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.

20 – #LEGION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 – #LOOP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This never stops, nor ever slows.