19 – #LOOP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This never stops, nor ever slows.

 

18 – #LEVER

An average high school classroom, on an average weekday morning. Students fumbling around, threading through papers, looking for last evening’s assignment. One of them comes up empty handed — he hasn’t even looked.

The teacher, quick to notice this student’s poor performance – far from the first time this has happened – walks over to his desk, stands over him, leans in a bit, and begins to let him have it. This storm has been brewing for a while, and has found the perfect opportunity to let fly.

In the midst of the tirade, underneath the stream of invective, the student reaches into his backpack, fishes around a bit, withdraws a mobile, taps a few buttons, waits a moment, and then – once the connection has been made – says, “Hey. You listen to the bitch,” then holds the mobile out, capturing every calumny heaped upon him by his teacher.

The classroom as we know it, invented by the Prussians a hundred and fifty years ago, and adopted across Europe and America as Germany rose to world power status, features a teacher sitting before a chalkboard while the pupils sit and face the teacher. As the center of attention – and the master of the environment – the teacher has absolute power, controlling, containing and managing the behavior of the students under supervision. This close control ensured the classroom did not descend into chaos. Order created the space for learning.

As the seat of all authority, the teacher not only mastered the classroom, but possessed an acknowledged mastery of the material. Students did not question the teacher. But they do, now. Science teachers regularly confront students who (from perches safe in the back row of the classroom) consult Wikipedia or Wolfram Alpha, correcting all of the instructor’s mistakes, in real-time. The know-it-all teacher, center of the pedagogical universe, has been stripped of all power, revealed as the know-nothing.

Both of these examples show how the mobile can rapidly destabilize any environment reliant upon isolation as a technique of control. The kind of abuse teachers regularly deliver to students had never had an audience outside the walls of the classroom. Suddenly, every student walks through the door with parents in their pocket, and those walls no longer exist. The teacher no longer faces a younger, smaller, and weaker student, but the whole set of connections that student brings with them, via mobile omnipresence.

The power relations of education have reversed. The student can instantly summon parents – or any professional – to support any efforts to resist the teacher’s negativity. Teachers can’t throw their weight around anymore, because students can now hold those power games in check with powers of their own.

Where a teacher is trying to hector a student into learning, but encounters resistance – as might be the case with that underperforming student – this new balance of powers brings the educational process to a halt. The teacher has lost any ability to coerce, which means the student could now freely revel in ignorance. This deadlock persists for as long as the student’s relations are willing to countenance that state of affairs. We can be dumb with power.

Conversely, teachers can no longer pass their own ignorance off as truth. Another set of relations connects students to bodies of knowledge far greater than those which any teacher could ever hope to encompass, the collected wisdom of the species.
Omnipresence veers close to partial omniscience.

Inside the confines of the classroom, with a restricted range of curriculum material under study, it has become possible for a student to be at least as well informed, moment-to-moment, as the teacher. “All knowing is doing, and all doing knowing.” A student who knows more than the teacher will inevitably act on that knowledge, pulling aside the curtain of pretense, revealing the small and frightened Wizard of Oz beneath.

The classroom is microcosm and rehearsal for all of the power relations of public authority. Employers, police officers and religious leaders each embody different aspects of this power relation. Although these power relations are generally less obvious than the alpha-male / alpha-female of other hominids, they are no less significant. We like to know where we stand in relation to others, so we can present ourselves accordingly.

The instant omnipresence of the mobile has scrambled all our power relations, overthrowing some while rewriting others. Since the broadcast of the video of Rodney King’s beating by the LAPD, all police have evinced a hostility to videography, because revealing power undermines its authority. Connection pierces the veil of power, removing its mystery, rendering it impotent.

The new power relations of the classroom already extend throughout the entire world. Now that perhaps a billion and a half people carry networked video cameras in their pockets, the opportunities for a sudden turning of the tables have multiplied furiously. Each connection holds within it the possibility of a challenge to authority. The mobile provides a lever long enough to move the world.

This fundamental reconfiguration of power relations has been even less remarked upon than the sudden upswing in human connectivity. This redistribution of power comes as the inevitable consequence of our sudden omnipresence. The teacher can not control the students; the dictator can control the restive populace; no one will do as they are told. There is no control anywhere. When we picked up the mobile we had to surrender the cudgel.

We want to believe our power relations have remained as they always have, unchanged for many thousands of years. Top and bottom. Inside and outside. Elect and damned. A mobile, transmitting a faithful reproduction of a teacher’s angry words, tells us everything has already changed.

 

7 – #REVOLUTION

As the world grows more connected, it grows more tumultuous. Fifty years ago, Marshal McLuhan described electric media as extensions of the human nervous system. In the same way that our nerves signal pain, heat, or a gentle caress by the transmission of an electric signal, so our devices – telegraphs and telephones, radios and televisions, laptops and mobiles – carry signals from distant points. The greater our connectivity, the broader our sensitivity. We might desensitize from constant exposure to a particular image or sound, but we remain alert, continuously bombarded by new stimuli, perpetually off-balance as we struggle to take it all in.

The world beating down our doors has an immediacy that McLuhan termed the ‘global village’. Everything happens in our own backyard, or feels as though it does, even when it occurs on the other side of the world. Without an ‘over there’, it becomes difficult to maintain the illusion of otherness we have always used to reinforce our innate xenophobia. We can turn away, unplug, and reinforce ourselves with comfortable, oft-told tales of who we are and our place in the world. But the world itself has become relentless, unceasing in its presentation of everything, all the time.

Some of the stories we hear resonate with our own experience. We learn that others’ tastes match our own, or of a shared, secret hope, or that what angers us also angers them. An anger which had been hidden – by social constraint or threat of force – becomes an acknowledged part of lived experience. It comes ‘out of the closet’, and, once made public, begins to shape our actions. Freed from self-censorship, shared understanding motivates us to act. “All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing.”

What is to be done?

The same network sensitizing us to the anger of others carries within it the seeds of a response. These responses range from a politically bruising joke, spread by text message, to smartphone software that automates a boycott, all the way to detailed instructions on how to build an explosive device. The network faithfully copies the responses of any point in the network to all other points that find this response sufficiently interesting. The network becomes the replicator of responses, and as these responses proliferate, people become more capable.

Capacity-building leads to action. Every new capacity changes the possible scope of our actions. Even if we practice perfect restraint, an awareness of our capabilities pervades every act. Where restraint has been overwhelmed by anger, capability finds expression. An uprising begins. It could be as mild as a boycott against a monopoly publisher of scientific papers, or as convulsive and comprehensive as Egypt’s January 25th Revolution. The pattern of connect -> share -> learn -> do sits at the core of each of these moments of acting together.

These uprisings become white-hot moments of hyperconnectivity. Everyone looks to one another, watching and learning from one another, learning how to act most effectively in pursuit of goals. Tips and tricks spread like wildfire. Failures propagate just as quickly, so mistakes made once are rarely replicated. Everything moves quickly as many minds buzz with shared possibilities, some of which finds consensus and moves into the actual.

There is no center, anywhere, no leader, no puppet master pulling the strings. There are no conspirators who can be removed to break the back of the movement. There are no officials to corrupt or blackmail. This confraternity of the angered must soothe itself.

Some inevitably see the network as the engine of the discord, mistaking the messenger for the message, attempting to smother the uprising by pulling the plug. But networks are not machinery. The instrumentation which implements a network is distinct from the network itself. Remove the machinery and the network – the connection between individuals – remains. Once created, networks are very, very difficult to destroy.

Networks respond when attacked, learning from their enemies, deepening their resilience with every battle. A network which has never been assaulted likely contains great vulnerabilities, while a network that has gone to war against a great power emerges from that conflict as a power in its own right.

Dependable for five thousand years, in this billion seconds the logic and rules of power have become wildly perverse. Individuals hold almost unfathomable power while the state loses its ability to reign in the capabilities of those it seeks to govern. At the end of this billion seconds, that kind of control will belong to history.

Even if we felled every cellular tower, pulled up every meter of copper and glass fibre, and wrecked every bit of network machinery, we could not change this, because this change has already happened to us. It was accelerated by our machines, but that machinery is no longer essential. We know what we know, so we do what we do.

We know what we know, but we do not know that we know. Our actions are clumsy. We sleepwalk, stumble, and lash out, unaware that we can perfect our coordination and act with precision. We daydream our way into hyperempowerment: although we draw our power from our networks, we do not yet understand how.

The whole point of this book is to show us how our networks have driven us inexorably into hyperempowerment, how it arises inevitably from hyperconnectivity, and how we can put this radical extension of human capability to work. “Revolution without revelation is tyranny. Revelation without revolution is slavery.” We are in the midst of revolution. Things will only grow more chaotic as more individuals, drawn into networks of interest, express these extended capabilities. Revelation is the only option left to us: we must learn who we are.

To do that, we must begin with who we once were.

4 – #REPLICATION

Networks are copying machines.  There is no magic to them, beyond this: data presented at any point on the network can be copied to every other point within the network, nearly instantaneously.   A text message can be reproduced across six billion mobiles within a few seconds.  A single email, copied and multiplied, could reach every one of the greater than two billion of us with Internet access.  Neither of these extraordinary events require anything beyond the networks already in place.  The network can copy all of us in on the same memo.

Networks have no other point: they copy and copy and copy.  They can’t do anything else.  Every other quality we ascribe to a network (and this book describes a multitude of them) is a product of our own interactions across the network, not of the network itself.

Short of unplugging it, there is no way to stop a network from copying.  The network doesn’t perform copying as one of its features: to network is to copy.  Networks allow the replication of information at speeds nearing that of light, so every point of connection, however far-flung, acts upon the same data.

The Internet, born to service a resilient command-and-control system, designed to withstand the Mutually Assured Destruction of thermonuclear war, replicated the tactical information within each of the US Defense Department’s strategic installations, so that each base had a complete, real-time overview of the battlefield.  Should part of the network vanish – vaporized – the remaining portions of the network could pool their tactical observations to maintain situational awareness.  To disrupt the tactical capability provided by the network, it must completely destroyed, because for as long as any part of the network exists, it will continue to replicate information.

In the years between the genesis of the Internet and hyperconnected present, we have created networks for militaries, governments, businesses, institutions of all kinds, and, finally, individuals.  The network is nearly coextensive with the species, with nearly eighty-five percent of humanity continuously connected to it.

These networks, like all networks that have ever existed, replicate information, but now do so ubiquitously.  Reports of an earthquake travel faster than the earthquake itself.   Copied from those who have the information to those who need to have it, the more important something is, the faster it replicates across the network. Because it copies, network is an information amplifier, making anything whispered almost infinitely loud.

We feed the network with things we find important, and if others share our enthusiasm, those things will be copied across the network.  At one extreme, it could be news of a massive temblor; at the other, it could be a melodramatic pop song that struck just the right emotional chord.  The network does not care what it copies, has no awareness of ‘media’, only information.  A tune or an image or a cry for help: although each will be replicated faithfully, they mean nothing to the network.  The network does not know; it only knows to copy.

When information is replicated across the network, the recipients of that information respond to it.  “All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing.”  The cry for help will be answered, the image viewed, the tune heard.  Within us, the response to information is nearly as automatic a function as the replicating function of the network.  We respond to everything we are exposed to, even if only in a change of thought or mood.

Some responses are stronger than others.  Some responses are so strong that they provoke attacks on the network itself.  Confusing the strength of the provocation with the capability of the network, and ascribing to the network an agency which it can not possess, attempts are made to shoot the messenger.   But the network can not provoke, it can only copy.

When the network is attacked, news of that attack is copied across the network.  Whether that attack comes from a hydrogen bomb or a lawsuit is of no particular consequence.  The existence of the attack is enough.  Networks copy the state of each of their endpoints: if any endpoint comes under threat, all other endpoints know of it.  In short order, the attack provokes a response.  The network, sensitized to the existence of a threat, answers across its entirety.

That brings us to the present moment, to a network responding to a perceived attack.  The legislative cudgel of SOPA/PIPA, with its implicit threat of censorship (censorship is any process which prevents the network from faithfully replicating information) has become common knowledge, propagated by the network it seeks to control.  The responses, at first marginal, then measured, have recently cascaded into a non-linear zone of amplification, as the network demonstrates to itself what it means to tamper with its essence as a replicating machine.

Wikipedia is a near-perfect instance of a product of a network replicator.  Facts presented at any point in the network become instantly available – for consumption, review, editing or discussion – across the entire network.  In less than a decade Wikipedia went from wishful thinking to indispensable resource, serving as a factual foundation for our intellectual efforts.

It isn’t until that foundation disappears that we recognize our dependency upon it: fish are unaware of water.  We are immersed in a sea of factual information orders of magnitude greater than any generation before us, knowledge instantly and ubiquitously accessible, via the network.  We use that information to broaden our knowledge, and with that knowledge, make better, more-informed decisions.  “All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing.”

Any interruption in knowing must inevitably weaken our ability to do, narrowing the scope of our capabilities.  That is the price of censorship in any form – political, cultural, or economic.  In a wholly networked world that price becomes immediately visible.   “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsim.”   People will not suffer the destruction of their capabilities, not when they can use the network to defend those capabilities.

Now that the knowledge that the network can be used to defend itself has replicated throughout the network, the network has become exponentially more resilient and resistant to any attempts to alter its fundamental replicating function.  Trying to kill the network has only made it stronger.