to ritually-constrained bodies of knowledge, intended to be shared only within the context of a specific community of ritually purified (and thereby connected) individuals. These domains characteristically reflect gender-specific cultural practices: typically, women communicate knowledge of plants and gathering practices, while men invest themselves in the specifics of navigation and the hunt. These two knowledge domains are strongly defended by taboo; ‘secret women’s business’ is forbidden to men (or ritually impure women), and vice versa.
The association between domain knowledge and ritual has persisted through to the present day. From at least the Late Antique period, a system of guilds carefully guarded access to specific knowledge domains. Venetian glassblowers, Japanese bladesmiths, and Chinese silk weavers all protected their knowledge domains – and consequent monopolies – with a combination of legal and ritual practices, law and custom. In pre-urban cultures, knowledge creates capability; in urban cultures, that capability is multiplied. Those who possess knowledge also hold power. The desire to conserve that power led the guilds to become increasingly zealous in the defense of their knowledge domains, their ‘secrets of the craft’.
The advent of Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing press made it effectively impossible to keep secrets in perpetuity. One individual could pen a single, revealing text, and within a few months all of Europe would learn what they knew. Secrets were no longer enough to preserve the sanctity of various knowledge domains. Ritual cast a longer shadow, and in this guise, as the modern protector of the mysteries, the university becomes the companion to the professional association, indoctrinating then licensing candidates for entry into the professions. The professions of medicine, law, engineering, architecture, etc., emerged from this transition from the guilds into modernity. These professional associations exist for one reason: they assign place, either within the boundaries of the organization, or outside of it. An unlicensed doctor, a lawyer who has not ‘passed the bar’, an uncredentialed architect all represent modern instances of violations of ritual structures that have been with us for at least fifty thousand years.
Hyperconnectivity does not acknowledge the presence of these ritual structures; humans connect directly, immediately and pervasively, without respect to any of the cultural barriers to contact. There is neither inside nor outside. The entire space of human connection collapses to a point, as everyone connects directly to everyone else, without mediation. This hyperconnectivity leads to hyperdistributed sharing, first at random, then with ever-increasing levels of salience.
This condition tends to produce a series of feedbacks: hyperdistribution of salient information increases the potential and actual effectiveness of any individual within the network of hyperdistribution, which increases their reliance on these networks. These networks of hyperdistributed knowledge-sharing tend to reify as a given network’s constituents put these hyperdistributed materials to work. Both Kenyan farmers and Kerala fishermen9 quickly became irrevocable devotees of the mobile handset that provided them accurate and timely information about competing market prices for their goods. Once hyperdistribution acquires a focal point, and becomes synonymous with a knowledge domain, it crosses over into hyperintelligence: the dedicated, hyperconnected hyperdistribution of domain-specific knowledge.
In a thoroughly hyperconnected environment, behaviors are pervasively observed. If these behaviors are successful, they will be copied by others, who are also pervasively observed. The behavior itself hyperdistributes throughout the network. This is a behavioral analog to hyperintelligence: hypermimesis. The development of ‘SMS language’ is one example of hypermimesis; as terms are added to the language (which may be specific to a subculture), they are propagated pervasively, and are adopted almost immediately.
A group of hyperconnected individuals choosing to hyperdistribute their knowledge around an identified domain can engender hyperintelligence. That hyperintelligence is not a static actor. To be in relation to a hyperintelligence necessarily means using the knowledge provided by that hyperintelligence where, when and as needed. The more comprehensive the hyperintelligence, the greater the range of possible uses and potential effects.
Perhaps the outstanding example of a hyperintelligence, Wikipedia provides only modest advantages in those developed parts of the world with ready access to knowledge. Yet in South Africa or India, where such knowledge resources did not exist, Wikipedia catapults individuals into a vastly expanded set of potential capabilities. Actions which would have been taken in ignorance are now wholly informed by the presence of hyperintelligence, and are, as a consequence, different and likely more effective. This is a perfect echo of the introduction of mobile telephony: in the developed world the mobile remains nice but rarely essential; in the developing world it is the difference between thriving and subsistence. Hyperintelligence is a capability amplifier.
Individuals are not alone in their relationship to a hyperintelligence; it is the product of the hyperdistribution activities of a hyperconnected network of people. These activities tend to improve through time, as the network amplifies its own capabilities. These two levels of hyperintelligence, individual and collective, produce radical transformations in both individual power and the power of hyperconnected individuals as a network. This hyperempowerment is hyperintelligence in action, the directed application of the knowledge and capabilities provided via hyperintelligence.
Hyperempowered individuals and networks are asymmetrically empowered relative to any individual or group of individuals (whether as a collective, an organization, or an institution) not similarly hyperempowered. In any exchange, hyperempowered actors will always be more effective in achieving their aims, because in every situation they know more, and know better how to act on what they know. The existence of hyperempowerment simultaneously creates a new class of selection pressure; as various social and cultural configurations interact with hyperempowered individuals and networks, they will be selected against unless they themselves use the techniques of hyperconnectivity, hyperdistribution and hyperintelligence to engender their own hyperempowerment. Once any one actor achieves hyperempowerment, all who interact with that actor must either hyperempower themselves or face extinction. This leads to a cascading series of hyperempowerments, as hyperempowered networks interact with networks which are not hyperempowered, and force those networks toward hyperempowerment.
Hyperconnectivity, hyperdistribution, hyperintelligence and hyperempowerment have propelled human culture to the midst of a psychosocial phase transition, similar to a crystallization phase in a supersaturated solution, a ‘revolution’ making the agricultural, urban and industrial revolutions seem, in comparison, lazy and incomplete. Twenty years ago none of this toolkit existed nor was even intimated. Twenty years from now it will be pervasively and ubiquitously distributed, inextricably bound up in our self-definition as human beings. We have always been the product of our relationships, and now our relationships are redefining us.
- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1964).
- Robin Dunbar, Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates (Journal of Human Evolution 22, June 1992) pp. 469-493.
- Op. Cit., McLuhan.
- Stanley Milgram, “The Small World Problem”, (Psychology Today, May 1967) pp 60 – 67.
- Wireless Intelligence, Global connections surpass 5 billion milestone, https://www.wirelessintelligence.com/print/snapshot/100708.pdf (June 2010)
- Robin Dunbar, Gossip, Grooming and the Evolution of Language (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1998).
- The author is aware that group selection is a hotly debated topic within the field of sociobiology, but contends that it is impossible to understand highly social species such as Homo Sapiens Sapiens without the principle of group selection.
- Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, Misa Matsuda (ed.), Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2000).
- The Economist, “To Do With The Price of Fish”, http://www.economist.com/node/9149142?story_id=9149142 (10 May 2007).