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.

46 – #FORMULA

Everything is process.

Far from simple, connecting takes practice. We begin with our mother, echoing her every move, from the curve of a tongue to the crack of a smile. The first milestone on the path to a broader relation, imitation makes mirrors of us all. We see ourselves first as others, undifferentiated, encompassing all space. We relate to everything in innocence, because we are everything.

The unkindest cut of all comes when at last we divine that we are not the all and everlasting. There is a world beyond us, making demands, ignoring requests, and doing as it pleases. We struggle to keep up, tagging along, looking for every opportunity to establish a new connection or deepen an existing one. Those first attempts outside immediate family seem laughably bold, more summary of terms than declaration of affection. But somehow it works, and we learn enough from this success to impel us into a whole series of relations, each with their own peculiar qualities, with each further refining our technique.

By the time we get sent off to school, we have become masters of relation, capable of establishing ourselves within just a few minutes. As we grow into our adult relations – benefiting from the full integration of our neocortex’s social centres – these connections deepen into a form that remains forever open, eager, and assured: love. The quintessence of connection, love requires of us everything we have ever learned about relation.

Connecting does not conclude with love. We move beyond love into connections that come thick and fast. Where once it took us weeks to establish a connection, we master meet-and-greets, our technique so perfected our lives sometimes seem like a series of speed-dates. In adulthood we evolve from halting to assured to nonchalance, growing rich in relations.

Precisely the same can be said for our sharing. Children draw on their abbreviated experience, amplify that with imagination, and share this broadly, only gradually becoming more circumspect, as they temper their sharing in congruence with their growing skills in relating. You don’t share everything with everyone, but instead selectively offer up the choicest delights to those whose appetites agree with what you have to offer. Sharing grows from universal to a laser-like focus (thus the origin of the hipster, expertise so tightly drawn it approaches sharing everything about nothing at all) as we learn more about who responds well – or poorly – to what we share.

Sharing becomes a matter of how as much as whom. Some people want to chat, others want to read, still others prefer pictures, while some want animations. Tastes differ as widely as people, and we each eagerly search for the formula that makes what we have to share unique and uniquely valuable. We want to succeed in our sharing, have it taken up and adopted, and each become salesmen, peddling our wares, foot stuck in the door, utterly unavoidable.

Unless everything we share falls upon deaf ears, sharing means learning. We start as sponges, soaking up every bit of sharing that comes with every connection. Every connection is an opportunity for sharing, which means more learning; in our first years we greedily fill ourselves with everything on offer – language, culture, the way things work, the stories we tell. This process grows more formal as we grow older, not because it suits us better, but for the sake of history and tradition. We could continue exploring, like children, our entire lives. Instead, we sit in classrooms and solve problem sets and experience the pain of education, so paradoxically at odds with the joy of learning.

Neither masochists nor fools, we flee the classroom for a happier realm, ruled by desire. We learn by moving toward that which seduces us, and with luck can manage a lifetime of seduction, drifting from subject to subject – serial philanderers – or by digging deep, in a monogamous and consuming attachment to the material unearthed. Breadth and depth: both have their uses, and in either axis we learn more about how to learn more. We accelerate, optimize, and continuously improve.

All of this is true for us both as individuals and for the entire species. Humans at the advent of language did not immediately possess our facility with communication. That facility came with practice, lessons learned and shared, passed through the culture so broadly they now seem second nature rather than the products of experience. We communicate more effectively than those first-speakers because we have learned from them. Similarly, although Sumerians invented writing, we share more effectively because we have over five thousand years of written culture and behavior to draw upon. They had no template. We have all of history.

We also have all of humanity, hyperconnected, to draw upon. We connect, share and learn from the billions, just as they connect, share and learn from us. Every time we do this, we learn something more. Just as children learn from every relation, every one of our billions of relations leaves an imprint. These imprints happen in the medium of the hyperconnected human universe and, where they prove successful (or at least interesting) are hyperdistributed, shared until they reach everyone who shares a common interest. The lesson learned from a single connection among billions becomes pervasively known, second nature.

We are each learning from five billion others, simultaneously. Everything we are learning of importance becomes pervasive. The way we learn today differs significantly from the way we learned a half a billion seconds ago. We are learning how to learn from everyone else. In another half billion seconds we will all work from a vast, shared experience of hyperintelligence. We are already refining our processes, with each refinement amplifying our ability to learn from one another, increasing the potency of our billions of connections.

This is the precise formula of the process transforming us into Homo Nexus. Every behavior described in this process is ages old, reaching culmination in an amplification of unknown amplitude. Human intelligence is neither additive nor multiplicative, but something unpredictable and non-linear. We travel no known arc, heading toward something entirely unfamiliar. We have all the fuel we need, but no maps for these territories.

40 – #MUTINY

Strike!

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.

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.

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.
#publicserviceannouncement

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.