24 – #DISCONNECT

On those rare moments when we can not connect, whether flying, deep under a building, or out beyond the edges of mobile coverage, when we glance into our palm and see NO SIGNAL, we feel the tug and pull of this new, invisible organ. We want to connect, even if we have no reason. The reassurance we find in one another’s presence has become a persistent feature of our lives.

Yet when we connect with another person, we conform to the needs of a dynamic created whenever we come together. Communication is a dance, and like any dance requires the full engagement of both parties. Otherwise, someone might trip and spill to the floor. Two people, connected, can be quite intense. When it becomes three, four, or more, it becomes a party. Parties are hard work: when you’re at a party you’re only thinking about the other people at the party. It becomes your whole world.

Now the whole world has become a party. The moments when we are not connected to at least one other person have grown vanishingly rare. Most often we connect to many others, via SMS and chat and Twitter and Skype and Facebook and Google+ and Yammer and Foursquare and, and, and… The ways we connect have multiplied as we grow more connected, a process accelerating as we come to understand how to use our connectivity toward specific ends.

We can spend all of our waking hours connected. For the generation born and raised during the last half billion seconds, that isn’t even a choice: it’s simply the way things are. Connection is the default posture for Homo Nexus, even at the expense of the real. People stare into their mobiles while they wait at bus stops; pedestrians walk into traffic, obliviously absorbed in their mobile; drivers get into accidents trying to send or read a text message at speed. Connectivity is pervasive, and connectivity is addictive. Once we have it, we will not willingly do without it. Yet we must.

When we connect and involve ourselves immediately in the lives of others, we surrender the ability to be involved within ourselves. This is no mere narcissism, but rather its opposite: the capacity to be with oneself, and within oneself, to reflect and meditate, is the root of our private experience. Without the silence that comes from solitude, there is no self.

We find ourselves in a perilous situation. We have embraced hyperconnectivity and the constant companionship of others, but in order to be authentically ourselves with others, we need to pull away, nursing within ourselves our own distinctive qualities – emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual – that come only when we face ourselves alone. The self itself is under threat, not because of the erosion of privacy, or the inversion of public and private spaces, but because we can not find the time to tend it.

We need to strike a balance between the power and joy of connection and the internal strength which comes from solitude. Neither is wholly good, nor entirely the answer: our future lies somewhere between the hermit and the hive. We know that we need to cut our connections in order to focus our thoughts, but we must extend this obvious truth into a broader recognition of the importance of feeding both halves of our nature.

We must admit that we are not very good at managing the ‘hygiene’ of our connected selves. Our parents taught us to brush our teeth and wash behind our ears, but no one has shown us how to pull the plug, or why we should. This is all brand new, and it is all brand new for all of us. There was no vanguard of Homo Nexus who could pass along the lessons they learned. We became this new thing all together, and all at once. We have been robbed of the most fundamental form of mimesis – the imitation of our parents and elders – because there are no parents, no elders. We must learn from one another.

Our children, who have grown up constantly connected, have no role models to show them that disconnection will make them great. They look to us, see us fumbling through emails at the dinner table, reaching for the phone every time a text message arrives, recognizing us as captives of connectivity. This is the behavior they reproduce – doing as we do, not as we say – and for this reason we can not rely on them to develop the habits of healthfulness around connection. They have no innate sense of the importance of solitude, nor any external examples of its value. We must first teach ourselves, and only then can we presume to teach our children – by example.

Our predicament is not a matter of fault, or blame. It is as if a car we were driving along suddenly acquired a rocket engine. For a while we zoom along dangerously, but eventually we learn how to tap the accelerator pedal gently, so that we can keep within the speed limit, and avoid a wreck. Now that we are connected, our first most important task must be  to master the balance between our drive to connect and our need for solitude. We must develop the skills to nurse ourselves – every day – for our own good. At present, we’re like overexcited toddlers, filled to overflowing with all of the day’s events, and unable to go to sleep. We must soothe ourselves, and we can only do that in solitude.

Solitude is not the opposite of connection, but its complement. Turning the mobile off and putting it away – for an hour, an evening, or a day – does not separate you from the body of Homo Nexus. We are all so well connected that none of can easily slip through the common net of connection. But we have neither protocol nor etiquette for the practice of solitude. We must be able to slip away gracefully, leaving others with the understanding that this brief parting will only deepen the moments to follow. We must look forward to solitude, embracing ourselves. For many, solitude feels unfamiliar, unfriendly, and unpleasant. We need to share the joys of solitude, so they, too, tug at us, when we have been away from ourselves for too long.

For the last half billion seconds we have gorged ourselves at the banquet of connection. Now we need some time to digest what we have taken in. Pausing will only make the meal more delicious, when we return to it. Some have launched their own “Technology Sabbath” (invoking the strict Jewish practice of no work from sunset Friday through sunset Saturday), putting aside their mobiles and computers for one day in seven, using that time to focus themselves in prayer or meditation, in uninterrupted playtime with their children, or anything else that brings them into quiet and reflective contemplation.

The specifics may not work for everyone, but all of us need something like this. We need to be able to draw a line around our connected selves, containing what we have become before it leaves nothing of us. That line evolves from strict to supple as we become comfortable moving back and forth between connection and solitude. Like children, at the beginning we require boundaries. As we mature, and internalize the new rules of Homo Nexus, we will be better able to decide for ourselves the space we make for being.

A half billion seconds ago, we knew solitude well, and were not afraid of it. Today, aware only of continuous connection, we have almost forgotten this other side to ourselves. It must not be lost as we turn this corner. It is the seat of our soul.

23 – #LOSS

“I can’t wait to get my implant.”

Staring at the woman, dumbfounded, I realize she wants to be cut open, perhaps behind the ear, with all of the delicate electronics that enable connectivity laced into the space underneath the skin, tucked up against her cranium like an ivy scaling an old brick wall. She wants to link – to think, and be connected.

She finds this idea irresistible.

The only way I can confront this unexpected lust for the future – rushing to embrace a wave of annihilating change – is with the unvarnished truth. “Where is your mobile right now?”

“Here,” she says, gesturing at her handbag.

“And where is it when you go to sleep at night?”

“On the bedstand, right next to me. It’s my alarm clock.”

“When is your mobile ever more than a meter away from you?”

She considers this. “When I’m in the shower, maybe. That’s about it.”

Why do you need to get an implant? It’s already effectively part of you. What do you gain by putting it inside of you?” She wrestles with this question for the brief moment it takes her to accept that she has already arrived at her destination. She already has an implant.

Nearly all of us carry our mobiles with us nearly all the time. The vast majority of us sleep next to them, restoring ourselves as they recharge. We are no longer ever alone, not even for a moment.

This loss has gone unnoticed. We grow alarmed at a loss of signal, but seem unable to recognize the absence of a penumbra of quiet which had always been available to us, before hyperconnectivity. We could step away from the world, away from the interruptions and influences of others, away from their thoughts and feelings, and be wholly in ourselves.

We immediately adapted to the continuous presence of others, moving from an empty mansion into a crowded, noisy hostel without missing a beat. We wear the close connectivity of the tribe as comfortably as an old pair of shoes. The oldest parts of us instinctively understand how to be within relations that endure without interruption. We evolved as creatures always within a convenient cooee. Now that call has gone global, restoring everything lost in the flowering of civilization. In hyperconnectivity we have both the anonymity of the mob and the definite identity of the tribe. We may have no particular location, but we are noticed the moment we disappear.

Emergency services have recently seen a sharp uptick in the number of hikers needing a quick recovery from the bush. Hikers stroll into Australia’s substantial parklands, never bothering to file a route plan with the relevant authorities, as it never occurs to them that they could find themselves many kilometers from the nearest cell tower, at the bottom of a ravine, lost, and needing assistance.

Confident in their connectivity, laden with GPS and mobile maps, thinking themselves the equal of any situation, they reach for their mobiles — only to find them useless — and encounter, perhaps for the first time, absolute solitude. The connection gives way to silence, and their confidence collapses. Never having been alone, they confront solitude without any resilience wrought from prior experience.

This same has become true for all of us: the sting of hyperconnectivity. The price we pay for being connected is a certain helplessness in its absence. Every time we reach for the mobile, turning to one another for assistance, we lose some innate capacity to confront the world by ourselves. These losses accumulate until, with half a billion seconds left to go, we could only turn back to our prior, disconnected selves with great difficulty and enormous resistance. We could choose to repent. Instead we accelerate toward this new combination of mutual aid and individual weakness.

Our actions as individuals become the movements of a global culture. At the end of 2008, when, for the first time in history, half of humanity became urban-dwellers, half of humanity owned their own mobile, a synchronicity revealing the alignment of old and new ideas of connectivity. The urban revolution took ten thousand years; the main body of Homo Nexus arrived in less than half a billion seconds, two cultural transformations intersecting in a shared conception of proximity.

The network collapses space to a single point, but, like the city, connectivity has its center, boundary, and areas beyond its reach. As they have always been, cities remain centers of connectivity, with some attention paid to the sprawling suburbs separating them from the vast and sparsely populated regions beyond. Eighty-five percent of the human race lives within range of a mobile signal (more than have access to clean water) but this coverage represents less than sixty percent of the Earth’s surface.

The lure of connectivity has been drawing us together for a hundred centuries. Hyperconnectivity draws a sharp line between the extensive capabilities of Homo Nexus and the rural, agrarian humanity out of signal range. During the next half billion seconds, the boundary will grow more distinct as this new urban form manifests itself in an explosion of capacity. Rural depopulation will accelerate as connectivity becomes irresistible and its absence unimaginable.

We will develop techniques to extend connectivity beyond the urban cores, satellites and longwave subsumed within the preeminent demand for continuous coverage, but the quality of that connection will be inversely proportional to the distance from the hyperconnected center. Some will adapt to life at the margins, but few will embrace that life willingly. We have surrendered our singular selves to the communion of others, and do not mourn the loss.

22 – #LOVE

For the science-fiction epic Avatar, writer-director James Cameron invented the ecosystem of ‘Pandora’, a planet different from Earth, yet familiar enough to remain recognizable and sympathetic – equal parts Jurassic Park and Microcosmos. Every living thing glows a phosphorescent blue in the darkness of night (a conceit that looks stunning on screen), and all of the more complex animals come equipped with tendrils that provide a direct connection into the creature’s nervous system. The film’s hero, a human incarnated into an ‘avatar’ body, learns to ‘link’ with various animals – the Pandoran equivalents of horses and pterodactyls – in order to tame them. In the film’s central scene, the hero links with his romantic interest – a Pandoran princess – as the screen fades to black.

Cameron wrote the screenplay for Avatar in the mid-2000s, just when the mobile had become a fixed feature of life in the developed world. Science fiction frequently serves as a mirror into the present (Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was actually about the Britain of 1948) and Cameron gave our new-found hyperconnectivity a physical basis in Pandoran physiology, making those implicit connections tangible and visible.

The climax of Avatar involves the defense of the ‘Tree of Souls’, portrayed as a vegetal nexus, bridging the gap between the ‘Na’vi’ (Pandora’s indigenous humanoids) and ‘Eywa’, the Pandoran world-soul. The Tree of Souls connects the Na’vi to their ancestors, to the Pandoran biosphere, and the divine. The resource-hungry human antagonists realize that the destruction of the Tree of Souls will reduce the Na’vi to a broken people, refugees on their own world, cut off from the greater life of Pandora, from their history, and from one another. Cameron highlighted the dread we feel when disconnected from the network, cleverly crafting a situation every hyperconnected individual could sympathize with.

Our connections are emotional. In our hearts, we feel their presence and absence. The emotional quality of our first connection – with our mothers – colours all others. That bond becomes the bridge to love, flowing unconditionally from child to mother. Every other connection carries within it the expectation of that unconditional love, and even if we never again achieve the surrender and innocence of our earliest moments, it remains our deepest wish. Adults frame these wishes against their experience of connection – complicated, fraught, often clumsy – while adolescents, closer to their origins, believe every connection will reproduce the love they learned from mother. Time teaches them to lower their expectations.

The mobile has become the visible manifestation of the emotions evoked by our connections. Although, unlike the tendrils of the Pandorans, they have not burrowed their way beneath into our biology, we carry our mobiles everywhere. We use them to link with one another, consult the spirits of the ancestors (through their writings), and, as we watch feeds and updates scroll by, tune into the whispers of the global mind. We may imagine ourselves separate, but we yearn to link with all, dissolving in a sea of love.

Tribal humanity, constantly connected across a lifetime, knew this connectivity intimately. Take a tribal human out the tribe and, stripped of the emotional presence they have always known, they lose their resilience, like toddler abandoned. The urban revolution brought the focus to smaller units of extended families, then the industrial revolution shattered that extended family into a spare, tiny nucleus. Just as this process reached its uttermost extent – with absolute individuation – the mobile created a new quality of connection. We now recover our original tribal connectivity, but at global scale.

The bond between mother and child has been touched by this hyperconnectivity. Dr. Genevieve Bell, Intel Fellow and Anthropologist-in-Residence, recorded an unexpected instance of this transformation in a South Korean classroom. Interviewing students whose parents had given them mobiles with GPS-tracking features – so parents could know precisely where those children are, every moment of the day – Dr. Bell asked these children if they felt comfortable under the steady gaze of constant parental surveillance. One child pointed toward another child in the room, saying, “She doesn’t have one of these phones. Her parents don’t love her enough to care where she is.” The child instinctively located the emotional relationship within the device.

Dr. Sherry Turkle, who has studied the relation of children and computing for a generation, has noted that children no longer differentiate from their parents as quickly or completely as before, and points to the mobile as the cause. When a child heads off to university, they now call the parent every day (sometimes several times a day) seeking information, advice, or just a sympathetic ear. The hard boundaries which previously marked entry into adulthood have grown fuzzy, because mobile omnipresence places the parent everywhere the child has a need.

Although Turkle believes this most recent phenomenon might represent a retardation of the processes of adulthood and individuation, it actually marks a return to the prelapsarian state before the utter individuation of late urbanization. Until quite recently – perhaps a hundred years ago – parents rarely separated from their children. Everyone remained within the same village – often within the same household – throughout an entire lifetime. This relation has been suddenly recovered, a reversal of a century of cultural patterns which created the knife-edge of instant adulthood. Children and parents now reside in a connection mediated by the mobile, omnipresent and continuous.

Because it is now possible, continuous emotional engagement has become an option in all our relations. We are seeking to recover the undifferentiated acceptance of our relation to our mothers, looking to every contact as a path back to this unity. Inevitably, we will be frustrated. From that frustration we are learning how to modulate our emotional boundaries on a global scale.

21 – #LOOK

In any place where people congregate – a bus stop, an airport, the line at a cafe – they practice the same behavior. Where once they might have fidgeted, or set their gaze at a neutral distance (to better preserve the anonymity of the city), today each one stares down, into the tiny display cradled in their palm. Staring down, staring in, captured and captivated by the goings-on in another land.

A decade ago we never looked at our mobiles unless making a call. Five years ago we stared at them only while we carefully prepared a text message. Today we gaze into them constantly, almost continuously. Something has changed.

The most obvious change concerns the device itself, which evolved from a very simple alphanumeric display – 3 or 4 lines of 20 characters – into something more akin to a videogame console than a telephone, bristling with processing power, colorful, high-resolution graphics, stereophonic sound, and a surface sensitive to the slightest touch. This ‘smartphone’ realizes the Star Trek vision of the handheld communicator/tricorder (two hundred years ahead of schedule), a flexible, personal device capable of being put to work in practically any situation.

That’s certainly part of what’s going on, but even in the areas of the world where the smartphone hasn’t begun to penetrate (three and a half billion of the planet’s four and a half billion mobile-owning individuals do not own a smartphone) the behavior persists. The smartphone provides plenty of excuses to look down into the device, but they aren’t necessary.

Everyone else – and even those with a smartphone – stares into the device because they’re engaged in conversations, 160 characters at time, in the form of text messages. Over seven trillion text messages were sent last year, a thousand for every person on Earth, with a good percentage of people sending or receiving a hundred messages a day. Teenagers think nothing of spending spare time connecting and communicating with friends through text messages; easily sending and receiving three thousand a month.

These sound like huge numbers, almost as if texting represents a habitual, addictive behavior, but reframed it becomes less scary: What if these teenagers spoke five thousand sentences a month? We’d wonder what had made them so quiet and withdrawn. Texting carries our conversations across space, completely natural to teenagers who have never known anything but hyperconnectivity.

The first mobiles with text messaging features did not tout this capability. In the beginning, few saw any real value in text messaging. Mobile hardware manufacturers added text messaging into their products as an afterthought, buried behind a confusing array of menus. Nothing about first-generation text messaging was easy: Most people had no idea they could send a text message until they received one, when they would learn both how to read the message and send a reply.

Despite all these difficulties, people learned how use text messaging, then taught their friends to do the same, by sending them messages. As messages shot around, more people began to send messages, in a loop of positive feedback which brought us to the trillions of the present day.

Carriers were soon earning more from text messages (which cost almost nothing to send) than from voice calls. Mobile handset manufacturers transformed their devices into messaging machines, demoting the mobile’s voice call capabilities in favor of an interface geared around text messages. The users of the mobile had changed the design of the device, by their patterns of use.

These next generation messaging machines removed most of the barriers to effective messaging. People could manage many more conversations – serially and concurrently – and the number of text messages sent began to accelerate, because people had a platform which reflected their own desire to reach out and connect with others. Texting grew from a rare activity into an occasional practice, eventually becoming a nearly continuous behavior.

Text messages have well-known shortcomings, including message length, lack of rich media, and clumsy keyboard interfaces. (While it is possible to use a 10-digit telephone keypad to type a novel, it often can be and infuriating experience.) People wanted to be able to communicate without any of the constraints of text messages (because of the design of the carrier networks, these constraints were set in stone), so demand grew for more flexible messaging tools.

The immediate and overwhelming popularity of Research In Motion’s BlackBerry platform, seamlessly integrating electronic mail into the mobile experience – with a full, if tiny keyboard – demonstrated the pent-up desire to move beyond text messaging. Other devices, such as Danger’s Hiptop, effectively positioned the mobile as a device that was all about messaging, handling voice calls as an afterthought. Once again, users had driven design changes in mobile devices, making these devices more useful to them, leading to higher levels of usage, and more attention paid to the device. Gradually, we were being drawn in.

By the mid 2000s, the mobile had become more message center than voice communication, with SMS, email and a growing number of new messaging environments, such as Twitter, Facebook and AIM. In order to accommodate so many different conduits for communication, the mobile had to become a general-purpose communications platform: a fully-functional and openly programmable computer. Nokia introduced the first of these highly flexible devices – known as ‘smartphones’ – in 2007, soon followed by devices developed at Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

The smartphone can perform any function of a desktop computer and any function of a mobile, marrying the rich experience of desktop Internet and pervasive wireless hyperconnectivity in a single point of contact, producing an explosive growth in the range of messaging options available, and exponential growth in the number of messages being delivered across all formats. The smartphone continuously offers up a stream of messages. As a result, the smartphone has become nearly impossible to ignore for more than a few moments.

The smartphone itself – metal, glass, plastic and silicon – is not the source of this seductive glamour, unworthy of such dedicated attention. Its surface – the ‘black mirror’ of the display – acts as the individual’s portal to the connected world. Shaped through trillions of messages and half a billion seconds of directed engineering, our hyperconnectivity has produced a nearly ideal tool for communication. From their comfortable homes within our hands, mobiles shine a light so alluring we can no longer look away.

20 – #LEGION

The world encompasses more than fishermen and limousine drivers, but these stories set the tone for our entire species: being connected means being more successful, and the more connected you are, the more successful you can be. Charles the limousine driver needed to double his connectivity to improve his earning capability. If the situation demanded a dozen smartphones, spread out against his dashboard, he’d do that, because each additional connection would add to his earning potential. The devices would pay for themselves, and Charles would be fat with connectivity and profits.

That’s exactly what the fishermen in Kerala realized. One fisherman with a mobile is omniscient – a seeing man in the land of the blind. A thousand fisherman, each with their own mobile, become a single, emergent, efficient market supply. The space between these two states – the single fisherman and the mobile as fisherman’s essential tool – is incredibly brief. Everyone within the market simultaneously recognizes that in order to realize their greatest profits, they must connect.

In villages and cities throughout the developing world, one scene has played out in endless repetitions over the last half billion seconds: an individual with a bit of money purchases a mobile. That mobile connects this individual to the marketplace, opening them to a range of economic opportunities, some of which the individual takes advantage of, improving their economic position. This individual is connected – in the flesh – to family and friends and colleagues, each of whom observe how the mobile has created new-found wealth for that individual.

Poorly educated people are not stupid; we are all born knowing how to imitate the behaviors of others, especially when that behavior confers tangible success. People save or borrow to acquire a mobile, and put that mobile to work for them, increasing their economic success. As a significant percentage of the population get mobiles, the advantages become more and more obvious, until everyone understands the relationship between the market and the mobile, and everyone migrates into mobile ownership.

This process of observation and imitation on a mass scale – hypermimesis – explains the unprecedented growth in the number of individuals owning mobiles. Barely sixty million owned a mobile in 1995; the end of 2012 will see us closing in on nearly five billion with at least one mobile device, a growth of nearly ten thousand percent in half a billion seconds. While many assumed adoption rates would slow after most of the world’s affluent bought a mobile, the adoption rate actually shot skyward, buoyed by the growing realization that future success depends upon connectivity.

In February 2012 China surpassed a billion mobile subscriptions, with nearly eight hundred million Chinese – greater than half the population – using a mobile. India, far poorer than newly-industrialized China, has nearly six hundred million subscribers. Africa – with less wealth than either Asian giant – has well over half a billion. Everywhere we look we see the mobile making inroads, but particularly in the poorest corners of the planet. People who barely have money for food will find the money to buy a mobile, because it represents the best opportunity they have ever had to increase their earning power.

Connectivity equals success. This has been demonstrated beyond any doubt. We sit in an in-between time, with the billion seconds following this discovery, but before it becomes the baseline behavior for our species. At the end of this billion seconds, being connected and being human will be seen as synonymous.

We are the species whose success relies upon our ability to communicate what we know to others around us. We put what others communicate to work. Some of what we communicate concerns how we communicate. When someone learns something about how to improve the connectivity between individuals, that information is shared. If it proves successful, those with whom this information was shared will share it again, radiating it through their own connections until the entire network – all five billion of us – act from this new understanding.

This new knowing expands the scope of our capabilities. We find that we can do more. We treasure these new powers, guarding them jealously, and mourning their loss in those situations – with a lost phone or a lost signal – where we can not put them into play. Rightly or wrongly, we tend to see our capabilities as us. As our capacities evolve, so our understanding of and expectations for ourselves change. We are locked into a loop of knowing and doing, with each of us directly connected to five billion others, every one of us intent on growing our own capabilities.

We hear the voices of others telling us things we need to know, sometimes whispered, sometimes repeated at deafening volumes. We whisper or shout, as need and opportunity allow. With everything we hear, we learn, and we do. This is all of us now, everywhere. We are all getting smarter, learning to do more, and as we learn and do, we learn better and do better, and learn to do better. We have plugged ourselves into an amplifier, turned to 11.

The most remarkable quality of the current moment is the pervasive whine of feedback, coursing through every human institution. Homo Nexus, locked within this amplifier, orients itself to the rising rush of power, so heady and seductive that it has already colored and now begins to drown out every other experience.

We are in too deep to turn back, swept up into a vortex of connection and empowerment, but past is merely prologue. Now inside the amplifier, each of us focuses on how to make it work for us, and with every thing we learn, our capabilities increase. It is ripping us away from what we were, half a billion seconds ago, thrusting us – collectively, connectively – into an entirely inescapable future.

19 – #LOOP

Charles pulls up to the curb in a brand-new Lincoln Towncar, black and sleek, radiating wealth and privilege, and stops before me. His car is mine, and Charles is my driver — temporarily. I have magicked him up from my mobile, firing off a text message with my address to a service called Uber. I receive confirmation of receipt of my request, then, just a few seconds later, confirmation that Charles would be with me in three minutes.

If I had been using a smartphone, the process would have been slicker and more visual. I would have launched an app that would locate me – using GPS – then place me on a map, showing all of the nearby available limousines. After I my pickup request had been received and accepted, all of those limousines would disappear from the map, except the one coming to fulfil my request. As the car drew closer to me, I’d see it approach, allowing me to meet it precisely as it arrived. Seamless coordination, courtesy of the mobile.

Even though it costs a fair bit more than a taxi, with this kind of convenience Uber has been blessed with raging success. People like the feeling of control – real or perceived – that comes from watching their driver approach. While they stare down into the screen, Uber gives its users a sense of ominpresence. They know, if not everything, much more than ever before. That knowledge allows them to do more, giving them a small taste of the freedoms enjoyed by the very wealthiest.

Limousine drivers like Charles love Uber, too. Before the service launched, those drivers would spend half their time doing nothing, idling their hours while waiting for the next pickup call to come in. Drivers now add Uber jobs to their regularly scheduled pickups, nearly doubling their earning power within the same eight-hour shift. Mobiles have given limousine drivers the same economic acceleration that mobiles gave the fishermen of Kerala fifteen years ago – creating a highly efficient market which satisfies an increased demand, dramatically improving the earning potential of everyone connected.

Economists recognize that when a sudden change in market dynamics produces a burst of new wealth it encourages people to enter the marketplace. A ‘gold rush’ begins, as everyone looks for a way to vacuum up some of the new-found fortune. Most markets have ‘barriers to entry’ – to be a fisherman, you need a boat and rigging and nets and a crew; to be a driver you need a rather pricey limousine. These barriers make it difficult for the market to become immediately overcrowded, but the lack of competition increases the incentive for everyone already participating in the market to maximize their productive behavior. The more productive you can be within a closed but growing market, the more you will earn.

For Uber drivers, this means putting their limousines where they’re most needed. But they’re not alone in this, so the busiest parts of the city are also those with the greatest supply of drivers, which means drivers still have to wait for jobs. Even closed markets can be locally oversupplied – particularly where participants within a market can smell all the money to be made.

Uber drivers run a companion version of the smartphone app that Uber customers use. This app allows them to bid on pickups, but does not reveal the location of any of the limousines around them, competing for the same business. Uber’s drivers have less information than Uber’s customers. As a consequence, limousines tend to cluster, because drivers don’t know that they’re all converging on the same small – and presumably lucrative – area.

My driver Charles has a solution for this dilemma: he owns two mobiles, and runs both Uber apps. The driver app delivers pickup requests, while the customer app reveals the locations of any limousines nearby. “One evening I came into the city,” Charles reports, “and there were four limousines within a block.” Knowing this, Charles moved on, finding another, under-served area of the city, and got plenty of work.

Uber may not want its drivers to know about the location of other drivers, but it wants to reveal that information to its customers, so drivers simply poke holes in the wall that separate the two sides, peering through, and learning where to position themselves for greatest profit. The drivers use all information on offer – from every source – to give themselves the greatest advantage.

Charles says he’s one of the few Uber drivers using his smartphone to give him the inside track with a degree of omnipresence. It’s a technique new to him, and he doesn’t say whether he thought it up himself, or if he copied it from another driver. Either way, as Charles’ success becomes more visible, his peers, watching what he does, will copy his keys to success. What he knows will be replicated throughout the fleet of drivers until this exceptional behavior becomes pervasive and normal.

Soon, Uber will either need to provide drivers with all of the information drivers provide to Uber, or every Uber driver will use two mobiles, one for orders, and another for omnipresence. As drivers learn more about one another, they learn how to avoid economically damaging behaviors, such as clusters. The drivers self-organize, spacing themselves throughout an area in a way which generates the greatest economic advantage for each individual. They will act as a unit – as if they all answered to a common mind – although they have no central command, accept no controlling influence, and simply work to maximize their own financial interests. This emergent behavior – seen first along the Kerala coast – is the inevitable consequence of connectivity.

The information flows of connectivity move back and forth, never just in one direction, looping through us, out into the world, and back again. At every step, this information, transformed by the individuals it passes through, also transforms those individuals. “All knowing is doing, and all doing, knowing.” To connect is to know, to know is to do, and doing carries with it the opportunity to connect.

This never stops, nor ever slows.

 

18 – #LEVER

An average high school classroom, on an average weekday morning. Students fumbling around, threading through papers, looking for last evening’s assignment. One of them comes up empty handed — he hasn’t even looked.

The teacher, quick to notice this student’s poor performance – far from the first time this has happened – walks over to his desk, stands over him, leans in a bit, and begins to let him have it. This storm has been brewing for a while, and has found the perfect opportunity to let fly.

In the midst of the tirade, underneath the stream of invective, the student reaches into his backpack, fishes around a bit, withdraws a mobile, taps a few buttons, waits a moment, and then – once the connection has been made – says, “Hey. You listen to the bitch,” then holds the mobile out, capturing every calumny heaped upon him by his teacher.

The classroom as we know it, invented by the Prussians a hundred and fifty years ago, and adopted across Europe and America as Germany rose to world power status, features a teacher sitting before a chalkboard while the pupils sit and face the teacher. As the center of attention – and the master of the environment – the teacher has absolute power, controlling, containing and managing the behavior of the students under supervision. This close control ensured the classroom did not descend into chaos. Order created the space for learning.

As the seat of all authority, the teacher not only mastered the classroom, but possessed an acknowledged mastery of the material. Students did not question the teacher. But they do, now. Science teachers regularly confront students who (from perches safe in the back row of the classroom) consult Wikipedia or Wolfram Alpha, correcting all of the instructor’s mistakes, in real-time. The know-it-all teacher, center of the pedagogical universe, has been stripped of all power, revealed as the know-nothing.

Both of these examples show how the mobile can rapidly destabilize any environment reliant upon isolation as a technique of control. The kind of abuse teachers regularly deliver to students had never had an audience outside the walls of the classroom. Suddenly, every student walks through the door with parents in their pocket, and those walls no longer exist. The teacher no longer faces a younger, smaller, and weaker student, but the whole set of connections that student brings with them, via mobile omnipresence.

The power relations of education have reversed. The student can instantly summon parents – or any professional – to support any efforts to resist the teacher’s negativity. Teachers can’t throw their weight around anymore, because students can now hold those power games in check with powers of their own.

Where a teacher is trying to hector a student into learning, but encounters resistance – as might be the case with that underperforming student – this new balance of powers brings the educational process to a halt. The teacher has lost any ability to coerce, which means the student could now freely revel in ignorance. This deadlock persists for as long as the student’s relations are willing to countenance that state of affairs. We can be dumb with power.

Conversely, teachers can no longer pass their own ignorance off as truth. Another set of relations connects students to bodies of knowledge far greater than those which any teacher could ever hope to encompass, the collected wisdom of the species.
Omnipresence veers close to partial omniscience.

Inside the confines of the classroom, with a restricted range of curriculum material under study, it has become possible for a student to be at least as well informed, moment-to-moment, as the teacher. “All knowing is doing, and all doing knowing.” A student who knows more than the teacher will inevitably act on that knowledge, pulling aside the curtain of pretense, revealing the small and frightened Wizard of Oz beneath.

The classroom is microcosm and rehearsal for all of the power relations of public authority. Employers, police officers and religious leaders each embody different aspects of this power relation. Although these power relations are generally less obvious than the alpha-male / alpha-female of other hominids, they are no less significant. We like to know where we stand in relation to others, so we can present ourselves accordingly.

The instant omnipresence of the mobile has scrambled all our power relations, overthrowing some while rewriting others. Since the broadcast of the video of Rodney King’s beating by the LAPD, all police have evinced a hostility to videography, because revealing power undermines its authority. Connection pierces the veil of power, removing its mystery, rendering it impotent.

The new power relations of the classroom already extend throughout the entire world. Now that perhaps a billion and a half people carry networked video cameras in their pockets, the opportunities for a sudden turning of the tables have multiplied furiously. Each connection holds within it the possibility of a challenge to authority. The mobile provides a lever long enough to move the world.

This fundamental reconfiguration of power relations has been even less remarked upon than the sudden upswing in human connectivity. This redistribution of power comes as the inevitable consequence of our sudden omnipresence. The teacher can not control the students; the dictator can control the restive populace; no one will do as they are told. There is no control anywhere. When we picked up the mobile we had to surrender the cudgel.

We want to believe our power relations have remained as they always have, unchanged for many thousands of years. Top and bottom. Inside and outside. Elect and damned. A mobile, transmitting a faithful reproduction of a teacher’s angry words, tells us everything has already changed.

 

17 – #LATE

I made my first trip to Australia in 1997. Australia is a long way from anywhere – even neighboring Indonesia is an eight-hour flight to Sydney. Los Angeles, where I lived at the time, is a solid fifteen hours in the air – about the limit of endurance. Although very far away, I knew a few people living in Sydney, and after I’d finished my business, I called one of them from my hotel room to arrange dinner. We agreed on whom to invite (ten friends and friends of friends) and time and place to meet – Friday evening, 6.30 pm, in front of the massive IMAX theatre in Sydney’s Darling Harbour.

Ten minutes before the appointed hour, I stood in front of the theatre, waiting for my friends to arrive. They drifted up, in ones and twos, but by quarter to seven, only half had shown up. The others — well, wherever they were, they weren’t with us.

Coordinating a large party has always been a nightmarish exercise in logistics. As more people become involved, everything gains viscosity and congeals, unless predefined processes lubricate the ambiguities surrounding any sort of mass action. If people know what to do when the unexpected eventuates, they will respond accordingly, continuing to move toward the goal of the group. Corporations have perfected this flavor of necessarily routinized, bureaucratic activity, and so can harness the energies of hundreds or thousands of individuals in a common task.

Going out to dinner is a task of an entirely different sort. Its informality makes inflexibility anathema; dinner is not work, nor do people willingly confuse the two. There are no rules to follow, so when plans fail, they can fall apart completely. That’s pretty much what I believed, that evening in Darling Harbour, as I waited for the rest of my friends to arrive. Either we would go on without them, and would not see them, or we would wait (who knows how long?) for them to arrive.

While I sat, stuck on the horns of this dilemma, one of my friends pulled a mobile from his pocket – a smallish thing in bright blue plastic – dialed one of the missing party-goers, and arranged to have them meet us at dinner. Crisis resolved instantly, smoothly, and effortlessly. The evening was saved, all friends eventually united.

This story has two points worthy of note: the first is that this episode is utterly quotidian. These days, this sort of thing happens so frequently, we barely even notice that now adjust our social schedules on-the-fly, because we can. Individuals connected are individuals coordinated, capable of adapting themselves to any eventuality. The connected act not as two, but two-as-one, because in the act of communication, each becomes responsive to the other. Each surrenders a bit of their own desire in pursuit of a common goal.

In itself, that surrender is nothing new. The dance of connection has always been about surrender: the trusting surrender of the child listening carefully to the parent; the anxious surrender to authority; the playful, back-and-forth surrender in love. We listen and learn, we talk and teach, we commune and collaborate, inhabiting all three of these worlds simultaneously, bound together through relations and connections.

These relations had always been bounded by space; even the landline telephone, tied to a particular spot, only extended the reach of the individual’s ability to connect. The mobile made space an obsolete element in relationship, removing all constraints of where. The only determinant now is who we choose to connect with and relate to.

This shift from place to person marks a fundamental transformation in human relations, but one which has gone almost entirely unnoticed. Although human connectivity it may be the single most significant quality of the 21st century, it is also among the least remarked upon. We are so comfortable with human relations that amplifying them enormously provokes little more than a sigh of relief and (occasionally) a squeal of delight.

We now inhabit a world where no one is late anymore, just delayed. You can always phone ahead, or send a text message, keeping everyone informed and aware of your progress toward the common goal. There are no gaps or rough edges of ambiguity where others have no idea, in your absence, what should be done. The mobile has given us a very tangible taste of omnipresence. It may not be a bodily, pantheistic omnipresence, but we can put our ears, minds and voices together with others wherever and whenever needed. We can act omnipresently, and that is enough.

The second remarkable feature of this Australian story concerns my own reaction to the situation. As an American, I had no understanding of the mobile, nor any experience of the omnipresence it provides. I could not imagine any action to solve the dilemma of the missing friends. I believed nothing could be done about it. My ignorance limited my potential. In this, I was similar to the rest of my countrymen: we did not yet understand how the mobile transformed human relations.

For that understanding to dawn, enough of the population must possess a mobile that movements toward omnipresence are reinforced by repeated experience. You must connect – again and again and again – before you can truly comprehend this sudden omnipresence. Until there is sufficient uptake within a given group of people – a community or a nation – the mobile is useful, but not fundamentally transformational. When enough people have enough mobiles in enough numbers, people begin to accept the reality of omnipresence and act upon it.

The Australia I came to visit in 1997 had just passed the halfway point in mobile adoption. Over fifty percent of the nation carried mobiles with them. Meanwhile, in America, barely one in six used a mobile, and it would be another four years until mobiles connected half of the population of the richest nation on Earth. Already equipped with an excellent wired infrastructure, America came late to the party, and late to an understanding of omnipresence.

The rest of the world took rather less time to find their way into this new state of affairs.

16 – #LISTEN

Once upon a time, a man and a woman met and fell in love.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove:

Few couples had a more perfect match, aligned in their minds, bodies, emotions and spirits. Enjoying the same things. Practicing the same hobbies. Sharing the same dreams for the future, built around a common love of fire-spinning. The ancient Maori art of poi, practiced for centuries by the Polynesian settlers of New Zealand, became the central focus of their relationship. Expert fire-spinners themselves, they traveled around, teaching others how to do it (safety first!), bringing their love of poi to people across America. They moved within an intense and close bubble of love: for one another, for their life together, and for poi.

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

“Then he bought a BlackBerry. We’d be together – traveling somewhere, maybe on the train, or a bus, or even in a car. And we’d be talking. But the whole time he’d be looking down, into the Blackberry. Reading or typing. Typing and reading. And every so often he’d look up and say, ‘I’m listening’.”

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor any man ever loved.

You only say ‘I’m listening’ when it’s obvious you’ve tuned out, after you’ve turned away from the object of your affection, and toward something else. Homer Simpson once pronounced television, “Teacher, mother, secret lover,” but television has been supplanted – overrun – by another. The temping devil in the palm.

“We traveled together, but it wasn’t the same. We were close, physically, but he was somewhere else. Always looking down. Always listening to other voices.”

Each of them now had to contend with the demands of another. He divided his attention between the real, immediate and embodied presence of his love and the alluring, seductive pleasures of connection. She had to fight back feelings of rejection, that she had been cast aside for a new – and more interesting – relationship.

“We flew to Peru to teach fire-spinning. We got off the plane, and there was no mobile service. Anywhere. For a whole week. It was like getting him back again. All of him. It was wonderful.”

Beyond the reach of the signal, old connections can reassert themselves. Where the chorus of voices ceases, it becomes possible to listen to the softer sounds of hearts. In the silence, older voices can be heard, just as demanding, and far more important.

A few years ago, I walked down the street, heading off to lunch with friends. I pulled my mobile out, and typed a text message, without really giving a thought to the fact that I was at that moment walking into an intersection, and across a street. Not until I heard the rumble of car wheels (over the music playing through my earbuds) did I look up and see a taxi, with a somewhat vexed-looking driver behind the wheel, waiting for me to make it to the opposite curb. I had walked into an intersection, across the street, in front of a taxi, all without thinking. Too bound up in the task at hand (literally) to notice the danger I had put myself in.

Many of us have done something this stupid, either on the street, or behind the wheel. Something about the mobile has burrowed its way past all of our rational self-defenses, the things we learned when very small (look both ways when you cross the street, pay attention when others are talking to you), leading us to act like idiots, or children who have not heeded any of our lessons on how to behave. We have abandoned social nicety – and self-preservation – because our mobiles demand it.

Another time, I saw a mother with a toddler in a stroller. They waited on the opposite corner of an intersection as we all waited for the crossing signal. Once that signal came, this mother rolled the stroller off the curb – and nearly dumped her child into the street. If that child hadn’t been strapped into the stroller, it would have hit the pavement, hard. Undeterred, the mother reversed direction, backed her stroller onto the curb, and attempted the maneuver again – with precisely the same results.

At no time during these abortive efforts did this mother ever take her mobile away from her ear. It absorbed her attention, so much so that she put her own child in peril – repeatedly – rather than simply putting the mobile aside long enough to negotiate the crossing.

The desire of a mother to protect her young is fundamental, instinctive behavior, not just in humans, but all the hominids, primates, and mammals. Mothers nurse their young, keep them safe, and defend them with their own lives, if need be. Or did, until the mobile came along, and provided the perfect interruption to two hundred million years of evolution.

Something about the mobile is so potent, attractive and demanding, that we abandon our loves, our lives and our children to it. It speaks so loudly that we have no choice but to listen, orienting ourselves around attending to its needs. It demands our attention, and in so doing, drains us away from the world within arm’s reach, for the world we hold in our hands.

That handheld world encompasses all of the rest of us. Against this totality, nothing could hope to complete. Instead, we find ourselves drawn apart from those closest to us. We’re listening to other voices. We feel guilty about this, but find ourselves helpless to resist.