As the world grows more connected, it grows more tumultuous. Fifty years ago, Marshal McLuhan described electric media as extensions of the human nervous system. In the same way that our nerves signal pain, heat, or a gentle caress by the transmission of an electric signal, so our devices – telegraphs and telephones, radios and televisions, laptops and mobiles – carry signals from distant points. The greater our connectivity, the broader our sensitivity. We might desensitize from constant exposure to a particular image or sound, but we remain alert, continuously bombarded by new stimuli, perpetually off-balance as we struggle to take it all in.
The world beating down our doors has an immediacy that McLuhan termed the ‘global village’. Everything happens in our own backyard, or feels as though it does, even when it occurs on the other side of the world. Without an ‘over there’, it becomes difficult to maintain the illusion of otherness we have always used to reinforce our innate xenophobia. We can turn away, unplug, and reinforce ourselves with comfortable, oft-told tales of who we are and our place in the world. But the world itself has become relentless, unceasing in its presentation of everything, all the time.
Some of the stories we hear resonate with our own experience. We learn that others’ tastes match our own, or of a shared, secret hope, or that what angers us also angers them. An anger which had been hidden – by social constraint or threat of force – becomes an acknowledged part of lived experience. It comes ‘out of the closet’, and, once made public, begins to shape our actions. Freed from self-censorship, shared understanding motivates us to act. “All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing.”
What is to be done?
The same network sensitizing us to the anger of others carries within it the seeds of a response. These responses range from a politically bruising joke, spread by text message, to smartphone software that automates a boycott, all the way to detailed instructions on how to build an explosive device. The network faithfully copies the responses of any point in the network to all other points that find this response sufficiently interesting. The network becomes the replicator of responses, and as these responses proliferate, people become more capable.
Capacity-building leads to action. Every new capacity changes the possible scope of our actions. Even if we practice perfect restraint, an awareness of our capabilities pervades every act. Where restraint has been overwhelmed by anger, capability finds expression. An uprising begins. It could be as mild as a boycott against a monopoly publisher of scientific papers, or as convulsive and comprehensive as Egypt’s January 25th Revolution. The pattern of connect -> share -> learn -> do sits at the core of each of these moments of acting together.
These uprisings become white-hot moments of hyperconnectivity. Everyone looks to one another, watching and learning from one another, learning how to act most effectively in pursuit of goals. Tips and tricks spread like wildfire. Failures propagate just as quickly, so mistakes made once are rarely replicated. Everything moves quickly as many minds buzz with shared possibilities, some of which finds consensus and moves into the actual.
There is no center, anywhere, no leader, no puppet master pulling the strings. There are no conspirators who can be removed to break the back of the movement. There are no officials to corrupt or blackmail. This confraternity of the angered must soothe itself.
Some inevitably see the network as the engine of the discord, mistaking the messenger for the message, attempting to smother the uprising by pulling the plug. But networks are not machinery. The instrumentation which implements a network is distinct from the network itself. Remove the machinery and the network – the connection between individuals – remains. Once created, networks are very, very difficult to destroy.
Networks respond when attacked, learning from their enemies, deepening their resilience with every battle. A network which has never been assaulted likely contains great vulnerabilities, while a network that has gone to war against a great power emerges from that conflict as a power in its own right.
Dependable for five thousand years, in this billion seconds the logic and rules of power have become wildly perverse. Individuals hold almost unfathomable power while the state loses its ability to reign in the capabilities of those it seeks to govern. At the end of this billion seconds, that kind of control will belong to history.
Even if we felled every cellular tower, pulled up every meter of copper and glass fibre, and wrecked every bit of network machinery, we could not change this, because this change has already happened to us. It was accelerated by our machines, but that machinery is no longer essential. We know what we know, so we do what we do.
We know what we know, but we do not know that we know. Our actions are clumsy. We sleepwalk, stumble, and lash out, unaware that we can perfect our coordination and act with precision. We daydream our way into hyperempowerment: although we draw our power from our networks, we do not yet understand how.
The whole point of this book is to show us how our networks have driven us inexorably into hyperempowerment, how it arises inevitably from hyperconnectivity, and how we can put this radical extension of human capability to work. “Revolution without revelation is tyranny. Revelation without revolution is slavery.” We are in the midst of revolution. Things will only grow more chaotic as more individuals, drawn into networks of interest, express these extended capabilities. Revelation is the only option left to us: we must learn who we are.
To do that, we must begin with who we once were.