53 – #FRACTURE

Before hyperconnectivity, mass action took the form of marches, demonstrations and the occasional riot. Roman patricians dealt with the mob and learned to control it (panem et circenses). Representing power at both its most unpredictable and susceptible, throw the mob some some bread, some bones, or some bodies, and, satisfied, they disintegrate into constituent communities and relations. Keep the mob soothed with entertainments, and they will not even enter the streets, preferring instead the comforts of the theatre, stadium and home.

None of this is news: ochlocracy is a word the Ancient Greeks coined. We should consider ourselves lucky that the mob can be contained, the beast soothed. If the mob had been a continuous force throughout history, very little of history would remain. Every time sufficient numbers of people had come together, the mob would threaten all. In that world, cities could never persist. The Urban Revolution requires crowd control.

Now the mob hyperconnects, ochlocracy becomes hyperochlocracy, and potent beyond any possibility of control. The hyperempowered need no externalities to deliver bread and circuses; they provide for themselves. The threat of force – the stick following the refused carrot – becomes meaningless where the hyperconnected regularly outthink, outflank and outmaneuver the authorities.

We have entered the era of the reign of a new mob, with new rules. The mobile vulgaris, as the Romans called it, use the mobile to propel themselves into a new commonality. Mob rule is the inevitable outcome of the mobile.

Mobs rarely appear in isolation; mob meets mob in riot and affray: soccer hooligans, co-religionists (against infidels), political parties. Each mob meets its opposite and tries to annihilate the other. Where this can not be contained by the state, the result is civil war.

Hyperochlocracy can not be controlled by any of the techniques the state has long used, and for which the institutions of state power are designed. Neither police nor army can lay a glove on hyperochlocracy. The courts can not make hyperochlocracy subject to justice, nor jails imprison. Everything is perfectly mismatched, as though the hyperconnected exist in a different plane of being, unbound by earthly rules.

Where hyperochlocracies collide, limitation begins anew. First comes the wars between the hyperempowered, such as the continuous-but-nearly-invisible battles between various hacker communities. As successes fed a growing sense its capabilities, Anonymous fractured into several different groups, with competing aims. Group turned against group, each seeking to undermine the efforts of others, even using state power (with leaks of carefully chosen information) to disrupt the relations within competitors.

Unlike ochlocracy, hyperpolitics isn’t a numbers game. Winning the battle has very little to do with the total number of combatants involved on either side and much more to do with the hypermpowerment of individuals and their ability to work coherently and effectively as a hyperempowered group. These traits are entirely orthogonal: any given individual could be great on their own and lousy in a group, or vice versa. Individuals who can bring their hyperempowerment into a group setting and harness the group, amplifying the hyperempowerment of the entire group, will be specifically able to make the most of every encounter. These are the victors of the next billion seconds, and to them will flow the spoils of the hyperconnected era.

This precise set of qualities – hyperempowered individuals who also hyperempower groups – will be strongly selected for. A small group of individuals who share these skills will far outperform a much larger but poorly integrated group. They are able to connect, share and learn from each other with a flexibility and speed that brings  maximum force to their every action. A laser beam next to an unfocused bulb, these groups will slice through every obstacle, vaporize all opposition, and vanquish all opponents not similarly constituted.

Over the next billion seconds some may find that even though they can draw on the learning and experience of billions of others, they work most effectively in smaller units. They will receive the greatest benefit from networks of relations that allow them to use their innate capacity to manage these connections, amplified with a capability keeping them in constant close connection. The elites of the next billion seconds will not necessarily be broadly-based, but may instead be tightly focused, open but highly insular. They will constantly be on the lookout for competitors to co-opt into their own network of relations, or, should that fail, looking for ways to disadvantage those competitors.

None of this tends toward stability; such hyperochlocracies will be pressure cookers, within which every individual will be pushed to the outer limits of performance. The best of these hyperochlocracies will learn to manage the stress they engender, while the worst will simply decohere as rapidly as they form. The rest will exist in a state mid-way between coming together and flying apart, constantly fracturing into competing polities, some fragments regaining potency and hyperempowerment, while others, dysfunctional, die.

In our immediate future we find an echo of our tribal past. The limits of biology which bounded the tribe’s numbers have not been erased. Before hyperconnectivity one hundred and fifty represented the entire map of the known. Today, one hundred and fifty stand in for the billions hyperconnected, as each acts as a filter and focusing agent for the others in immediate connection. In this new tribal formation, each constituent faces outward, connected to the communities of sharing, learning and expertise for which they are prized within the hyperochlocracy, finding, forwarding along everything of importance to those closest. Everything we once did we now do again, for the same reasons, but with far greater scope.

This is the future of the corporation, which began as a dissociated collection of capital, but concludes with the close collaboration of bodies and minds. This is the future of the school, the hospital, the government. This is the future of human organization and collective action. It is no longer bodies on streets holding banners or storming barricades. It is something more internal, more intense, and much more powerful.

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.

49 – #FORCE

Someone jumps the turnstiles at the train station. It’s upsetting: no one likes to see such a flagrant violation of the law performed to so publicly. A moment of dissonance and powerlessness: You really ought to do something. Something ought to be done. Then the gate-jumper disappears, lost in the crowd.

The act has been witnessed, of course. Scores of closed-circuit TV cameras cover every area and every angle, but with so much to see, is anyone watching? Every Panopticon requires its Argus, studded with eyes, eternally vigilant. The concentration of observation in surveillance requires a center greater than the sum of its inputs. Crumbling under the Burden of Omniscience, power gives out that it sees all while actually observing very little.

This gap between the recorded and the observed exists only in the hierarchies of top-down power. I see the queue-jumper, for he makes his leap right in front of me. Yet except on the very rare occasion when I might be called upon as an eyewitness in a criminal investigation, my observations mean nothing to power. That does not make them meaningless.

Power is not the arbiter of salience. Had I my camera to hand (instead of in my pocket) and snapped a photo of the offender, then shared it, the image would have achieved a momentary ‘caught in the act’ notoriety, seen by everyone connected to everyone who cared enough to send it along. If that snap had been of something more provocative – such as an assault – the image would have traveled far and wide, likely getting picked up by the broadcast media, instantly amplifying its reach a hundred fold. If it bleeds, it leads.

Hyperconnected, we now each confront a succession of hyperdistributed images: some funny, others sad, a few nonsensical, a small number clawing at the heart. When a 68 year-old grandmother gets bullied to tears by a squadron of 13 year-old boys, that’s a tragedy. When one of those boys posts the video to YouTube, the tragedy (via hyperstupidity) becomes an instant sensation. Empathy is a flavour of salience; we feel its importance to us. When someone gets hurt, we understand the pain in our souls.

A few people joined in pain would be unremarkable, but a planet, hyperconnected, sharing and feeling, foment hyperochlocracy, the new mob rule. The mob has no center. Things just happen, sometimes individually, sometimes collectively. The boys received thousands of death threats; the grandmother, over half a million dollars in donations. The separate actions of the mob constitute the death of a thousand cuts, while its collective actions have a force beyond any expectation.

Hyperochlocracy is not personal, nor can it be called up and put down like a legion of loyal troops. It can not be invoked or appealed to, because there is no there there. It has no it. It is substantial without substance. Yet it possesses an undeniable reality that becomes visible only just as it rises into being.

A nine-year old girl in Scotland, tracking her school dinners for a class project – which she photographed, rated, and posted to her blog – catapulted to fame when a local newspaper discovered her blog, and wrote it up. After many thousands of visits, the local government council banned the child from taking any photos of her meals, claiming the cafeteria staff feared for their jobs (some of the less appetizing meals had been shared around widely).

Given the attention already focused on the child’s blog, the ban produced a ‘Streisand Effect’ (named after the singer, who tried to have aerial shots of her beachfront home removed from a public survey, which only directed millions more to the imagery, an early example of hyperdistribution and hyperochlocracy working hand-in-hand), the blog’s visitor count jumped by another few million, and – under the full glare of the national press – the head of the local council rescinded the ban.

Where mob rule tips over into organized public action, hyperochlocracy becomes hyperpolitics, the precise and enduring application of hyperconnectivity and its sequelae to achieve a goal in the public sphere. Over the next billion seconds, hyperpolitics will become the dominant form of collective action, replacing democratic processes that provide the ‘reassurance ritual’ (as Alvin Toffler aptly named it in The Third Wave) of voting, but leave the voter disconnected from the actual mechanism of power.

Hyperconnectivity leads to hyperpolitics: connecting, sharing, learning and doing inevitably culminate in a specific coherence, salience extending beyond a specific moment or current outrage, something that outlasts a media firestorm or a meme du jour. When the mob stops to think, and does not simply decompose into its constituent relations, but remains, receptive and ready, hyperempowerment has become hyperpolitics.

The moments of hyperempowerment grow more frequent. The emergence of hyperpolitical forces – persisting for hours or weeks – no longer delivers the same thrilling shock of the new that it did a hundred million seconds ago, but we still know next to nothing of this newest human organizational form.

We do know that the more it happens, the more it tends to happen. Every experience of hyperempowerment teaches us more about hyperempowerment: techniques and tools, learned, tried and shared, which become part of the next moment of hyperpowerment. Each experience of hyperpolitics teaches us more about what leads to permanence and coherence, the specifics of salience.

As the longest-running experiment in hyperpolitics, ANONYMOUS has thousands of constituent members constantly engaging in a search for the salient, looking for something to ‘rally the troops’ around a specific action, campaign, prank or attitude. If ANONYMOUS decided that turnstile-jumpers represented a grave threat to freedom (or, perhaps, simply for the lulz), the organization could quickly deploy individuals to monitor barriers in stations throughout the world, and gate-jumpers would be caught in the act.

This represents police force perfected beyond the wildest dreams of any dictator, because it comes from the people, connected. But antipathy to control is the price of hyperconnectivity. We can do anything we want, but only so long as no one tells us we must.

41 – #MOB

Certain transgressions carry a surprisingly high price.

After the Vancouver Canucks ice hockey team lost the 2011 Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins, normally genial Canadians turned to riot and affray, trashing whole blocks of downtown Vancouver. As this happened during the Age of Omniscience, the whole event, captured on live television cameras, CCTV and mobiles, soon found itself under the careful review of everyone interested in this most un-Canadian behaviour.

As typical for any riot – especially a riot triggered by sport – the vast majority of the rioters were young men. Angered, fueled by a mix of testosterone and alcohol, they smashed the city, trashed police cars, wrecking everything in their path.

It was all recorded.

In the days following, as Vancouverites assessed the damage, cleaning their city while asking themselves ‘how this could have happened?’, video of particular events reached hyperdistribution: Do you know who this is, smashing that plate glass window? Who might be setting that police car alight?

The smarter rioters, in balaclavas and hoodies, could not be identified – immediately. But a logo on a distinctive tee shirt could give it all way. And some, swept up in the moment, neglected to disguise themselves, committing their crimes while the whole world watched. Such as Nathan Kotylak.

Nathan Kotylak you’ve been judged by Captain Vancouver in violation of all that was a promising career as a water polo star. When I googled his name, Nathan was a star with a future. In one fell swoop he destroyed that. I’ve seen Nathan’s phone number posted online and realised that even amongst your friend’s they are outing you for being a punk.

The blog publicshamingeternus shared Nathan’s image – as he tried to turn a Vancouver police car into a Molotov Cocktail – with tens of thousands of Vancouverites each looking for faces in the crowd, every one intent on trying to disaggregate the mob into individual actors, who could be held responsible for their activities. As each face resolved into focus, each was copied, shared, analyzed, and shared some more. One by one, these faces became names: the recognition of a friend or son or brother shocked a community which prided itself on its orderliness.

Kotylak, a rising sports star at his high school, found his name, address and home phone number distributed widely across Vancouver. Within hours, he and his family fled their home, fearing reprisals. The mob – hyperconnected and hyperdistributing everything they found abhorrent – closed in on a range of rioters, just as they did after the London riots in August 2011: identifying, naming and shaming – even threatening.

Hyperconnected, the power of the mob runs through our every act. At every moment we can invoke thousands or millions of others to stand beside us, now or in the nearly present, bearing witness or striking out as need and opportunity allow.

Yet the mob is not a pet on a leash, nor some force, like mains power, available upon demand. The mob has a mind of its own, far greater than any of ours, and if not exactly more intelligent, clearly separate from us: distant, gnomic, and unknowable. We can be part of the mob without knowing it, just as the mob has no sense of itself, no ego or center, no control or authority, just power and action. The mob houses no homunculus, hidden away, directing its activities.

Although centerless, the mob has a curious and quite sentimental emotional sensitivity. The mob hates cruelty to animals. When CCTV footage of Mary Bale dropping a cat into a dumpster (leaving the bin covered and the animal trapped) surfaced, the reaction from an outraged hyperconnected mob – which notably has an affinity for felines – forced Bale into police protection.

Where an incident contains an incitement, a mob will accrete around that incitement, sharing it amongst themselves, asking themselves what should be done to avenge this wrong. Each part of the mob offers up a suggestion of action, but only a few of these suggestions contain within themselves the excitement that carries them beyond a few and out to the whole. These may be the best and the wisest, or the ugliest and meanest – depending on the incitement. The buzz increases, and as the mob closes on a decision, knowing becomes doing.

This happens everywhere now; on a Tokyo subway and a Beijing Street and a Seoul metro station and a Vancouver riot scene. We are everywhere involved, directly, no longer merely watching but acting and reacting, whether present or distant, both now and later.

Call it the Age of Omnipotence.

We possess omnipotence not as individuals, but only in hyperconnectivity, bound to one another, and therefore unknowable, even unto ourselves. We become a greater thing in much the same way our cells become the greater organism that is us: No nerve cell knows of me, even if it is essential to my experience of myself. Power beyond knowing has literally become fact. We can not reach to it, we can not touch it, we can not even experience it except in the vague sense that we are part of something greater than ourselves, a single force operating with a hidden unity behind obvious multiplicity.

Yet it is not invisble, this hyperochlocracy, and it has us in its firm grip. Could we truly avoid being swept up in a hyperconnected mob, when all our relations have been swept up before us? Wouldn’t we simply see it as the perfectly reasonable course of action? We do not surrender our reason to hyperochlocracy; instead, it seduces us, tapping our weaknesses, our fears, our pretense and desire, making puppets of us, treating us like an army of hungry ghosts.

This is the new face of power, the new force which all other powers, however constituted, must now reckon with. It is not simple, nor singular, nor permanent, nor familiar. But it is of us, and we are not alien to it. Its ends are human ends, and though sentimental, it lacks pity: because none of us can be as cruel as all of us.