32 – #SHARP

Two people meet. They do not know each other, but thrown together – perhaps in a taxi, or sitting next to each other on a long flight – they break an uncomfortable silence with conversation. Too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry – everyone always starts with the weather, climate being the one thing we all share in common.

Somewhere during this conversation something else comes up – a mention of a child, a visit to a faraway land, or a favored pastime, immediately seized upon as broader common ground, a platform for further conversation. This exploration of what each knows begins with a series of confirmations of knowledge shared (we both know these things) but as conversation deepens it sharpens, reassurance transforming into exploration: what do you know? What can you teach me? What can I share with you that will surprise, delight or amaze you?

Under the right conditions, all of this can happen in a minute or less. We are spectacularly good at detecting and zooming in on the things that unite us (and, unfortunately, those that divide us), prepared to go deep in order to display our own prowess (thereby gaining in social standing), and equally prepared to become the student, when we stumble upon a true master.

A behavior this immediate and casual forms a template we repeat throughout every corner of our lives. All of our relations have this quality of discovery, where we assume one of three postures: master; student; or exploring together. Where several people come together to share, we will assume all of these roles simultaneously, teaching some, learning from others, and joining in open-ended endeavors.

From tribe to megalopolis, every grouping of humanity has seen us mix and match ourselves into these human networks of sharing. The antecedents of our schools, we have always come together in numbers to learn from one another, to teach one another, and to delve into the unknown. Most of our relations can be characterized in these terms: elders teaching the young; young learning from the experience of the old; lovers and friends striking out together on life’s great journey.

This, more than anything else, might be humanity’s defining quality. A recent study compared young chimpanzees with human toddlers on a range of intelligence tests. The humans blew past the chimpanzees because they learned from one another, teaching one another, pooling their knowledge to solve the tasks set before them. Chimpanzees, although very much as bright as those toddlers, did not share what they knew, and so had to re-invent the solution, every single time.

We share, and so take the shortcut, leveraging all previous experience into the present moment, sharpening the blunt instrument of our intelligence against the whetstone of learning. For time beyond measure, human culture has been so rich that we need to become learned in its ways, and we sustain this complexity only because we have developed effective techniques to cram all of it into the heads of the young. If we learned nothing from one another, we would still be arboreal foragers in the Rift Valley of East Africa, like our chimpanzee cousins.

Instead, we have schools, where we gather together in formally acknowledged roles of student and master, codifications of relations that existed informally but pervasively within the tribe. Yet the previous patterns persist, innate, immediate, and natural. In or out of school, we can not help but learn, nor can we stop ourselves from teaching.

Schools have always required the proximity of the city, students gathering together with masters in the Academy. In the tribe we were all together all the time, always available for any moment when knowledge could be shared. In our new-found hyperconnectivity we have recovered that moment, amplified with all of the tools and techniques of ten thousand years of school. We are always available to learn or to teach, but now we can learn from four and a half billion, and be taught by any of them, freely associating ourselves in common pursuit.

We share and thereby ‘find the others’ who share our passions and our pursuits, associating with them online and in the flesh, forming communities of ‘gurus’ and ‘n00bs’, each with a role to play. The student must sit at the feet of the master and learn. If they refuse to endure the necessary rites of passage, they will be heckled and ridiculed and excluded until they accept their place within the hierarchy of relations which characterizes all such groups.

Prized to the degree they choose to commit to the teaching of those less advanced, the teacher must balance teaching with learning, lest they fall behind in their own expertise, losing their place of prominence within that hierarchy of relations. Withdraw too completely and be considered selfish; give too willingly and lose one’s position. Those who can must do and teach.

The number of peers-in-expertise decreases as one approaches the pinnacle of craft. The more expert one becomes, the greater the pressure to demonstrate that expertise. These demands slow forward progress, and where nearly everyone is less expert, those demands become onerous. The most expert withdraw behind a cloud of mystery, and a guild materializes, a barrier between initiates and the hoi polloi.

A thousand years ago, that withdrawal would have kept knowledge hidden away, locked securely within a community of experts, but that withholding – a form of censorship – can not be sustained in the age of omniscience. Experts can remove themselves, but they can not remove their expertise. You can no longer take your toys and go home. Even where someone stops playing the game, the game goes on.

With a constant pressure from beneath to improve, there is no escape into expertise, only an increasing acceleration into greater expertise. Association becomes the only way to maintain expertise; there’s simply too much for any one mind to absorb. Communities spontaneously differentiate, relying upon individuals to be reservoirs of particular expertise within a greater body of expertise, knowing that all can be called upon as required, providing collective capacities far greater than any of its individuals.

This book is a shared pursuit – not just of the two co-authors, but of all readers interested in the topics explored in these hundred chapters. For this reason, we are now making public all of our research links – collected over the last 12 months – so we can more broadly learn from one another, and explore this collective sharpening of our minds.

31 – #SHOW

Mobile service in India costs quite a bit less than in the developed world. In 2009, during a price war, most of the nation’s carriers cut voice call rates to half a paisa a second – with 100 paisa in a rupee, that’s roughly one-hundredth of a US cent per second, roughly one-fiftieth the price a caller might pay in Australia or Europe for the same service. And although the average Indian mobile user spends only US $3 a month on their mobile subscription, for a huge number of India’s most poor, that’s too much.

As is customary for mobile carriers globally, Indian customers pay nothing if their calls can not be completed, but the recipient of the call knows who had called – their mobile records the caller’s number. It didn’t take long for someone to figure out that this ‘missed calling’ could be used as kind of signalling.

Many years ago, when interstate calling was still very expensive in the United States, I remember visiting aunts and uncles making missed calls to our home phone, informing us they’d arrived home safely. A single ring (on the single household phone), then silence. It saved them a few dollars, and saved us all some worry. For as long as direct dialing has been available, people have been missing calls intentionally, signalling one another. One ring: safe. Two rings: call me. Three rings: emergency.

India went from very little wired infrastructure – one phone per hundred people – straight into hyperconnectivity. At least half of all Indians now own a mobile. But without a wired history, how did the practice of missed-call signalling develop? Someone might have invented it on their own, but more likely it came via a visitor from a country where missed-call signalling was already commonplace. As soon as missed call signalling is practiced in front of someone else, it is understood, and begins to replicate. When a behavior is practiced on the network, it replicates quickly and broadly, soon becoming pervasive.

Human beings are excellent imitators. From our birth we imitate everyone around us, beginning with learning how to talk – an inconceivable feat of intellectual accomplishment, listening to and imitating our parents and older siblings. We learn so fast because we imitate one another so well. Wired for mimesis – imitation – we embody ‘monkey see, monkey do’.

If imitation has any boundaries, we haven’t found them. Harvard researcher Dr. Nicholas Christakis has spent the last decade studying how behaviors spread through our relationships. First, Christakis learned that tobacco smoking (and the decision to quit smoking) follows from our social connections. The more smokers we are in relation with, the more likely we are to smoke ourselves. The more of our friends decide to quit, the more likely it is that we, too, will stop.

More than just like finding like, Christakis showed that these behaviors actively spread through our connections. One person deciding to smoke makes it more likely their connections will smoke. One person deciding to quit makes it more likely others will follow. Christakis then found that this also characterized obesity: you are more likely to be obese if your connections are with the obese, and more likely to go on a diet if those around you have made that decision.

Our capacity to imitate one another so well makes us peculiarly susceptible to the actions of others. Everyone has heard a lecture on good behavior from their mothers that culminates with, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?” The answer, as it turns out, is probably yes. Our innate desire to imitate one another will even wrestle against the drive for self-preservation: we know that smoking and obesity are bad for us, but, under the influence of our connections – peer pressure – we surrender.

It goes deeper. Studies have also revealed that divorce spreads through our connections. If a couple you’re connected to breaks up, your marriage is in greater peril. Why is this? Does a close-to-home divorce get couples thinking about the dissatisfactions of marriage? Or is it simply a desire to imitate one’s friends, in sickness and in health?

Seen in this light, our connections have an almost epidemiological quality, acting as carriers for diseases of the body (obesity) and heart (divorce) which can infect us and leave us changed. Parents and mentors warned us to ‘be careful who you hang out with’; it’s common knowledge that maintaining connections with ‘the wrong crowd’ can be ruinous. Now we understand why. We are in each other’s heads, the best and worst parts of us always leaking out, or leaking in.

As we research how behaviors spread through the human network, we may attempt to medicalize our connections, creating a cordon sanitaire for ourselves and our children, places beyond the reach of these socially-transmitted diseases. This reaction – typified in the growing number of gated communities – only moves the threat, but never removes it. When you pick your friends, your colleagues, and your neighbors, you adopt their minds.

Humans have always been a colony organism, moving in sync together. The closer our connections, the closer our minds. Half a billion seconds ago, those connections, limited by speed and proximity, gave infections-of-the-mind a natural range. They could not spread quickly, nor very widely. Hyperconnected and disseminated at lightspeed, behaviors now go from unknown to ubiquitous in a few days. Half a billion seconds from now, it will all happen in a matter of seconds: hypermimesis.

Some behaviors – such as missed-call signalling – become immediately pervasive because they offer an improvement in connectivity, spreading through hypermimesis. Demonstration of a behavior over the network allows billions to observe and imitate that behavior. Every improvement in our connectivity (text messaging and missed-call signalling are but two among many) also improves our ability to imitate one another, via the network. Showing is doing, and doing, showing.

30 – #SEEN

Everyone hates ticket inspectors. Standing just beside the turnstiles, they carefully examine every presented chit for validity, and if you somehow fail to pass muster, you’ll be called upon to explain yourself. You might end up with an expensive citation – as once happened to me, aboard a Sydney bus where I had meant to dip my ticket in the ticket machine twice, but, because I’d only dipped once, received a $110 fine. Ouch.

If you’re doing nothing wrong you have nothing to fear from a ticket inspector — or so the saying goes. Still, so many of us have little idea of whether we’re wholly in the right at any point in time (I had no idea I had to dip my ticket twice until I got fined) we tend to avoid close observation. No one is innocent. Everyone has something to hide. Hiding is the natural response; the ticket inspectors know this, placing themselves in difficult-to-avoid positions, monitoring the gates and doorways which shape the flow of bodies. As we pass through the checkpoint, and see an unlucky few people receiving citations, we feel a surge of sympathy – there but for the grace of God.

That sympathetic anguish easily bridges the gap of relevance to become a shared moment, a warning to all who might follow in your footsteps. My friend Matthew had just such an encounter while riding the tram in Melbourne, and posted it to Twitter:

Tram inspectors sighted on Collins st - at the Spencer st end.

That self-tagged ‘public service announcement’ reached quite a number of people – all 1544 of Matthew’s followers on Twitter, and the tens of thousands connected to them, if they chose to forward that information along. Matthew’s casual moment of sharing produced a much broader awareness of the activities of those ticket inspectors — whose power of surprise had been thwarted from the moment Matthew sent his update. Exposed, inspectors can be avoided. Knowing they lie in wait, people will choose different trams, exit through different gates, avoiding their critical gaze. All of this followed from a casual and almost insignificant act, sharing amplified by hyperconnectivity.

If those fines had been set terrifically high – thousands of dollars – Melbourne’s population of four million would soon be drowning in sightings of ticket inspectors. People would have sufficient motivation to keep those inspectors under very close surveillance. Every sighting would be shared, every movement becoming common knowledge.

Attention paid to something is commensurate with its perceived threat – or benefit. When a lot of attention gets paid to something, and those observations become broadly shared, it creates ‘situational awareness’. Everyone knows as much as needed to keep themselves out of trouble, because everyone is watching for everyone else.

When drug-sniffing dogs show up at Sydney’s rail stations, many people share warning messages – the fines and penalties for infractions being so severe. Protesters throughout the world use text messaging, Twitter and custom tools like Sukey to keep track of police movements against them. In the London riots of August 2011, BlackBerry Messenger was the favored communication tool of looters, who shared information about the most unpoliced areas to rob. Sharing has consequences, acting as a force in its own right, establishing a zone of influence where other powers, however potent, have difficulties.

In a world where everyone, hyperconnected, shares everything of interest with anyone who shares that interest, it has become impossible to operate in secret, beyond view. The possibility of invisibility has been supplanted by a new ‘age of omniscience’, where anyone can know anything that’s happening, anywhere, provided they generate sufficient interest in it. The secret police have been surrounded and exposed by a hyperconnected polity framing their every movement with a hailstorm of sharing. Everything once hidden is now shouted from the rooftops.

The surveillance state of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has mutated into the sousveillant mobs of the Arab Spring, using hyperconnectivity and sharing to build situational awareness and thereby defend themselves against the monopoly on force which is the prerogative of the state. Even when the technology of those networks falls away – as when former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shut down all of the nation’s mobile and Internet providers – the human networks forged in shared moments of sharing persist and strengthen. Technology amplifies and extends, but is not the essence of the network, which remains entirely human. People always find other ways to share what they know, from scrawled graffiti to repurposed billboards to chains of whispers. There is no censor, anywhere, when everyone at every point around the censor is fully prepared to share what the censor would withhold.

SUN Microsystems co-founder John Gilmore once quipped that ‘networks regard censorship as damage, and find a route around it’. The wires and radio waves of the network know nothing of censorship, but the people connected through them draw upon all of their resourcefulness to stay one step ahead of the censor, constantly probing and testing the limits of sharing . Wherever people are sufficiently connected, they will route around the censor, sharing everything of importance, whether media (to the frustration of copyright holders everywhere), secrets (the bane of governments), or anything else deemed taboo. Nothing can be kept out of reach in the digital realm; everything is copied and shared as widely as needed.

The age of omniscience confounds power and produces a conservative reaction which seeks to rein in the reach of the networks, but that could only be effective if the physical network were the source of the age of omniscience. It is not. We are. We have learned something new about how to share what we consider important: we distribute it so widely that it becomes a pervasive part of our awareness. Human behavior has changed, wrought by sharing amplified by hyperconnectivity, and in that change we discover a capacity for a universal awareness.

29 – #SCREEN

Checking my email one morning, I found two messages with very nearly the same subject lines: “FYI: Google Begins Testing Its Augmented Reality Glasses” reads one, while the other simply identifies itself as “Google Project Glass”. Both emails concern the search giant’s efforts to develop eyeglasses which project an overlaid data display, similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s view in the Terminator series of films. Both pointed to a YouTube video demonstrating how the product might work in the real world. After watching the video, I shared a link on my Twitter feed, so all 28,000 individuals following me now know about ‘Project Glass’. If they hadn’t heard about it already from somewhere else.

As they probably had.

My two friends emailing me reside on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Dan in Boston, Philippe in the Canary Islands. They do not know each other, and it seems unlikely they will ever meet. Yet both of them know me well enough to know that I’d like to read something about Project Glass. Years of sharing have forged the bonds of relationship around shared interests, which include an abiding interest in virtual reality technologies such as Google’s experiment in ‘heads-up-displays’. Neither of them needed to consider whether I’d be interested in such an article; they knew without thinking, because years of experience (23 in Dan’s case, 15 for Philippe) have taught them everything they need to know about me to make them confident enough to hit the ‘send’ button. Both do — within a few hours of one another.

Even if I had no access to the Web, if I didn’t obsessively check my news feeds for anything new and interesting, if I didn’t have nearly the eight thousand people I follow on Twitter feeding me things that interest them, I would have learned about Project Glass, and I would have learned about it within a few hours of it hitting the wires. I am too well connected to too many people who know my interests for something like this to pass me by. The news would enter the network of individuals who know the individuals I know, and would be forwarded along, like the baton in a relay race, making its way from hand to hand until it found its way to me. Which is precisely what happened – though the New York Times accelerated this process somewhat by publishing an article for its millions of readers. But should the Times have been silent, I would have heard through someone, somewhere, who had heard it from someone else, somewhere else, who heard it from someone they knew. And so on.

This is no less true for any one of us. We go out in search of the things that interest us, but it’s just as likely that those things will flow to us through our network of relationships built from shared moments around shared interests. We no longer need to seek out the news – news comes and finds us. Each of us sits at the center point of a vast network of individuals, every one of whom, constantly on the lookout for any new shiny thing to catch their eye, shares a stream of novelty.

If everything every one of the hundred-and-fifty we know well came to our immediate attention, that would be difficult to digest. If we tried to take in everything shared by the ten thousand who know well those we know well, we’d be overwhelmed. And if we tried to encompass everything of note to the million who know well the ten thousand who know well those we know well, we’d immediately immolate, vaporized by too much light.

We are already directly connected. We don’t need better connections. We need better filters, something to stand between us and the impossible intensity of observation that comes from four and a half billion minds sharing whatever tickles their fancy. We need to be able to screen the light, reduce the pressure, ease back, and in the dim find a space for thought.

Fortunately, we have one another. Humans make excellent mirrors, reflecting the lights shone by others, but we can also block this light, or share it very selectively. We hear a lot, but don’t repeat all of it all at once to any one person. We select and choose, directed by the memories of the relationships that have grown up over shared moments of sharing. Each shared moment has the potential to reinforce or weaken the bond of relationship, so we become very careful with our strongest relationships, working to keep them strong by refreshing them constantly with the best we can find. Everything not immediately relevant to that relationship is ignored, or saved for a time when it might prove relevant.

We rely on our relationships to provide us with everything they believe we might need to know. Those closest to us will forward something along because it has made its way past the filter they use to keep that relationship strong. We do the same, sharing ourselves judiciously in the quest to keep ourselves well-informed.

This parallel ‘human network’ has grown up alongside the broadcast and print media, uses them, but would experience surprisingly little disruption if every television channel went dark and every printing press stopped. We are the network now, and everything we need to know finds its way to us, precisely because we express our interest in it. Nothing more is required, no subscriptions or sophisticated sharing technologies. These accelerate the human network, and amplify it, but even if all the sharing tools we know and love simply vanished, our human network of sharing and filtering would prove sufficient for all of us to have as much awareness as desired of anything that we consider salient.

28 – #SIREN

A massive earthquake, far out to sea. The ocean floor shakes and spreads and ruptures, moving billions of litres of water. The trembling stops, and news spreads. Immediately people turn to their mobiles, reaching out to check in with their family and friends. Are they ok? Where are they? What just happened? Everyone knows an earthquake has come — but how big? Will there be another? Did anything come down? Is everyone alright?

Everyone asks these questions simultaneously.

The mobile network, overloaded, begins to stutter. Text messages fail. Calls cut off in mid-sentence. There is signal – you can see the bars on your mobile’s screen – but no connectivity. Not knowing, not being able to connect and learn, amplifies the sense of crisis. Something bad is happening. And you don’t even know how bad.

Seismologists set to work, read their graphs, make some calculations, and form a prediction. The seafloor has been sufficiently disturbed to produce a ‘harbour wave’ – in Japanese, tsunami – spreading out from the epicenter, across the Andaman Sea and Indian ocean. Supercomputers generate a visualization of the spread of this wave, based on the size of the temblor and the topology of the ocean floor. That gets published to a website, and is immediately copied and posted to Twitter, where it is shared a few hundred more times:

Tsunami Prediction Forecast

The international news networks, CNN and BBC and Al Jazeera, begin rolling coverage of the earthquake. They show the visualization, calling out the predicted landfall times of the tsunami, one after another. Aceh. Phuket. Andaman Islands.

It all has a horrible feeling of deja vu, because the sequence of events appears eerily similar to the Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami of 2004, when a magnitude 9.0 temblor produced a wave up to 15 meters high in some places, killing well over three hundred thousand people. People died in such numbers because no one knew the tsunami was coming. Even after the prediction had been made, there was no way to warn everyone in the tsunami’s path.

In 2004, little more than a billion people owned mobiles, and most of those lived in the developed world, not the Indian Ocean basin. Not yet connected, they could not be reached. They could not be warned.

A quarter of a billion seconds later, more than four and a half billion own mobiles, many of these new owners concentrated in India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka – precisely the countries most affected by the devastation of the last tsunami. Systems have been deployed, both to detect a tsunami, and to spread the alarm. Text messaging – originally developed to provide a channel to send emergency messages to many mobiles simultaneously – shares news of the predicted tsunami with great rapidity. Anyone who doesn’t get the message – or doesn’t have a mobile – learns of the prediction from someone who got the message.

The authorities issue an evacuation order. Everyone within a few meters of sea level must relocate to higher ground. There is no resistance to the command; memories of 2004 are too fresh. People begin a relatively orderly migration away from the shoreline, into the hills. Numerous signs – installed after the last tsunami – direct people toward specific evacuation zones. Someone uses their mobile to snap a photo of the evacuation in Phuket, posting it to Twitter, where it is quickly shared around:

No one knows if the tsunami will come; some earthquakes, lifting the earth up, produce monster waves, while others, shuffling the crust from side to side, do little more than stir up the water. Seismologists seem confident this earthquake belongs to the second (and less dangerous) category, but reports come in over Twitter, shared and shared again, sightings of vast areas of exposed seabed in Phuket. The drawing back of the sea is a sure sign of an incoming tsunami; everyone knows this. But reports are not proof, and the reports conflict. Eyewitnesses report one thing, government officials report another. Finally, someone shares a photo of a Phuket beach, taken with a mobile and uploaded to Twitter, then shared and shared and shared:

Sea recession in Phuket 11 April 2012

It looks as though the sea has vanished. But who can say? The debate rages, even as people continue making their way to the designated evacuation areas. Some of the evacuees use Twitter to share their own observations – how orderly it seems, how there is no real fear, just a sense of urgency.

Newscasters blithely report that – according to predictions – the tsunami should have already engulfed Aceh. They’re waiting for word, running the same few seconds of video from Aceh, taken in the moments following the earthquake: people running from buildings, standing in the street, waiting. But they’re not just waiting. At least half of them are talking on their mobiles, or staring down into them, connecting. Each using their own connectivity to build an awareness of everyone and everything of importance to them:

Phuket mall evacuation area

CNN International, waiting for news from Aceh, begins to show some of the photos people have shared on Twitter: evacuations, traffic jams, long lines of people on the move. “You see everyone in these pictures on their phones,” the newscaster adds. “They’re getting information about what to do.”

No great wave destroys Aceh again, nor Phuket, nor the Andaman islands. No buildings have come down, either in the initial quake, nor in the aftershock – so big that by itself it will be one of the biggest earthquakes of the year. Another tsunami warning follows the aftershock. People continue to wait, and share:

Evacuating and waiting in Phuket

Eventually, the all clear comes, and people climb down from their high places, breathing a sigh of relief. Was this just a mass fright, shared at the speed of light across a hyperconnected planet, or simply sensible behavior? No one died, but no one was in any real danger. Better to be safe than sorry, surely. Now that we are all connected, we know that others will share with us when we come into danger.

27 – #SPHERE

Once we connect, we begin to share. No one has to tell us to share ourselves: this is who we are. As we share with others, and they share with us, we learn more about them. We share something important to us, and they respond. Where that sharing triggers a memory, hope, or resonance, they respond positively, sharing something of their own experience with us, and that moment is reinforced. Where our sharing is meaningless – or worse, upsetting – we receive little encouragement, even silence. We remember this as well.

Each of these sharing moments become the shape of our relationships. Moments become memories, and eventually these memories acquire a life of their own, a rendering of the relationship into a miniature version of someone whom you’ve shared with and who has shared with you. This model grows more complete as these shared moments of sharing accumulate. From our point of view at the center of our personal universe, these shared moments compose that person – or at least all of that person we can ever know.

Everyone you know well, you know well precisely because of the accumulation of those sharing moments. Sharing is how we come to know one another. Our infant minds fill themselves up with mom and dad (mostly mom). Only gradually do we learn how to sort all of those other people out. Our circles of connections grow wider as our minds find the room to house a battalion of individuals. Without memory of the shared moments of sharing, all human contact would exist within an eternal present, a Memento-like state where no one could ever matter. Without memory, there is no relationship, and without sharing, there is no memory.

Each of our relationships grows from sharing, conforming to the boundaries established by that sharing, and tends to reinforce that we already know. Like shares with like. If we want to talk about the latest movies, we know whom to turn to. If we want to gripe about our employer, we know who will provide a sympathetic ear. And if we want to speculate about our own possibilities, we know who’s willing to join us on our flights of fancy. The ‘echo chamber’ of human culture — which recirculates the same truisms endlessly between like-minded individuals — did not begin with the Internet; it is as old as speech. We need to have our beliefs confirmed, fears soothed and secrets held. We focus upon the relationships which provide these.

We grow from knowing nothing about one another to knowing everything needed to breathe life into a simulacrum, a mind’s-eye version. We know a handful of people exceptionally well, sharing with them continuously. We know a larger number reasonably well, certainly enough to find some excuse to share something with them as desire or opportunity presents. We know enough people well enough to share something in common with them. These three levels of intimacy emerged from the familial and tribal bonds of our common heritage. We have always needed to share ourselves with those in the tribe: sharing means survival.

Our ability to share meaningfully defines the boundaries of the tribe, and limits it. Relationships nourish and tax in equal amounts. Time and attention and dedication keep our relationships fresh. Friends ‘drift apart’ when they forget to feed their relationship, eventually becoming estranged. We all know the odd feeling of meeting someone we once knew well, but now hardly know. The memory of relationship remains, like dried bones. This happens and needs to happen because we can not feed every relationship equally. Some people enter our lives to stay, some only drift through. We retain something as they depart, but most gets lost as we plow over the ground of that relationship to make room for another. We have limits, and can only sow our minds with so many simultaneous relations.

Estimates vary, but something between one hundred and fifty (the so-called ‘Dunbar Number’) and two hundred and fifty seems to be the upper limit on the number of active and well-fed relationships we can manage. This conforms to the size of tribal groupings known from the study of paleoanthropology and prehistory, as well as examinations of the hunter-gatherer cultures still with us today in Amazonia and New Guinea. Tribes make manifest the limits of memory and relation, never growing beyond the natural confines of our ability to hold everyone within our heads.

Ten thousand years away from the tribes, we carry these same boundaries in our modern minds, but whereas once everyone within a tribe held the same set of individuals in their heads, no one today has precisely the same array of relations. Even husbands and wives, in a lifetime together, maintain separate social spheres. We overlap and intersect, but instead of a single unit of blood and tribe, we span multitudes. Each of us knows one hundred and fifty others well, and each of those know one hundred and fifty well. Even with a fair bit of overlap, you and the people you know well know more than ten thousand people well. Those ten thousand know a million well. The million know a hundred million. That hundred million know everyone. This ‘six degrees of separation’ emerges from the relations of sharing and memory which once kept our horizons narrowly focused on the tribe, but which now (with a little mixing and connecting) spans the species.

Every one of us, everywhere, resides in the embrace of this ‘human network’ of relations built from shared moments of sharing. This network presents us the opportunity to share our experiences, or learn from the experiences of others. Above the broad physical network of communications – the wires and waves of Internet and mobile – an invisible but pervasive, highly mediated, but entirely human network reinforces our relationships with every act of sharing. The sphere of our relations has grown to encompass the whole world.

26 – #SQUARE

Monday afternoon in Australia is Sunday evening in America, and that can only mean one thing: file-sharing. Home Box Office airs their most popular shows on Sunday evenings, series like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and, on this particular evening, the premiere of the second series of Game of Thrones. Sitting at the end of a long chain of producers and distributors, Australians always endured long waits before a television series made it to air – if it made it at all. In a still-remembered incident, a commercial broadcaster yanked The West Wing off the air in the middle of its fourth series, leaving hundreds of thousands of loyal viewers up in the air.

At just that moment in time – the middle years of the 2000s – television audiences gained a power that had been tightly held by broadcasters – the ability to distribute a program. A broadcaster raises an antenna (or buys a cable channel), then has the right – a monopoly, really – to use that bandwidth as they see fit. If they want to fill the airwaves with home shopping, car crashes, or haute couture catwalks, that’s their privilege. Scarce, bandwidth had to be meted out carefully, with some lip service to the public interest – hence the public broadcasters – but inevitably creating an interlocking ecosystem of corruption, as broadcasters and public officials worked in lockstep to keep bandwidth a strictly limited resource. Audiences wanting to watch these programs accepted that broadcasters controlled the only mechanism to distribute them.

In 1999, changes in distribution methods emerged on college campuses throughout the United States. Shawn Fanning, a student at Boston’s Northeastern University, developed software that allowed his friends to share their music collections across the campus broadband network. Nicknamed ‘Napster’ after Fanning’s curls, the software quickly mushroomed in popularity, not just at Northeastern, but at every other American university offering high-speed Internet access.

Napster scanned a user’s hard drive, compiling a list of all music files, sending that list off to a central computer. When another user searched for a particular piece of music – perhaps the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony – they would be presented with a list of the different users who offered it as part of their music collection. A Napster user could then click on a particular user, and the track would be copied directly from the user who offered to share the music to the user requesting it. Napster’s superdistribution essentially converted the Internet into a gigantic disc drive, with the contents of any one computer available to every other computer. This ‘file-sharing’, as it became to be known, created a unified, global platform for the exchange of any type of media.

Napster did not last long. Although each individual user had purchased their music, the recording industry sued Napster, claiming it provided tools which enabled and encouraged widespread copyright violation. Unsurprisingly, the courts agreed, and Napster – that is, its centralized database – went dark in August 2000. Over fourteen million people used Napster in the days before it disappeared, each of whom experienced the exhilaration of a vast catalog of music available for their enjoyment. Although much of the file-sharing involved the most popular music of the day – Metallica, for example – many users shared recordings too rare or obscure to be widely available. Napster briefly became a treasure trove of audio gems, and sensitized a generation to the power of sharing.

Just days after Napster closed down, Gnutella launched. In contrast to Napster’s centralized – and vulnerable – design, Gnutella’s users searched one another’s computers directly, forming a ‘peer-to-peer network’, each asking all the others for music. Without a center to sue into oblivion, the recording industry took to suing individual file-sharers, an effort akin to boiling the sea. Since its introduction, peer-to-peer file-sharing has seen a steadily growing volume of content distributed, despite intense efforts to shut them down, disrupt or poison them.

Gnutella’s peer-to-peer networks had one weakness: they could not deal well with high demand for an item in short supply. If a user had a the only copy of a particularly prized song, they would be flooded with requests answered serially. If you were toward the front of the request queue, you’d be fine, but if you arrived after a few thousand others, you’d be waiting a very long time for that song. As people began to share television programs and movies – hundreds of times the size of songs – this problem became acute.

An ingenious solution to this problem came from bright programmer named Bram Cohen, who realized each copy of an item could be used as a source for subsequent copies. Let’s say, for example, I’d like to share a copy of this book. I have a copy machine which I can use to make copies, and as each person queues a request, I make a copy of the book, hand it to them, then start making a copy of the book for the next person in the queue. Lengthy, laborious — and the way Gnutella works.

With Cohen’s insight – known as BitTorrent – I would break the book up into individual pages, make a copy of each of these, and give one page to each person in the queue. Once each person has a page, I tell them each about one another. They also have copy machines, so they start to share furiously with one another, asking one another for copies of the pages they don’t have. In short order, everyone has a complete copy of the book.

A resource shared is a resource squared. With BitTorrent, sharing becomes a shared task, squaring the power of sharing, transforming superdistribution into hyperdistribution. Hyperdistribution means anyone, anywhere can share a file of any size with everyone, everywhere. The restrictions on bandwidth which effectively barred individuals from acting as broadcasters have fallen away.

Once the public learned of hyperdistribution, they began to self-distribute all sorts of media: music, movies, television, software, databases – anything that could be digitized was now freely and widely distributed — including episodes of television shows such as The West Wing and Game of Thrones. Freed from being the whipping-boys of television programmers, Australians became the most profligate downloaders of television on the planet. Audience-driven distribution – sharing via hyperdistribution – had supplanted television broadcasting.

25 – #SHARE

Silence is not an innate skill among human beings. Quite the opposite. From time out of mind, our success has depended upon our ability to share everything we know with anyone who might need to know it. On the African savanna, sharing indicated the presence of predators, a sighting of a favoured plant, or the signs of an approaching thunderstorm. The more effectively we shared as individuals, the more successfully the group could prepare for and respond to any challenges. Sharing means survival. The forces of natural selection have favoured sharing, so we find ourselves at the end of a long line of people who simply could not shut up. Blessed are those who share, for their numbers will increase.

Sharing as a species hearkens back to our beginnings, and ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: we can watch as sharing behaviors emerge in children. From our earliest moments, fresh from the womb, we begin to share ourselves. Babies move their arms and legs in syncopation to mother’s voice, dancing to her soothing tones. The infant freely offers up their internal, inchoate emotional state with smiles and gurgles and cries and screams, and continue sharing for the entire span of our lives.

Ask a small child to share a favoured toy — and prepare yourself for a battle of wills. Ask that same child to share the details of their day, then sit back as a stream-of-consciousness flow of associations, impressions and memories pours forth. We must be taught to share our things, yet must learn restraint when sharing our thoughts. Such is our need to speak our minds, keeping secrets requires almost superhuman reserves of willpower and fortitude.

In the beginning, we share with those most closely related to us: mother and father, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. As we grow into greater independence, capable of forging our own connections, we share with friends, neighbors, and classmates. By the time we reach adulthood, that circle of sharing extends out to colleagues, acquaintances, and the community.

Ten thousand years ago sharing reached its natural limits at the boundaries of tribal kinship. Five thousand years ago, the walls of the city would have framed our span. Five hundred years ago, we could write our thoughts into a book, send it to the printers, and see ourselves eventually shared throughout the world.

In the age of hyperconnectivity sharing becomes immediate, instantaneous, and universal. Everything we share always goes global, even if it only rarely becomes pervasive. We share ourselves freely, believing our sharing bound by the gravitational forces which have always dragged our thoughts back to earth, but everything has now become weightless photons, and travels without interruption at the speed of light. There is no barrier, anywhere — not even within ourselves.

The hyperconnected leak information, always sharing something. At a minimum we share our presence on the network, this being the first sin that leads to a multitude of transgressions, revelation by derivation: Presence becomes location. Location becomes movement. Movement becomes activity. Activity becomes intent. Everything, from barely anything at all.

Revelation is the common, persistent and continuous condition of the four-and-a-half-billion-and-counting hyperconnected. It is not that there is no privacy anymore; rather, the performance of any act becomes its broadcast, traced out in presence, and, once shared, drawn into a world of meanings attached to our actions. We neither surrendered our privacy nor had it taken away: privacy and connectivity are fundamentally oppositional. Satisfying both simultaneously has proven impossible.

Since we did not give up our privacy, we are not aware that it has vanished, except in those still somewhat rare but increasingly common moments when we become wholly visible to one another. We can generate a peculiar quality of light, where everyone is revealed, all the connections we assumed in innocence casting menacing shadows.

A telephone carrier knows where each of its subscribers are (or at least their mobiles) at every moment. Mobiles, aware of their location, share this information with various services, together with any other relevant information. This sharing expands our awareness. We can know when our friends approach, or a taxicab, or a potential employer. Sifting through this sharing, taking from it the bits most relevant to the present need, reveals the hidden. A recent example: Girls around Me.

Creepy on first sight (an obvious playground for stalkers) the deeper one looks, the more interesting it becomes. Why women? Why not footy fans, car hoons or budgerigar fanciers? Why not Jews? Or skinheads? Or anyone who in any way differs from me enough to present a threat? The shout that once alerted us to a predator on the African savannah has become an message on the screen of our smartphone.

No one need explicitly share themselves in order to be thus captured, qualified, filtered and portrayed. All becomes apparent from connections, associations, movements and activities. Like attracts like, and this reveals more than we would ever willingly provide. Connection is the only light required to reveal absolutely everything.

We find ourselves utterly exposed, sharing everything without hesitation and without volition. We are completely known but do not yet know this. We believe we encompass mystery, that something can be withheld. The space for secrets has grown miniscule, as every act, connected, shared and broadcast globally, tells others more about us than we dare admit to ourselves.

Believing ourselves shy, we nonetheless desire to know the minds of others, longing to learn who to connect with around the topics of importance to us, and who we must avoid in order to preserve ourselves. Threat and opportunity: human drives have changed little in ten thousand years, but now everyone hears our moments of crisis and triumph. These moments act as beacons, allowing us to find one another.