50 – #FOCUS


The state reserves for itself the monopoly on force. Only the state has the right to restrain you, to strike you, to detain you, or kill you. When citizens restrain, strike, detain or kill one another, the state steps in, lest its monopoly become meaningless. The thin blue line separating us from mere anarchy, state power delimits the outer boundaries for personal behavior.

What happens, then, when the state can not be trusted to act in your best interest? When the monopoly on violence has been colonized by interests incongruous with the public, because of corruption (it is always, inevitably, corruption) what recourse do citizens possess? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Atomized individuals can not withstand the unified and focused efforts of state power. Divide and conquer. The Stasi, the quintessence of a modern security state, had a full third of the population spying on the other two-thirds, an infiltration so profound it left East German culture incapable of anything more organized than collapse.

Rarely do people willingly assent to their dehumanization and final atomization. Resistance, continuous and pervasive, accompanies any closure in the gaps which interrupt the smooth functioning of power. The state has an arsenal of its own technologies to smooth its way: fear first, then the gentle seductions of material comfort. You will obey, or else. Do as you’re told – and be richly rewarded.

Unable to reach out in solidarity to others similarly threatened by a powerful state, the individual nearly always succumbs, with the remainder – the zealots – easy to contain, control and sterilize. Every state has its prisoners of conscience, refusing both the admonishments and blandishments of power. The smartest states have marginalized this final few; the worst made martyrs of them, sowing the seeds of revolution.

The state has lost its power to atomize its citizens.

All state power, however constituted, has come under threat from hyperconnectivity. Individuals feeling the pressure of state power no longer think of themselves as alone, any more than anyone thinks of themselves as alone in any situation (provided sufficient connectivity). We instinctively turn to one another to connect and share, to learn and do. We do this in every situation, but when we do this in response to state power, the result inevitably takes on a hyperpolitical dimension.

The fine citizens of New York City, growing tired of the ‘stop-and-frisk’ policy of New York’s finest – which disproportionately targets minorities – use hyperconnectivity to reframe the relationship between police power and themselves. Using a smartphone app, citizens are invited to record every stop-and-frisk event they see on the city’s streets. The reported information is immediately hyperdistributed to everyone else running the smartphone app; people within a particular neighborhood instantly know when that noxious police activity is taking place, and precisely where it’s happening.

A stop-and-frisk action, which might once have been witnessed by just a few, can now quickly gather a crowd of hundreds, or thousands, a hyperochlocracy facilitated by hyperconnectivity. The state requires a degree of secrecy for its smooth operation. Exposed, the police lose much of their power, not simply because others can avoid these frisky cops, but because the attention they attract in the performance of their duty directly subtracts from their effectiveness.

This app takes the hyperconnected population of New York City – well over half of whom carry a smartphone – and creates a platform for sharing a very specific type of information, leading to a detailed situational awareness around a particular type of police activity. The app is the focusing agent, concentrating the attention of the mob, amplifying something mostly invisible into salience. A technology of hyperpolitics, the app supports the coherence necessary for a moment of hyperempowerment to extend indefinitely. In that extension, the momentary attention of hyperochlocracy becomes the pushback and renegotiation of power that typifies hyperpolitics.

Across the next billion seconds, all relations between the hyperconnected and state power will echo this form. The singular and atomized individual has been obsolesced by the hyperconnected and hyperpolitical, a process of natural selection that has seen the state finally breed a form of power entirely beyond its own ability to control, manage, or even understand.

State power serves to protect the corrupt, even where this conflicts directly with the interests of the state as the preserver of the lives of its citizens. The Chinese know from repeated scandals involving the tainting of the country’s food supply (infant formula contaminated with melamine, pork with beef flavouring sold as beef, etc.) that they need to have a healthy distrust of any official inspections or protections proffered by the state.

In the absence of state protection, the hyperconnected turn to themselves, connecting, sharing, learning and doing. One smartphone app, the China Survival Guide, tracks all of the ongoing food scandals, while a website, “Throw It Out The Window”, recently succumbed in the face of overwhelming traffic. Chinese find or create these tools, put them to work, and if they succeed, share them around, hyperdistributing their expertise, converting that into hyperintelligence – individuals pooling their experiences to amplify the experience of everyone everywhere – putting that knowledge to work to save themselves from poisoning.

Hyperpolitics neatly fills all gaps where state power has proven itself fundamentally ineffective. The Chinese can not trust the government on food safety, but eating clean food is very important to the Chinese, so this salience becomes an organizing principle that drives people to connect, share, learn and do persistently. Connecting is the necessary and wholly sufficient first act; all else follows naturally from it, driven at first by self-preservation, quickly amplified into hyperempowerment through the efforts of a billion hyperconnected Chinese.

The fertile ground for the emergence of hyperpolitics can be found anywhere the state meets its citizens. Where the state fails or oversteps, that emergence, amplified by salience, happens nearly instantly. The state has been contained, constrained as never before, hemmed in at every point, measured, observed, recorded, reported, analyzed and assessed.

No state is smart enough, strong enough, or fast enough to counter this force. Every time we focus, the state becomes a little less potent.

48 – #FABLE

You are abducted by aliens.

A flash of light, an instant of discontinuity, and suddenly you find yourself somewhere else: An alien spaceship. It’s mostly dark, except for the very bright lights shining in your eyes. You see movement, and glimpse a grey, furred arm, your eyes following that limb to a head looking like a bad cross between an Ewok and one of those strangely childlike creatures who come down to Earth at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Several heads, actually, all wide-eyed and blinking in wonderment.

The aliens seem confused by this state of affairs, and back away from you, creating a little hemi-circle a meter away, gesturing to one another with their forepaws, and making some odd clucking noises which presumably pass for speech where they come from. Things have not gone as planned, apparently, and you are not entirely expected. Or wanted.

Lovely. Well, at least you’re not dead, and the air seems breathable – though a bit close, and has the tang of ozone mixed in it – but now what? For a moment, no one moves at all. Then, in a flurry of activity, they gently hustle you over to a far corner, where there’s a large black disc on the floor. They back away again, and – at just the last moment – one of the aliens reaches out and pushes something into your hand.

Another discontinuity – and you’re somewhere else. But there’s obviously been a mistake: this is not where you were. It doesn’t look like home, its verdant, pleasant woods and bubbling streams. This looks – well, it could be Mars, or the surface of the Moon. You see only rock, sand and dust, stretching from beneath your feet to the low hills in the distance.

You are so screwed.

Well, maybe things aren’t so bad. You’re still alive and breathing. That’s something. The atmosphere – wherever you are – is Earthlike. Though a bit dry. You can feel some irritation in your nose, and a scratch at the back of your throat. You’re getting a bit thirsty. Wherever this is, it has a humidity of about five percent. You can sense that in your eyeballs.

You’re going to need some water soon. But where? There’s no sign of anything liquid as far as the eye can see. No clouds in the sky. What can you do? You could die without water, in this far-away place.

This is when you remember that you’re holding something. You raise it to your eyes, and turn it over, slowly. Thin and rectangular, black as night on both sides, one side matte and the other side mirrored. You can see your image in that mirror, as you frown in confusion. They gave you a polished rock?

Yet it looks vaguely familiar, like some weird gadget you might see one of your geekier friends caressing. It has no buttons, no obvious ‘On’ switch, but as you trace a fingertip across the mirrored surface, it comes to life, all colour and pattern, with a swirl of alien script and the stuttered whisper of a language you heard back on the ship.

After a few moments the light show ends, and the screen becomes a single image. It looks a lot like the scene before you. This gadget apparently has a camera rendering a live view of whatever it gets pointed at. Cute.

After a few moments you realize that the image isn’t a perfectly faithful representation. Just barely visible in one corner, a tiny blue arrow – little more than a point – blinks slowly. You set off in that direction – it’s better than standing still and doing nothing.

As you move toward the location of the blue arrow, the image becomes more dynamic. Meaningless alien glyphs scroll by, but the blue arrow grows bigger, until it indicates an area just ahead, where – to your delight – you find a pool of water.

Parched, you drink deep, enjoying the rejuvenation of hydration. Then you notice the low shrubs crowded against one side of the pool. They all have berries, big and ripe. But before you reach out, you take a peek through the gadget. Some of those berries have comfortable green outlines, while others get angry red blinking frames. Clearly, the gadget has an opinion about which of these berries can be safely eaten. The ‘safe’ berries taste good (perhaps a touch bitter), and the other berries, though inviting, you leave alone.

Thirst and appetite sated, you begin to wonder how you will ever get back home. Can you call someone with this gadget, and ask them for a ride?

*

You find yourself in a strange city. You have never been here before. You do not speak the language. You can not read the signs. The taxi driver, exasperated or distracted, has deposited you on the curb, without an intelligible word, and without any indication this is your intended destination.

You have no idea where you are.

Ok, you think, what to do? Taking your mobile from your pocket you’re surprised when the map application comes up blank – perhaps there aren’t enough GPS satellites visible from wherever you are to get signal lock. But you do still have mobile coverage, five full bars happily glowing away in one corner of the display.

Well, if you don’t know where you are, maybe someone else does. You snap a high-resolution photo of the street with your mobile, and post it to Twitter: “I’M LOST. CAN ANYONE TELL ME WHERE I AM?”

That message goes out to your followers, with the photo attached. None of them have any clue where you are, or what that strange writing is. Given the seriousness of your plea, they pass your tweet along to their followers. You’ve gone from a hundred people to ten thousand in an instant. One of them recognizes the script – it’s Thai – but not the street. Fortunately, that person has connections to quite a few Thai, so when they pass your message along, it get to someone who knows that Bangkok street quite well – their office sits just a few doors away from where you stand. That person helpfully responds directly to you, and you engage in rapid-fire conversation, as you orient yourself, and learn how to get to your hotel. (Which was just down a nearby soi, not that your taxi driver told you.)

*

These two fables speak to our lives today. While not strangers in a strange land, we rely on one another to avoid the bad and seek out the good, turning to one another because we can, and because we employ hyperconnectivity, finding exactly what we need just when we need it. Every one of us, in every moment, uses hyperconnectivity to bring us into hyperintelligence.

We are smarter than we once were because we have so many others informing us. Individually we have not become very much brighter during the last half billion seconds, but our actions no longer reflect the depth of our ignorance – unless we willingly turn away from the knowledge on offer. That turning away constitutes the new ignorance.

Hyperempowerment of the individual has an immediate, practical dimension. Each of us makes better decisions every time we put hyperintelligence to work. With each decision, we become more convinced of the value of hyperconnected hyperintelligence. Success breeds success: We repeat anything that has worked in the past to bring us success in the moment. A series of successes craft a pattern of behavior which soon becomes almost instinctual. We learn how to do better, and as that lesson works its way under our skin, we identify with our new capability to make the best possible decision in any situation. We become our hyperempowerment.

30 – #SEEN

Everyone hates ticket inspectors. Standing just beside the turnstiles, they carefully examine every presented chit for validity, and if you somehow fail to pass muster, you’ll be called upon to explain yourself. You might end up with an expensive citation – as once happened to me, aboard a Sydney bus where I had meant to dip my ticket in the ticket machine twice, but, because I’d only dipped once, received a $110 fine. Ouch.

If you’re doing nothing wrong you have nothing to fear from a ticket inspector — or so the saying goes. Still, so many of us have little idea of whether we’re wholly in the right at any point in time (I had no idea I had to dip my ticket twice until I got fined) we tend to avoid close observation. No one is innocent. Everyone has something to hide. Hiding is the natural response; the ticket inspectors know this, placing themselves in difficult-to-avoid positions, monitoring the gates and doorways which shape the flow of bodies. As we pass through the checkpoint, and see an unlucky few people receiving citations, we feel a surge of sympathy – there but for the grace of God.

That sympathetic anguish easily bridges the gap of relevance to become a shared moment, a warning to all who might follow in your footsteps. My friend Matthew had just such an encounter while riding the tram in Melbourne, and posted it to Twitter:

Tram inspectors sighted on Collins st - at the Spencer st end.
#publicserviceannouncement

That self-tagged ‘public service announcement’ reached quite a number of people – all 1544 of Matthew’s followers on Twitter, and the tens of thousands connected to them, if they chose to forward that information along. Matthew’s casual moment of sharing produced a much broader awareness of the activities of those ticket inspectors — whose power of surprise had been thwarted from the moment Matthew sent his update. Exposed, inspectors can be avoided. Knowing they lie in wait, people will choose different trams, exit through different gates, avoiding their critical gaze. All of this followed from a casual and almost insignificant act, sharing amplified by hyperconnectivity.

If those fines had been set terrifically high – thousands of dollars – Melbourne’s population of four million would soon be drowning in sightings of ticket inspectors. People would have sufficient motivation to keep those inspectors under very close surveillance. Every sighting would be shared, every movement becoming common knowledge.

Attention paid to something is commensurate with its perceived threat – or benefit. When a lot of attention gets paid to something, and those observations become broadly shared, it creates ‘situational awareness’. Everyone knows as much as needed to keep themselves out of trouble, because everyone is watching for everyone else.

When drug-sniffing dogs show up at Sydney’s rail stations, many people share warning messages – the fines and penalties for infractions being so severe. Protesters throughout the world use text messaging, Twitter and custom tools like Sukey to keep track of police movements against them. In the London riots of August 2011, BlackBerry Messenger was the favored communication tool of looters, who shared information about the most unpoliced areas to rob. Sharing has consequences, acting as a force in its own right, establishing a zone of influence where other powers, however potent, have difficulties.

In a world where everyone, hyperconnected, shares everything of interest with anyone who shares that interest, it has become impossible to operate in secret, beyond view. The possibility of invisibility has been supplanted by a new ‘age of omniscience’, where anyone can know anything that’s happening, anywhere, provided they generate sufficient interest in it. The secret police have been surrounded and exposed by a hyperconnected polity framing their every movement with a hailstorm of sharing. Everything once hidden is now shouted from the rooftops.

The surveillance state of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has mutated into the sousveillant mobs of the Arab Spring, using hyperconnectivity and sharing to build situational awareness and thereby defend themselves against the monopoly on force which is the prerogative of the state. Even when the technology of those networks falls away – as when former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shut down all of the nation’s mobile and Internet providers – the human networks forged in shared moments of sharing persist and strengthen. Technology amplifies and extends, but is not the essence of the network, which remains entirely human. People always find other ways to share what they know, from scrawled graffiti to repurposed billboards to chains of whispers. There is no censor, anywhere, when everyone at every point around the censor is fully prepared to share what the censor would withhold.

SUN Microsystems co-founder John Gilmore once quipped that ‘networks regard censorship as damage, and find a route around it’. The wires and radio waves of the network know nothing of censorship, but the people connected through them draw upon all of their resourcefulness to stay one step ahead of the censor, constantly probing and testing the limits of sharing . Wherever people are sufficiently connected, they will route around the censor, sharing everything of importance, whether media (to the frustration of copyright holders everywhere), secrets (the bane of governments), or anything else deemed taboo. Nothing can be kept out of reach in the digital realm; everything is copied and shared as widely as needed.

The age of omniscience confounds power and produces a conservative reaction which seeks to rein in the reach of the networks, but that could only be effective if the physical network were the source of the age of omniscience. It is not. We are. We have learned something new about how to share what we consider important: we distribute it so widely that it becomes a pervasive part of our awareness. Human behavior has changed, wrought by sharing amplified by hyperconnectivity, and in that change we discover a capacity for a universal awareness.

28 – #SIREN

A massive earthquake, far out to sea. The ocean floor shakes and spreads and ruptures, moving billions of litres of water. The trembling stops, and news spreads. Immediately people turn to their mobiles, reaching out to check in with their family and friends. Are they ok? Where are they? What just happened? Everyone knows an earthquake has come — but how big? Will there be another? Did anything come down? Is everyone alright?

Everyone asks these questions simultaneously.

The mobile network, overloaded, begins to stutter. Text messages fail. Calls cut off in mid-sentence. There is signal – you can see the bars on your mobile’s screen – but no connectivity. Not knowing, not being able to connect and learn, amplifies the sense of crisis. Something bad is happening. And you don’t even know how bad.

Seismologists set to work, read their graphs, make some calculations, and form a prediction. The seafloor has been sufficiently disturbed to produce a ‘harbour wave’ – in Japanese, tsunami – spreading out from the epicenter, across the Andaman Sea and Indian ocean. Supercomputers generate a visualization of the spread of this wave, based on the size of the temblor and the topology of the ocean floor. That gets published to a website, and is immediately copied and posted to Twitter, where it is shared a few hundred more times:

Tsunami Prediction Forecast

The international news networks, CNN and BBC and Al Jazeera, begin rolling coverage of the earthquake. They show the visualization, calling out the predicted landfall times of the tsunami, one after another. Aceh. Phuket. Andaman Islands.

It all has a horrible feeling of deja vu, because the sequence of events appears eerily similar to the Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami of 2004, when a magnitude 9.0 temblor produced a wave up to 15 meters high in some places, killing well over three hundred thousand people. People died in such numbers because no one knew the tsunami was coming. Even after the prediction had been made, there was no way to warn everyone in the tsunami’s path.

In 2004, little more than a billion people owned mobiles, and most of those lived in the developed world, not the Indian Ocean basin. Not yet connected, they could not be reached. They could not be warned.

A quarter of a billion seconds later, more than four and a half billion own mobiles, many of these new owners concentrated in India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka – precisely the countries most affected by the devastation of the last tsunami. Systems have been deployed, both to detect a tsunami, and to spread the alarm. Text messaging – originally developed to provide a channel to send emergency messages to many mobiles simultaneously – shares news of the predicted tsunami with great rapidity. Anyone who doesn’t get the message – or doesn’t have a mobile – learns of the prediction from someone who got the message.

The authorities issue an evacuation order. Everyone within a few meters of sea level must relocate to higher ground. There is no resistance to the command; memories of 2004 are too fresh. People begin a relatively orderly migration away from the shoreline, into the hills. Numerous signs – installed after the last tsunami – direct people toward specific evacuation zones. Someone uses their mobile to snap a photo of the evacuation in Phuket, posting it to Twitter, where it is quickly shared around:

No one knows if the tsunami will come; some earthquakes, lifting the earth up, produce monster waves, while others, shuffling the crust from side to side, do little more than stir up the water. Seismologists seem confident this earthquake belongs to the second (and less dangerous) category, but reports come in over Twitter, shared and shared again, sightings of vast areas of exposed seabed in Phuket. The drawing back of the sea is a sure sign of an incoming tsunami; everyone knows this. But reports are not proof, and the reports conflict. Eyewitnesses report one thing, government officials report another. Finally, someone shares a photo of a Phuket beach, taken with a mobile and uploaded to Twitter, then shared and shared and shared:

Sea recession in Phuket 11 April 2012

It looks as though the sea has vanished. But who can say? The debate rages, even as people continue making their way to the designated evacuation areas. Some of the evacuees use Twitter to share their own observations – how orderly it seems, how there is no real fear, just a sense of urgency.

Newscasters blithely report that – according to predictions – the tsunami should have already engulfed Aceh. They’re waiting for word, running the same few seconds of video from Aceh, taken in the moments following the earthquake: people running from buildings, standing in the street, waiting. But they’re not just waiting. At least half of them are talking on their mobiles, or staring down into them, connecting. Each using their own connectivity to build an awareness of everyone and everything of importance to them:

Phuket mall evacuation area

CNN International, waiting for news from Aceh, begins to show some of the photos people have shared on Twitter: evacuations, traffic jams, long lines of people on the move. “You see everyone in these pictures on their phones,” the newscaster adds. “They’re getting information about what to do.”

No great wave destroys Aceh again, nor Phuket, nor the Andaman islands. No buildings have come down, either in the initial quake, nor in the aftershock – so big that by itself it will be one of the biggest earthquakes of the year. Another tsunami warning follows the aftershock. People continue to wait, and share:

Evacuating and waiting in Phuket

Eventually, the all clear comes, and people climb down from their high places, breathing a sigh of relief. Was this just a mass fright, shared at the speed of light across a hyperconnected planet, or simply sensible behavior? No one died, but no one was in any real danger. Better to be safe than sorry, surely. Now that we are all connected, we know that others will share with us when we come into danger.