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.

 

39 – #MYSTERY

All is known in the Age of Omniscience, but no one knows everything. Most know nothing at all about a particular something, while, through diligence, a few have achieved true mastery. This mastery is not something that can be proclaimed; rather, it exists only when recognized. Expertise has its own gravitational force, attracting those to it who feel themselves irresistibly drawn to learn.

The master is never hermetic. Masters might choose to sequester themselves behind the filters of acolytes, ensuring only those whose needs can not be addressed by lesser talents make their way through. Masters can choose to declaim themselves openly, taking all comers with whatever talents they present. In either case, expertise is social and transactional, conferred more than inferred. You are not an expert until others say you are.

From the moment a master is recognized, they become visible both to those working toward their own expertise, and to all other masters. Our competitive instinct drives us in both situations: peer-group approval in any community of knowledge is principally engendered by the mastery of that knowledge. The more one knows, the higher one’s standing. Anyone engaged in ‘climbing the ladder’ within any community of knowledge tacitly acknowledges that they must both simultaneously learn from those who know more than they do, and demonstrate that knowledge to those who know less. Neglect either obligation, and they may find themselves failing in the eyes of the community, a process which becomes self-reinforcing, because opportunities both to learn and to teach are strongly correlated to status with the community of knowledge. To he who has much, more will be given.

The struggle never ends, nor even slows down, for ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’. Those at the top see only those struggling from beneath to surpass them. The master must assist the able student, yet doing so sows the seeds of the master’s undoing. But the master can not use silence as a mechanism of control: the collapse of informational asymmetry in the age of hyperconnectivity means that the master can neither obfuscate nor slow the student’s progress: too much is known. The master can maintain a position of recognized expertise only in a dynamic pose, always moving, further and deeper, doing everything possible to stay ahead of the student — just as the student puts every effort into a chase of the master, both trapped within an unforgiving environment that continually selects for expertise.

Where does the master turn for help? Who is the master’s master? One person’s mastery is not another’s; both individuals will reflect a peculiar mastery drawn from their unique experience. Much will be held in common, but – because of talent, or accident, or predilection – each master stands alone. Yet each master will be aware of the other masters; this is one quality that defines a master. Distinct yet equal, the masters now find themselves forced to turn to one another, each possessing knowledge which all others need. Masters must share with other masters, just as they must share with students. If they do not, they will quickly be surpassed and forgotten, yet another example of someone who neglected to stay current.

Experts seek each other out, not just to revel in the camaraderie of a shared quest, but because only here can they find the necessary defenses against the assaults which come as the natural consequence of their position. There is a never-voiced element of desperation present when experts gather together, for they conspire in nothing more than self-preservation. Sharing what they know with their peers is the only possible path into continued survival.

Expectations are higher and pressures stronger at the top. Experts become obsessives in a defensive action that sees them forced into tight expert networks, unwilling and finally unable to rupture the bonds which tie them to their peers. Losing that connection would result in the loss of everything. Pressed into this corner, thought-leaders instinctively form ‘invisible colleges’, mystery schools of knowledge communities supporting mastery. Within these colleges the masters learn from one another while passing on the mysteries to those who follow, an uneasy steady-state of sharing and learning.

One must learn from others, and teach them, but any collection of the like minded will inevitably open to the third mode of being: exploring. Each contributes from what they know in an investigation of the unknown. The master has more experience to draw upon, but those who know less may be open to more: T.S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions grounds its argument on this innocence of perspective. In each relationship – expert to expert, expert to student, student to student – each provides a component the other needs but lacks, a synergy which produces hyperintelligence, where ‘collective intelligence’ produces something greater than a mere addition of elements would allow for. It is not simply knowing more, but rather that the relations and connections create knowledge amplification.

In a network of hyperintelligence, those who know little learn much, quickly coming up to speed, while those who know much learn whom to turn to when they need to complement their capabilities. In the age of hyperconnectivity, the expert masters the connections to knowledge, working continuously with peers to constantly improve capabilities for the entire community of knowledge.

Such networks have long existed within universities, guilds and other forms of association. Now that these networks span the entire human race they have transcended the local and immediate to become permanent fixtures in our culture and the foundational elements in our new capabilities.

We need not fear the rise of the monolithic hivemind, dictating the subject and objects of consciousness. Hyperintelligence is dynamic, competitive and fractious, shaped by the competitive social pressures we possess as an inherent part of our primate heritage. Never singular, hyperintelligence looks like an amplified version of the ‘society of mind’ we carry around in our own heads.

During the last half billion seconds we created the necessary preconditions for the emergence of hyperintelligence. During the next half billion seconds, we are learning how to integrate our knowledge, our understanding, and our capabilities into these networks. We are learning how to be hyperintelligent.

38 – #MASTERY

Pity poor David Cecil, totally unprepared.

The unemployed truck driver, with nothing to fill his days, decided on a course of self-improvement. Clear on what interested him, he sought out others who shared his interests, connecting with them, then listened to everything they could teach him. Completely engaged, he spent up to twenty hours a day online, reading and researching and engaging those ahead of his own understanding, learning everything they offered up. An excellent student, Cecil soon felt qualified enough to apply his autodidactic efforts. That’s when the trouble began.

If Cecil had studied ‘bathtub biology’, learning how to catalyze the Polymerase Chain Reaction in order to do DNA amplification, he might have bred himself a superbug, a strain of E. coli capable of giving the whole planet a fatal tummy ache. If he’d briefed himself on nuclear engineering, he might have constructed a homemade particle accelerator, bombarded atoms, and perhaps created a contamination threat affecting his entire neighborhood. Instead, Cecil studied computer security, coming into an understanding of the techniques used to protect and secure networks, then used these skills to break into, subvert, and control the systems for a small Internet Service Provider.

It all ended badly: the ISP quickly detected his intrusion – Cecil didn’t know enough about how to cover his tracks – then shunted him off to systems designed as ‘honeypots’, which look inviting and potentially powerful, but which simply trap the attacker in a sticky dead end. After compiling a sufficiently large body of evidence, the police broke down Cecil’s door one morning, arresting him and impounding all of his computers. The neighbors seemed surprised; an unemployed truck driver with no particularly remarkable talents suddenly become an ‘evil’ hacker? It strained credulity.

Welcome to the age of connected intelligence.

Now that everything known is shared broadly and freely, now that everyone who cares about any given body of knowledge maintains a constant relation to it and to everyone else who cares about that knowledge, the entire world is composed of a continuously multiplying set of knowledge amplifiers. Any of us can place ourselves within one – or fall in, almost accidentally – simply by engaging. By being present, connecting and sharing, we shed our ignorance and quickly acquire a degree of mastery. We can know nothing and crash headlong into one of these knowledge amplifiers, emerging on the other side changed and potent.

Knowledge does not confer wisdom. That is a slower process. Cecil learned everything about how to penetrate and invade computer systems, but he never realized that to possess the capability is far more valuable than actually putting it to use. A well-qualified expert in computer security will earn two or three times as much as a truck driver, and can always find gainful employment. Drunk with power, blind to reason or even common sense, Cecil, guns blazing, charged into a buzzsaw.

This sort of behavior will become increasingly common, as we see individuals with hypertrophied knowledge reach out with their extended capabilities, grasping at things which they do not yet wholly understand. The step function between ignorance and arrogance has become so clearly resolved, communities are growing into an understanding of how those newly engorged with knowledge become a danger to themselves and others. Some communities may isolate these individuals behind a ‘blast shield’ of plausible deniability, others will seek to engage and bring these fledglings into wisdom. Neither approach will be wholly successful.

Imagine the secrets of the atomic bomb had been revealed not at Los Alamos, but within a kindergarten classroom, filled with the high and mostly thoughtless emotions of children still far from their full cognitive capability, and lacking any capacity to restrain themselves. ‘Knowing is doing, and doing, knowing.’ An uncontrollable chain reaction, created in a momentary fit of pique, vaporizes everything. The child has learned how to build the bomb, but has not learned they must never drop it.

Human knowledge in the era of hyperconnectivity has achieved ubiquitous dissemination, and as a consequence all human knowledge will be reframed around consequence. It is not that you can know something; with few exceptions that will be nothing remarkable. The entrapment of information no longer carries within it the seeds of power; rather, the application of information becomes the new wellspring of puissance. We can all know the same things – nothing any longer prevents this – but our application of this knowledge will be guided by wisdom. We can seek to self-aggrandize and destroy, or we can support and strengthen. The choice is always there for everyone, though not everyone will be able to see it.

In the next billion seconds, ignorance, presently viewed as a character flaw, a state of complete lacking, will be seen as something easy to ameliorate, more like a bruise that needs bandaging than a permanent and disfiguring scar. We will acquire (and perhaps neglect and forget) whole bodies of knowledge, transforming our understanding daily, as we become more expert at learning from those who know, and build tools more perfectly suited to the ways we want to learn from them.

Once again, this is no utopia, but actually a world more fraught with human dangers than any we have ever known. If the boy next door can brew up a superflu because he didn’t get a date to the senior prom, we will need to be more sensitive to both the moods and the capabilities of others, or confront pervasive, sudden annihilation.

Communities of knowledge must derive from within themselves the essentials of self-regulation that prevent these sorts of disasters. We are playing with matches while doused in petrol, and need to recognize this. Good fire control policies will prevent needless tragedies, lives ruined (like David Cecil’s) or even lost, merely because our knowing outstripped our sense of what is right. This is the new ignorance, the penumbra of wisdom. It is not that we do not know, it is that we do not know what to do with our knowing.

37 – #MASTER

Apartment hunting can be tortuous. In a seller’s market – New York, Sydney, Hong Kong – prospective tenants endure all sorts of difficulties to secure the right flat at the right price in the right location. All of this happens in the dark. Very little information about rents has ever been publicly available. You won’t know a particular landlord is gouging you simply because he knows you don’t know any better. The landlord holds all the cards: not just the keys to the property, but the rental history of that property, rents for similar properties, maintenance costs for the property, and so forth. That information helps the landlord operate from a position of maximum advantage in the transaction, converting information into power.

This informational asymmetry means the landlord always gets the better deal: he who knows most wins, and keeps winning. Each win adds momentum and capability, gradually cementing the winner into a fixed position of dominance in the relationship. Information confers power, and power amplifies the ability to gather information, a feedback that, if unchecked, leads to domination.

The world is broadly composed of instances where information has concretized into the forms of power. Sumer springs forth from the information inscribed on countless clay tablets; Rome ran on papyrus until Egypt left its sphere of influence, whereupon, unable to manage its information flows, it collapsed; every modern state seeks to sequester the flows of information, through censorship, military classification, or taboo. East Germany’s Stazi created a nation that spied upon itself, submitting this information to an authority that used every last scrap of it to maintain its dominance.

The grand dictatorships of state power and the petty dictatorships of landlords both draw their sustenance from information asymmetry, arbitrageurs of the truth. Where the facts can be withheld, this gamesmanship will inevitably take root and quickly comes to dominate all interactions. In the kingdom of the informationally blind, the well-informed is king.

Where asymmetries exist, pressure builds to equalize them. Vast asymmetries – such as the darkest secrets of state – consequently necessitate thick walls of law, force and culture to keep the outside out and the inside in. The existence of a wall implies something to defend, so attacks always occur, attempts to release the informational pressure stored within. The first strikes, crude clawings at the goal, nearly always fail, but each failure feeds back into a process of assault continuing unabated and undeterred for as long as the wall persists. Eventually the attack succeeds, the wall comes down, and its contents spill forth. Information, like energy, has entropy, and broad distribution in equilibrium is easier to maintain than tightly-held concentrations.

There is now another way.

Rather than penetrating the chamber of secrets, the chamber can be surrounded with information of equal salience and equivalent or even greater density. Instead of one bright spot in a sea of darkness, everything is illuminated. The asymmetry vanishes because it is no longer singular, nothing special. It might even reverse, as the environment surrounding the wall becomes more dense with information than anything held within.

Renters in New York now share information about the rents they pay using RentHackr. The website generates a map of each entry (together with its location and date) so that other renters can compare equivalent prices in a particular neighborhood, building – perhaps even the apartment itself, if the previous tenant submitted information to RentHackr. The prospective tenant now knows as much about prices for a given unit as the landlord does – probably even more, since RentHackr’s thousands of contributors offer up a much broader range of experiences and information than any single landlord would have opportunity to encounter.

This shift has been as sudden as it has been complete. Landlords have always bargained from a position of power borne from informational asymmetry. So have governments, banks, and nearly every other organization or relation that operates with power. All of those carefully protected islands of knowledge become indistinguishable and unimportant as the ocean recedes.

The sharing of specific knowledge domains by communities of hyperconnected individuals is a revolutionary act. It overturns power structures reinforced by informational asymmetry without firing a shot, staging a strike, or even raising one’s voice. Sharing is the antithesis of violence, yet it yields greater results than bombs.

We are just coming into an understanding of the relation between sharing, knowing and power. The massive realignment of human relations and institutions that is one key attribute of the next billion seconds begins with the sudden vanishing of all power structures, everywhere, as the energy which fed them loses its potential. In an information-rich world, information is not, in itself, power. Power has migrated elsewhere, and all those who use power will be forced to migrate with it, into lands both distant and foreign.

The collapse of any given informational asymmetries has been driven more by whim and luck than any intention; they occur randomly and serendipitously, but with each collapse something is learned of the conditions which precipitated that collapse, information hyperdistributed and imitated when the opportunity arises. Each instance of collapse carries with it everything learned to this point, and thereafter carries everything learned in the current instance.

These moments of collapse consequently have become more frequent and more pronounced. Within this half billion seconds they will transition from the exception to the norm, until no power structure of any consequence persists in its antique and redundant form. Everything once believed concrete is suddenly seen to be a castle made of sand. As this perception becomes pervasive, everything connected with power becomes provisional. Our hierarchical relations, which tell us our place in the order, are being supplanted by relations of affiliation, which tell us who we are by whom we know. Since this is already the way the world actually works, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock.

We no longer have the comforts (and terrors) of power to guide us. There are no lords and no masters, no governor anywhere. But this is not utopia nor mere anarchy. There will still be power, but differently constituted, drawn not from secrets and silence, but emerging as a quality of connecting and sharing.