What does the future hold? Sown today, the seeds of the future show us what tomorrow brings.
For example, consider a request recently issued by Matt (@ponk):
Dear Internet, I need somebody who speaks Welsh fluently to check something for me! Retweet to help?
— Matt (@ponk) July 9, 2012
Carried from person to person, each forwarding it along into their own connections, this plea reached tens of thousands of people within a few hours, some of them Welsh-speakers, and eager to help. Matt quickly got flooded in offers of assistance, finally lamenting, “I wish there was some way to tell everyone I’ve received the help I asked for.” Thanks travel more slowly, and less broadly, than requests for help. Matt will find people responding to his request for some weeks to come, as it slowly diffuses out to hyperconnected humanity.
Even just a few years ago, with no way to reach out and reach everyone with our requests, we didn’t even think in these terms. We settled for what we had at hand, and made the best of it. Now we bring the best the planet has to offer to everything we do. Yet we do this inconsistently because we do not remember that in every moment we have billions with us. Only when it occurs to us do we fall back on our line of supply – fortified with hyperconnectivity, hyperdistribution and hyperintelligence transformed into hyperempowerment – acting with unprecedented strength. Like Matt, we frequently seem amazed and almost overwhelmed by our own capabilities.
In other ways, we take these new capabilities entirely for granted.
A fire in an apartment block in Beijing gets tweeted (with an accompanying dramatic photo) almost as soon as smoke pours from the building. Anyone listening for news from Beijing would see this photo, despite the fact that Twitter is banned in China, pervasively censored within an autocratic and ever-vigilant state. Somehow the news leaks out from behind the ‘Great Firewall’, where, almost immediately, it gets picked up by and shared with everyone who cares about Beijing. This happens not over days, but within minutes.
Hyperconnectivity has given us eyes everywhere, seeing things when others see them. We no longer wait for wire services or newspapers to tell us what’s happening. In an unremarked upon reversal, we now tell them. We pass along the important items that merit broader coverage. We are the news, but somehow this fact is not news. Everything looks much as it did half a billion seconds ago, even though everything now works quite differently.
Having eyes everywhere does change some things, as my friend Rod (@rod3000) indicates with this tweet:
Hey @ACTPolicing, can you have a word to one of your P-plate drivers, rego YHY-43P driving through Rozelle shouting “run faggot”?
— Rod McGuinness (@rod3000) July 9, 2012
In a hyperconnected culture, the near impossibility of anonymity of any public act gives us all pause. Someone, somewhere has the capacity to capture and share our actions. Anything done in secret will be broadcast, if it incites enough interest. Rod runs every day – and has undoubtedly endured his share of taunts over the years – but only recently realized he could share those taunts with others – and direct his observations to the police department monitoring probationary ‘P-plate’ drivers.
Rod needn’t have beamed the message to the authorities; his message would have found its way there, eventually, forwarded along by someone who took offense at the act. That’s one scenario, but it’s easy to imagine things spinning slightly out-of-control: his message could have inspired some of the public to action, a hyperochlocracy that could quickly translate a license plate into an owner, an owner into a driver, and a driver into a target of derision.
The boundaries of acceptable public behavior have always been arbitrated by the mob. Go too far and the mob will shun you, taunt you, perhaps even kill you. The mob serves as the mindless enforcer of the public will.
In the United Arab Emirates, the public – which favors conservative Islamic dress, up to and including the whole-body-covering abaya – Emiratis have been confronted by a deluge of foreigners (only 10% of the population of the UAE are native-born) with very different customs of dress and personal modesty. Asma al-Muhairi, a young Emirati, took it upon herself to begin a campaign to bring modesty back to the public places – malls, parks, beaches and restaurants. From the Twitter account @UAEDressCode, al-Muhairi connects to and works with other Emiratis to bring modest dress back into the public sphere.
The account has become a gathering place for people to connect, share, learn from one another, then transform that learning into doing, eventually catching the attention of the UAE’s Federal National Council, which pledged stronger measures to enforce the existing dress codes. Should hyperochlocracy successfully pressure UAE’s foreign-born population into conservative public dress, it will be a victory for the hyperconnected. But even if the campaign fails, everyone who participated in it has learned from their experience, and will put that experience to work the next time they need it.
Although we might imagine hyperochlocracy and hyperpolitics serve only radical ends, they can equally serve as the enforcers of conservative values. Wherever the mob finds an organizing principle, hyperochlocracies emerge. As we become more connected, we find ourselves increasingly confronted by the actions of others, inhabiting a state of continuous agitation (bordering, at times, on outrage), and as a result giving birth to an unending series of hyperochlocracies. Paradoxically, when we try to turn our backs on the future, we instinctively reach for the tools the future has provided.
In a 2003 interview with THE ECONOMIST, science fiction writer William Gibson (who coined the term ‘cyberspace’) quipped, ‘The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ Tomorrow has already arrived. The technologies have been deployed. We are all already hyperconnected — if we spend the next half billion seconds bringing the remaining two billion into hyperconnectivity, that’s little more than a denouement, almost an afterthought. The hard work is done.
Buzzing with ideas, each of us shares everything of importance, learning more and more every day about how to thrive in a hyperconnected world. Everything we learn we pass along, so we are learning very quickly now. Every day brings something new. The future is already here, and we hold the instrument of its distribution in our hands. Today. We no longer need to wait until tomorrow.