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.


17 – #LATE

I made my first trip to Australia in 1997. Australia is a long way from anywhere – even neighboring Indonesia is an eight-hour flight to Sydney. Los Angeles, where I lived at the time, is a solid fifteen hours in the air – about the limit of endurance. Although very far away, I knew a few people living in Sydney, and after I’d finished my business, I called one of them from my hotel room to arrange dinner. We agreed on whom to invite (ten friends and friends of friends) and time and place to meet – Friday evening, 6.30 pm, in front of the massive IMAX theatre in Sydney’s Darling Harbour.

Ten minutes before the appointed hour, I stood in front of the theatre, waiting for my friends to arrive. They drifted up, in ones and twos, but by quarter to seven, only half had shown up. The others — well, wherever they were, they weren’t with us.

Coordinating a large party has always been a nightmarish exercise in logistics. As more people become involved, everything gains viscosity and congeals, unless predefined processes lubricate the ambiguities surrounding any sort of mass action. If people know what to do when the unexpected eventuates, they will respond accordingly, continuing to move toward the goal of the group. Corporations have perfected this flavor of necessarily routinized, bureaucratic activity, and so can harness the energies of hundreds or thousands of individuals in a common task.

Going out to dinner is a task of an entirely different sort. Its informality makes inflexibility anathema; dinner is not work, nor do people willingly confuse the two. There are no rules to follow, so when plans fail, they can fall apart completely. That’s pretty much what I believed, that evening in Darling Harbour, as I waited for the rest of my friends to arrive. Either we would go on without them, and would not see them, or we would wait (who knows how long?) for them to arrive.

While I sat, stuck on the horns of this dilemma, one of my friends pulled a mobile from his pocket – a smallish thing in bright blue plastic – dialed one of the missing party-goers, and arranged to have them meet us at dinner. Crisis resolved instantly, smoothly, and effortlessly. The evening was saved, all friends eventually united.

This story has two points worthy of note: the first is that this episode is utterly quotidian. These days, this sort of thing happens so frequently, we barely even notice that now adjust our social schedules on-the-fly, because we can. Individuals connected are individuals coordinated, capable of adapting themselves to any eventuality. The connected act not as two, but two-as-one, because in the act of communication, each becomes responsive to the other. Each surrenders a bit of their own desire in pursuit of a common goal.

In itself, that surrender is nothing new. The dance of connection has always been about surrender: the trusting surrender of the child listening carefully to the parent; the anxious surrender to authority; the playful, back-and-forth surrender in love. We listen and learn, we talk and teach, we commune and collaborate, inhabiting all three of these worlds simultaneously, bound together through relations and connections.

These relations had always been bounded by space; even the landline telephone, tied to a particular spot, only extended the reach of the individual’s ability to connect. The mobile made space an obsolete element in relationship, removing all constraints of where. The only determinant now is who we choose to connect with and relate to.

This shift from place to person marks a fundamental transformation in human relations, but one which has gone almost entirely unnoticed. Although human connectivity it may be the single most significant quality of the 21st century, it is also among the least remarked upon. We are so comfortable with human relations that amplifying them enormously provokes little more than a sigh of relief and (occasionally) a squeal of delight.

We now inhabit a world where no one is late anymore, just delayed. You can always phone ahead, or send a text message, keeping everyone informed and aware of your progress toward the common goal. There are no gaps or rough edges of ambiguity where others have no idea, in your absence, what should be done. The mobile has given us a very tangible taste of omnipresence. It may not be a bodily, pantheistic omnipresence, but we can put our ears, minds and voices together with others wherever and whenever needed. We can act omnipresently, and that is enough.

The second remarkable feature of this Australian story concerns my own reaction to the situation. As an American, I had no understanding of the mobile, nor any experience of the omnipresence it provides. I could not imagine any action to solve the dilemma of the missing friends. I believed nothing could be done about it. My ignorance limited my potential. In this, I was similar to the rest of my countrymen: we did not yet understand how the mobile transformed human relations.

For that understanding to dawn, enough of the population must possess a mobile that movements toward omnipresence are reinforced by repeated experience. You must connect – again and again and again – before you can truly comprehend this sudden omnipresence. Until there is sufficient uptake within a given group of people – a community or a nation – the mobile is useful, but not fundamentally transformational. When enough people have enough mobiles in enough numbers, people begin to accept the reality of omnipresence and act upon it.

The Australia I came to visit in 1997 had just passed the halfway point in mobile adoption. Over fifty percent of the nation carried mobiles with them. Meanwhile, in America, barely one in six used a mobile, and it would be another four years until mobiles connected half of the population of the richest nation on Earth. Already equipped with an excellent wired infrastructure, America came late to the party, and late to an understanding of omnipresence.

The rest of the world took rather less time to find their way into this new state of affairs.