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.

45 – #FRAMEWORK

In the beginning, we connect. From the moment we arrive in this world, we seek every opportunity to grow closer to the others we find within it. We never cease connecting, though we bear the scars of all our relations, bound inextricably to every joyous moment. All of this together frames us: instinct, memory, and desire.

Once connected, we begin to share. Again, no order need be given: we share because that is who we are as a species. We use our linguistic aptitude to reveal ourselves, search for common ground, and, once found, explore that ground together. Sharing is the performance of connecting; until we have shared we can not say that we have made contact.

As we share with one another, we find our experience differs. These points of difference become the highly-charged gaps in our knowledge which suddenly begin to buzz and spark as the differential discharges across that gap. We fill ourselves with what others have learned, just as they round out their own understanding. We shock each other, adding to our potential. The scope of our awareness grows, both in breadth and depth.

Once again, this happens by itself. No one commands us to learn. We move into knowledge because it pleases us, suits us, flatters us, and completes us. None of this is hard; it would be far harder to keep it from happening. We connect, share and learn from one another because that’s the survival strategy which, over hundreds of thousands of years, kept us alive in hostile environments. Tethered to one another, grateful for the insight of experiences beyond our own, we connect in order to thrive.

Half a billion seconds ago, connecting, bounded by proximity, took time and effort. People had to present themselves, or we had to present ourselves to them. This ‘tyranny of distance’ pruned our connections back to measured and gradual paths. We evolved in this environment, our brains growing large enough to manage connecting with, sharing, and learning from perhaps a hundred and fifty others – “Dunbar’s Number”.

Now there are five billion of us, directly connected, none of us further apart than the time it takes to type a short string of digits. Even the Urban Revolution did not bring us together like this: individuals on opposite sides of a great city might never meet. We continuously carry with us a connection to the greater part of humanity, and the greater part of humanity, likewise equipped, connects to us. This is not a conurbation; this is a zero-dimension humanity, every point directly connected to every other point, because there is only a single point, pervasive and unified.

Dunbar’s Number has been both amplified and extended beyond any human capacity ever imagined. We moved from hundreds to billions in a single gesture, a quantum leap which in retrospect will appear nearly instantaneous. We enjoy the curious privilege of being part of this transition, the generations experiencing life before, during and after the billion seconds which encompass the entire scope of this transition. A billion seconds is sufficient to change everything.

We are already connected. This amplification and extension has already happened, an event that lies behind us, in our history, a fait accompli. That may be the most shocking feature of the present moment: we think ourselves striding confidently on the ground, only to look down and find ourselves in orbit. How did we get here? We do not remember feeling the blast rocket engines lifting us above the atmosphere. Everything seemed so gradual, we failed to note the gentle but steady tug of acceleration which led inexorably to liftoff, pushing us ever higher.

Yet here we are, far out of our depth, each of us connected, sharing with and learning from five billion others. By itself, this would be among the most remarkable events in human history. But past is prologue. We each now have the learning and experience of five billion others to draw upon. In the mystery of practice, learning becomes knowing. “All knowing is doing, and all doing knowing.”

We now act with the capacity of five billion.

First we connect, then we share, then we learn, and now we do. Each follows ineluctably from the other. Nothing here is anything other than our essential human capacity, a capacity which emerged long before hyperconnectivity, a hyperconnectivity which created the fertile conditions for hyperdistribution and hypermimesis. Before hyperdistribution and hypermimesis laid the foundations for hyperintelligence.

Born equipped for one world, where we leveraged one another’s capacities to improve our own, we live in another, where we leverage everyone’s capacities everywhere, bringing an inconceivable intensity to our every act. Where once we sought the help of others to become fully empowered, we now find ourselves hyperempowered, catapulted so far from any of the familiar settings of possibility we have only barely intuited our newly amplified capabilities.

That is about to change.

In this moment, at the center of the billion seconds of transition between Homo Sapiens and Homo Nexus, we discover that we can do, that doing follows from connecting, sharing and learning. We now realize this is ubiquitously the case, reaching every connected human, everywhere. Not only are we all in this together, what we are, together, is something utterly different. We do not know what we can do. We do not know the limits of the possible, or even if there are limits.

We are not used to thinking like this. We have no frame for something so sudden and so unfamiliar. Inchoate, we fumble along and do amazing things, without any comprehension of the power we now bring to our actions. Innocent as babes, strong as bears, we have the capacity to wreck ourselves with unimagined ease. But we also have the capability to create at a scale previously inconceivable, and sustain with a scope heretofore unobtainable.

With great power comes great responsibility. We need to have a good think about how to use our new powers wisely. And we need to do this right now, for we have already changed beyond recognition.

44 – #DISCRIMINATION

We do not wish to remain trapped within the dwell-state of our hyperstupidity, feeding back on our prejudices until nothing beside remains. Comfortable and comforted, cosseted in our common ignorance, we refuse to correlate our beliefs and their consequences. We know that if we drop an apple it falls to Earth, but when we flick the ignition on a car engine, do we see Greenland melt? Some loops are too big, too long, too small, or too short to fall neatly within our gaze. Our sense of connection between our actions and the world beyond our fingertips has always been tenuous, subject to the whimsy of our beliefs.

Can we choose what we know? Can we become aware of the shape of our understanding, its dents and features, and, as if addressing our features in a mirror, make the appropriate adjustments? Can we understand that as we leave the immediate behind for the hyperconnected, encompassing all experience, everywhere, we gain a capacity for self-observation?

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

Poet Robert Burns circles it perfectly; some Power, outside of us, must hold that mirror up, to reveal ourselves in the eyes of others.

Hyperconnected, we are that Power, and that mirror, now everywhere, offers us the first chance we have ever had to reflect upon our selves, our actions, and their consequences, unadorned by the prejudice of practice.

It is, of course, horrible. We are ugly creatures who always thought themselves beautiful, perfect in our mind’s eye, yet malformed monsters and hungry ghosts to everyone else. We do not want to see it: Our first instinct is to pull away, retreating into the familiar lie long enough to drown the shock of self-recognition.

That is the moment of opportunity. As someone pulls back, we all must follow. We must draw ourselves into the madness of individual delusion, presenting ourselves as the real amidst the unreal, truth in a forest of lies, shining light and dispelling darkness. We must not let anyone turn away. Instead, wherever they turn, we must place the mirror before them.

We must be gentle in this operation, and sensitive to its practice: this is not a rape, but an unveiling. Go too hard and risk turning a soul so far inward it loses all sense of direction, stumbling around in a hysterical blindness for the rest of its days. Too light a touch could be mistaken for a playful caress lacking substance or meaning. We must be insistent, even a bit impertinent, but not mocking; forthright but not blunt; clear but not overwhelmingly direct. A middle way seems best, one which neither takes succor from dreams nor demands unconditional surrender.

Conversely, as individuals we must steel ourselves for the unpleasant truths awaiting us as we disrobe, removing the jewels of our conceit and garment of our ignorance. Naked, and visible to all, we will be encouraged to look at ourselves through the eyes of another. We must be calm. We must trust all will be well. We must realize this is for the best. We will feel embarrassment and shame, vulnerability and fear. We will be revealed – warts and all. But we will not be judged, because any eyes which look upon us are also human eyes: equally limited, equally blind, equally guilty.

There is no better and no worse, no good and no evil, no right and no wrong, there is only what you see and how others see it. There is horror and terror and joy and wonder, but there is no judgement. This prelapsarian point-of-view springs from hyperconnectivity: now that we are all connected, and know each other truly, deeply and in the fullness of our madness, we can only sympathize. When we are in one another’s heads, forgiveness becomes the only possible path.

Bound together, we suddenly find ourselves with a new, collective responsibility: to care for one another, to prevent one another straying too far from the common path, the common purpose, the common will. No man is an island; nor, any more, can any man consider themselves singular. We were always more than ourselves. For most of our passage here as a species, we never considered ourselves alone, only in relation to others. Urbanization shattered us into a new collectivity far more powerful but less immediate, a disassociation and amputation into new capability at the cost of almost everything we had previously imagined significant.

Now we erase the traces, drawing a new circle around ourselves, with the center everywhere and circumference at infinity, encompassing all. There is no room for solitude. Even the solitude of the clique, drawing tight into itself, struggles against the constant lure of everything beyond its bounds. The center cannot hold, because everyone is everywhere.

The shape of the next billion seconds will seem angelic to some, demonic to others. It takes parts of ourselves long hidden and brings them into view, forcing us to share our madness, demanding that we look on it in all honesty. It will not let us escape into a fog of gentle forgetfulness. It is with us everywhere, always: constantly nagging, advising, referring, refining and improving. Implacable, impatient, and unimpressed, this hyperconnected hive mind moves us toward a goal greater than any of us could achieve – or even entertain – by ourselves.

It is not the end of neurosis, but the end of the quiet lie that lets neurosis flourish. It is not the end of ignorance, but generates the adamantine surface which ignorance encounters. It is not the end of the individual, but the advent of a greater form, which accepts the individual, as the body accepts cells: gratefully, but with great direction.

We have all become part of it, seduced with a gentle, steady power. It is inescapable, already here, and gives us gifts both awesome and terrible. We need both.

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.

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.

27 – #SPHERE

Once we connect, we begin to share. No one has to tell us to share ourselves: this is who we are. As we share with others, and they share with us, we learn more about them. We share something important to us, and they respond. Where that sharing triggers a memory, hope, or resonance, they respond positively, sharing something of their own experience with us, and that moment is reinforced. Where our sharing is meaningless – or worse, upsetting – we receive little encouragement, even silence. We remember this as well.

Each of these sharing moments become the shape of our relationships. Moments become memories, and eventually these memories acquire a life of their own, a rendering of the relationship into a miniature version of someone whom you’ve shared with and who has shared with you. This model grows more complete as these shared moments of sharing accumulate. From our point of view at the center of our personal universe, these shared moments compose that person – or at least all of that person we can ever know.

Everyone you know well, you know well precisely because of the accumulation of those sharing moments. Sharing is how we come to know one another. Our infant minds fill themselves up with mom and dad (mostly mom). Only gradually do we learn how to sort all of those other people out. Our circles of connections grow wider as our minds find the room to house a battalion of individuals. Without memory of the shared moments of sharing, all human contact would exist within an eternal present, a Memento-like state where no one could ever matter. Without memory, there is no relationship, and without sharing, there is no memory.

Each of our relationships grows from sharing, conforming to the boundaries established by that sharing, and tends to reinforce that we already know. Like shares with like. If we want to talk about the latest movies, we know whom to turn to. If we want to gripe about our employer, we know who will provide a sympathetic ear. And if we want to speculate about our own possibilities, we know who’s willing to join us on our flights of fancy. The ‘echo chamber’ of human culture — which recirculates the same truisms endlessly between like-minded individuals — did not begin with the Internet; it is as old as speech. We need to have our beliefs confirmed, fears soothed and secrets held. We focus upon the relationships which provide these.

We grow from knowing nothing about one another to knowing everything needed to breathe life into a simulacrum, a mind’s-eye version. We know a handful of people exceptionally well, sharing with them continuously. We know a larger number reasonably well, certainly enough to find some excuse to share something with them as desire or opportunity presents. We know enough people well enough to share something in common with them. These three levels of intimacy emerged from the familial and tribal bonds of our common heritage. We have always needed to share ourselves with those in the tribe: sharing means survival.

Our ability to share meaningfully defines the boundaries of the tribe, and limits it. Relationships nourish and tax in equal amounts. Time and attention and dedication keep our relationships fresh. Friends ‘drift apart’ when they forget to feed their relationship, eventually becoming estranged. We all know the odd feeling of meeting someone we once knew well, but now hardly know. The memory of relationship remains, like dried bones. This happens and needs to happen because we can not feed every relationship equally. Some people enter our lives to stay, some only drift through. We retain something as they depart, but most gets lost as we plow over the ground of that relationship to make room for another. We have limits, and can only sow our minds with so many simultaneous relations.

Estimates vary, but something between one hundred and fifty (the so-called ‘Dunbar Number’) and two hundred and fifty seems to be the upper limit on the number of active and well-fed relationships we can manage. This conforms to the size of tribal groupings known from the study of paleoanthropology and prehistory, as well as examinations of the hunter-gatherer cultures still with us today in Amazonia and New Guinea. Tribes make manifest the limits of memory and relation, never growing beyond the natural confines of our ability to hold everyone within our heads.

Ten thousand years away from the tribes, we carry these same boundaries in our modern minds, but whereas once everyone within a tribe held the same set of individuals in their heads, no one today has precisely the same array of relations. Even husbands and wives, in a lifetime together, maintain separate social spheres. We overlap and intersect, but instead of a single unit of blood and tribe, we span multitudes. Each of us knows one hundred and fifty others well, and each of those know one hundred and fifty well. Even with a fair bit of overlap, you and the people you know well know more than ten thousand people well. Those ten thousand know a million well. The million know a hundred million. That hundred million know everyone. This ‘six degrees of separation’ emerges from the relations of sharing and memory which once kept our horizons narrowly focused on the tribe, but which now (with a little mixing and connecting) spans the species.

Every one of us, everywhere, resides in the embrace of this ‘human network’ of relations built from shared moments of sharing. This network presents us the opportunity to share our experiences, or learn from the experiences of others. Above the broad physical network of communications – the wires and waves of Internet and mobile – an invisible but pervasive, highly mediated, but entirely human network reinforces our relationships with every act of sharing. The sphere of our relations has grown to encompass the whole world.

24 – #DISCONNECT

On those rare moments when we can not connect, whether flying, deep under a building, or out beyond the edges of mobile coverage, when we glance into our palm and see NO SIGNAL, we feel the tug and pull of this new, invisible organ. We want to connect, even if we have no reason. The reassurance we find in one another’s presence has become a persistent feature of our lives.

Yet when we connect with another person, we conform to the needs of a dynamic created whenever we come together. Communication is a dance, and like any dance requires the full engagement of both parties. Otherwise, someone might trip and spill to the floor. Two people, connected, can be quite intense. When it becomes three, four, or more, it becomes a party. Parties are hard work: when you’re at a party you’re only thinking about the other people at the party. It becomes your whole world.

Now the whole world has become a party. The moments when we are not connected to at least one other person have grown vanishingly rare. Most often we connect to many others, via SMS and chat and Twitter and Skype and Facebook and Google+ and Yammer and Foursquare and, and, and… The ways we connect have multiplied as we grow more connected, a process accelerating as we come to understand how to use our connectivity toward specific ends.

We can spend all of our waking hours connected. For the generation born and raised during the last half billion seconds, that isn’t even a choice: it’s simply the way things are. Connection is the default posture for Homo Nexus, even at the expense of the real. People stare into their mobiles while they wait at bus stops; pedestrians walk into traffic, obliviously absorbed in their mobile; drivers get into accidents trying to send or read a text message at speed. Connectivity is pervasive, and connectivity is addictive. Once we have it, we will not willingly do without it. Yet we must.

When we connect and involve ourselves immediately in the lives of others, we surrender the ability to be involved within ourselves. This is no mere narcissism, but rather its opposite: the capacity to be with oneself, and within oneself, to reflect and meditate, is the root of our private experience. Without the silence that comes from solitude, there is no self.

We find ourselves in a perilous situation. We have embraced hyperconnectivity and the constant companionship of others, but in order to be authentically ourselves with others, we need to pull away, nursing within ourselves our own distinctive qualities – emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual – that come only when we face ourselves alone. The self itself is under threat, not because of the erosion of privacy, or the inversion of public and private spaces, but because we can not find the time to tend it.

We need to strike a balance between the power and joy of connection and the internal strength which comes from solitude. Neither is wholly good, nor entirely the answer: our future lies somewhere between the hermit and the hive. We know that we need to cut our connections in order to focus our thoughts, but we must extend this obvious truth into a broader recognition of the importance of feeding both halves of our nature.

We must admit that we are not very good at managing the ‘hygiene’ of our connected selves. Our parents taught us to brush our teeth and wash behind our ears, but no one has shown us how to pull the plug, or why we should. This is all brand new, and it is all brand new for all of us. There was no vanguard of Homo Nexus who could pass along the lessons they learned. We became this new thing all together, and all at once. We have been robbed of the most fundamental form of mimesis – the imitation of our parents and elders – because there are no parents, no elders. We must learn from one another.

Our children, who have grown up constantly connected, have no role models to show them that disconnection will make them great. They look to us, see us fumbling through emails at the dinner table, reaching for the phone every time a text message arrives, recognizing us as captives of connectivity. This is the behavior they reproduce – doing as we do, not as we say – and for this reason we can not rely on them to develop the habits of healthfulness around connection. They have no innate sense of the importance of solitude, nor any external examples of its value. We must first teach ourselves, and only then can we presume to teach our children – by example.

Our predicament is not a matter of fault, or blame. It is as if a car we were driving along suddenly acquired a rocket engine. For a while we zoom along dangerously, but eventually we learn how to tap the accelerator pedal gently, so that we can keep within the speed limit, and avoid a wreck. Now that we are connected, our first most important task must be  to master the balance between our drive to connect and our need for solitude. We must develop the skills to nurse ourselves – every day – for our own good. At present, we’re like overexcited toddlers, filled to overflowing with all of the day’s events, and unable to go to sleep. We must soothe ourselves, and we can only do that in solitude.

Solitude is not the opposite of connection, but its complement. Turning the mobile off and putting it away – for an hour, an evening, or a day – does not separate you from the body of Homo Nexus. We are all so well connected that none of can easily slip through the common net of connection. But we have neither protocol nor etiquette for the practice of solitude. We must be able to slip away gracefully, leaving others with the understanding that this brief parting will only deepen the moments to follow. We must look forward to solitude, embracing ourselves. For many, solitude feels unfamiliar, unfriendly, and unpleasant. We need to share the joys of solitude, so they, too, tug at us, when we have been away from ourselves for too long.

For the last half billion seconds we have gorged ourselves at the banquet of connection. Now we need some time to digest what we have taken in. Pausing will only make the meal more delicious, when we return to it. Some have launched their own “Technology Sabbath” (invoking the strict Jewish practice of no work from sunset Friday through sunset Saturday), putting aside their mobiles and computers for one day in seven, using that time to focus themselves in prayer or meditation, in uninterrupted playtime with their children, or anything else that brings them into quiet and reflective contemplation.

The specifics may not work for everyone, but all of us need something like this. We need to be able to draw a line around our connected selves, containing what we have become before it leaves nothing of us. That line evolves from strict to supple as we become comfortable moving back and forth between connection and solitude. Like children, at the beginning we require boundaries. As we mature, and internalize the new rules of Homo Nexus, we will be better able to decide for ourselves the space we make for being.

A half billion seconds ago, we knew solitude well, and were not afraid of it. Today, aware only of continuous connection, we have almost forgotten this other side to ourselves. It must not be lost as we turn this corner. It is the seat of our soul.

21 – #LOOK

In any place where people congregate – a bus stop, an airport, the line at a cafe – they practice the same behavior. Where once they might have fidgeted, or set their gaze at a neutral distance (to better preserve the anonymity of the city), today each one stares down, into the tiny display cradled in their palm. Staring down, staring in, captured and captivated by the goings-on in another land.

A decade ago we never looked at our mobiles unless making a call. Five years ago we stared at them only while we carefully prepared a text message. Today we gaze into them constantly, almost continuously. Something has changed.

The most obvious change concerns the device itself, which evolved from a very simple alphanumeric display – 3 or 4 lines of 20 characters – into something more akin to a videogame console than a telephone, bristling with processing power, colorful, high-resolution graphics, stereophonic sound, and a surface sensitive to the slightest touch. This ‘smartphone’ realizes the Star Trek vision of the handheld communicator/tricorder (two hundred years ahead of schedule), a flexible, personal device capable of being put to work in practically any situation.

That’s certainly part of what’s going on, but even in the areas of the world where the smartphone hasn’t begun to penetrate (three and a half billion of the planet’s four and a half billion mobile-owning individuals do not own a smartphone) the behavior persists. The smartphone provides plenty of excuses to look down into the device, but they aren’t necessary.

Everyone else – and even those with a smartphone – stares into the device because they’re engaged in conversations, 160 characters at time, in the form of text messages. Over seven trillion text messages were sent last year, a thousand for every person on Earth, with a good percentage of people sending or receiving a hundred messages a day. Teenagers think nothing of spending spare time connecting and communicating with friends through text messages; easily sending and receiving three thousand a month.

These sound like huge numbers, almost as if texting represents a habitual, addictive behavior, but reframed it becomes less scary: What if these teenagers spoke five thousand sentences a month? We’d wonder what had made them so quiet and withdrawn. Texting carries our conversations across space, completely natural to teenagers who have never known anything but hyperconnectivity.

The first mobiles with text messaging features did not tout this capability. In the beginning, few saw any real value in text messaging. Mobile hardware manufacturers added text messaging into their products as an afterthought, buried behind a confusing array of menus. Nothing about first-generation text messaging was easy: Most people had no idea they could send a text message until they received one, when they would learn both how to read the message and send a reply.

Despite all these difficulties, people learned how use text messaging, then taught their friends to do the same, by sending them messages. As messages shot around, more people began to send messages, in a loop of positive feedback which brought us to the trillions of the present day.

Carriers were soon earning more from text messages (which cost almost nothing to send) than from voice calls. Mobile handset manufacturers transformed their devices into messaging machines, demoting the mobile’s voice call capabilities in favor of an interface geared around text messages. The users of the mobile had changed the design of the device, by their patterns of use.

These next generation messaging machines removed most of the barriers to effective messaging. People could manage many more conversations – serially and concurrently – and the number of text messages sent began to accelerate, because people had a platform which reflected their own desire to reach out and connect with others. Texting grew from a rare activity into an occasional practice, eventually becoming a nearly continuous behavior.

Text messages have well-known shortcomings, including message length, lack of rich media, and clumsy keyboard interfaces. (While it is possible to use a 10-digit telephone keypad to type a novel, it often can be and infuriating experience.) People wanted to be able to communicate without any of the constraints of text messages (because of the design of the carrier networks, these constraints were set in stone), so demand grew for more flexible messaging tools.

The immediate and overwhelming popularity of Research In Motion’s BlackBerry platform, seamlessly integrating electronic mail into the mobile experience – with a full, if tiny keyboard – demonstrated the pent-up desire to move beyond text messaging. Other devices, such as Danger’s Hiptop, effectively positioned the mobile as a device that was all about messaging, handling voice calls as an afterthought. Once again, users had driven design changes in mobile devices, making these devices more useful to them, leading to higher levels of usage, and more attention paid to the device. Gradually, we were being drawn in.

By the mid 2000s, the mobile had become more message center than voice communication, with SMS, email and a growing number of new messaging environments, such as Twitter, Facebook and AIM. In order to accommodate so many different conduits for communication, the mobile had to become a general-purpose communications platform: a fully-functional and openly programmable computer. Nokia introduced the first of these highly flexible devices – known as ‘smartphones’ – in 2007, soon followed by devices developed at Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

The smartphone can perform any function of a desktop computer and any function of a mobile, marrying the rich experience of desktop Internet and pervasive wireless hyperconnectivity in a single point of contact, producing an explosive growth in the range of messaging options available, and exponential growth in the number of messages being delivered across all formats. The smartphone continuously offers up a stream of messages. As a result, the smartphone has become nearly impossible to ignore for more than a few moments.

The smartphone itself – metal, glass, plastic and silicon – is not the source of this seductive glamour, unworthy of such dedicated attention. Its surface – the ‘black mirror’ of the display – acts as the individual’s portal to the connected world. Shaped through trillions of messages and half a billion seconds of directed engineering, our hyperconnectivity has produced a nearly ideal tool for communication. From their comfortable homes within our hands, mobiles shine a light so alluring we can no longer look away.