7 – #REVOLUTION

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.

6 – #REVELATION

Starting in 1995, this billion seconds began with an invitation to connect – to the Internet, to the Web, to one another. We leaped at the opportunity. To be connected is to be in the know, and that has always been powerfully alluring. “All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing.” We want to know more in order to be able to do more.

Knowing and doing are not one-shot affairs. The practice of what we have learned changes us, and changes everyone with whom we share that practice. Our learning changes our practice, and our practice changes our learning.  When we connect, learning from and practicing before six billion others, every moment of learning and every act of practice become hyper-potent. Practice in a hyperconnected era is both performative (there is an audience for everything: i.e., Rule 34) and an opportunity for collaboration and critique. To do, connected, is to invite others to participate.

In collaboration, learning and practice become a continuous act, accelerating to the limits of the connected community to absorb novelty. We retain enormous cognitive flexibility throughout our lifetimes, but learning always involves some degree of discomfort. Knowing hurts, even if that pain finds an effective balm in the joy of discovery.

Some communities turn within, reinforcing the known, creating a boundary between the familiar and the unwanted. Connection does not necessarily lead to openness. Reinforced along internal lines of communication, these become echo chambers of the well-known, their capacity for doing curtailed by their self-limited scope of participation.

Such communities have always existed, emerging from our most ancient tribal past, connected by conceptions and culture and blood, bound together so closely they can admit nothing foreign. This worked effectively for at least a hundred thousand years; eventually, others learned how to share more openly – perhaps not as promiscuously as we are apt to do today, but on a scale which had thus far eluded us. This transition, occurring perhaps ten thousand years ago, took physical form in the first cities of Jericho and Çatalhöyük. Cities are networks, their alleys and streets no different in function from the fibre optic connections bearing our own connectivity.

With more people in connection leading to more learning and more practice, the open network of cities produced a broader set of capabilities. Unable to compete with these newly networked polities, the closed networks of human antiquity retreated to the fringes of deep forest and high arctic. Urbanization, more than anything else, represents the first triumph of the human network.

The capacity gap that allowed urban man to overwhelm his tribal brothers is being recapitulated in the transition into hyperconnectivity. “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

The network as copying machine has ended any possibility of censorship: the only way to prevent information from being endlessly reproduced is by withholding it completely. Limited releases inevitably culminate in moments of hyperdistribution, when something censored becomes ubiquitously available.

We find ourselves thrust headlong into a culture of omniscience, where everything is known simply because it has become impossible to keep anything hidden from view. In a hyperconnected world, something may be obscure, but it is never unknown: someone among the six billion connected humans has the answer to every question – even if the answer is that the question can not be answered. Lack of transparency no longer functions as a barrier to knowing.

The immediate consequence of this culture of omniscience is hyperochlocracy, a new form of mob rule, born from a breadth and depth of situational awareness that comes as a consequence of being interested in something. If, for example, should you be incensed by the actions of an individual you see as threatening your network, you might seek out that individual’s personal details – street address, email, phone and fax numbers, all the points of contact – then post that information online, informing anyone who might also find that information equally interesting. In short order, that individual, targeted and deluged in communication, would be forced to withdraw from their networks.

Corporate sponsors of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) found themselves targeted by a smartphone application that reads Universal Product Code bar codes, checks them against a database, and reports whether the company supports SOPA. Individuals can now make buying decisions in support of a boycott without foreknowledge, translating the information reproduced by the network into a public performance of political economy. Our economic lives, thus subordinated to the network, demonstrate the exteriorized power of hyperconnectivity.

Now that this instant-boycott tool exists, every interested activist will adopt it for their own ends. The tool has been seen by all and understood; the public, hyperconnected performance of any tool produces copies and sequelae. Tools evolve through use and replication into other tools; tools breed with tools, multiplying their effectiveness. As the increase in capacity provided by them becomes taken for granted, tools become indispensable to knowing and doing.

The chasm between the culture of hyperconnectivity, and the ‘slow culture’ which precedes it, widens as tools to amplify the value of hyperconnectivity proliferate. We can not know what we know, and do what we do, without consequence. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Our tools belong to the hyperconnected world. Our institutions do not. That is the central challenge of the present moment, a divide across our civilization and a rupture within ourselves. We left our tribes for the cities, and now we leave the cities for the hive. As everything incompatible with hyperconnectivity loses its power to shape our culture, the assumptions of ten thousand years of civilization are falling away. The choice is made. We have embraced our hyperconnected selves.

5 – #DURATION

Why a billion seconds?  

It begins with a heartbeat, the very first sound we hear.  As we knit together in our mother’s womb, our hearts form within just a few weeks.  That tiny organ beats hundreds of times a minute.  We are intimately familiar with its sound.  

Our mother’s heartbeat was the the first thing we came to recognize, the first constant, its beat creating time, taking the eternal warm darkness of the womb and dividing it into discrete units: lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub.  An anxious baby often can be soothed by placing its head against its mother’s chest, where it will be reminded of the the reassuring rhythm of her heartbeat.

Adults have heart rates averaging 70 beats per minute.  A second is a bit more than a heartbeat, a heartbeat is not quite a second.  Time, which seems external to us (and, as we grow older, inimical), is actually tied to the primary experience of our bodies.  Man is the measure of all things, and our beating heart measures the seconds, minutes, hours and days of a lifetime.

From the gigantic Blue Whale to tiny Etruscan shrew, all mammals have hearts similar to ours, differing only in how frequently they beat.  Smaller animals lose heat faster than bigger ones, so the heart must beat faster to keep the warmth circulating.  A hamster’s heart flutters 450 times a minute – nearly seven times ours – while a whale gets by with a paltry 20 beats per minute.

Yet all mammals, great and small, all seem to be granted the same number of heartbeats.  From birth to death, mouse, man and moose all have an allotment of a billion beats – give or take.  A cat, whose heart beats 150 times a minute, lives on average fifteen years – just over a billion heartbeats.  An elephant, at 30 beats per minute, lives for seventy.  It’s not that our hearts fail after a billion beats; that’s simply when mammal bodies wear out, overcome by life’s battles.

Those of you good at math have probably noted that the human lifespan – about eighty years throughout the developed world – doesn’t fall into this pattern.  We get almost three billion heartbeats.  That’s a very recent thing.  Until we started to work out the germ theory of disease, one hundred and fifty years ago, the average human lifespan had never been more than thirty-five years, and often much less.  That’s just a bit over a billion heartbeats.  

Thirty-one years, eight months, eight days, one hour and forty-two minutes make up a billion seconds.  Thanks to modern medicine, almost all of us will live two billion seconds, and an increasing number will see all of a third billion.  Longevity scientists believe that four billion seconds – more than 120 years – is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Generations once came thick and fast – every twenty years.  As people live longer and grow more affluent, the span between generations has lengthened.  Women in the developed world now have their first child while in their early 30s.  A generation has become a billion seconds.  

These billion-second intervals provide markers for our passage through life.  The first billion seconds encompass childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.  The second billion seconds represent full adulthood, parenting, and the high points of a career.  The final billion seconds see us move into a gradual retirement, increasing senescence and eventual death.

Cultures develop along similar lines.  Something is being born and something matures, even as something else passes away.  The march of the generations is not simply a passage of bodies, but the flow of ideas which we operate within, the assumptions and truisms which make up our world views.  New ideas are born, have their hour in the sun, then fade from memory.

These billion seconds lie both before us and behind us.  A billion seconds ago, IBM released its PC, and we began the march into a civilization where computing has become ubiquitous, a world in which information both fuels and shapes our lives.  That revolution has entered its full adulthood, a mature industry still bright with potential, but with a growing sense of its limits.  

Within the billion seconds (spanning 1995 – 2026) we are witnesses to the birth of a connected species, the emergence of something that little more than a hundred years ago would have been confused with telepathy.  This bright childhood has become a chaotic and anxious adolescence, as we test our limits against the powers which both nurture and restrain us.  

Finally, the post-war culture of ‘big is beautiful’ industrialization, based on models of centralized control, winds toward its end, exhausted and overwhelmed.

Each of us lives in these three cultures: the connected culture being born, the computer culture now thriving, and the centralized culture passing from the scene.  There is no way to entirely inhabit one of these cultures to the exclusion of the others, any more than we could choose to ignore a few of our limbs.  We belong to all of them.  As the new shoves its way into prominence, we lose the familiar touch of the old, witnessing an entire world view becoming increasingly feeble as it heads toward an eventual end, and before we have any clear idea of what will replace it.

A billion seconds encompasses enough time to utterly transform the world.

4 – #REPLICATION

Networks are copying machines.  There is no magic to them, beyond this: data presented at any point on the network can be copied to every other point within the network, nearly instantaneously.   A text message can be reproduced across six billion mobiles within a few seconds.  A single email, copied and multiplied, could reach every one of the greater than two billion of us with Internet access.  Neither of these extraordinary events require anything beyond the networks already in place.  The network can copy all of us in on the same memo.

Networks have no other point: they copy and copy and copy.  They can’t do anything else.  Every other quality we ascribe to a network (and this book describes a multitude of them) is a product of our own interactions across the network, not of the network itself.

Short of unplugging it, there is no way to stop a network from copying.  The network doesn’t perform copying as one of its features: to network is to copy.  Networks allow the replication of information at speeds nearing that of light, so every point of connection, however far-flung, acts upon the same data.

The Internet, born to service a resilient command-and-control system, designed to withstand the Mutually Assured Destruction of thermonuclear war, replicated the tactical information within each of the US Defense Department’s strategic installations, so that each base had a complete, real-time overview of the battlefield.  Should part of the network vanish – vaporized – the remaining portions of the network could pool their tactical observations to maintain situational awareness.  To disrupt the tactical capability provided by the network, it must completely destroyed, because for as long as any part of the network exists, it will continue to replicate information.

In the years between the genesis of the Internet and hyperconnected present, we have created networks for militaries, governments, businesses, institutions of all kinds, and, finally, individuals.  The network is nearly coextensive with the species, with nearly eighty-five percent of humanity continuously connected to it.

These networks, like all networks that have ever existed, replicate information, but now do so ubiquitously.  Reports of an earthquake travel faster than the earthquake itself.   Copied from those who have the information to those who need to have it, the more important something is, the faster it replicates across the network. Because it copies, network is an information amplifier, making anything whispered almost infinitely loud.

We feed the network with things we find important, and if others share our enthusiasm, those things will be copied across the network.  At one extreme, it could be news of a massive temblor; at the other, it could be a melodramatic pop song that struck just the right emotional chord.  The network does not care what it copies, has no awareness of ‘media’, only information.  A tune or an image or a cry for help: although each will be replicated faithfully, they mean nothing to the network.  The network does not know; it only knows to copy.

When information is replicated across the network, the recipients of that information respond to it.  “All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing.”  The cry for help will be answered, the image viewed, the tune heard.  Within us, the response to information is nearly as automatic a function as the replicating function of the network.  We respond to everything we are exposed to, even if only in a change of thought or mood.

Some responses are stronger than others.  Some responses are so strong that they provoke attacks on the network itself.  Confusing the strength of the provocation with the capability of the network, and ascribing to the network an agency which it can not possess, attempts are made to shoot the messenger.   But the network can not provoke, it can only copy.

When the network is attacked, news of that attack is copied across the network.  Whether that attack comes from a hydrogen bomb or a lawsuit is of no particular consequence.  The existence of the attack is enough.  Networks copy the state of each of their endpoints: if any endpoint comes under threat, all other endpoints know of it.  In short order, the attack provokes a response.  The network, sensitized to the existence of a threat, answers across its entirety.

That brings us to the present moment, to a network responding to a perceived attack.  The legislative cudgel of SOPA/PIPA, with its implicit threat of censorship (censorship is any process which prevents the network from faithfully replicating information) has become common knowledge, propagated by the network it seeks to control.  The responses, at first marginal, then measured, have recently cascaded into a non-linear zone of amplification, as the network demonstrates to itself what it means to tamper with its essence as a replicating machine.

Wikipedia is a near-perfect instance of a product of a network replicator.  Facts presented at any point in the network become instantly available – for consumption, review, editing or discussion – across the entire network.  In less than a decade Wikipedia went from wishful thinking to indispensable resource, serving as a factual foundation for our intellectual efforts.

It isn’t until that foundation disappears that we recognize our dependency upon it: fish are unaware of water.  We are immersed in a sea of factual information orders of magnitude greater than any generation before us, knowledge instantly and ubiquitously accessible, via the network.  We use that information to broaden our knowledge, and with that knowledge, make better, more-informed decisions.  “All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing.”

Any interruption in knowing must inevitably weaken our ability to do, narrowing the scope of our capabilities.  That is the price of censorship in any form – political, cultural, or economic.  In a wholly networked world that price becomes immediately visible.   “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsim.”   People will not suffer the destruction of their capabilities, not when they can use the network to defend those capabilities.

Now that the knowledge that the network can be used to defend itself has replicated throughout the network, the network has become exponentially more resilient and resistant to any attempts to alter its fundamental replicating function.  Trying to kill the network has only made it stronger.

3 – #ARTICULATION

No one remembers learning to speak.  We can sympathize with a parent as they endure a toddler exploring the capacity of their vocal cords, hooting and howling in joyous cacophony, everywhere: during the middle of a religious service, in a movie theatre, on the subway.  Something about the voice feels so alluring the child finds it impossible to remain quiet.  We must speak: something between our voice and our ears demands stimulation.

Our earliest memories tie themselves to the words of others: something our mother said to us, our father showed us, or a sibling shared in play.  Words seem to be the necessary anchor to ground our memories.  Before we have grasped language, we hold onto nothing.  Those memories might be there, deep within us, but we have no way to find them, no hook that would allow us to trawl our preverbal history.  “Where there are no words, thereof we can not speak.”

We come into knowing as we come into language, judged both by adults and other children through our facility with words.  Using language as an informal intelligence assessment, we assume a well-spoken child to be more mature than one who stumbles through words and makes a mess of grammar.  An adult with a poor command of the language often finds themselves treated like an idiot – a perennial complaint of immigrants.  We have tied language to intelligence for so long the two feel almost inseparable, perfectly expressed in the dual meaning of the word ‘dumb’.

Humans have been ‘anatomically modern’ – that is, recognizably identical to ourselves – for almost two hundred thousand years.  Caves in South Africa bear the evidence of habitation by our earliest ancestors.  We have their bones and their tools, but no sense of who they were.  We can hypothesize what they felt and thought, but a gulf separates us from them — the gulf of language.

It isn’t until about eighty thousand years ago that we start to see the hallmarks of what we think of as human intelligence – patterns carved in clay, fragments of textiles.  These first elements of decoration – accenting the purely functional – speak to an internal depth which the earliest humans seem to have lacked.  That depth came with the emergence of language.

Few topics in science ignite more heated and less illuminating debate than the origin of human language.  For three hundred years, the question has tantalized and frustrated the best minds.  Hypotheses abound, but answers are thin on the ground.  We study the growls of chimpanzees, our nearest cousins, and analyze the clicks of dolphins – who seem to have a language of their own – in an attempt to understand how we navigated the passage from silence into speech.

Although we don’t know much about what happened, we have recently learned where: southwest Africa.  Quentin Atkinson, a biologist from the University of Auckland, analyzed the phonemes – individual sounds – which compose a broad sampling of human languages.  He found that the language family of southwest Africa – Xhosan, home to the !Kung people, with their famous clicking dialect – had the greatest number of phonemes, over 100.  Hawai’ian, on the other hand, has only 13.  

Southwest Africa is close to the birthplace of our species; Hawai’i, the most recently colonized land on Earth.  Atkinson saw that as our race migrated ‘out of Africa’, languages tended to lose phonemes, and each subsequent migration dropped some of these basic sounds.  (The number of phonemes a language possesses doesn’t affect the ability of that speakers of that to express rich thoughts; it simply means that the phonemes in a phoneme-poor language get more of a workout.)  Atkinson gave us a map, which points back in time, to the first people we would recognize as people, the first people with language, memory, and culture.

Even if we never know why, we know where we began to speak, and know that we carried that capability with us as we moved out across the planet.  Once language had arrived, it never left us.  It became too vital to be forgotten, so important that we consider language one of the defining characteristics of our species: to be human is to have command of language.   Our myths remind us of this: God blessed Adam with an ability to name the animals.

Yet there was a humanity before, a Homo sapiens before sapience.  We can reach back through prehistory, but our reach extends only as far as language.  Before language, our species was like a small child, remembering nothing.  After language we have continuous memory – indigenous Australians claim a cultural continuity going back some 60,000 years.  Language empowers us to express ourselves and know one another’s minds, but also imprisons us within an unbreakable cage that limits our ability to know anything about our pre-linguistic ancestors.  We are so different from them they are incomprehensible to us.  Language has so changed us that we understand nothing of those who do not share language.

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”  Language was among the first human tools – along with stone axes and fire – and definitively the first tool that lived entirely within us, a bit of innovation as much cultural as technological.  In the moment language arrived on the scene, it became indispensable, and once indispensable, we adopted it as innate, favoring those with the greatest linguistic capability, and thereby subtly affecting the evolution of our species.  People who ‘talk pretty’ have broader prospects for success in the world.  They and their children will thrive.

Every claim made for the power of language – as an amplifier of human capability – can also be made for the sudden arrival of hyperconnectivity.  Connected people are more successful, and those most successful at mastering the techniques of connectivity have the greatest successes.  Connection is becoming indispensable, and we have already begun to think of it as an innate capability.  The billion seconds from 1995 – 2026 is witness to a transition from a world in which no one is connected, to a world where being connected and being human is seen as synonymous.

Just as we now see being verbal and being human as synonymous, hyperconnectivity is adding another layer of richness and depth to our experience.  Where we can observe the sudden explosion of depth in the human record, eighty thousand years ago, so our children’s children’s children’s children will look upon this billion seconds as a second explosion, another sudden quickening, before which the ‘dumb’ and disconnected generations of humanity will seem incomprehensible and inhuman.

We are at a threshold.  In fact, we are already more than half-way across it.  We can look in either direction; behind us we can see the familiar shape of a species as we’ve known ourselves for eighty millennia; before us we see something quite different, a form not wholly realized, yet quite real.  We still don’t have all of the language of hyperconnectivity.  The chaos of the present moment is very much like the hollering of seven billion toddlers learning to stretch their voices across an entire planet.  It’s growing quite loud, as everyone clamors to be heard.  There’s a lot of sound, but not much sense.

That sense will come over the next billion seconds.  When it does, the door to our recent past will be closed.  We will have been these disconnected people, but we will not understand them, any more than we can understand our earliest ancestors.  We will have lived two lives, before and after we all connected.

2 – #INTRODUCTION

2 #INTRODUCTION

We live in a connected world.  

Not limited to the wealthy nations and peoples of the world, nearly six billion of the planet’s seven-billion-and-counting individuals own a mobile.  Rich and poor, everyone sees the value in being continuously in-touch.  Connectivity creates opportunity.

A story related in THE ECONOMIST perfectly illustrates the relationship between connectivity and opportunity.  For thousands of years, fishermen in the Indian state of Kerala, on the nation’s southwestern coast, sailing their sturdy dhows into the Indian ocean, have dropped their nets, said their prayers, and harvested the sea’s bounty.  Once they’d filled their hold, the fishermen would head back to the mainland.  At this point, they’d be faced with a choice: where should they sell their fish?  The Kerala coastline, dotted with ports and fish markets, offers fishermen lots of choices, and the markets need fish every day.  Working from instinct, the fishermen would pick a port, and sail into it.

Inevitably, other fishermen would have had the same idea, pulling into the same port at the same time, their holds also filled.  Suddenly there’s a problem of oversupply: Too many fish for sale means low prices at the market.  A fisherman might just barely cover their costs, no matter how hard they worked, or how many fish they caught.  Meanwhile, just a few kilometers away, another fishing port had been forgotten by all the fishermen that day.  No fish for sale in that market, at any price.  The Kerala fishermen had grown used to their subsistence lifestyle, and Kerala fishmongers to their inconstant supply.  It’s just the way things were, the way they’d always been.

In 1997, mobiles came to Kerala.  Cell towers began to spring up all over Kerala, including its extensive beaches.  Radio signals travel in straight lines, so mobile coverage carried out to sea for nearly 15 miles.  Anyone could make a call from the middle of the Indian ocean, almost out of sight of land – if they had a reason to make a call.

As is the case everywhere, the first mobiles were expensive to own and use, so only the wealthy could afford them.  A month of a fisherman’s income barely covered the price of the cheapest mobile.  (In relative terms, mobile cost as much to a Kerala fisherman as a good used car would cost us.)

At least one fisherman had enough spare cash to purchase a mobile.  That mobile went out to sea and at some point – no one knows precisely who, or where, or when – someone rang that mobile.  Over the course of a conversation, the fisherman learned about a fish market which going without fish that day.  He immediately set his sails for that port, and made a tidy profit on his eagerly awaited fish.

The next day, the fisherman phoned around, calling each of the fish markets in succession, learning which of these markets most needed fish – and would pay the most for it.  That day the fisherman made another excellent return on his catch.  The same thing happened the day after that, and the day after that.  With his mobile to check the markets, every day brought a very nice profit.

News of the mobile-facilitated fish market spread very quickly throughout Kerala.  Within a few months, every fisherman, from the poorest to the most well-off, owned a mobile, checking prices at several fish markets before selecting a port of call.  Three things happened as a result: every fish market now had a supply of fish; the price of fish at one market matched the price of fish in another market; and the fishermen now got the best possible price for their fish, every day.  That mobile, which had cost a month’s income, could be paid off in just two months.  

Kerala’s fisherman have a new tool, helping them earn more money.  They’re not alone.  Farmers in Kenya use DrumNet, a text messaging service allowing them to check the current market prices for their produce at a range of locations.  When a farmer readies his vegetables for sale, he sends a text message to DrumNet, using the response to select the market offering him the best price.  Forever at the mercy of the weather, insects and crop blights, farmers have also suffered from ‘informational asymmetry’ in the marketplace, never knowing quite enough to make the most of their opportunities.  Connectivity wipes away these asymmetries: using DrumNet, Kenyan farmers have been earning as much as 40% more for their vegetables.

In Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan, barbers have always had to rent an expensive stall in the public markets to ply their trade.  As Pakistanis bought mobiles, a different kind of commerce became possible.  A barber can just print up signs reading “FOR A HAIRCUT CALL 03XX-YYYYYYYYY”, posting them on any available space.  Everyone is better served by this relationship: the client gets on-call service in his home, while the barber saves a fortune in rent.  

The market, which had always been attached to a place in space and a point in time, has migrated into our mobiles, following us everywhere, all the time.  Unexpected and unpredicted, most businesses have little understanding of how this transition to a universal market fundamentally transforms commerce.  Yet billions of individuals have already grasped the truth: the mobile is the most potent tool for wealth-creation since the invention of the metal axe-head, thousands of years ago.

The business case for the mobile is irresistible: a small investment yielding enormous returns.  Owning a mobile in Bangladesh or Peru or Nigeria dramatically improves your capability to care for your family.  As people saw their employers and friends and family using the mobile to earn more money, the mobile became the must-have device, the universal item in the 21st-century toolkit.

Marshall McLuhan wrote “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”  Seeing it as an essential element for our success in the world, we have taken up the mobile.  We grow richer, but this gift comes at a cost: the more we use the mobile, the more we are transformed by it.

1 – #INITIATION

Blessed with good health, we spend most of our days blissfully ignorant of a vital question: what do we do when we get sick?  In America, Australia or any other developed nation the answer is easy: we go to the doctor.   High-quality medical care might be expensive (or free, depending on where you live), but access to it can be taken for granted.  Thankfully.

This is not the case everywhere.

In Kenya, quacks posing as medical professionals treat gullible patients, depriving them both of their money and a chance for a cure.  With only 7000 qualified doctors to treat 40,000,000 Kenyans, the huge demand for medical services means anyone with enough medical knowledge to sound convincing can set up shop.  As a result, many Kenyans receive sub-standard medical care.  Some die because their doctor isn’t.

Fortunately, that has started to change.

A smartphone app, MedAfrica, provides any Kenyan with a smartphone a list of registered and certified medical providers.  When a Kenyan gets sick, they can learn – more or less instantly – if a particular practitioner is the real McCoy.

While most Kenyans do not yet own smartphones – the cheapest of these amazing devices still costs around $75, which is a lot of money in East Africa – the nation as a whole has 25,000,000 mobile subscriptions.  Half of Kenya owns a mobile, which means that even if they do not own a mobile themselves, Kenyans undoubtedly know someone who does.  And although smartphones are not in the majority, they aren’t entirely rare.  A Kenyan likely knows someone who owns a smartphone, so they could simply call or text that smartphone-enabled friend, and ask them to use MedAfrica check out their prospective doctor.

When people are sufficiently well-connected – hyperconnected – something known by any one of them can be shared with all of them, very quickly.  MedAfrica includes another feature, a decision-tree of questions which helps the sick self-diagnose their illnesses, making the same inquiries a doctor or nurse might.  From these responses MedAfrica offers up a provisional diagnosis that can point the the sick person toward the most effective treatment.  MedAfrica may not be as good as a doctor, but it’s free, and freely available to anyone with a smartphone, helping both patients and doctors.  When patients can off-load the burden from doctors, by doing some of the work themselves, doctors can spread themselves around, seeing the patients who will most benefit from their expertise.  MedAfrica helps make the creaky, overstretched Kenyan health system more effective.  This app will save lives.

That a little piece of software could have such a profound effect tells us a lot about how quickly and comprehensively our culture has transformed.  In 1999, half the planet had never made a phone call.  By 2009, half of us owned mobiles.  The world has grown connected, and that connectivity acts as an amplifier of human capabilities.  Individual efforts have wildly disproportionate effects.

Much of what transpired in 2011 – a year of turmoil, catastrophe and revolution – seemed chaotic and irrational.  In reality, 2011 saw the first fruits of hyperconnectivity: a rising tide of chaos goes hand-in-hand with our ability to reach out to one another.  Much that was difficult or rare has become easy and common.

We are unprepared for this sudden advancement in our capacity, and we have an urgent need to understand the origin and nature of our new-found capabilities. Like children in the bodies of giants, we kick over everything in our path, unaware of our own strength.   Some few among us have chosen to become agents of chaos, exploiting hyperempowerment for ends that serve only themselves.  Others have used hyperempowerment as a fulcrum – like the authors of MedAfrica, propelling Kenya forward with just the lightest touch.

From inside the fishbowl of this transformation – a civilizational acceleration hurtling us toward a future that feels very different and very potent – it’s difficult to understand how much we have changed.  In our behaviors and expectations, we are already very different than we were just half a billion seconds (15 years) ago.  In another half a billion seconds we will be almost unrecognizable.   What we are becoming will be incomprehensible to the people we once were.  The language of sharing and connectivity we employ today simply did not exist half a generation ago; the way we both depend upon and conform to a world of continuous connection tells us that there is no going back.  Even if all the devices vanished tomorrow, they have left a permanent mark on our collective psyche.  Once connected, we are not easily broken apart.  

Drawn from a decade of research into the social and technological factors fusing in this explosion of cultural change, our book, The Next Billion Seconds, has been broken into 100 chapters.  Every Tuesday and Thursday until December 20, 2012, we will dig a little deeper into the processes and products of hyperconnectivity.  For the next hundred posts, this blog will work to articulate a complete vision of a what happens, now that we’re all connected.