54 – #DISRUPT

A curious device has begun to appear at civil disturbances. Small enough that it can be worn on the body, this ‘IMSI catcher’ electronically lures all nearby mobiles into connecting to it. Once connected, those mobiles enter a negotiation with the device, which asks them first for their number, then – if they would be so kind – to stop using encryption on their messages. So that those messages can be read by anyone.

The gadget has a two-fold purpose. First, when mobiles connect to it, they can not connect to the broader mobile network. They become nearly pointless slabs of silicon, glass and plastic, unable to communicate with the world beyond. Second, those connected mobiles render up the contents of all of their outgoing communication – text messages, data transmissions, voice calls. The gadget builds the social graphs of the people participating in the disturbance, as they fruitlessly try to connect.

Drop it anywhere, in any crowd, and the IMSI catcher will generate the map needed to disrupt the relations in any community, producing results torture can not. This has made these devices broadly popular, for they solve a vexing problem in the age of hyperconnectivity: how do you disrupt an emerging hyperpower? The state will use every technique at its disposal to maintain control. As witnessed in in Egypt, any sufficiently desperate state will even disrupt its own networks to thwart hyperempowerment.

The existence of an IMSI catcher means the war of power against the hyperempowered has already begun. One thwarts the other’s hyperconnectivity, while the other thwarts the thwarting.

Indian ISPs, forced to block all BitTorrent websites – until a court order reversed the ruling – found themselves, after the judgement had been reversed, receiving numerous requests to have specific content removed from their sites. Anonymous broke into the server of the firm issuing these requests, then altered the request to something less serious, and much more embarrassing. The long arm of control – commercial censorship (disguised as copyright), backed by the state – reached out to disrupt hyperdistribution, pulling back a bloodied stump.

Similarly, should these IMSI catchers prove successful, some clever people will be compelled to invent an ‘IMSI catcher catcher’. This anti-gadget would advertise itself over the appropriate radio channels identifying itself as hundreds or even thousands of fake mobiles, keeping the IMSI catcher busy and overwhelmed with meaningless or misleading transmissions. With the IMSI catcher caught in the snare of the anti-gadget, protesters would remain free to hyperconnect into hyperempowerment.

Hyperempowerment can be blocked, temporarily, but every block produces a stronger countervailing force: Gilmore’s Law in practice. This is the contour of the next billion seconds, a succession of blocks and disruptions, as every institution with any power confronts hyperempowerment and struggles to contain it.

There is no lock anywhere, nor any wall, law, or taboo, that will not be broken. Anything that remains will survive at the sufferance of the hyperempowered, because it pleases them. There is no question of whether this will happen – it is already happening. The only question remaining for us concerns how we choose to greet this transformation of our capabilities, our quantum leap into hyperempowerment.

As the generation caught in the midst of this transition from unconnected to hyperconnected, our actions have a disproportionate influence on the generations following us. The things we do today shape the world to come. We are in the process of articulating a new language, and it falls to us to form the first words. These words make the world that all who follow us will inhabit, and though they will utter their own new words, they will inevitably draw from the language we passed down to them. They will build upon what we are now creating anew.

We must accept that each word we utter will bring something down. It sounds pleasingly puissant to possess that kind of power, but we who have grown up with the presumptions of power are not well-constituted to live without it. Much that others did for us we need to do for ourselves. Much that we took for granted no longer holds true. As power falls, we increasingly find ourselves caught out by the delusions of power, things we believed eternally true, but which are no longer.

Neither can we be so afraid of our Shaivite aspect that we keep silent for fear of disrupting ourselves. If we do not do it, billions of others, who have different aims – some in concert with ours, others in conflict – will. On a hyperconnected planet, there is no place to drop out, no hermitage that puts us beyond the reach of those touched by hyperconnectivity and transformed by hyperempowerment. We can choose to remain silent, we can choose not to listen, but neither posture will prevent or even slow this process.

Thus far this has been an unconscious revolution. It has happened to us, but not with us. That is changing. We are becoming aware of ourselves, in our vast and potent billions. Every day we connect, share, and learn about ourselves, and all of this changes the scope of possibilities for doing. Some of this doing reflects back upon us; it is not only that we can do, but that we know we can do.

Can we sit between delight and terror, balanced carefully, neither feeding adolescent fantasies of universal apocalypse, nor the magical thinking that our acts alone (or our withdrawal from the world) could prevent it?

Should we try to do too much for ourselves, at the detriment to others, they will rise to block us, just as, situation reversed, we will rise to block them. We have great power without great freedom. Our scope for action has narrowed in concert with the force we bring to our acts, a paradox that will seem completely natural a billion seconds from now, but one which makes us feel strangely confined.

Just as everything opens up, we feel the walls of our cage. We want to knock down those walls – while we are kicking down so many others – only to learn that we are the walls. The billions of us – Homo Nexus – have come together in an unexpected form. Like infants struggling against our limits, we have a lot to learn about the bounds of the possible.

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.

12 – #WALL

Language allows us to share what we observe within the world: the passing of the seasons, the behaviors of animals, the stars in the skies above. Over thousands of years, a study of grasses led to an understanding of the relationship between seed and plant. Seeds could be sown, multiplying the number of plants. The Agricultural Revolution has its roots in language and the ability it confers upon us to transmit our experience and experiments.

Agriculture provides the caloric foundation populations far denser than the widely-disbursed hunter-gatherer tribes roaming the continents. People could be fed, but could they live together in vast groups? We have fixed physical limits for the number of individuals we can hold within our minds; for nearly two hundred thousand years, this kept the upper boundary of human groupings below the critical value of one hundred and fifty. Beyond that, you weren’t in one another’s heads – and this, for any primate, is an unacceptable state of affairs. We instinctively distrust strangers. Xenophobia may be shameful, but it is also perfectly natural, the visible echo of the limits of our ability to know others.

How could cities ever come to be? We find it nearly impossible and literally inconceivable to tolerate the presence of unknown others. There must have been an internal, psychological conflict, as we confronted our fear of the other. Yet we inexorably drew together, compelled by something so powerful it overwhelmed our innate reticence.

Before language we knew only what we carried within ourselves. Once we acquired the ability to talk, we knew everything worth telling to anyone within the tribe. Language gave us a weak group-mind, broadening of our knowing, producing an amplification of capabilities, propelling us into an understanding of the world wrought in stories and myths. The linguistic tribe triumphed, and established a precedent: coming together in a shared mindspace conferred obvious benefits.

These benefits acted as the lure to draw us out of our tribal selves and into the new social configuration of the city. The division of labour that is a defining characteristic of urbanization trades intimacy for capability, a bargain that leaves us vastly more powerful and consequently more isolated. The city has always been anonymous, precisely because it transcends our ability to know everyone within it. In reaction, we withdraw within ourselves and draw together within tight groupings of consanguinity. We put up a wall, both within ourselves, and around our families.

The city is defined by the wall. Both defensive technology and psychological boundary, the city wall separates the elect from the exiled, echoing of the close familiarity of the tribe, but at a greater scale. People gathered within the wall share an identity as residents of the polis, and the wall stands as the visible marker of their affiliation. Within those walls, overwhelmed individuals found sanctuary and meaning as they turned to something outside the province of their personal and intimate experience. The city-dweller defines himself in relation to the culture of the city.

This culture brings with it capacities impossible for and inconceivable to the tribe. Tribes can wage war, but cities raise armies – vast and highly organized – to raze other cities. The properties of the army portray, in miniature, the defining characteristics of the city, with its faceless anonymity, division of labor and amplification of individual capability.

With thousands of inhabitants, the city represented a wealth of human experience too great for any single person to apprehend. Each member of the tribe can know the important stories of their tribe, but there are a million stories in the city. Our capacious memories can not contain them. Where stories are lost, or forgotten, some of the meaning of – and justification for – the city disappears. In order to preserve itself, and maximize its own advantage, the city had to create its own form of language, one that could facilitate the sharing of minds beyond our individual capacity to encompass the stories told by others.

From this pressure to cohere, language concretized into writing. Although the earliest texts from Sumer are scribes’ accounts (here accuracy perfectly maps onto success) the first narrative work – the oldest written story – the Epic of Gilgamesh, both begins and ends with a meditation on the walls of the city of Uruk:

Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around,
examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly.
Is not even the core of the structure made of kiln-fired brick,
and did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans?
One league city, one league palm gardens,
one league lowlands, the open area of the Ishtar Temple,
three leagues and the open area of Uruk the wall encloses.

The story of an urbanized humanity is the story of walls, and a walled-in humanity, stewing in its own stories and experiences, people who need writing to make the experience of the city something commonly accessible. Writing becomes the speech of the city, the mechanism through which each generation passes along what it has learned. Writing is the vehicle of city culture, defining the psychological walls which separate residents from foreigners. Without writing, there can be no law. Tribes function on lines of custom and tradition, but cities have edicts, ukases, and commandments. The Decalogue are specifically indicated to have been written by the hand of God. The law may be ‘written on men’s hearts’, but it is always written.

One of the few surviving fragments attributed to the Presocratic philospher Heraclitus goes, “The people should fight for the Law as if for their city-wall.” The law of the city is the culture of the city, the internal representation of belonging. Just as the walls protect from invasion, the law protects against a cultural disintegration. Laws hold our innate xenophobia in check, bound by cultural prohibitions, compelling us to accept those we do not know, so long as they adhere to the same rules.

We wage a constant war within ourselves. Our oldest parts want to be clannish, insular, and intensely xenophobic. That’s what we’re adapted to. That’s what natural selection fitted us for. The newest parts of us realize real benefits from accumulations of humanity too big to get our heads around. The division of labor associated with cities allows for intensive human productivity, hence larger and more successful human populations.

The city is the real hub of human progress; more than any technology, it is our ability to congregate together in vast numbers, sharing what we know, that has propelled us into modernity.

 

 

 

11- #WORD

In the beginning is the word.

Impossible to conceive of a time before language, because to conceive thoughts requires the articulation of language, we can not project ourselves backward into the minds of forbears before speech. Even where we can not talk, every gesture we make and every grunt we sound has been shaped by a mind that thinks in words.

Creatures of language, we both master and become captive to the flow of ideas that spring forth from our mouths. The fish swims, the bird flies, and the human speaks. We do not know how this happened, nor when, though perhaps we now know where — on the plains of southern Africa. We have never asked why we speak. The answer has always been obvious.

The pressures of survival drive all living things to explore the full range of their innate capabilities. For human beings, survival has always been a social skill, thriving by working together. Across tens of millions of years we watched one another closely, and used that observation to get into each other’s heads. That was powerful – because we were smart. As we grew more social, we learned to wage war and raise children far more effectively.

We had always grunted, signaling with our voices – just as all primates do. Within the depths of our minds, already hypertrophied from managing our social relationships, we expanded this repertoire, modulating and clarifying these sounds. Each refinement made it possible to share our own mental state more concisely and completely than ever before. The drive to speech is its own reward: the more clearly you can make yourself understood, the more closely you can work together, and the more successful you will be as a group. Even a little bit of speech improves things so much that the advantages of a fully-developed language follow along immediately.

Ontogeny recapitulates philology.” The transition from simple words – perhaps something close to ‘baby talk’ – into the full, and infinitely flexible creative tool we use as our principal means of communication, likely took less than a billion seconds.

Within a few generations we had become inseparable from our linguistic skills. Speech had become synonymous with being human, because it conferred upon us far greater depth in our social relations, now populated not just with feelings and actions, but with the thoughts of others. Speech allows us to know the minds of those around us; though we don’t equate speech with telepathy, those very first linguistic humans wouldn’t have recognized any difference. Speech is the first technology of connection, bringing minds together, and improving the performance of both the individual and the tribe.

With language comes the capability for a distributed coordination: “Go there and do that.” Working together no longer necessitates working in close quarters. There is safety in numbers, but there is another kind of strength in the distributed intelligence of a tribe verbally coordinating their activities in pursuit of a specific goal. Much of that strategic capability would have been applied to martial pursuits, crafting a battle plan wrought in words. The endless chatter of women, seemingly so casual and frivolous, serves to continuously reinforce the web of social relationships, and thereby ensuring that these women and their children will have resources to draw upon.

It is impossible to imagine a wordless myth. Chimpanzees may dance about in a thunderstorm, but without words, this act remains a reflection of the present, and can never be a frame around the past, nor a presentiment of the future. Words are the vehicles for myth. “In the beginning was the word.” As soon as we learned to speak, we began to tell stories of origin, of great deeds, of the eventual and the eternal. We learned these stories, passing them down the generations.

Most of these stories contained within them some information which helped those who heard the story to understand their world. This useful bit of knowledge made life somewhat easier for those who knew these stories, each story distilling hard-won human experience into a digestible and memorable form. Those who knew many stories had more experience to draw upon, and act upon. “All doing is knowing, all knowing and doing.”

The stories we tell ourselves act as encyclopedias, telling us everything about how the world works. Those who know more will do better and will be more successful, on the whole. Language increases capability, and stories – memorized language – further amplifies those capabilities. Just as we are driven to speak, so we are driven to learn and tell stories.

From the Paleolithic through to the present, every culture comes with its own set of stories, carefully conserved and passed down through the generations, inviolable and immutable because the words themselves hold the culture together. The ‘dreamings’ – mythologies – of Australian aboriginals have been preserved, coherently and without significant change, for fifty thousand years. These stories present a specific, cultural map of the known world, an encyclopedia of facts framing a landscape that did not change in any significant way until the arrival of British settlers in 1788.

Stories alter the people who hear them, changing behaviour, forming expectations, and setting limits. Just as language has become both a liberation and a prison, stories release and constrain us. As the generations pass, these stories accrue, usually quite slowly, reflecting a mostly-unchanging world. In times of threat or disaster, these stories might grow by leaps and bounds, as traumatic events faded into a past of mythological dimensions. At other times the stories themselves might even transform the storytellers, taking them outside of themselves, and into a different world.

9 – #WAR

A warm late afternoon, hanging out in the trees in Africa’s Rift Valley. Just you and your friends – probably ten or twenty of them. You’re all males; the females are elsewhere, mothering and gathering. At a signal from the chief, all of you drop out of the trees, fall into line, and begin a trek that takes you throughout the little bit of land you call your own, with your own trees and plants and bugs that keep you well fed. You go all the way to the edge of your territory, to the border of the territory of a neighboring tribe. That tribe – about the same size as your own – is dozing in the heat of the afternoon, all over the place, but basically within sight of one another.

Suddenly – and silently – you all cross the border. You fan out, still silent, looking for the adolescent males in this tribe. When you find them, you kill them. As for the rest, you scare them off with your screams and your charges, and, at the end, they’ve lost some of their own territory – and trees and plants and delicious grubs – while you’ve got just a little bit more. And you return, triumphant, with the bodies of your enemies, which you eat, with your tribe, in a victory dinner.

This all sounds horrid and nasty and mean and just not cricket. The scourge of war, as familiar to us today as it would have been to our most distant human ancestors. But war begins before we did, an inheritance which came to us from those species which came before us.

How do we know that ‘war’ stretches this far back into our past? A paper published in Current Biology and reported in THE ECONOMIST described how primatologists have seen this precise, coordinated, warlike behavior among chimpanzees, in their natural habitats in the rain forests of central African. The scene I just described isn’t ten million years old, or even ten thousand, but current. Chimpanzees wage war. This kind of tribal warfare is exactly what was commonplace in New Guinea and the upper reaches of Amazonia until relatively recently – certainly within the last few billion seconds. War is a behavior common to both chimpanzees and humans – so why wouldn’t it be something we inherited from our common ancestor?

War. What’s it good for? If you win your tiny tribal war for a tiny bit more territory, you’ll gain all of the resources in that territory. Which means your tribe will be that much better fed. You’ll have stronger immune systems when you get sick, you’ll have healthier children. And you’ll have more children. As you acquire more resources, more of your genes will get passed along, down the generations. Which makes you even stronger, and better able to wage your little wars. If you’re good at war, natural selection will shine upon you.

What qualities make you good at war? You’re good at war if you and your tribe can function effectively as a unit. To do that, you must be able to coordinate your activities to attack (or defend) territory. We know language skills don’t go back millions of years, so our pre-human ancestors did this the old-fashioned way, with gestures and grunts and an ability to get into the heads of the other members of the tribe. That’s the key skill: if you can get into one another’s heads, you can think as a group. The better you can do that, the better you will do in war. The better you do in war, the more offspring you’ll have. That skill, reinforced by natural selection, transforms, over thousands of generations, into evolution. With every generation you get better at knowing what your tribe is thinking.

This is the beginning of the social revolution.

All the way back here, before we looked anything like human, we grasped the heart of the matter: we must know one another to survive. If we want to succeed, we must know each other well. There are limits to this knowing, particularly with our small-brained ancestors. Knowing someone well takes a lot of brain capacity, and soon that fills up. When it does, you can’t know everyone around you intimately. As that happens the tribe grows increasingly argumentative, confrontational, eventually fracturing into two independent tribes. All because of a communication breakdown.

There’s strength in numbers; if I can manage a tribe of thirty while all you can manage is twenty, I’ll defeat you in war. There’s pressure, year after year, to grow the tribe, and, quite literally, to stuff more people into the space between your ears. For many generations that pressure leads nowhere; then there’s a baby born with just a small genetic difference, one which allows just a bit more brain capacity, so it can manage one or two or three more people — a small difference with a big impact. Genes that lead to success in war get passed along very rapidly; soon everyone holds a few more people inside their heads. But that capability comes with a price. Those pre-humans have slightly bigger brains, within slightly bigger heads. They need to eat more to keep those bigger brains well-fed. And those big heads would eventually prove very problematic.

3 – #ARTICULATION

No one remembers learning to speak.  We can sympathize with a parent as they endure a toddler exploring the capacity of their vocal cords, hooting and howling in joyous cacophony, everywhere: during the middle of a religious service, in a movie theatre, on the subway.  Something about the voice feels so alluring the child finds it impossible to remain quiet.  We must speak: something between our voice and our ears demands stimulation.

Our earliest memories tie themselves to the words of others: something our mother said to us, our father showed us, or a sibling shared in play.  Words seem to be the necessary anchor to ground our memories.  Before we have grasped language, we hold onto nothing.  Those memories might be there, deep within us, but we have no way to find them, no hook that would allow us to trawl our preverbal history.  “Where there are no words, thereof we can not speak.”

We come into knowing as we come into language, judged both by adults and other children through our facility with words.  Using language as an informal intelligence assessment, we assume a well-spoken child to be more mature than one who stumbles through words and makes a mess of grammar.  An adult with a poor command of the language often finds themselves treated like an idiot – a perennial complaint of immigrants.  We have tied language to intelligence for so long the two feel almost inseparable, perfectly expressed in the dual meaning of the word ‘dumb’.

Humans have been ‘anatomically modern’ – that is, recognizably identical to ourselves – for almost two hundred thousand years.  Caves in South Africa bear the evidence of habitation by our earliest ancestors.  We have their bones and their tools, but no sense of who they were.  We can hypothesize what they felt and thought, but a gulf separates us from them — the gulf of language.

It isn’t until about eighty thousand years ago that we start to see the hallmarks of what we think of as human intelligence – patterns carved in clay, fragments of textiles.  These first elements of decoration – accenting the purely functional – speak to an internal depth which the earliest humans seem to have lacked.  That depth came with the emergence of language.

Few topics in science ignite more heated and less illuminating debate than the origin of human language.  For three hundred years, the question has tantalized and frustrated the best minds.  Hypotheses abound, but answers are thin on the ground.  We study the growls of chimpanzees, our nearest cousins, and analyze the clicks of dolphins – who seem to have a language of their own – in an attempt to understand how we navigated the passage from silence into speech.

Although we don’t know much about what happened, we have recently learned where: southwest Africa.  Quentin Atkinson, a biologist from the University of Auckland, analyzed the phonemes – individual sounds – which compose a broad sampling of human languages.  He found that the language family of southwest Africa – Xhosan, home to the !Kung people, with their famous clicking dialect – had the greatest number of phonemes, over 100.  Hawai’ian, on the other hand, has only 13.  

Southwest Africa is close to the birthplace of our species; Hawai’i, the most recently colonized land on Earth.  Atkinson saw that as our race migrated ‘out of Africa’, languages tended to lose phonemes, and each subsequent migration dropped some of these basic sounds.  (The number of phonemes a language possesses doesn’t affect the ability of that speakers of that to express rich thoughts; it simply means that the phonemes in a phoneme-poor language get more of a workout.)  Atkinson gave us a map, which points back in time, to the first people we would recognize as people, the first people with language, memory, and culture.

Even if we never know why, we know where we began to speak, and know that we carried that capability with us as we moved out across the planet.  Once language had arrived, it never left us.  It became too vital to be forgotten, so important that we consider language one of the defining characteristics of our species: to be human is to have command of language.   Our myths remind us of this: God blessed Adam with an ability to name the animals.

Yet there was a humanity before, a Homo sapiens before sapience.  We can reach back through prehistory, but our reach extends only as far as language.  Before language, our species was like a small child, remembering nothing.  After language we have continuous memory – indigenous Australians claim a cultural continuity going back some 60,000 years.  Language empowers us to express ourselves and know one another’s minds, but also imprisons us within an unbreakable cage that limits our ability to know anything about our pre-linguistic ancestors.  We are so different from them they are incomprehensible to us.  Language has so changed us that we understand nothing of those who do not share language.

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”  Language was among the first human tools – along with stone axes and fire – and definitively the first tool that lived entirely within us, a bit of innovation as much cultural as technological.  In the moment language arrived on the scene, it became indispensable, and once indispensable, we adopted it as innate, favoring those with the greatest linguistic capability, and thereby subtly affecting the evolution of our species.  People who ‘talk pretty’ have broader prospects for success in the world.  They and their children will thrive.

Every claim made for the power of language – as an amplifier of human capability – can also be made for the sudden arrival of hyperconnectivity.  Connected people are more successful, and those most successful at mastering the techniques of connectivity have the greatest successes.  Connection is becoming indispensable, and we have already begun to think of it as an innate capability.  The billion seconds from 1995 – 2026 is witness to a transition from a world in which no one is connected, to a world where being connected and being human is seen as synonymous.

Just as we now see being verbal and being human as synonymous, hyperconnectivity is adding another layer of richness and depth to our experience.  Where we can observe the sudden explosion of depth in the human record, eighty thousand years ago, so our children’s children’s children’s children will look upon this billion seconds as a second explosion, another sudden quickening, before which the ‘dumb’ and disconnected generations of humanity will seem incomprehensible and inhuman.

We are at a threshold.  In fact, we are already more than half-way across it.  We can look in either direction; behind us we can see the familiar shape of a species as we’ve known ourselves for eighty millennia; before us we see something quite different, a form not wholly realized, yet quite real.  We still don’t have all of the language of hyperconnectivity.  The chaos of the present moment is very much like the hollering of seven billion toddlers learning to stretch their voices across an entire planet.  It’s growing quite loud, as everyone clamors to be heard.  There’s a lot of sound, but not much sense.

That sense will come over the next billion seconds.  When it does, the door to our recent past will be closed.  We will have been these disconnected people, but we will not understand them, any more than we can understand our earliest ancestors.  We will have lived two lives, before and after we all connected.