55 – #TOMORROW

Beijing apartment fire, tweeted live

What does the future hold? Sown today, the seeds of the future show us what tomorrow brings.

For example, consider a request recently issued by Matt (@ponk):

Carried from person to person, each forwarding it along into their own connections, this plea reached tens of thousands of people within a few hours, some of them Welsh-speakers, and eager to help. Matt quickly got flooded in offers of assistance, finally lamenting, “I wish there was some way to tell everyone I’ve received the help I asked for.” Thanks travel more slowly, and less broadly, than requests for help. Matt will find people responding to his request for some weeks to come, as it slowly diffuses out to hyperconnected humanity.

Even just a few years ago, with no way to reach out and reach everyone with our requests, we didn’t even think in these terms. We settled for what we had at hand, and made the best of it. Now we bring the best the planet has to offer to everything we do. Yet we do this inconsistently because we do not remember that in every moment we have billions with us. Only when it occurs to us do we fall back on our line of supply – fortified with hyperconnectivity, hyperdistribution and hyperintelligence transformed into hyperempowerment – acting with unprecedented strength. Like Matt, we frequently seem amazed and almost overwhelmed by our own capabilities.

In other ways, we take these new capabilities entirely for granted.

A fire in an apartment block in Beijing gets tweeted (with an accompanying dramatic photo) almost as soon as smoke pours from the building. Anyone listening for news from Beijing would see this photo, despite the fact that Twitter is banned in China, pervasively censored within an autocratic and ever-vigilant state. Somehow the news leaks out from behind the ‘Great Firewall’, where, almost immediately, it gets picked up by and shared with everyone who cares about Beijing. This happens not over days, but within minutes.

Hyperconnectivity has given us eyes everywhere, seeing things when others see them. We no longer wait for wire services or newspapers to tell us what’s happening. In an unremarked upon reversal, we now tell them. We pass along the important items that merit broader coverage. We are the news, but somehow this fact is not news. Everything looks much as it did half a billion seconds ago, even though everything now works quite differently.

Having eyes everywhere does change some things, as my friend Rod (@rod3000) indicates with this tweet:

In a hyperconnected culture, the near impossibility of anonymity of any public act gives us all pause. Someone, somewhere has the capacity to capture and share our actions. Anything done in secret will be broadcast, if it incites enough interest. Rod runs every day – and has undoubtedly endured his share of taunts over the years – but only recently realized he could share those taunts with others – and direct his observations to the police department monitoring probationary ‘P-plate’ drivers.

Rod needn’t have beamed the message to the authorities; his message would have found its way there, eventually, forwarded along by someone who took offense at the act. That’s one scenario, but it’s easy to imagine things spinning slightly out-of-control: his message could have inspired some of the public to action, a hyperochlocracy that could quickly translate a license plate into an owner, an owner into a driver, and a driver into a target of derision.

The boundaries of acceptable public behavior have always been arbitrated by the mob. Go too far and the mob will shun you, taunt you, perhaps even kill you. The mob serves as the mindless enforcer of the public will.

In the United Arab Emirates, the public – which favors conservative Islamic dress, up to and including the whole-body-covering abaya – Emiratis have been confronted by a deluge of foreigners (only 10% of the population of the UAE are native-born) with very different customs of dress and personal modesty. Asma al-Muhairi, a young Emirati, took it upon herself to begin a campaign to bring modesty back to the public places – malls, parks, beaches and restaurants. From the Twitter account @UAEDressCode, al-Muhairi connects to and works with other Emiratis to bring modest dress back into the public sphere.

The account has become a gathering place for people to connect, share, learn from one another, then transform that learning into doing, eventually catching the attention of the UAE’s Federal National Council, which pledged stronger measures to enforce the existing dress codes. Should hyperochlocracy successfully pressure UAE’s foreign-born population into conservative public dress, it will be a victory for the hyperconnected. But even if the campaign fails, everyone who participated in it has learned from their experience, and will put that experience to work the next time they need it.

Although we might imagine hyperochlocracy and hyperpolitics serve only radical ends, they can equally serve as the enforcers of conservative values. Wherever the mob finds an organizing principle, hyperochlocracies emerge. As we become more connected, we find ourselves increasingly confronted by the actions of others, inhabiting a state of continuous agitation (bordering, at times, on outrage), and as a result giving birth to an unending series of hyperochlocracies. Paradoxically, when we try to turn our backs on the future, we instinctively reach for the tools the future has provided.

In a 2003 interview with THE ECONOMIST, science fiction writer William Gibson (who coined the term ‘cyberspace’) quipped, ‘The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ Tomorrow has already arrived. The technologies have been deployed. We are all already hyperconnected — if we spend the next half billion seconds bringing the remaining two billion into hyperconnectivity, that’s little more than a denouement, almost an afterthought. The hard work is done.

Buzzing with ideas, each of us shares everything of importance, learning more and more every day about how to thrive in a hyperconnected world. Everything we learn we pass along, so we are learning very quickly now. Every day brings something new. The future is already here, and we hold the instrument of its distribution in our hands. Today. We no longer need to wait until tomorrow.

54 – #DISRUPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

52 – #FIGHT

At the start of 2008, Anonymous went to war. A YouTube video, posted that January, featured actor Tom Cruise extolling the virtues of the Church of Scientology. The Church, lawyers ever at the ready, claimed the video was ‘pirated and edited’, and threatened YouTube with litigation unless they removed from the site.

That seemingly minor act proved the casus belli of one of the oddest conflicts of recent times. Anonymous, at that time more of a loose association than a coherent force, used Scientology’s act of censorship-by-threat-of-lawsuit as a rallying cry, which concretized in the hyperpolitical ‘Project Chanology’.

Project Chanology began with Anonymous (hyperconnected via the 711chan.org and 4chan.org websites) sharing strategies and techniques for an attack on the Church of Scientology. Lacking any explicit command-and-control structures, ideas could be quickly proposed and implemented (by some group, somewhere), or ignored.

Black faxes – which kept lines busy while quickly running through the supply of expensive ink – started popping out of Church fax machines. Church websites went down in Distributed Denial of Service attacks, assaulted by thousands of computers simultaneously. Prank calls jammed Church phone lines. To the Church, it probably seemed as though the machines had revolted against their masters — or that teenagers had taken over the Internet.

The Church of Scientology, never one to turn the other cheek, went on the counter-offensive, branding Anonymous ‘cyberterrorists’ perpetrating ‘religious hate crimes’. But though the Church issued numerous statements and declamations, they could do very little to stop or even slow Anonymous. The Church had always been able to sue any opponents of its practices into silence, because those opponents had a body that could be targeted. Anonymous, everywhere and nowhere, potent yet invisible, had no face, and could not be threatened. Like a will-’o-the-wisp, striking out at Anonymous only left the Church spinning, dragged along in the wake of its own punch.

Gradually, Anonymous developed another battle plan, one which struck the Church at its root – its tax-exempt status. This effort – predicted to take months to years – completed the transformation of Project Chanology from a momentary blip of hyperempowerment into hyperpolitics, a persistent force confronting a poorly-matched enemy.

Anonymous used just a tiny portion of the spectrum of hyperpolitical techniques available to it. Had its hyperconnected, hyperempowered constituents been sufficiently interested, they could have laboriously trawled through the Church’s public financial statements, looking for inconsistencies, an effort in crowdsourcing similar to that performed by the UK Guardian newspaper, as it analyzed hundreds of thousands of expense reports from Westminster MPs, igniting the greatest political scandal of recent British history. Or someone could have written an app – like an inverted Foursquare – allowing Anonymous to track the movements of the Church hierarchy, and inviting anyone within range to participate in spontaneous protests, ensuring Church leaders never have a moment’s peace. Or an app which highlighted all of the products manufactured or sold by Scientology-affiliated companies, allowing Anonymous (and its friends) to easily boycott them.

The possibilities are practically endless, and reveal the half-hearted nature of the ‘war’ between Anonymous and Scientology. Anonymous didn’t really try to destroy the Church; if anything, Anonymous acted more like a cat toying with a mouse. We could destroy you, Anonymous seemed to be saying, but why bother?

The war between powers formally constituted, and those hyperconnected and hyperempowered has been going on for over a decade – ever since Napster, strangled in the crib by the recording industry, posthumously gave birth to Gnutella and BitTorrent. But it’s never been a fair fight; it’s only ever been a rout. Power uses the law and the threat of force in an attempt to bend the world to its will, while the hyperempowered invariably find a way to route around every obstacle thrown in their path. Worse, every time power strikes at hyperempowerment, the hyperempowered study the attack, learn from it, share that learning, and put it into practice, emerging with amplified levels of hyperempowerment. This is the Taoist paradox: only by doing nothing can power achieve anything at all.

Over the next billion seconds, as power becomes powerless, the triumph of the hyperempowered will be complete. At times, the hyperempowered will engage power directly and defeat it utterly. Most often, hyperochlocracy will simply ignore power, and carry on in its actions without even breaking stride.

Every encounter with an opponent is a learning experience. From the first, every fight has always been a period of rapid-fire connecting and sharing. Enemies learn from one another, becoming like one another as each battles toward supremacy.

When the hyperempowered land a killing blow and lay waste to power, they transform power into hyperempowerment. With every fight and every connection knowledge is transferred. Over the next billion seconds, through this mechanism, all power becomes hyperempowered, and all politics hyperpolitics.

This is the realm of the bellum omnium contra omnes, the ‘war of all against all’ prophesied by Hobbes in Leviathan, nearly 400 years ago. However, this is not the selfish, grasping behavior of individual Homo Sapiens – whose only salvation, according to Hobbes, lay in a benevolent but absolute monarch – but the hyperconnected, hyperdistributed, hypermimetic, hyperintelligent, hyperempowered, hyperochlocratic hyperpolitics of Homo Nexus. The war of all against all is the war of multiple manys against other multiple manys.

War is the health of a new state of being; a communion of many, the cohesive connection around something deemed sufficiently salient to command continuous involvement and attention. Flying apart means coming together, though differently constituted.

Where the hyperempowered fight one another, when like strikes like, there the sparks fly. Each hit accelerates the transfer of learning, and each combatant rapidly comes to resemble its opponent. Conflicts of hyperempowerment either end quickly – as one side overwhelms and consumes the other – or grind into stalemate, as each seeks an advantage unavailable to the other, a near impossibility.

The next billion seconds will look more like pandemic civil war than any time in our recent past, as the hyperempowered collude with one another to fight against one another. Hyperpolitical polities will rise, and in rising, produce their own opposition. The paradox of Taoism plagues hyperpolitics as well: every maneuver generates a precisely opposed countervailing force. As before, two sides grind on, although everything has changed.

 

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.

42 – #MEDIC

The objection always comes, always sounding the same notes of incredulity and fear. “But”, it always begins, “you can’t honestly believe this. Things don’t really work this way.”

Always framed around expertise, this objection asserts the primacy of the individual, their training and experience inherently superior to anything that might be derived from hyperconnected, hyperdistributed hyperintelligence. Their learning, over years, at the feet of masters, must always trump anything learned just about anywhere else from anyone else.

They refute the new, arguing for the tradition of education, and the transmission of mysteries: these count, but nothing else. New mechanisms of knowledge formation must be inherently suspect because they lie beyond the time-honored systems which have always fostered expertise. They have no history, no substance. Insubstantial, these new practices are meaningless, even dangerous.

For the coup de gras, they conjure an image of a surgeon, poised over an anaesthetized body, and ask the question: “Medical school… or Wikipedia?”

We are not used to the discontinuous growth in empowerment wrought by hyperintelligence. We can not imagine ourselves suddenly transformed and equipped with new capabilities. Conditioned by the way things have always worked, we expect everything to remain the same even after everything has changed completely.

Confronted by this ridiculous demand to cleave to the old and trusted over the new and raw, we seek the safety of the known, even as it exposes itself not in wisdom, but rather, its opposite.

Doctors become less accurate over the course of their careers, yet ever more sure of their diagnoses. Their guesses concretize into opinions and ossify into facts, tight and tidy, personal and specific. No one is perfect, but we have the knack of reinforcing our imperfections, buttressing our ignorance with willful stupidity.

Doctors are by no means singular or exceptional; we all do this, and we all do this all the time. We all think we know more than we actually do, and we act on that knowledge. As Twain once wrote, ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble — it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so!’

By ourselves, we know less than we believe. Hyperconnected, we know more than we realize, far more than we give ourselves credit for. One mind can wallow in ignorance undisturbed, but a group of minds will see beyond the mind-forg’d manacles that blind anyone one of them.

We all now bring all of us into every situation, every decision. Never alone, we can refer back to what others have written, or in the moment ask what others think. We can take this advice or ignore it, as suits the situation and our temperament, but we will never again be free from it. These voices in our heads seek to help us into more perfect action.

If we are not perfect in the application of hyperintelligence, we are continuously improving. Hyperintelligence focuses upon itself, seeking to improve itself. As we grow in hyperintelligence, we become more refined both in our technique and application of hyperintelligence. It becomes a fundamental feature of our being, an ontological leap across the abyss of unknowing. In mid-air, we feel the propulsion that will land us safely on the other side, but we also sense much we once believed solid suddenly slip away, dropping into the nameless depths below.

Respect for authority; respect for tradition; respect for those who command respect. All of this has become increasingly provisional, all of it less and less necessary to the smooth functioning of culture, as the systems which preserved and protected us obsolesce before rising hyperintelligence. The auteur, supplanted by the hyperconnected amateur, struggles to find footing in an environment which privileges the connected over the singular.

“Medical school… or Wikipedia?” Increasingly, the answer will be ‘Wikipedia’, as we learn how to construct systems which take the best of what it is known and bring it into focus for those who have the greatest need to know it. Doctors will not disappear – nor any other profession – but their specifics now grow diffuse. They will not be able to function by themselves, any more than any of us can. The doctor is a cloud of connections: to peers, patients, and knowledge. This is already true, this has always been true, and is now growing more true.

We want the surgeon who can not simply operate from prejudice, but must, at every moment, sharpen themselves against the whetstone of hyperintelligence. We want the close collaboration wrought by hyperconnectivity to act both as correction and critique, showing us the way into a continuous improvement of our capabilities. We want this, we need this, and we now have this.

But it is painful. No one likes to be reminded of their ignorance, all of the blocks which we fill with assumptions that mirror our unspoken and unconscious beliefs. We would rather retreat into a fantasy reinforced through selectivity, cutting off more and more of the obvious truth where it lies at variance with our desire. We would be islands, self-sufficient and secure, ignorant of the sea which touches all. But the ocean rises, and all lands soon will disappear beneath the waves.

In that sudden continuous sea, expertise supplants profession, and knowledge brought to hand carries greater weight than anything laboriously learned, simply because the collection of billions of minds immediately outweighs any specific genius of any single person. Genius drowns beneath the rising tide of hyperconnectivity, unless that gift, shared with others, becomes part of the broadly known. It has always been like this, but it has never been this clear.

People will be known for knowing what they know. Masters will continue. It is the process of mastery that has changed beyond all recognition. The medical school is Wikipedia, and all of us as well, connected, sharing and learning, all looking on, as the scalpel goes in.

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.

 

23 – #LOSS

“I can’t wait to get my implant.”

Staring at the woman, dumbfounded, I realize she wants to be cut open, perhaps behind the ear, with all of the delicate electronics that enable connectivity laced into the space underneath the skin, tucked up against her cranium like an ivy scaling an old brick wall. She wants to link – to think, and be connected.

She finds this idea irresistible.

The only way I can confront this unexpected lust for the future – rushing to embrace a wave of annihilating change – is with the unvarnished truth. “Where is your mobile right now?”

“Here,” she says, gesturing at her handbag.

“And where is it when you go to sleep at night?”

“On the bedstand, right next to me. It’s my alarm clock.”

“When is your mobile ever more than a meter away from you?”

She considers this. “When I’m in the shower, maybe. That’s about it.”

Why do you need to get an implant? It’s already effectively part of you. What do you gain by putting it inside of you?” She wrestles with this question for the brief moment it takes her to accept that she has already arrived at her destination. She already has an implant.

Nearly all of us carry our mobiles with us nearly all the time. The vast majority of us sleep next to them, restoring ourselves as they recharge. We are no longer ever alone, not even for a moment.

This loss has gone unnoticed. We grow alarmed at a loss of signal, but seem unable to recognize the absence of a penumbra of quiet which had always been available to us, before hyperconnectivity. We could step away from the world, away from the interruptions and influences of others, away from their thoughts and feelings, and be wholly in ourselves.

We immediately adapted to the continuous presence of others, moving from an empty mansion into a crowded, noisy hostel without missing a beat. We wear the close connectivity of the tribe as comfortably as an old pair of shoes. The oldest parts of us instinctively understand how to be within relations that endure without interruption. We evolved as creatures always within a convenient cooee. Now that call has gone global, restoring everything lost in the flowering of civilization. In hyperconnectivity we have both the anonymity of the mob and the definite identity of the tribe. We may have no particular location, but we are noticed the moment we disappear.

Emergency services have recently seen a sharp uptick in the number of hikers needing a quick recovery from the bush. Hikers stroll into Australia’s substantial parklands, never bothering to file a route plan with the relevant authorities, as it never occurs to them that they could find themselves many kilometers from the nearest cell tower, at the bottom of a ravine, lost, and needing assistance.

Confident in their connectivity, laden with GPS and mobile maps, thinking themselves the equal of any situation, they reach for their mobiles — only to find them useless — and encounter, perhaps for the first time, absolute solitude. The connection gives way to silence, and their confidence collapses. Never having been alone, they confront solitude without any resilience wrought from prior experience.

This same has become true for all of us: the sting of hyperconnectivity. The price we pay for being connected is a certain helplessness in its absence. Every time we reach for the mobile, turning to one another for assistance, we lose some innate capacity to confront the world by ourselves. These losses accumulate until, with half a billion seconds left to go, we could only turn back to our prior, disconnected selves with great difficulty and enormous resistance. We could choose to repent. Instead we accelerate toward this new combination of mutual aid and individual weakness.

Our actions as individuals become the movements of a global culture. At the end of 2008, when, for the first time in history, half of humanity became urban-dwellers, half of humanity owned their own mobile, a synchronicity revealing the alignment of old and new ideas of connectivity. The urban revolution took ten thousand years; the main body of Homo Nexus arrived in less than half a billion seconds, two cultural transformations intersecting in a shared conception of proximity.

The network collapses space to a single point, but, like the city, connectivity has its center, boundary, and areas beyond its reach. As they have always been, cities remain centers of connectivity, with some attention paid to the sprawling suburbs separating them from the vast and sparsely populated regions beyond. Eighty-five percent of the human race lives within range of a mobile signal (more than have access to clean water) but this coverage represents less than sixty percent of the Earth’s surface.

The lure of connectivity has been drawing us together for a hundred centuries. Hyperconnectivity draws a sharp line between the extensive capabilities of Homo Nexus and the rural, agrarian humanity out of signal range. During the next half billion seconds, the boundary will grow more distinct as this new urban form manifests itself in an explosion of capacity. Rural depopulation will accelerate as connectivity becomes irresistible and its absence unimaginable.

We will develop techniques to extend connectivity beyond the urban cores, satellites and longwave subsumed within the preeminent demand for continuous coverage, but the quality of that connection will be inversely proportional to the distance from the hyperconnected center. Some will adapt to life at the margins, but few will embrace that life willingly. We have surrendered our singular selves to the communion of others, and do not mourn the loss.

22 – #LOVE

For the science-fiction epic Avatar, writer-director James Cameron invented the ecosystem of ‘Pandora’, a planet different from Earth, yet familiar enough to remain recognizable and sympathetic – equal parts Jurassic Park and Microcosmos. Every living thing glows a phosphorescent blue in the darkness of night (a conceit that looks stunning on screen), and all of the more complex animals come equipped with tendrils that provide a direct connection into the creature’s nervous system. The film’s hero, a human incarnated into an ‘avatar’ body, learns to ‘link’ with various animals – the Pandoran equivalents of horses and pterodactyls – in order to tame them. In the film’s central scene, the hero links with his romantic interest – a Pandoran princess – as the screen fades to black.

Cameron wrote the screenplay for Avatar in the mid-2000s, just when the mobile had become a fixed feature of life in the developed world. Science fiction frequently serves as a mirror into the present (Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was actually about the Britain of 1948) and Cameron gave our new-found hyperconnectivity a physical basis in Pandoran physiology, making those implicit connections tangible and visible.

The climax of Avatar involves the defense of the ‘Tree of Souls’, portrayed as a vegetal nexus, bridging the gap between the ‘Na’vi’ (Pandora’s indigenous humanoids) and ‘Eywa’, the Pandoran world-soul. The Tree of Souls connects the Na’vi to their ancestors, to the Pandoran biosphere, and the divine. The resource-hungry human antagonists realize that the destruction of the Tree of Souls will reduce the Na’vi to a broken people, refugees on their own world, cut off from the greater life of Pandora, from their history, and from one another. Cameron highlighted the dread we feel when disconnected from the network, cleverly crafting a situation every hyperconnected individual could sympathize with.

Our connections are emotional. In our hearts, we feel their presence and absence. The emotional quality of our first connection – with our mothers – colours all others. That bond becomes the bridge to love, flowing unconditionally from child to mother. Every other connection carries within it the expectation of that unconditional love, and even if we never again achieve the surrender and innocence of our earliest moments, it remains our deepest wish. Adults frame these wishes against their experience of connection – complicated, fraught, often clumsy – while adolescents, closer to their origins, believe every connection will reproduce the love they learned from mother. Time teaches them to lower their expectations.

The mobile has become the visible manifestation of the emotions evoked by our connections. Although, unlike the tendrils of the Pandorans, they have not burrowed their way beneath into our biology, we carry our mobiles everywhere. We use them to link with one another, consult the spirits of the ancestors (through their writings), and, as we watch feeds and updates scroll by, tune into the whispers of the global mind. We may imagine ourselves separate, but we yearn to link with all, dissolving in a sea of love.

Tribal humanity, constantly connected across a lifetime, knew this connectivity intimately. Take a tribal human out the tribe and, stripped of the emotional presence they have always known, they lose their resilience, like toddler abandoned. The urban revolution brought the focus to smaller units of extended families, then the industrial revolution shattered that extended family into a spare, tiny nucleus. Just as this process reached its uttermost extent – with absolute individuation – the mobile created a new quality of connection. We now recover our original tribal connectivity, but at global scale.

The bond between mother and child has been touched by this hyperconnectivity. Dr. Genevieve Bell, Intel Fellow and Anthropologist-in-Residence, recorded an unexpected instance of this transformation in a South Korean classroom. Interviewing students whose parents had given them mobiles with GPS-tracking features – so parents could know precisely where those children are, every moment of the day – Dr. Bell asked these children if they felt comfortable under the steady gaze of constant parental surveillance. One child pointed toward another child in the room, saying, “She doesn’t have one of these phones. Her parents don’t love her enough to care where she is.” The child instinctively located the emotional relationship within the device.

Dr. Sherry Turkle, who has studied the relation of children and computing for a generation, has noted that children no longer differentiate from their parents as quickly or completely as before, and points to the mobile as the cause. When a child heads off to university, they now call the parent every day (sometimes several times a day) seeking information, advice, or just a sympathetic ear. The hard boundaries which previously marked entry into adulthood have grown fuzzy, because mobile omnipresence places the parent everywhere the child has a need.

Although Turkle believes this most recent phenomenon might represent a retardation of the processes of adulthood and individuation, it actually marks a return to the prelapsarian state before the utter individuation of late urbanization. Until quite recently – perhaps a hundred years ago – parents rarely separated from their children. Everyone remained within the same village – often within the same household – throughout an entire lifetime. This relation has been suddenly recovered, a reversal of a century of cultural patterns which created the knife-edge of instant adulthood. Children and parents now reside in a connection mediated by the mobile, omnipresent and continuous.

Because it is now possible, continuous emotional engagement has become an option in all our relations. We are seeking to recover the undifferentiated acceptance of our relation to our mothers, looking to every contact as a path back to this unity. Inevitably, we will be frustrated. From that frustration we are learning how to modulate our emotional boundaries on a global scale.

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.

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.