48 – #FABLE

You are abducted by aliens.

A flash of light, an instant of discontinuity, and suddenly you find yourself somewhere else: An alien spaceship. It’s mostly dark, except for the very bright lights shining in your eyes. You see movement, and glimpse a grey, furred arm, your eyes following that limb to a head looking like a bad cross between an Ewok and one of those strangely childlike creatures who come down to Earth at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Several heads, actually, all wide-eyed and blinking in wonderment.

The aliens seem confused by this state of affairs, and back away from you, creating a little hemi-circle a meter away, gesturing to one another with their forepaws, and making some odd clucking noises which presumably pass for speech where they come from. Things have not gone as planned, apparently, and you are not entirely expected. Or wanted.

Lovely. Well, at least you’re not dead, and the air seems breathable – though a bit close, and has the tang of ozone mixed in it – but now what? For a moment, no one moves at all. Then, in a flurry of activity, they gently hustle you over to a far corner, where there’s a large black disc on the floor. They back away again, and – at just the last moment – one of the aliens reaches out and pushes something into your hand.

Another discontinuity – and you’re somewhere else. But there’s obviously been a mistake: this is not where you were. It doesn’t look like home, its verdant, pleasant woods and bubbling streams. This looks – well, it could be Mars, or the surface of the Moon. You see only rock, sand and dust, stretching from beneath your feet to the low hills in the distance.

You are so screwed.

Well, maybe things aren’t so bad. You’re still alive and breathing. That’s something. The atmosphere – wherever you are – is Earthlike. Though a bit dry. You can feel some irritation in your nose, and a scratch at the back of your throat. You’re getting a bit thirsty. Wherever this is, it has a humidity of about five percent. You can sense that in your eyeballs.

You’re going to need some water soon. But where? There’s no sign of anything liquid as far as the eye can see. No clouds in the sky. What can you do? You could die without water, in this far-away place.

This is when you remember that you’re holding something. You raise it to your eyes, and turn it over, slowly. Thin and rectangular, black as night on both sides, one side matte and the other side mirrored. You can see your image in that mirror, as you frown in confusion. They gave you a polished rock?

Yet it looks vaguely familiar, like some weird gadget you might see one of your geekier friends caressing. It has no buttons, no obvious ‘On’ switch, but as you trace a fingertip across the mirrored surface, it comes to life, all colour and pattern, with a swirl of alien script and the stuttered whisper of a language you heard back on the ship.

After a few moments the light show ends, and the screen becomes a single image. It looks a lot like the scene before you. This gadget apparently has a camera rendering a live view of whatever it gets pointed at. Cute.

After a few moments you realize that the image isn’t a perfectly faithful representation. Just barely visible in one corner, a tiny blue arrow – little more than a point – blinks slowly. You set off in that direction – it’s better than standing still and doing nothing.

As you move toward the location of the blue arrow, the image becomes more dynamic. Meaningless alien glyphs scroll by, but the blue arrow grows bigger, until it indicates an area just ahead, where – to your delight – you find a pool of water.

Parched, you drink deep, enjoying the rejuvenation of hydration. Then you notice the low shrubs crowded against one side of the pool. They all have berries, big and ripe. But before you reach out, you take a peek through the gadget. Some of those berries have comfortable green outlines, while others get angry red blinking frames. Clearly, the gadget has an opinion about which of these berries can be safely eaten. The ‘safe’ berries taste good (perhaps a touch bitter), and the other berries, though inviting, you leave alone.

Thirst and appetite sated, you begin to wonder how you will ever get back home. Can you call someone with this gadget, and ask them for a ride?

*

You find yourself in a strange city. You have never been here before. You do not speak the language. You can not read the signs. The taxi driver, exasperated or distracted, has deposited you on the curb, without an intelligible word, and without any indication this is your intended destination.

You have no idea where you are.

Ok, you think, what to do? Taking your mobile from your pocket you’re surprised when the map application comes up blank – perhaps there aren’t enough GPS satellites visible from wherever you are to get signal lock. But you do still have mobile coverage, five full bars happily glowing away in one corner of the display.

Well, if you don’t know where you are, maybe someone else does. You snap a high-resolution photo of the street with your mobile, and post it to Twitter: “I’M LOST. CAN ANYONE TELL ME WHERE I AM?”

That message goes out to your followers, with the photo attached. None of them have any clue where you are, or what that strange writing is. Given the seriousness of your plea, they pass your tweet along to their followers. You’ve gone from a hundred people to ten thousand in an instant. One of them recognizes the script – it’s Thai – but not the street. Fortunately, that person has connections to quite a few Thai, so when they pass your message along, it get to someone who knows that Bangkok street quite well – their office sits just a few doors away from where you stand. That person helpfully responds directly to you, and you engage in rapid-fire conversation, as you orient yourself, and learn how to get to your hotel. (Which was just down a nearby soi, not that your taxi driver told you.)

*

These two fables speak to our lives today. While not strangers in a strange land, we rely on one another to avoid the bad and seek out the good, turning to one another because we can, and because we employ hyperconnectivity, finding exactly what we need just when we need it. Every one of us, in every moment, uses hyperconnectivity to bring us into hyperintelligence.

We are smarter than we once were because we have so many others informing us. Individually we have not become very much brighter during the last half billion seconds, but our actions no longer reflect the depth of our ignorance – unless we willingly turn away from the knowledge on offer. That turning away constitutes the new ignorance.

Hyperempowerment of the individual has an immediate, practical dimension. Each of us makes better decisions every time we put hyperintelligence to work. With each decision, we become more convinced of the value of hyperconnected hyperintelligence. Success breeds success: We repeat anything that has worked in the past to bring us success in the moment. A series of successes craft a pattern of behavior which soon becomes almost instinctual. We learn how to do better, and as that lesson works its way under our skin, we identify with our new capability to make the best possible decision in any situation. We become our hyperempowerment.

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.