Beijing apartment fire, tweeted live

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):

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:

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.

51 – #FAIL

Power is never an end in itself. Despite the perfectly malevolent quality of Orwell’s Inner Party, power is always a means to an end, and the end is always the same: survival. Power confers success on those who possess it, and therefore power and its possession have always been strongly selected for. We scramble for power, we fight for power, we wrestle over power, and, when absolutely required, we divide it.

Nothing about power has changed for a very long time – much longer than the lifetime of our species. All of the hominids play their own power games: chimpanzees use violence, bonobos employ sex. Power, hard and soft, remains the organizing principle of our relations, structuring them comprehensibly. We know who to look up to, and who to look down upon.

Those in power tend to remain in power because they use their power to that end. This strategy has proven so successful that most of us, most of the time, don’t bother to question the ‘natural’ order of things. Those on top stay on top, while underneath, powerless to resist, the rest do as they are told.

In the rare moments when this careful balance tips askew, when the mechanisms of power ossify or themselves become the cause of amplifying levels of disruption, power, naked and revealed, loses puissance. People stop believing, and power becomes impotence. The old order, overthrown, makes way for a new order, which quickly uses its new power to reinforce its own hold on power. Here’s the new boss, same as the old boss.

From the first time an aging alpha male Pierolapethicus fell before a young upstart, to the latest Machiavellian maneuvering in a corporate boardroom, it was ever thus: This is power. We all want it, and we all want to be free from it. Capability and restriction couple completely within power. We want to hold the whip, but to do so we must feel the lash. Of all the paradoxes of power, this is the most perplexing and essential: we beat ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

Bloodied, we become compliant. Beaten, we become abusers. The cycle propagates.

Hyperconnectivity has overwhelmed the linkages which transmit power. Now that anyone, anywhere can reach out to everyone, everywhere, instantly, power has become less powerful, relatively, than the power of the hyperconnected, hyperempowered individual. The powerful, surrounded by the hyperempowered, suddenly appear weak.

This threat to power has emerged so quickly – over the last half billion seconds – and so subtly that until quite recently it appeared as though the regimes of power which existed before the emergence of Homo Nexus would continue to maintain control. This is provably not the case – now that power has to contend with hyperempowerment – so power seeks any mechanism at hand to consolidate its control. Power seeks to disrupt hyperempowerment.

In the panicked search for solutions, power reaches for the censor as the first most reasonable mechanism of control. All posts monitored, all messages read, specific services blocked for reasons of ‘state security’. Censorship raises the pressure of informational asymmetry, creating the fertile conditions for the development of new techniques for connecting, sharing and learning.

Barred from sharing their political feelings on Facebook, Libyians used popular dating websites to covertly signal their revolutionary intent, using a dab of green eyeshadow, or a few fingers extended in an unusual position to indicate allegiances, arrange meetings, and coordinate the overthrow of their government.

Censorship does not work and can never work because it assumes the pressure of informational asymmetries can persist indefinitely. Instead, censorship ensnares power in an ever-expanding set of relations which must be managed and interrupted. Power is eventually overwhelmed by the Burden of Omniscience, the censor swept aside, and everything is known.

Informational asymmetries have a tendency to equalize, just as temperature differentials do in thermodynamics. This is the essence of Gilmore’s Law. Censorship is not simply bad politics, it is literally impossible. Attempts to censor end in the revelation (sometimes catastrophic) of the censored material, and meanwhile generate techniques which render additional attempts at censorship increasingly ineffective. The more you tighten your grip, the more slips through your fingers.

When power recognizes that it can not simply censor its way into preserving itself, it begins to flail around, looking for the ‘off switch’. Since hypermpowerment is the by-product of hyperconnectivity, removing hyperconnectivity should deprive individuals of their hyperempowerment.

It’s not that easy.

Hyperempowerment is not technological. Technology serves as a scaffolding for the emergence of a suite of new behaviors – hyperdistributed hypermimesis – and these behaviors persist even after the scaffolding is removed. What we now know about how to connect, share and learn has been facilitated by six billion mobile devices, but what we know that empowers us resides within us, not within the devices. Pulling the plug produces a moment of disorientation, followed by the immediate enactment of the hyperconnected behaviors of hyperempowerment by any means necessary, and through every medium at hand.

Hosni Mubarak cut off Internet access in a revolutionary Egypt, but the protests continued – and grew larger – as people translated their digital networks of relations into physical contacts. In a final, desperate act, he brought the mobile carriers down – crashing the Egyptian economy in the process – and only accelerated his own fall from power.

Our networks are an outward sign of an inward state. What we have learned and embodied over the last half billion seconds of hyperconnectivity can not be unlearned. We have an entirely new kit of behaviors – the gifts of hyperconnectivity – and these have broad application throughout our all of cultures. Our essence as the species that communicates has been transformed in its core, by hyperconnectivity.

Power worked well for Homo Sapiens. It remains to be seen if it works at all for Homo Nexus. Over the next billion seconds, as power at every level – from parent and child, to state and citizen – confronts this fundamental reordering of our oldest cultural artifacts (so old they predate artifice) – we will experience an accelerating series of attempts to censor. When censorship inevitably fails, what follows will be a panicked search for any way to disempower the hyperempowered.

Power must disrupt relations in order to survive. All such attempts are doomed to fail.

40 – #MUTINY


Brothers and sisters, band together for solidarity’s sake! Reject the attempts to let power control you! Turn your back on them and join us out on the lines! Strike!

Whether Wat Tyler, Mother Jones or Lech Walesa, the cry has always been the same, drawn from the beating heart of human misery, striking out against arrogance and pride, avarice and greed, force and brutality. We will not be moved. Stand united never be defeated. Together, we shall overcome. Someday.

Set against one another, the forces of labour and the power of capital forged the modern world, a dialectical stamping press producing an endless supply of conflicts all cast from the same mold: workers and owners; poor and rich; proletarians and capitalists.

If there had never been accumulations of capital, there would be no proletarian uprising. Hunter-gatherer societies have no property nor any property needs beyond the essentials of food for today and shelter for tonight. They organize around the normal lines of primate power structures – alphas dominant and betas subservient – but no power persists, generation upon generation. That innovation comes with civilization, when the enclosure of the city created the storehouse of wealth. Poverty is a product of the urban revolution – as are riches.

These two extremes exclude the middle: neither rich nor poor, neither invested nor immune, never the actor, only acted upon. A revolution rises and falls with the sympathies of the middle class, so each side seeks to capture the middle ground, with promises of power and wealth, or assurances of equality and freedom, all groundless, insubstantial, wrought from the insincerity of aspiration or the earnestness of self-delusion. It is not that the situation never changes, rather that it will not change for those who do not change themselves. The middle must rise up or sink down. Where it remains in place the tumult continues unresolved, wheeling around a fixed axis, generating heat but no light.

During the last half billion seconds, labor and capital remained in rough balance throughout the world: wherever capital exploited labor, reaction to that exploitation expressed itself in resistance, from the petit sabotage of casual vandalism through to the sit-in, the lock-out, and the general strike. These weapons cut both ways; the workers can blockade the factory, or the owners can lock the workers out. But always one or the other, acting or reacting, thrusting or blocking. Each seeks to get the middle onside, fighting another battle for hearts and minds, wanting a sudden end to the forever war.

The middle, always acted upon, now acts for itself.

Call a general strike on a public transport system, to prevent the white-collar workers from getting to their city desks and city jobs, and someone, somewhere writes an app that allows them to carpool with greater efficiency than ever before. The sting gone, poison sucked clean from the wound, the effort collapses.

Mistreat labor, then try to suppress news of this action: the Age of Omniscience guarantees that someone, somewhere will learn of it, sharing this news until it becomes pervasive knowledge. Someone, somewhere writes an app that allows everyone, everywhere to walk the aisles of any shopping mall, specifically highlighting the products of that mistreated labor, so consumers can easily avoid them. The power of capital to cover its own actions has vanished. All is known, all is taken into account, and any effort to suppress either truth or labor collapses.

Hyperintelligence means each of us lives within everything everyone else knows. This is not mere trivia — the population of British India at the fin de siecle, or the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. This is the concrete, the useful, the salient. The things that matter and the things that can be made to matter: as we know more our priorities change. Things that might never have concerned us in our ignorance will vex us endlessly in our understanding.

There comes a point when one knows too much. Ignorance is bliss; it’s opposite is the moment when the interconnectedness of one’s knowing and one’s actions results in a liberation from habit and expectation, a mutiny from the mundane, crying non serviam to the quotidian.

Everything gives you cancer; everyone is corrupt; everything is corruption. It was ever thus, and will ever be, failure without end. This moment of utter damnation is the price of omniscience; to know everything is to bear witness to the sins of the world.

But equally this looms as the moment of utter revelation, and in that light all things become possible. Nothing is certain, not even the past. There is no pattern, only inclination, and we can choose to incline ourselves toward the parts of one another which affirm and strengthen. The darkness comes only from knowing and keeping our eyes tightly closed.

There is no top, no bottom, nor any middle, anywhere. There is no power, nor force. It is all finally in our heads, all of it: not just the psychological projections of fantasy and forethought, but the collected knowledge and experience of everyone, everywhere.

We are all unspeakably rich; we are all in fetters and rags. We are each of these things simultaneously, and this is why our knowing pains us. We are free, but conscious of our enslavement; we are powerless, yet swollen with capability. We confuse ourselves because we have always thought ourselves one-or-the-other, but have suddenly achieved both, or rather, gained all.

This is the triumph of the milieu, the accelerating middle which sweeps both top and bottom into its current and carries everything in its path toward some common destiny. It is not the end of difference, but its quintessence, because each point of difference is held in common. Our minds reject this as inconceivable; we find the mutiny even within ourselves. But we can not turn our back on the way the world now works. We can not divorce ourselves from hyperintelligence. It has become the spirit of the world, the hammer to our anvil.

37 – #MASTER

Apartment hunting can be tortuous. In a seller’s market – New York, Sydney, Hong Kong – prospective tenants endure all sorts of difficulties to secure the right flat at the right price in the right location. All of this happens in the dark. Very little information about rents has ever been publicly available. You won’t know a particular landlord is gouging you simply because he knows you don’t know any better. The landlord holds all the cards: not just the keys to the property, but the rental history of that property, rents for similar properties, maintenance costs for the property, and so forth. That information helps the landlord operate from a position of maximum advantage in the transaction, converting information into power.

This informational asymmetry means the landlord always gets the better deal: he who knows most wins, and keeps winning. Each win adds momentum and capability, gradually cementing the winner into a fixed position of dominance in the relationship. Information confers power, and power amplifies the ability to gather information, a feedback that, if unchecked, leads to domination.

The world is broadly composed of instances where information has concretized into the forms of power. Sumer springs forth from the information inscribed on countless clay tablets; Rome ran on papyrus until Egypt left its sphere of influence, whereupon, unable to manage its information flows, it collapsed; every modern state seeks to sequester the flows of information, through censorship, military classification, or taboo. East Germany’s Stazi created a nation that spied upon itself, submitting this information to an authority that used every last scrap of it to maintain its dominance.

The grand dictatorships of state power and the petty dictatorships of landlords both draw their sustenance from information asymmetry, arbitrageurs of the truth. Where the facts can be withheld, this gamesmanship will inevitably take root and quickly comes to dominate all interactions. In the kingdom of the informationally blind, the well-informed is king.

Where asymmetries exist, pressure builds to equalize them. Vast asymmetries – such as the darkest secrets of state – consequently necessitate thick walls of law, force and culture to keep the outside out and the inside in. The existence of a wall implies something to defend, so attacks always occur, attempts to release the informational pressure stored within. The first strikes, crude clawings at the goal, nearly always fail, but each failure feeds back into a process of assault continuing unabated and undeterred for as long as the wall persists. Eventually the attack succeeds, the wall comes down, and its contents spill forth. Information, like energy, has entropy, and broad distribution in equilibrium is easier to maintain than tightly-held concentrations.

There is now another way.

Rather than penetrating the chamber of secrets, the chamber can be surrounded with information of equal salience and equivalent or even greater density. Instead of one bright spot in a sea of darkness, everything is illuminated. The asymmetry vanishes because it is no longer singular, nothing special. It might even reverse, as the environment surrounding the wall becomes more dense with information than anything held within.

Renters in New York now share information about the rents they pay using RentHackr. The website generates a map of each entry (together with its location and date) so that other renters can compare equivalent prices in a particular neighborhood, building – perhaps even the apartment itself, if the previous tenant submitted information to RentHackr. The prospective tenant now knows as much about prices for a given unit as the landlord does – probably even more, since RentHackr’s thousands of contributors offer up a much broader range of experiences and information than any single landlord would have opportunity to encounter.

This shift has been as sudden as it has been complete. Landlords have always bargained from a position of power borne from informational asymmetry. So have governments, banks, and nearly every other organization or relation that operates with power. All of those carefully protected islands of knowledge become indistinguishable and unimportant as the ocean recedes.

The sharing of specific knowledge domains by communities of hyperconnected individuals is a revolutionary act. It overturns power structures reinforced by informational asymmetry without firing a shot, staging a strike, or even raising one’s voice. Sharing is the antithesis of violence, yet it yields greater results than bombs.

We are just coming into an understanding of the relation between sharing, knowing and power. The massive realignment of human relations and institutions that is one key attribute of the next billion seconds begins with the sudden vanishing of all power structures, everywhere, as the energy which fed them loses its potential. In an information-rich world, information is not, in itself, power. Power has migrated elsewhere, and all those who use power will be forced to migrate with it, into lands both distant and foreign.

The collapse of any given informational asymmetries has been driven more by whim and luck than any intention; they occur randomly and serendipitously, but with each collapse something is learned of the conditions which precipitated that collapse, information hyperdistributed and imitated when the opportunity arises. Each instance of collapse carries with it everything learned to this point, and thereafter carries everything learned in the current instance.

These moments of collapse consequently have become more frequent and more pronounced. Within this half billion seconds they will transition from the exception to the norm, until no power structure of any consequence persists in its antique and redundant form. Everything once believed concrete is suddenly seen to be a castle made of sand. As this perception becomes pervasive, everything connected with power becomes provisional. Our hierarchical relations, which tell us our place in the order, are being supplanted by relations of affiliation, which tell us who we are by whom we know. Since this is already the way the world actually works, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock.

We no longer have the comforts (and terrors) of power to guide us. There are no lords and no masters, no governor anywhere. But this is not utopia nor mere anarchy. There will still be power, but differently constituted, drawn not from secrets and silence, but emerging as a quality of connecting and sharing.

33 – #SHADOW

Who are you? What do you want?

Everywhere we go, these questions come to us, surrounding us like a magnetic field, our hyperconnected movements creating lines of force, as the world aligns to our presence, like so many iron filings. It makes no matter how we answer either of these challenges, for our actions betray us completely. We make a dent in the world just by observing it. Presence alone is entirely enough.

Like finds like. You can lie about your name or age or race or nationality or political persuasion or sexual preference or culinary taste or fashion peccadillo, but incongruent with your actions, that falsehood will be ignored, thrown out as noise amongst the growing body of data. Queers know queers. Liberals know liberals. Foodies know foodies. Jews know Jews. Our network of relationships tells anyone who cares to look everything they would ever need to know about who we are. Things we would never willingly reveal to another human being resolve into unmistakable clarity, because our relations speak louder than our declarations.

This information, captured and recorded, becomes the foundation for a simulacrum of the self. Who we know is who we are, so relationship provides the key that answers all other questions. We can not help this, nor can we prevent it; wired to communicate, compelled to share, we define ourselves in greater detail with each act of sharing.

Those who watch – and they are watching – know more about us than we do about ourselves, for cool and dispassionate, they do not ignore the uncomfortable truths that our unconscious elbows aside. Warts and all, they see us as we are, in our relations and actions. Their simulacra, more honest than we ourselves can choose to be, takes on a life of its own, because it is more faithful to reality. Shadow overwhelms substance.

Who are you? What do you want? Someone else knows. Someone else cares because possession of your simulacrum turns you into a puppet of sorts. Where you are known, your actions can be predicted and your needs met. At the scale of the individual, this is basic social grace. Hyperconnected, this becomes a force in its own right, a sort of governance that is not outward directed, nor democratic, but seeks to envelop and control through a perfect knowledge of appetites and fears.

Everything that Edward Bernays began comes to its culmination in Facebook. Where crowd psychology gave birth to modern public relations, Facebook amplifies and inverts the process, disaggregating the crowd into individual simulacra, each such a faithful representation that responses can be known with perfect accuracy. Behavioral targeting isn’t a side-effect of the digitalization of our network of relations; it is the entire point.

Nor is there any escape in withdrawal. Delete your Facebook profile and leave other traces, just as distinct, in Twitter and text messages. All of our communication betrays us. All of it flows through Facebook and Google, either through search requests and the constant indexing of web pages, or the ubiquitous ‘like’ buttons, which serve as the smiling outposts of a global force of secret police.

The Stasi never had it so good.

Carefully tended, our simulacra, like hungry ghosts, have endless needs. They require food, clothing, shelter, the gadgets and accoutrements of hyperconnectivity, and endless entertainment. We act, and they express our needs to those who seek to satisfy them. We never get precisely what we want, but rather, what they care to offer. Caged, we are not allowed to see the world as it is, instead provided a narrow view that fulfills the commercial imperatives of those who have incarcerated our shadows. Nailed down and boxed in, we lose the freedom to move.

This is the paradox of cyberspace, the high price of sharing: the more we are known, the less free we become. This unbounded environment for human expression has become the perfect cudgel, a velvet glove covering an adamantine fist.

That shadow of our collective selves has many of the same qualities of our individual simulacra: it has both appetites and fears, centering on the same phantom: control. With a population of billions of hyperconnected simulacra, a type of practical psychohistory becomes possible, a dream beyond the grasp of Bernays, but well within reach of Zuckerberg. The masses can be driven to buy, driven to fear, driven to believe. It can all be done far more dependably – on an individual basis – simply by redecorating the bars on the cage.

Imagine a smoker who, under the influence of friends, decides to quit – then faces a deluge of images of attractive individuals, smoking? Or an obese person, confronted by an unending vision of delicious food? Consider the believer, losing faith, reminded constantly of the pain of hellfire? This is all possible, and this is all happening right now, if with less obvious maliciousness – the goal generally being to get people to consume something. When it acquires a political dimension – as it has in Syria and Iran – it becomes something more obviously repugnant, though no different in essential nature.

We must connect and share. It is who we are. Yet these profoundly human acts open us to dangers we find ourselves unprepared for. Not very long ago, our simulacra existed only in one another’s heads. Today they sit in databases, the private province of those driven to control, hungry ghosts tending feedlots of hungry ghosts. We can not withdraw without sacrificing our essential nature, but engagement inevitably leads to entrapment.

Gilmore’s Law points the way forward: no censor can withstand hyperconnectivity. But our hyperconnectivity itself creates the conditions for this censorship. To be connected is to be observed, and this feeds the simulacra. We appear to be trapped in a loop of our own making, products of a process of accelerated nature, dragged down to earth by our shadows.