Smoke Signals

[ Please note that this essay uses some rough language.]

Introduction: The First Billion Seconds

In a few days time, it will be exactly thirty-two years – a bit more than a billion seconds – since I learned to code.  I was lucky enough to attend a high school with its own DEC PDP 11/45, and lucky that it chose to offer computer science courses on a few VT-52 video terminals and a DECWriter attached to it.   My first OS was RSTS/E, and my first programming language was – of course – BASIC.

A hundred million seconds before this, a friend dragged me over to a data center his dad managed, sat me down at a DECWriter, typed ‘startrek’ at the prompt, and it was all over.  The damage had been done.  From that day, all I’ve ever wanted to do is play with computers.

I’ve pretty much been able to keep to that.

Oddly, the only time I didn’t play with computers was at MIT.  After MIT, when I began work as a software engineer, I got to play and get paid for it.  I’ve written code for every major microprocessor family (with the exception of the 6502), all the common microcontrollers, and every OS from CP/M to Android.  I’ve even written a batch-executed RPG II program, typed up on punched cards, exectuted on an IBM 370 mainframe.

(Shudder, shudder.)

At Christmas 1990, I sat down and read a novel published a few years before, by an up-and-coming science fiction writer.  That novel – Neuromancer – changed my life.  It gave me a vision that I would pursue for an entire decade: a three-dimensional, immersive, visualized Internet.  Cyberspace.  I dropped everything, moved myself to San Francisco – epicenter of all work in virtual reality – and founded a startup to design and market an inexpensive immersive videogaming console.  It was hard work, frequently painful, and I managed to pour my life savings into the company before it went belly up.  But I can’t say that any of the other VR companies faired any better.  A few of them still exist, shadows of their former selves, selling specialty products into the industrial market.

These companies failed because each of them – my own among them – coveted the whole prize.  With the eyes of a megalomaniac, each firm was going to ‘rule the world’.  Each did lots of inventing, holding onto every scrap of invention with IP agreements and copyrights and all sorts of patents.  I invented a technology very much similar to that seen in the Wiimote, but fourteen years before the Wiimote was introduced.  It’s all patented.  I don’t own it.  After my company collapsed the patent went through a series of other owners, until eventually I found myself in a lawyer’s office, being deposed, because my patent – the one I didn’t actually own – was involved in a dispute over priority, theft of intellectual property, and other violations.

Lovely.

With the VR industry in ruins, I set about creating my own networked VR protocol, using a parser donated by my friend Tony Parisi, building upon work from a coder over in Switzerland, a bloke by the name of Tim Berners-Lee, who’d published reams and reams of (gulp) Objective-C code, preprocessed into ANSI C, implementing his new Hypertext Transport Protocol.  I took his code, folded it into my own, and rapidly created a browser for three-dimensional scenes attached to Berners-Lee’s new-fangled World Wide Web.

This happened seventeen years ago this week.  Half a billion seconds ago.

When I’d gotten my 3D browser up and running, I was faced with a choice: I could try to hold it tight, screaming ‘Mine! Mine! Mine!’ and struggle for attention, or I could promiscuously share my code with the world.  Being the attention-seeking type that I am, the choice was easy.  After Dave Raggett – the father of HTML – had christened my work ‘VRML’, I published the source code.  A community began to form around the project.  With some help from an eighteen year-old sysadmin at WIRED named Brian Behlendorf, I brought Silicon Graphics to the table, got them to open their own code, and we had a real specification to present at the 2nd International Conference on the World Wide Web.  VRML was off and running, precisely because it was open to all, free to all, available to all.

It took about a billion seconds of living before I grokked the value of open source, the penny-drop moment I realized that a resource shared is a resource squared.  I owe everything that came afterward – my careers as educator, author, and yes, panelist on The New Inventors – to that one insight.  Ever since then, I’ve tried to give away nearly all of my work: ideas, articles, blog posts, audio and video recordings of my talks, slide decks, and, of course, lots of source code.  The more I give away, the richer I become – not just or even necessarily financially.  There are more metrics to wealth than cash in your bank account, and more ways than one to be rich.  Just as there is more than one way to be good, and – oh yeah – more than one way to be evil.

Which brings us to my second penny-drop moment, which came after I’d been programming computers for almost a billion seconds…

I: ZOMFG 574LLm4N W45 r19H7!

Sometimes, the evil we do, we do to ourselves.  For about half a billion seconds between the ages of nineteen and thirty nine, I smoked tobacco, until I realized that anyone who smokes past the age of forty is either a fool or very poorly informed.  So I quit.  It took five years and many, many, many boxes of nicotine chewing gum, but I’m clean.

A few years ago, Harvard researcher Dr. Nicholas Christakis published some interesting insights on how the behavior of smoking spreads.  It’s not the advertising – that’s mostly banned, these days – but because we take cues from our peers.  If our friends start smoking, we ourselves are more likely to start smoking.  There’s a communicative relationship, almost an epidemiological relationship at work here.  This behavior is being transmitted by mimesis – imitation.  We’re the imitating primates, so good at imitating one another that we can master language and math and xkcd.  When we see our friends smoking, we want to smoke.  We want to fit in.  We want to be cool.  That’s what it feels like inside our minds, but really, we just want to imitate.  We see something, and we want to do it.  This explains Jackass.

Mimesis is not restricted to smoking.  Christakis also studied obesity, and found that it showed the same ‘network’ effects.  If you are surrounded by the obese people, chances are greater that you will be obese.  If your peers starts slimming, chances are that you will join them in dieting.  The boundaries of mimesis are broad: we can teach soldiers to kill by immersing them in an environment where everyone learns to kill; we can teach children to read by immersing them in an environment where everyone learns to read; we can stuff our faces with Maccas and watch approvingly as our friends do the same.  We have learned to use mimesis to our advantage, but equally it makes us its slaves.

Recent research has shown something disturbing: divorce spreads via mimesis.  If you divorce, its more likely that your friends will also split up.  Conversely, if your friends separate, it’s more likely that your marriage will dissolve.  Again, this makes sense – you’re observing the behavior of your peers and imitating it, but here it touches the heart, the core of our being.

Booting up into Homo Sapiens Sapiens meant the acquisition of a facility for mimesis as broadly flexible as the one we have for language.  These may even be two views into the same cognitive process.  We can imitate nearly anything, but what we choose to imitate is determined by our network of peers, that set of relationships which we now know as our ‘social graph’.

This is why one needs to choose one’s friends carefully.  They are not just friends, they are epidemiological vectors.  When they sneeze, you will catch a cold.  They are puppet masters, pulling your strings, even if they are blissfully unaware of the power they have over you – or the power that you have over them.

All of this is interesting, but little of it has the shock of the new.  Our mothers told us to exercise caution when selecting our friends.  We all know people who got in with the ‘wrong crowd’, to see their lives ruined as a consequence.  This is common knowledge, and common sense.

But things are different today.  Not because the rules have changed – those seem to be eternal – but because we have extended ourselves so suddenly and so completely.  Our very new digital ‘social networks’ recapitulate the ones between our ears, in one essential aspect – they become channels for communication, channels through which the messages of mimesis can spread.  Viral videos – and ‘viral’ behavior in general – are good examples of this.

Digital social networks are instantaneous, ubiquitous and can be vastly larger than the hundred-and-fifty-or-so limit imposed on our endogenous social networks, the functional bandwidth of the human neocortex.  Just as computers can execute algorithms tens of millions of times faster than we can, digital social networks can inflate to elephantine proportions, connecting us to thousands of others.

Most of us keep our social graphs much smaller; the average number of friends on any given user account on Facebook is around 35.  That’s small enough that it resembles your endogenous social network, so the same qualities of mimesis come into play.  When your connections start talking about a movie or a song or a television series, you’re more to become interested in it.

If this is all happening on Facebook – which it normally is – there is another member of your social graph, there whether you like it or not: Facebook itself.  You choose to build your social graph by connecting to others within Facebook, store your social graph on Facebook’s servers, and communicate within Facebook’s environment.  All of this has been neatly captured, providing an opening for Facebook to do what they will with your social graph.

You have friended Mark Zuckerberg, telling him everything about yourself that you have ever told to any of your friends.  More, actually, because an analysis of your social graph reveals much about you that you might not want to ever reveal to anyone else: your sexual preference and fetishes, your social class, your income level – everything that you might choose to hide is entirely revealed because you need to reveal it in order to make Facebook work.  Because you do not own it.  Because you do not have access to the source code, or the databases.  Because it is closed.

Your social graph is the most important thing you have that can be represented in bits.  With it, I can manipulate you.  I can change your tastes, your attitudes, even your politics.  We now know this is possible – and probably even easy.  But to do this, I need your social graph.  I need you to surrender it to me before I can use it to fuck you over.

We didn’t understand any of this a quarter billion seconds ago, when Friendster went live.  Now we have a very good idea of the potency of the social graph, but we find ourselves almost pathetically addicted to the amplified power of communication provided by Facebook.  We want to quit it, but we just don’t know how.  Just as with tobacco, going cold turkey won’t be easy.

On 28 May 2010, I killed my Facebook profile and signed off once and for all.  There is a cost – I’m missing a lot of the information which exists solely within the walled boundaries of Facebook – but I also breathe a bit easier knowing that I am not quite the puppet I was.  When someone asks why I quit – an explanation which has taken me over a thousand words this morning – they normally just close down the conversation with, “My grandmother is on Facebook.  I have to be there.”

That may be our epitaph.

We are so fucked.  We ended up here because we surrendered our most vital personal details to a closed-source system.  We should have known better.

And that’s only the half of it.

So much has happened in the last eight weeks that we’ve almost forgotten that before all of this disaster and tragedy afflicted Queensland, we were obsessed with another sort of disaster, rolling out in slow-motion, like a car smash from inside the car.  On 29 November 2010, Wikileaks, in conjunction with several well-respected newspapers, began to release the first few of a quarter million cables, written by US State Department officials throughout the world.  The US Government did its best to laugh these off as inconsequential, but one has already led more-or-less directly to a revolution in Tunisia.  We also know that Hilary Clinton has requested credit card numbers and DNA samples for all of the UN ambassadors in New York City, presumably so she can raise up a clone army of diplomats intent on identity theft.  Not a good look.

In early December, as the first cables came to light, and their contents ricocheted through the mediasphere, the US government recognized that it had to act – and act quickly – to staunch the flow of leaks.  The government had some help, because an individual seduced by the United States’ projection of power decided to mount a Distributed Denial of Service attack against the Wikileaks website.  In the name of freedom.  Or liberty.  Or something.

Wikileaks went down, but quickly relocated its servers into Amazon.com’s EC2 cloud.  This lasted until US Senator Joseph Lieberman started making noises.  Wikileaks was quickly turfed out of EC2, with Amazon claiming newly discovered violations of its Terms of Service.  Another ‘discovery’ of a violation followed in fairly short order with Wikileaks’ DNS provider, everyDNS.  For the coup de gras, PayPal had a look at their own terms of service – and, quelle horreur! – found Wikileaks in violation, freezing Wikileaks accounts, which, at that time, must have been fairly overflowing with contributions.

Deprive them of servers, deprive them of name service, deprive them of funds: checkmate.  The Powers That Be must have thought this could dent the forward progress of Wikileaks.  In fact, it only caused the number of copies of the website and associated databases to multiply.  Today, nearly two thousand webservers host mirrors of Wikileaks.  Like striking at a dandelion, attacking it only causes the seed to spread with the winds.

Although Wikileaks successfully resumed its work releasing the cables, the entire incident proved one ugly, mean, nasty point: the Internet is fundamentally not free.  Where we thought we breathed the pure air of free speech and free thought, we instead find ourselves severely caged.  If we do something that upsets our masters too much, they bring the bars down upon us, leaving us no breathing room at all.  That isn’t liberty.  That is slavery.

This isn’t some hypothetical.  This isn’t a paranoid fantasy.  This is what is happening. It will happen again, and again, and again, whenever the State or forces in collusion with the State find themselves threatened.  None of it is secure.  None of it belongs to us.  None of it is free.

This is why we are so truly and wholly fucked.  This is why we must stop and rethink everything we are doing.  This is why we must consider ourselves victims of another kind of disaster, another tragedy, and must equally and bravely confront another kind of rebuilding.  Because if we do not create something new, if we do not restore what is broken, we surrender to the forces of control.

I will not surrender.  I will not serve.

II: Life During Wartime (with A Design Guide for Anarchists)

Like it or not, we find ourselves at war.  It’s not a war we asked for.  It’s not a war we wanted.  But war is upon us, the last great gasp of the forces of control as they realize that when they digitized, in pursuit of greater efficiency, profit, or extensions of their own power, whatever they once held onto became so fluid it now drains away completely.

That’s one enemy, the old enemy, the ones whom history has already ruled irrelevant.  But there’s the other enemy, who seeks to exteriorize the interior, to make privacy difficult and therefore irrelevant.  Without privacy there is no liberty.  Without privacy there is no individuality.  Without privacy there is only the mindless, endless buzzing of the hive.    That’s the new enemy.  Although it announces itself with all of the hyperbole of historical inevitability, this is just PR aimed at extending the monopoly power of these forces.

We need weapons.  Lots of weapons.  I’m not talking about the Low Orbit Ion Cannon.  Rather, I’m recommending a layered defensive strategy, one which allows us to carry on with our business, blithely unmolested by the forces which seek to constrain us.

Here, then, is my ‘Design Guide for Anarchists’:

Design Principle One: Distribute Everything

The recording industry used the courts to shut down Napster because they could.  Napster had a single throat they could get their legal arms around, choking the life out of it.  In a display of natural selection that would have brought a tear to Alfred Russel Wallace’s eye, the selection pressure applied by the recording industry only led to the creation of Gnutella, which, through its inherently distributed architecture, became essentially impossible to eradicate.  The Day of the Darknet had begun.

Break everything upBreak it all down.  When you have these components, make them all independentReplicate them widely.  Allow them to talk to one another.  Allow them to search one another, share with one another, so that together they will create a whole greater than a simple sum of parts.  Then you will never be rid of them, because if one part should be cut down, there will be two others to take its place.

This is an extension of the essential UNIX idea of simple programs which can be piped together to do useful things.  ‘Small pieces, loosely joined.’  But these pieces shouldn’t live within a single process, a single processor, a single computer, or a single subnet.  They must live everywhere they can live, in every compatible environment, so that they can survive any of the catastrophes of war.

Design Principle Two: Transport Independence

The inundation of Brisbane and its surrounding suburbs brought a sudden death to all of its networks: mobile, wired, optic.  All of these networks are centralized, and for that reason they can all be turned off – either by a natural disaster, or at the whim of The Powers That Be.  Just as significantly, they require the intervention of those Powers to reboot them: government and telcos had to work hand-in-hand to bring mobile service back to the worst-affected suburbs.  So long as you are in the good graces of the government, it can be remarkably efficient.  But if you find yourself aligned against your government, or your government is afflicted with corruption, as simple a thing as a dial tone can be almost impossible to manifest.

We have created a centralized communications infrastructure.  Lines feed into trunks, which feed into central offices, which feed into backbones.  This seems the natural order of things, but it is entirely an echo of the commercial requirements of these networks.  In order to bill you, your communications must pass through a point where they can be measured, metered and tariffed.

There is another way.  Years before the Internet came along, we used UUCP and FidoNet to spread mail and news posts throughout a far-flung, only occasionally connected global network of users.  It was slower than we’re used to these days, but no less reliable.  Messages would forward from host to host, until they reached their intended destination.  It all worked if you had a phone line, or an Internet connection, or, well, pretty much anything else.  I presume that a few hardy souls printed out a UUCP transmission on paper tape, physically carried it from one host to another, and fed it through.

A hierarchy is efficient, but the price of that efficiency is vulnerability.  A rhizomatic arrangement of nodes within a mesh is slow, but very nearly invulnerable.  It will survive flood, fire, earthquake and revolution.  To abolish these dangerous hierarchies, we must reconsider everything we believe about ‘the right way’ to get bits from point A to point B.  Every transport must be considered – from point-to-point laser beams to wide-area mesh networks using unlicensed spectrum down to semaphore and smoke signals.  Nothing is too slow, only too unreliable.  If we rely on TCP/IP and HTTP exclusively, we risk everything for the sake of some speed and convenience.  But this is life during wartime, and we must shoulder this burden.

Design Principle Three: Secure Everything

Why would any message traverse a public network in plaintext?  The bulk of our communication occurs in the wide open – between Web browsers and Web servers, email servers and clients, sensors and their recorders.  This is insanity. It is not our job to make things easy to read for ASIO or the National Security Agency or Google or Facebook or anyone else who has some need to know what we’re saying and what we’re thinking.

As a baseline, everything we do, everywhere, must be transmitted with strong encryption.  Until someone perfects a quantum computer, that’s our only line of defense.

We need a security approach that is more comprehensive than this.  The migration to cloud computing – driven by its ubiquity and convenience, and baked into Google’s Chrome OS – deprives us of any ability to secure our own information.  When we use Gmail or Flickr or Windows Live or MobileMe or even Dropbox (which is better than most, as it stores everything encrypted), we surrender our security for a little bit of simplicity.  This is a false trade-off.  These systems are insecure because it benefits those who offer these systems to the public.  There is value in all of that data, so everything is exposed, leaving us exposed.

If you do not know where it lives, if you do not hold the keys to lock it or release it, if it affects to be more pretty than useful (because locks are ugly), turn your back on it, and tell the ones you love – who do not know what you know – to do the same.  Then, go and build systems which are secure, which present nothing but a lock to any prying eyes.

Design Principle Four: Open Everything

I don’t need to offer any detailed explanation for this last point: it is the reason we are here.  If you can’t examine the source code, how can you really trust it?  This is an issue beyond maintainability, beyond the right to fork; this is the essential element that will prevent paranoia.  ‘Transparency is the new objectivity’, and unless any particular program is completely transparent, it is inherently suspect.

Open source has the additional benefit that it can be reused and repurposed; the parts for one defensive weapon can rapidly be adapted to another one, so open source accelerates the responses to new threats, allowing us to stay one step ahead of the forces who are attempting to close all of this down.  There’s a certain irony here: in order to compete effectively with us, those who oppose us will be forced to open their own source, to accelerate their own responses to our responses.  On this point we must win, simply because open source improves selection fitness.

When all four of these design principles are embodied in a work, another design principle emerges: resilienceSomething that is distributed, transport independent, secure and open is very, very difficult to subvert, shut down, or block. It will survive all sorts of disasters.  Including warfare.  It will adapt at lightning speed.  It makes the most of every possible selection advantage.  But nothing is perfect.  Systems engineered to these design principles will be slower than those built purely for efficiency.  The more immediacy you need, the less resilience you get.  Sometimes immediacy will overrule other design principles.  Such trade-offs must be carefully thought through.

Is all of this more work?  Yes.  But then, building an automobile that won’t kill its occupants at speed is a lot more work than slapping four wheels and a gear train on a paper mache box.  We do that work because we don’t want our loved ones hurtling toward their deaths every time they climb behind the wheel.  Freedom ain’t free, and ‘extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.’

Let me take a few minutes to walk you through the design of my own open-source project, so you can see how these design principles have influenced my own work.

III:  Plexus

When I announced I would quit Facebook, many of my contacts held what can only be described as an ‘electronic wake’ for me, in the middle of my Facebook comment stream.  As if I were about to pass away, and they’d never see me again.  I kept pointing them to my Posterous blog, but they simply ignored the links, telling me how much I’d be missed once I departed.  ‘But why can’t you just come visit me on Posterous?’ I asked.  One contact answered for the lot when he said, ‘That’s too hard, Mark.  With Facebook I can check on everyone at once.  I don’t need to go over there for you, and over here for someone else, and so on and so on.  Facebook makes it easy.’

That’s another epitaph.  Yet it precipitated a penny-drop moment.  The reason Facebook has such lock-in with its users is because of a network effect: as more people join Facebook, its utility value as a human switchboard increases.  It is this access to the social graph which is Facebook’s ‘flypaper’, the reason it is so sticky, and surpassing Google as the most visited site on the Internet.

That social graph is the key thing; it’s what the address book, the rolodex and the contacts database have morphed into, and it forms the foundation for a project that I have named Plexus.  Plexus is a protocol for the social web, ‘plumbing’ that allows all social web components to communicate: from each, according to their ability, to each, according to their need.  Some components of the social web – Facebook comes to mind – are very poor communicators.  Others, like Twitter, have provided every conceivable service to make them easy to talk to.

Plexus provides a ‘meta-API’, based on RFC2822 messaging, so that each service can feed into or be fed by an individual’s social graph.  This social graph, the heart of Plexus, is what we might call the ‘Web2.0 address book’.  It’s not simply a static set of names, addresses, telephone numbers and emails, but, rather, an active set of connections between services, which you can choose to listen to, or to share with.  This is the switchboard, where the real magic takes place, allowing you listen to or be listened to, allowing you to share, or be shared with.

Plexus is agnostic; it can talk to any service, and any service can talk to it.  It is designed to ‘wire everything together’, so that we never have to worry about going hither and yon to manage our social graph, but neither need we be chained in one place.  Plexus gives us as much flexibility as we require.  That’s the vision.

Just after New Year, I had an insight.  I had originally envisioned Plexus as a monolithic set of Python modules.  It became clear that message-passing between the components – using an RFC2822 protocol – would allow me to separate the components, creating a distributed Plexus, parts of which could run anywhere: on a separate process, on a separate subnet, or, really, anywhere.  Furthermore, these messages could easily be encrypted and signed using RSA encryption, creating a strong layer of security.  Finally, these messages could be transmitted by any means necessary: TCP/IP, UUCP, even smoke signals.  And of course, all of it is entirely open.  Because it’s a protocol, the pieces of Plexus can be coded in any language anyone wants to use: Python, Node.js, PHP, Perl, Haskell, Ruby, Java, even shell.  Plexus is an agreement to speak the same language about the things we want to share.

I could go into mind-numbing detail about the internals of Plexus, but I trust those of you who find Plexus intriguing will find me after I leave the stage this morning.  I’m most interested in what you know that could help move this project forward: what pieces already exist that I can rework and adapt for Plexus?  I need your vast knowledge, your insights and your critiques.  Plexus is still coming to life, but a hundred things must go right for it to be a success.  With your aid, that can happen.

When it does – well, let me share one of my favorite quotes, from one of my favorite novels, Illuminatus!, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson:

The Chinese Taoist laughs at civilization and goes elsewhere.
The Babylonian Chaoist sets termites to the foundations.

Plexus is a white ant set to the imposing foundations of Facebook and every other service which chooses to take the easy path, walling its users in, the better to control them.  There is another way.  When the network outside the walls has a utility value greater than the network within, the forces of natural selection come into play, and those walls quickly tumble.  We saw it with AOL.  We saw it with MSN.  We’ll see it again with Facebook.  We will build the small and loosely-coupled components that individually do very little but altogether add up to something far more useful than anything on offer from any monopolist.

We need to see this happen.  This is not just a game.

Conclusion: The Next Billion Seconds

A billion seconds ago, Linux did not exist.  The personal computer was an expensive toy.  The Internet – well, one of my friends is the sysadmin who got HP onto UUCP – this was before the Internet became pervasive – and he remembers updating his /etc/hosts file weekly – by hand.  Every machine on the Internet could be found within a single file, that could be printed out on two sheets of greenbar.  A billion seconds later, and we’re a few days away from IPocalypse, the total allocation of the IPv4 number space.

Something is going on.

I’m not as teleological as Kevin Kelly.  I do not believe that there is evidence to support a seventh class of life – the technium – which is striving to come into its own.  I don’t consider technology as something in any way separate from us.  Other animals may use tools, but we have gone further, becoming synonymous with them.  Our social instinct for imitation, our language instinct for communication, and our technological instinct for tool using all seem to be reaching new heights.  Each instinct reinforces the others, creating a series of rising feedbacks that has only one possible end: the whole system overloads, overflows all its buffers, and – as you might expect – knocks the supervisor out of the box.

Call this a Singularity, if you like.  I simply refer to it as the next billion seconds.

The epicenter of this transition, where all three streams collide, sits in the palm of our hands, nearly all the time.  The mobile is the most pervasive technology in human history.  People who do not have electricity or indoor plumbing or literacy or agriculture have mobiles.  Perhaps five and a half billion of the planet’s seven billion souls possesses one; that’s everyone who earns more than one dollars a day.  Countless studies shows that individuals with mobiles improve their economic fitness:  they earn more money.  Anything that improves selection fitness – and economic fitness is a big part of that – spreads rapidly, as humans imitate, as humans communicate, as humans take the tool and further it, increasing its utility, amplifying its ability to amplify economic fitness.  The mobile becomes even more useful, more essential, more indispensable.  A billion seconds ago, no one owned a mobile.  Today, nearly everyone does.

Hundreds of billions of dollars are being invested to make the mobile more useful, more pervasive, and more effective.  The engines of capital are reorganizing themselves around it, just as they did, three billion seconds ago, for the automobile, and a billion seconds ago for the integrated circuit.  But unlike the automobile or the IC, the mobile is quintessentially a social technology, a connective fabric for humanity.  The next billion seconds will see this fabric become more tangible and more tightly woven, as it becomes increasingly inconceivable to separate ourselves from those we choose to share our lives with.

Call this a Hive Mind, if you like.  I simply refer to it as the next billion seconds.

This is starting to push beneath our skins the way it has already colonized our attention.  I don’t know that we will literally ‘Borg’ ourselves.  But the strict boundaries between ourselves, our machines, and other humans are becoming blurred to the point of meaninglessness.  Organisms are defined by their boundaries, by what they admit and what they refuse.  In this billion seconds, we are rewriting the definition of homo sapiens sapiens, irrevocably becoming something else.

Do we own that code? Are parts of that new definition closed off from us, fenced in by the ramparts of privilege or power or capital or law?  Will we end up with something foreign inside each of us, a potency unnamed, unobserved, and unavoidable?  Will we be invaded, infected, and controlled?   This is the choice that confronts us in the next billion seconds, a choice made even in its abrogation.  Freedom is not just an ideal.  Liberty is not some utopian dream.  These must form the baseline human experience in our next billion seconds, or all is lost.  We ourselves will be lost.

We have reached the decision point.  Our actions today – here, in this room – define the future we will inhabit, the transhumanity we are emerging into.  We’ve had our playtime, and it’s been good.  We’ve learned a lot, but mostly we’ve learned how to discern right from wrong.  We know what to do: what to build up, and what to tear down.  This transition is painful and bloody and carries with it the danger of complete loss.  But we have no choice.  We are too far down within it to change our ways now.  ‘The way down is the way up.’

Call it a birth, if you like.  It awaits us within the next billion seconds.

The slides for this talk (in OpenOffice.org Impress format) are available here.  They contain strong images.

Hyperconnected Health

I: My Cloud

This is the age of networks, and we are always connected.  If that seems fanciful, ask yourself how often you are parted from your mobile, and for how long?  All of our hours – even as we sleep – the mobile is within arm’s reach for almost all of us.  A few months ago a woman asked me when we might expect to have implants, to close the loop, and make the connection permanent.  “We’re already there,” I responded.  “It’s wedded to the palm of your hand.”  In a purely functional sense this is the truth, and it has been the case for several years.

Connection to the network is neither an instantaneous nor absolute affair.  It takes time to establish the protocols for communication.  We understand many of these protocols without explanation: we do not telephone someone at three o’clock in the morning unless vitally important.  Three o’clock in the afternoon, however, is open season.  Lately, there are newer, technologically driven protocols: I can look at a caller’s number, and decide whether I want to take that call or direct it to voice mail.  The caller has no idea I’ve made any decision.  From their point of view, it’s simply a missed call.  Similarly, I have friends I can not text before 10 AM unless it’s quite urgent, and I ask my friends not to text me after 10 PM for the same reason.  We set our boundaries with technology, boundaries which determine how we connect.  We can choose to be entirely connected, or entirely disconnected.  We can let the batteries run flat on our mobile, or simply turn it off and put it away.  But there’s a price to be paid.  Absence from connection incurs a cost.  To be disconnected is to cede your ability to participate in the flow of affairs.  Thus, the modern condition is a dilemma, where we balance the demands of our connectedness against the desire to be free from its constraints.

Connectedness is not simply a set of pressures; it is equally a range of capabilities.  As our connectedness grows, so our capabilities grow in lock-step.  What we could achieve with the landline was immeasurably beyond what was possible with the post, yet doesn’t compare with what we can do with email, mobile voice, SMS, or, now, any of a hundred thousand different sorts of activities, from banking to dating to ordering up a taxi.  The device has become a platform, a social nexus, the point where we find ourselves attached to the universe of others.  Consider the address book that lives on your mobile.  Mine has about 816 entries.  Those are all connections that were made at some point in my life.  (Admittedly, I haven’t been weeding them out as vigorously as I should, so some of those contact are duplicates or no longer accurate.)  That’s just what’s on my mobile.  If I go out to Twitter, I have rather more connections in my ‘social graph’ – about 6700.  These connections aren’t quiescent, waiting to be dialed, but are constantly listening in to what I have to say, just as I am constantly listening to them.

No one can give their full-time attention to that sort of cacophony of human voices.  Some are paid more attention, others, rather less.  Sometimes there’s no spare attention to be given to any of these voices, and what they say is lost to me.  Yet, on the whole, I can maintain some form of continuous partial attention with this ‘cloud’ of others.  They are always with me, and I with them.  This is a new thing (I view myself as a sort of guinea pig in a lab experiment) and it has produced some rather unexpected results.

At the end of last year I went on a long road trip with a friend from the US.  On our first day, we struck out from Sydney and drove to Canberra, arriving, tired and hungry at quarter to six.  Where do you eat dinner in a town that closes down at 5 pm?  I went online and put the question out to Twitter, then ducked into the shower.  By the time I’d dried off, I had a whole suite of responses from native Canberrans, several of whom pointed me to the Civic Asian Noodle House.  Thirty minutes later, my American friend was enjoying his first bowl of seafood laksa – which was among the best I’ve had in Australia.

A few days later, at the end of the road trip, when we’d reached the Barossa Valley, I put another question out to Twitter: what wineries should we visit?  The top five recommendations were very good indeed.  Each of these ‘cloud moments’, by themselves, seems relatively trivial.  Both together begin to mark the difference between an ordinary holiday and a most excellent one.

Another case in point: two weeks ago today, my washing machine gave up the ghost.  What to replace it with?  I asked Twitter.  Within a few hours, and some back-and-forth, I decided upon a Bosch.  Some of that was based on direct input from Bosch owners, some of that came from a CHOICE survey of washing machine owners.  I was pointed to that survey by someone on Twitter.

As I experiment, and learn how to query my cloud, I have sbecome more dependent upon the good advice it can provide.  My cloud extends my reach, my experience and my intelligence, making me much more effective as some sort of weird ‘colony individual’ than I could be on my own.   I have no doubt that within a few years, as the tools improve, nearly every decision I make will be observed and improved upon by my cloud.  Which is wonderful, incredible, and – to quote Tony Abbott – very confronting.

Let me turn things around a bit, to show another side of the cloud, specifically the cloud of my good friend Kate Carruthers.  Last year Kate found herself in Far North Queensland on a business trip and discovered that her American Express card credit limit had summarily been cut in half – with no advance 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 Kate 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.

Hollywood has been forced to take note of the power of these clouds.  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:  now it takes a few minutes.  As the first showing ends, friends text friends, people post to Twitter and Facebook, and the news spreads.  After the second or third showing, the crowds have dropped off: word has gotten out that the film stinks.  Where just a few years ago a film could coast for an entire weekend, now the Friday matinee has become a make-or-break affair.  An opinion, multiplied by hundreds or thousands of connections, carries a lot of weight.

That amplification effect has been particularly visible to me over the last week.   I’ve been participating in a ‘social review program’ sponsored by Telstra, who sought reviewers for the handset du jour, the HTC Desire.  I received a free handset – worth about $800 – in exchange for a promise to do a thorough, but honest review.  This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, and when I started to post my thoughts to Twitter, I immediately got a big pushback.  Some of my cloud considered it an unacceptable commercialization of a space they consider essentially private and personal.  I spruik The New Inventors on Twitter every Wednesday.  That’s just as commercial, but Telstra is held out for particular contempt by a broad swath of the Australian public, so any association with them carries it own opprobrium.  I’ve come to realize that I’ve tarred myself with the same brush that others use for Telstra.  Although I did this accidentally and innocently, some of that tar will continue to stick to me.  I have suffered the worst fate that can befall anyone who lives life with a cloud: reputational damage.  Some people have made it perfectly clear that they will never again regard me with the same benevolence.  That damage is done.  All I can do is learn from it, and work to not repeat the same mistakes.

This marked the first time that I’d been ‘chastised’ by my cloud.  I’ve always operated within the bounds of propriety – the protocols of civilized behavior – but in this case I found I’d stumbled into a minefield, a danger zone filled with obstacles that I’d created for myself by presenting myself not just as Mark Pesce, but as Telstra.  I’ve learned new limits, new protocols, and, for the first time, I can begin to sense the constraints that come hand-in-hand with my new capabilities.  I can do a lot, but I can not do as I please.

II: Share the Health

Social networks are nothing new.  We’ve carried them around inside our heads from a time long before we were recognizably human.  They are the secret to our success, and always have been.  We’re the most social of all the of the mammals, and while the bees may put us to shame, we also have big brains to develop distinct personalities and unique strengths, which we have always shared, so that our expertise becomes an asset to the whole of society, whether that is a tribe, a city, or a nation.

Others have been studying these ‘old-school’ human social networks, and they’ve learned some surprising things.  Harvard internist and social scientist Dr. Nicholas Christakis has published a series of papers that illustrate the power of the connection.  In his first paper, he studied how smoking behaviors – both starting and quitting – spread through social networks.  It turns out that if a sufficient number of your friends start to smoke, you’re more likely to begin yourself.  Conversely, if enough of your friends quit, you’re more likely to quit.  This makes sense when you consider the reinforcing nature of social relationships; we each send one another a forest of subtle cues about the ‘right’ way to behave, fit in, and get along.  Those cues shape our choices and behaviors.  Hang out with smokers and you’re more likely to smoke.  Hang out with non-smokers, and you’re likely to quit smoking.

Dr. Christakis also found that the same phenomenon appears to hold true for obesity.  Again, people look to one another for cues about body image.  If all of your peers are obese, you are more likely to be obese yourself.  If your peers are thin, you’re more likely to be thin.  And if your peers go on a diet, you’re likely to join them in slimming.  The connections between us are also the transmitters of behavior.  (It may be the secret to the success of other groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.)  This is a powerful insight, one which caused me to have a bit of a brainwave, a few months ago, as I began planning this talk: what happens when we take what we know about our human social networks as behavioral transmitters and apply that to our accelerated, amplified digital selves?

I can take any bit of data I like and share it out through Twitter to 6700 connections, and I frequently do.  I post articles I’ve read, interesting films I’ve watched, photographs I’ve taken, and so forth.  My cloud is an opportunity to share what I encounter in my life.  Probably many of you do precisely the same thing.  But let’s take it a step further.  Let’s say that my doctor wants me to lose 15 kilos, in order to help me lower my blood pressure.  I agree to his request, and perhaps see a nutritionist, but after that I’m pretty much own my own.  I could spend some money to join a ‘group’ like Weight Watchers or whatnot; essentially purchasing a peer group with whom I will connect.  That will work for the duration of the weight loss, but once the support ends, the weight comes piles on.

Instead of this (or, perhaps, in addition to it), what I need to do is to bind my cloud to my intention to lose weight. I need to share this information, but I need to do it meaningfully.  This is more than simply saying, ‘Hey, I need to drop some pounds.’  More than posting the weekly weigh-in figures.  It means using the cloud intelligently, sharing with the cloud what can and should be shared – that is, what I eat and what exercise I get.

When I say ‘my cloud’ in this context, I doubt that I’m speaking about the full complement of 6700 souls.  Although all of them wish me well, this sort of detail is simply noise to many of them.  Instead, I need to go to a smaller cohort: my close friends, and those within my cloud who share a similar affinity – who are also working to lose weight.  These connections – a cloud within my cloud – are the ones who will be best served by my sharing.  I now keep track of what I eat and how I exercise, using some collaborative tool developed an some enterprising entrepreneur to track it all, and everyone sees what kind of progress I’m making toward my goal.  I also see everyone else’s progress toward their own goals.  We reinforce, we reassure, we share both new-found strengths and our moments of weakness.  As we share, we grow closer.  The network is reinforced.  All along, my friends (and my GP) are looking in, monitoring, happy to see that I’m on track toward my goal.

None of this is rocket science.  It’s good social science, and plain common sense.  It needs to be supported by tools.  At this point, I began to think about the kinds of tools that would be useful.  First and most useful would be a food diary.   Rather than a text-based listing of everything eaten, I reckon this will be a bit more up-to-date; there’ll be photographs, taken with my mobile, of everything that goes into my mouth.  As a bit of an experiment, I tried photographing everything I ate from the beginning of this month.  I always got breakfast, mostly lunch, and by dinner had forgotten completely.  My records are incomplete.  That wouldn’t do for any sharing system like this, and it points to the fact that technology is no substitute for effective habits, and those habits don’t develop overnight.  They require some peer support.

As I was beginning to think through the requirements of such a hypothetical system – so that I could share that system with you– I learned that someone had already implemented a real-world system along similar lines.  Jon Cousins, an entrepreneur from Cambridgeshire recently launched a website known as Moodscope.  This site allows individuals who have mood disorders to track their moods daily, and then shares those daily updates with a circle of up to five trusted individuals.

It’s known that individuals with mood disorders can be supported by a network – if that network is kept abreast of that individual’s changes in mood.  I decided to give Moodscope a try, and have been charting my daily moods (which average around the baseline of 50%) for the past 26 days, sharing those results with a close friend.  Although it’s early days, Moodscope is showing promise as a tool that can support people in their struggle for mood regulation and overall mental health, and might even do so better than some pharmaceutical treatments.

In these two examples – one imaginary and one wholly real – we have a pattern for health care in the 21st century, a model which doesn’t supplant the existing systems, but rather, works alongside them to improve outcomes and to keep patient care costs down, by spreading the burden of care throughout a community.  This model could be repeated to cover diabetics, or hypertensives, or asthmatics, or arthritics, and so on.  It is a generic model which can be applied to every patient and each disorder.

We’ve already seen the birth of ‘Wikimedicine’, where individuals connect together to try to learn more about their diseases than their treating physicians.  This is sometimes a recipe for disaster, but that’s because this is all so new.  Within a few years, doctors, nurse practitioners and patients will be connected through dense networks of knowledge and need.  The doctor and nurse practitioner will help guide the patient into knowledge using the wealth of online resources.  That’s not often happening at present, and this means that patients fall prey to all sorts of bad information.  In our near future, medical knowledge isn’t simply locked away in the physician’s head; it’s shared through a connected community for the benefit of all.  The doctor still treats, while the patient – and the patient’s connections – learn.  From that learning comes the lifestyle changes and reinforcements in behavior that lead to better outcomes.

We have the networks in place, both human and virtual.  We merely need to institute some new practices to reap the benefit of our connections.  As the population ages, these sorts of innovations will seem both natural – relying on others is an essentially human characteristic – and cost-effective.  The population will adopt these measures because they find them empowering (and because their GPs will recommend them), while governments and insurance companies will adopt them because they keep a lid on medical costs.  The forces of culture and technology are converging on a shared, hyperconnected future which aims to keep us as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

III:  The Ministry of Love

I have a good friend who was diagnosed with a mood disorder sixteen years ago.  A few months ago he decided his psychiatric medication was doing him more harm than good, and took himself off of it.  Although it’s been a difficult process, so far he’s been reasonably stable.  When I found Moodscope, I told him about it.  “Sounds good,” he responded, “I can’t wait until they have it as a Facebook app.”  I hadn’t thought about that, but it does make perfect sense: your social graph is already right there, embedded into Facebook, and Facebook applications have access to your social graph: why not create a version of Moodscope that ties the two together?  It sounds very compelling, a sure winner.

But do you really want Facebook to have access to highly privileged medical information, information about your mental state?  That information can be used to help you, but it could also be used against you.   Sydney teenager Nona Belomesoff was lured to her death by a man who used information gleaned from Facebook to befriend her.  Consider: If someone wanted to cause my friend some distress, they could use that shared mood data as a key indicator which would guide them to time their destabilizing efforts for maximum effectiveness.  They could kick him when he was down, and make sure he stayed down.  Giving someone insight into our emotional state gives them the upper hand.

Were that not dangerous enough, just last Friday the Wall Street Journal reported the results of an investigation, which revealed that Facebook was sharing confidential user data with advertisers – data which they’d legally agreed to hold in closest confidence.  The advertisers themselves had no idea that this information was provided illegally.  Facebook, the supreme collector of marketing data, simply didn’t know when or even how to restrain itself.

With that in mind, let’s imagine a situation bound to happen sometime in the next few years.  You and your Facebook friends decide that you want to quit smoking.  It’s too expensive, it’s too hard to find a smoking area, your clothes stink, and you’re starting to get a hacking cough in the mornings.  Enough.  So you tell your friends – over Facebook – that you’re thinking of quitting.  And they think that’s a great idea.  They want to quit, too.  So you all set a date to quit.  That’s all well and good, but then an invitation arrives to a very swanky party in the City, an exclusive affair.  You go, and find that the whole space is a smoking area!  All of these elegant people, puffing away.  Because smoking is glamorous.  And you begin to reconsider.  Your resolve begins to weaken.

Or you want to lose weight.  You even add the Facebook ‘Drop the Fat’ app to your account, to help you achieve your weight loss goals.  But, just as soon as you do that, you start seeing lots more Facebook advertisements for biscuits and ice cream and fresh pizzas.  That has an effect.  It weakens your willpower, and makes those slightly-hungry hours seem more unbearable.

This is the friendly version of ‘Room 101’ from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In that room, you met your greatest fear.  In this one, you meet your greatest weakness.  When a tobacco company has access to a social network which is trying to quit smoking, it will be tempted to disrupt that network.  When a soft drink company has access to a social network which is trying to lose weight, it will be tempted to disrupt that network.  Our social networks are too potent and too powerful to leave exposed to anyone, for any reason whatsoever.  Yet we leave them lying around, open to public inspection, and we allow Facebook to own them outright, to exploit them as it sees fit, to its own ends, and for its own profit.  Hopefully that will come to an end, unless we’re too far down the rabbit hole to pull out of Facebook and into something else that preserves the integrity of our social graph while granting us control over how we share our inmost selves.

This is where you come in.  You’re the policy folks, and I’ve just thrown a whopper into your lap.  Securing the safety and prosperity of our social future means that we need to establish clear guidelines on how these networks can be used, by whom, and to what ends.  As I’ve explained, there is enormous potential for these networks to lead to breakthroughs in public health, disease prevention, and medical cost management.  That’s just the beginning.  These same networks can organize toward political ends.  We got just a taste of that in the Obama presidential campaign, but the next decade will see its full flower, whether in America or in Iran or in Australia.  As social networks become identified with power networks, all of the conservative and power-seeking interests of culture will work to interfere with them as a means of control.

As public servants and policy makers, you will see the politicians, the doctors, and the advertisers come to you crying, ‘Can’t we do something?’  All of them will want you to weaken the protections for social networks, in order to make them more permeable and less resilient.  In this present moment, and with our current laws, social networks have no protections whatsoever.  They used to live inside our heads, where they needed few protections.  Now they live in public, and with every day that passes we come to understand that they are perhaps our most important possession, the doorway to ourselves.  First you must protect.  Then you must defend.

Protection is not enough.  It’s not clear that any commercial interest can be trusted with the social graphs of a community.  There’s too much potential for mischief, particularly right now, when everything is so new and so raw.  Government must play a role in this revolution, encouraging government-affiliated NGOs and other not-for-profits to foster networks of connections to spring up around communities which need the empowerment that comes with hyperconnectivity.  In the absence of this sort of gardening, the ground will be ceded to commercial forces which may not have the best interests of the citizenry foremost in mind.  By doing nothing, we lay the foundation for a new generation of grifters, criminals, and brainwashers.  But if these networks are built securely – by people who believe in them, and believe in what is possible with them – they become hyper-potent, capable of transforming the lives of everyone connected to them.  It’s a short path from hyperconnectivity to hyperempowerment, a path which will be well-trodden in the coming years.

The 21st century will look very different from the century just passed.  Instead of big wars and major powers, we’ll see different ‘gangs’ of hyperempowered social networks having a rumble, networks that look a lot like families, towns, or nations.  We’ll all be connected by similar principles, for similar reasons, and we will use similar tools to rally together and mobilize our strengths.  As is the nature of power, power will seek to use power to undermine the power of others.  Facebook is already doing this, though they seem to have stumbled into it.  The next time it happens it will be more deliberate, and more diabolical.

That’s it.  The future is much bigger than hyperconnected health, but as someone who will be a senior in just 20 years, hyperconnected health means more to me than whatever might happen to politics or business.  I need the support that will keep me healthy long into my sunset years, and I will join with others to build those systems.  If we build from corruption, corruption will be the fruit.  We must be honest with ourselves, acknowledge the dangers even as we laud the benefits, and build ourselves systems which do not play into human weaknesses, or avarice, or megalomania.  This is a project fit for a culture, a project worthy of a nation, a people who understand that together we can accomplish whatever we set our sights upon, if we build from a foundation of trust, respect and privacy.