My annual lecture to the “Cyberworlds” class at the University of Sydney. Recorded on 31 March 2009.
If a picture paints a thousand words, you’ve just absorbed a million, the equivalent of one-and-a-half Bibles. That’s the way it is, these days. Nothing is small, nothing discrete, nothing bite-sized. Instead, we get the fire hose, 24 x 7, a world in which connection and community have become so colonized by intensity and amplification that nearly nothing feels average anymore.
Is this what we wanted? It’s become difficult to remember the before-time, how it was prior to an era of hyperconnectivity. We’ve spent the last fifteen years working out the most excellent ways to establish, strengthen and multiply the connections between ourselves. The job is nearly done, but now, as we put down our tools and pause to catch our breath, here comes the question we’ve dreaded all along…
Why. Why this?
I gave this question no thought at all as I blithely added friends to Twitter, shot past the limits of Dunbar’s Number, through the ridiculous, and then outward, approaching the sheer insanity of 1200 so-called-“friends” whose tweets now scroll by so quickly that I can’t focus on any one saying any thing because this motion blur is such that by the time I think to answer in reply, the tweet in question has scrolled off the end of the world.
This is ludicrous, and can not continue. But this is vital and can not be forgotten. And this is the paradox of the first decade of the 21st century: what we want – what we think we need – is making us crazy.
Some of this craziness is biological.
Eleven million years of evolution, back to Proconsul, the ancestor of all the hominids, have crafted us into quintessentially social creatures. We are human to the degree we are in relationship with our peers. We grew big forebrains, to hold banks of the chattering classes inside our own heads, so that we could engage these simulations of relationships in never-ending conversation. We never talk to ourselves, really. We engage these internal others in our thoughts, endlessly rehearsing and reliving all of the social moments which comprise the most memorable parts of life.
It’s crowded in there. It’s meant to be. And this has only made it worse.
No man is an island. Man is only man when he is part of a community. But we have limits. Homo Sapiens Sapiens spent two hundred thousand years exploring the resources afforded by a bit more than a liter of neural tissue. The brain has physical limits (we have to pass through the birth canal without killing our mothers) so our internal communities top out at Dunbar’s magic Number of 150, plus or minus a few.
Dunbar’s Number defines the crucial threshold between a community and a mob. Communities are made up of memorable and internalized individuals; mobs are unique in their lack of distinction. Communities can be held in one’s head, can be tended and soothed and encouraged and cajoled.
Four years ago, when I began my research into sharing and social networks, I asked a basic question: Will we find some way to transcend this biological limit, break free of the tyranny of cranial capacity, grow beyond the limits of Dunbar’s Number?
After all, we have the technology. We can hyperconnect in so many ways, through so many media, across the entire range of sensory modalities, it is as if the material world, which we have fashioned into our own image, wants nothing more than to boost our capacity for relationship.
And now we have two forces in opposition, both originating in the mind. Our old mind hews closely to the community and Dunbar’s Number. Our new mind seeks the power of the mob, and the amplification of numbers beyond imagination. This is the central paradox of the early 21st century, this is the rift which will never close. On one side we are civil, and civilized. On the other we are awesome, terrible, and terrifying. And everything we’ve done in the last fifteen years has simply pushed us closer to the abyss of the awesome.
We can not reasonably put down these new weapons of communication, even as they grind communities beneath them like so many old and brittle bones. We can not turn the dial of history backward. We are what we are, and already we have a good sense of what we are becoming. It may not be pretty – it may not even feel human – but this is things as they are.
When the historians of this age write their stories, a hundred years from now, they will talk about amplification as the defining feature of this entire era, the three hundred year span from industrial revolution to the emergence of the hyperconnected mob. In the beginning, the steam engine amplified the power of human muscle – making both human slavery and animal power redundant. In the end, our technologies of communication amplified our innate social capabilities, which eleven million years of natural selection have consistently selected for. Above and beyond all of our other natural gifts, those humans who communicate most effectively stand the greatest chance of passing their genes along to subsequent generations. It’s as simple as that. We talk our partners into bed, and always have.
The steam engine transformed the natural world into a largely artificial environment; the amplification of our muscles made us masters of the physical world. Now, the technologies of hyperconnectivity are translating the natural world, ruled by Dunbar’s Number, into the dominating influence of maddening crowd.
We are not prepared for this. We have no biological defense mechanism. We are all going to have to get used to a constant state of being which resembles nothing so much as a stack overflow, a consistent social incontinence, as we struggle to retain some aspects of selfhood amidst the constantly eroding pressure of the hyperconnected mob.
Given this, and given that many of us here today are already in the midst of this, it seems to me that the most useful tool any of us could have, moving forward into this future, is a social contextualizer. This prosthesis – which might live in our mobiles, or our nettops, or our Bluetooth headsets – will fill our limited minds with the details of our social interactions.
This tool will make explicit that long, Jacob Marley-like train of lockboxes that are our interactions in the techno-social sphere. Thus, when I introduce myself to you for the first or the fifteen hundredth time, you can be instantly brought up to date on why I am relevant, why I matter. When all else gets stripped away, each relationship has a core of salience which can be captured (roughly), and served up every time we might meet.
I expect that this prosthesis will come along sooner rather than later, and that it will rival Google in importance. Google took too much data and made it roughly searchable. This prosthesis will take too much connectivity and make it roughly serviceable. Given that we primarily social beings, I expect it to be a greater innovation, and more broadly disruptive.
And this prosthesis has precedents; at Xerox PARC they have been looking into a ‘human memory prosthesis’ for sufferers from senile dementia, a device which constantly jogs human memories as to task, place, and people. The world that we’re making for ourselves, every time we connect, is a place where we are all (in some relative sense) demented. Without this tool we will be entirely lost. We’re already slipping beneath the waves. We need this soon. We need this now.
I hope you’ll get inventive.
Now that we have comfortably settled into the central paradox of our current era, with a world that is working through every available means to increase our connectivity, and a brain that is suddenly overloaded and sinking beneath the demands of the sum total of these connections, we need to ask that question: Exactly what is hyperconnectivity good for? What new thing does that bring us?
The easy answer is the obvious one: crowdsourcing. The action of a few million hyperconnected individuals resulted in a massive and massively influential work: Wikipedia. But the examples only begin there. They range much further afield.
Uni students have been sharing their unvarnished assessments of their instructors and lecturers. Ratemyprofessors.com has become the bête noire of the academy, because researchers who can’t teach find they have no one signing up for their courses, while the best lecturers, with the highest ratings, suddenly find themselves swarmed with offers for better teaching positions at more prestigious universities. A simply and easily implemented system of crowdsourced reviews has carefully undone all of the work of the tenure boards of the academy.
It won’t be long until everything else follows. Restaurant reviews – that’s done. What about reviews of doctors? Lawyers? Indian chiefs? Politicans? ISPs? (Oh, wait, we have that with Whirlpool.) Anything you can think of. Anything you might need. All of it will have been so extensively reviewed by such a large mob that you will know nearly everything that can be known before you sign on that dotted line.
All of this means that every time we gather together in our hyperconnected mobs to crowdsource some particular task, we become better informed, we become more powerful. Which means it becomes more likely that the hyperconnected mob will come together again around some other task suited to crowdsourcing, and will become even more powerful. That system of positive feedbacks – which we are already quite in the midst of – is fashioning a new polity, a rewritten social contract, which is making the institutions of the 19th and 20th centuries – that is, the industrial era – seem as antiquated and quaint as the feudal systems which they replaced.
It is not that these institutions are dying, but rather, they now face worthy competitors. Democracy, as an example, works well in communities, but can fail epically when it scales to mobs. Crowdsourced knowledge requires a mob, but that knowledge, once it has been collected, can be shared within a community, to hyperempower that community. This tug-of-war between communities and crowds is setting all of our institutions, old and new, vibrating like taught strings.
We already have a name for this small-pieces-loosely-joined form of social organization: it’s known as anarcho-syndicalism. Anarcho-Syndicalism emerged from the labor movements that grew in numbers and power toward the end of the 19th century. Its basic idea is simply that people will choose to cooperate more often than they choose to compete, and this cooperation can form the basis for a social, political and economic contract wherein the people manage themselves.
A system with no hierarchy, no bosses, no secrets, no politics. (Well, maybe that last one is asking too much.) Anarcho-syndicalism takes as a given that all men are created equal, and therefore each have a say in what they choose to do.
Somewhere back before Australia became a nation, anarcho-syndicalist trade unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (or, more commonly, the ‘Wobblies’) fought armies of mercenaries in the streets of the major industrial cities of the world, trying get the upper hand in the battle between labor and capital. They failed because capital could outmaneuver labor in the 19th century. Today the situation is precisely reversed. Capital is slow. Knowledge is fast, the quicksilver that enlivens all our activities.
I come before you today wearing my true political colors – literally. I did not pick a red jumper and black pants by some accident or wardrobe malfunction. These are the colors of anarcho-syndicalism. And that is the new System of the World.
You don’t have to believe me. You can dismiss my political posturing as sheer radicalism. But I ask you to cast your mind further than this stage this afternoon, and look out on a world which is permanently and instantaneously hyperconnected, and I ask you – how could things go any other way? Every day one of us invents a new way to tie us together or share what we know; as that invention is used, it is copied by those who see it being used.
When we imitate the successful behaviors of our hyperconnected peers, this ‘hypermimesis’ means that we are all already in a giant collective. It’s not a hive mind, and it’s not an overmind. It’s something weirdly in-between. Connected we are smarter by far than we are as individuals, but this connection conditions and constrains us, even as it liberates us. No gift comes for free.
I assert, on the weight of a growing mountain of evidence, that anarcho-syndicalism is the place where the community meets the crowd; it is the environment where this social prosthesis meets that radical hyperempowerment of capabilities.
Let me give you one example, happening right now. The classroom walls are disintegrating (and thank heaven for that), punctured by hyperconnectivity, as the outside world comes rushing in to meet the student, and the student leaves the classroom behind for the school of the world. The student doesn’t need to be in the classroom anymore, nor does the false rigor of the classroom need to be drilled into the student. There is such a hyperabundance of instruction and information available, students needs a mentor more than a teacher, a guide through the wilderness, and not a penitentiary to prevent their journey.
Now the students, and their parents – and the teachers and instructors and administrators – need to find a new way to work together, a communion of needs married to a community of gifts. The school is transforming into an anarcho-syndicalist collective, where everyone works together as peers, comes together in a “more perfect union”, to educate. There is no more school-as-a-place-you-go-to-get-your-book-learning. School is a state of being, an act of communion.
If this is happening to education, can medicine, and law, and politics be so very far behind? Of course not. But, unlike the elites of education, these other forces will resist and resist and resist all change, until such time as they have no choice but to surrender to mobs which are smarter, faster and more flexible than they are. In twenty years time they all these institutions will be all but unrecognizable.
All of this is light-years away from how our institutions have been designed. Those institutions – all institutions – are feeling the strain of informational overload. More than that, they’re now suffering the death of a thousand cuts, as the various polities serviced by each of these institutions actually outperform them.
You walk into your doctor’s office knowing more about your condition than your doctor. You understand the implications of your contract better than your lawyer. You know more about a subject than your instructor. That’s just the way it is, in the era of hyperconnectivity.
So we must band together. And we already have. We have come together, drawn by our interests, put our shoulders to the wheel, and moved the Earth upon its axis. Most specifically, those of you in this theatre with me this arvo have made the world move, because the Web is the fulcrum for this entire transformation. In less than two decades we’ve gone from physicists plaything to rewriting the rules of civilization.
But try not to think about that too much. It could go to your head.
III. THE OTHER.
Back in July, just after Vodafone had announced its meager data plans for iPhone 3G, I wrote a short essay for Ross Dawson’s Future of Media blog. I griped and bitched and spat the dummy, summing things up with this line:
“It’s time to show the carriers we can do this ourselves.”
I recommended that we start the ‘Future Australian Carrier’, or FAUC, and proceeded to invite all of my readers to get FAUCed. A harmless little incitement to action. What could possibly go wrong?
Within a day’s time a FAUC Facebook group had been started – without my input – and I was invited to join. Over the next two weeks about four hundred people joined that group, individuals who had simply had enough grief from their carriers and were looking for something better. After that, although there was some lively discussion about a possible logo, and some research into how MVNOs actually worked, nothing happened.
About a month later, individuals began to ping me, both on Facebook and via Twitter, asking, “What happened with that carrier you were going to start, Mark? Hmm?” As if somehow, I had signed on the dotted line to be chief executive, cheerleader, nose-wiper and bottle-washer for FAUC.
All of this caught me by surprise, because I certainly hadn’t signed up to create anything. I’d floated an idea, nothing more. Yet everyone was looking to me to somehow bring this new thing into being.
After I’d been hit up a few times, I started to understand where the epic !FAIL! had occurred. And the failure wasn’t really mine. You see, I’ve come to realize a sad and disgusting little fact about all of us: We need and we need and we need.
We need others to gather the news we read. We need others to provide the broadband we so greedily lap up. We need other to govern us. And god forbid we should be asked to shoulder some of the burden. We’ll fire off a thousand excuses about how we’re so time poor even the cat hasn’t been fed in a week.
So, sure, four hundred people might sign up to a Facebook group to indicate their need for a better mobile carrier, but would any of them think of stepping forward to spearhead its organization, its cash-raising, or it leasing agreements? No. That’s all too much hard work. All any of these people needed was cheap mobile broadband.
Well, cheap don’t come cheaply.
Of course, this happens everywhere up and down the commercial chain of being. QANTAS and Telstra outsource work to southern Asia because they can’t be bothered to pay for local help, because their stockholders can’t be bothered to take a small cut in their quarterly dividends.
There’s no difference in the act itself, just in its scale. And this isn’t even raw economics. This is a case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Carve some profit today, spend a fortune tomorrow to recover. We see it over and over and over again (most recently and most expensively on Wall Street), but somehow the point never makes it through our thick skulls. It’s probably because we human beings find it much easier to imagine three months into the future than three years. That’s a cognitive feature which helps if you’re on the African savannah, but sucks if you’re sitting in an Australian boardroom.
So this is the other thing. The ugly thing that no one wants to look at, because to look at it involves an admission of laziness. Well folks, let me be the first one here to admit it: I’m lazy. I’m too lazy to administer my damn Qmail server, so I use Gmail. I’m too lazy to setup WebDAV, so I use Google Docs. I’m too lazy to keep my devices synced, so I use MobileMe. And I’m too lazy to start my own carrier, so instead I pay a small fortune each month to Vodafone, for lousy service.
And yes, we’re all so very, very busy. I understand this. Every investment of time is a tradeoff. Yet we seem to defer, every time, to let someone else do it for us.
And is this wise? The more I see of cloud computing, the more I am convinced that it has become a single-point-of-failure for data communications. The decade-and-a-half that I spent as a network engineer tells me that. Don’t trust the cloud. Don’t trust redundancy. Trust no one. Keep your data in the cloud if you must, but for goodness’ sake, keep another copy locally. And another copy on the other side of the world. And another under your mattress.
I’m telling you things I shouldn’t have to tell you. I’m telling you things that you already know. But the other, this laziness, it’s built into our culture. Socially, we have two states of being: community and crowd. A community can collaborate to bring a new mobile carrier into being. A crowd can only gripe about their carrier. And now, as the strict lines between community and crowd get increasingly confused because of the upswing in hyperconnectivity, we behave like crowds when we really ought to be organizing like a community.
And this, at last, is the other thing: the message I really want to leave you with. You people, here in this auditorium today, you are the masters of the world. Not your bosses, not your shareholders, not your users. You. You folks, right here and right now. The keys to the kingdom of hyperconnectivity have been given to you. You can contour, shape and control that chaotic meeting point between community and crowd. That is what you do every time you craft an interface, or write a script. Your work helps people self-organize. Your work can engage us at our laziest, and turn us into happy worker bees. It can be done. Wikipedia has shown the way.
And now, as everything hierarchical and well-ordered dissolves into the grey goo which is the other thing, you have to ask yourself, “Who does this serve?”
At the end of the day, you’re answerable to yourself. No one else is going to do the heavy lifting for you. So when you think up an idea or dream up a design, consider this: Will it help people think for themselves? Will it help people meet their own needs? Or will it simply continue to infantilize us, until we become a planet of dummy-spitting, whinging, wankers?
It’s a question I ask myself, too, a question that’s shaping the decisions I make for myself. I want to make things that empower people, so I’ve decided to take some time to work with Andy Coffey, and re-think the book for the 21st century. Yes, that sounds ridiculous and ambitious and quixotic, but it’s also a development whose time is long overdue. If it succeeds at all, we will provide a publishing platform for people to share their long-form ideas. Everything about it will be open source and freely available to use, to copy, and to hack, because I already know that my community is smarter than I am.
And it’s a question I have answered for myself in another way. This is my third annual appearance before you at Web Directions South. It will be the last time for some time. You people are my community; where I knew none of you back in 2006; I consider many of you friends in 2008. Yet, when I talk to you like this, I get the uncomfortable feeling that my community has become a crowd. So, for the next few years, let’s have someone else do the closing keynote. I want to be with my peeps, in the audience, and on the Twitter backchannel, taking the piss and trading ideas.
The future – for all of us – is the battle over the boundary between the community and the crowd. I am choosing to embrace the community. It seems the right thing to do. And as I walk off-stage here, this afternoon, I want you to remember that each of you holds the keys to the kingdom. Our community is yours to shape as you will. Everything that you do is translated into how we operate as a culture, as a society, as a civilization. It can be a coming together, or it can be a breaking apart. And it’s up to you.
Not that there’s any pressure.