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.

27 – #SPHERE

Once we connect, we begin to share. No one has to tell us to share ourselves: this is who we are. As we share with others, and they share with us, we learn more about them. We share something important to us, and they respond. Where that sharing triggers a memory, hope, or resonance, they respond positively, sharing something of their own experience with us, and that moment is reinforced. Where our sharing is meaningless – or worse, upsetting – we receive little encouragement, even silence. We remember this as well.

Each of these sharing moments become the shape of our relationships. Moments become memories, and eventually these memories acquire a life of their own, a rendering of the relationship into a miniature version of someone whom you’ve shared with and who has shared with you. This model grows more complete as these shared moments of sharing accumulate. From our point of view at the center of our personal universe, these shared moments compose that person – or at least all of that person we can ever know.

Everyone you know well, you know well precisely because of the accumulation of those sharing moments. Sharing is how we come to know one another. Our infant minds fill themselves up with mom and dad (mostly mom). Only gradually do we learn how to sort all of those other people out. Our circles of connections grow wider as our minds find the room to house a battalion of individuals. Without memory of the shared moments of sharing, all human contact would exist within an eternal present, a Memento-like state where no one could ever matter. Without memory, there is no relationship, and without sharing, there is no memory.

Each of our relationships grows from sharing, conforming to the boundaries established by that sharing, and tends to reinforce that we already know. Like shares with like. If we want to talk about the latest movies, we know whom to turn to. If we want to gripe about our employer, we know who will provide a sympathetic ear. And if we want to speculate about our own possibilities, we know who’s willing to join us on our flights of fancy. The ‘echo chamber’ of human culture — which recirculates the same truisms endlessly between like-minded individuals — did not begin with the Internet; it is as old as speech. We need to have our beliefs confirmed, fears soothed and secrets held. We focus upon the relationships which provide these.

We grow from knowing nothing about one another to knowing everything needed to breathe life into a simulacrum, a mind’s-eye version. We know a handful of people exceptionally well, sharing with them continuously. We know a larger number reasonably well, certainly enough to find some excuse to share something with them as desire or opportunity presents. We know enough people well enough to share something in common with them. These three levels of intimacy emerged from the familial and tribal bonds of our common heritage. We have always needed to share ourselves with those in the tribe: sharing means survival.

Our ability to share meaningfully defines the boundaries of the tribe, and limits it. Relationships nourish and tax in equal amounts. Time and attention and dedication keep our relationships fresh. Friends ‘drift apart’ when they forget to feed their relationship, eventually becoming estranged. We all know the odd feeling of meeting someone we once knew well, but now hardly know. The memory of relationship remains, like dried bones. This happens and needs to happen because we can not feed every relationship equally. Some people enter our lives to stay, some only drift through. We retain something as they depart, but most gets lost as we plow over the ground of that relationship to make room for another. We have limits, and can only sow our minds with so many simultaneous relations.

Estimates vary, but something between one hundred and fifty (the so-called ‘Dunbar Number’) and two hundred and fifty seems to be the upper limit on the number of active and well-fed relationships we can manage. This conforms to the size of tribal groupings known from the study of paleoanthropology and prehistory, as well as examinations of the hunter-gatherer cultures still with us today in Amazonia and New Guinea. Tribes make manifest the limits of memory and relation, never growing beyond the natural confines of our ability to hold everyone within our heads.

Ten thousand years away from the tribes, we carry these same boundaries in our modern minds, but whereas once everyone within a tribe held the same set of individuals in their heads, no one today has precisely the same array of relations. Even husbands and wives, in a lifetime together, maintain separate social spheres. We overlap and intersect, but instead of a single unit of blood and tribe, we span multitudes. Each of us knows one hundred and fifty others well, and each of those know one hundred and fifty well. Even with a fair bit of overlap, you and the people you know well know more than ten thousand people well. Those ten thousand know a million well. The million know a hundred million. That hundred million know everyone. This ‘six degrees of separation’ emerges from the relations of sharing and memory which once kept our horizons narrowly focused on the tribe, but which now (with a little mixing and connecting) spans the species.

Every one of us, everywhere, resides in the embrace of this ‘human network’ of relations built from shared moments of sharing. This network presents us the opportunity to share our experiences, or learn from the experiences of others. Above the broad physical network of communications – the wires and waves of Internet and mobile – an invisible but pervasive, highly mediated, but entirely human network reinforces our relationships with every act of sharing. The sphere of our relations has grown to encompass the whole world.

25 – #SHARE

Silence is not an innate skill among human beings. Quite the opposite. From time out of mind, our success has depended upon our ability to share everything we know with anyone who might need to know it. On the African savanna, sharing indicated the presence of predators, a sighting of a favoured plant, or the signs of an approaching thunderstorm. The more effectively we shared as individuals, the more successfully the group could prepare for and respond to any challenges. Sharing means survival. The forces of natural selection have favoured sharing, so we find ourselves at the end of a long line of people who simply could not shut up. Blessed are those who share, for their numbers will increase.

Sharing as a species hearkens back to our beginnings, and ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: we can watch as sharing behaviors emerge in children. From our earliest moments, fresh from the womb, we begin to share ourselves. Babies move their arms and legs in syncopation to mother’s voice, dancing to her soothing tones. The infant freely offers up their internal, inchoate emotional state with smiles and gurgles and cries and screams, and continue sharing for the entire span of our lives.

Ask a small child to share a favoured toy — and prepare yourself for a battle of wills. Ask that same child to share the details of their day, then sit back as a stream-of-consciousness flow of associations, impressions and memories pours forth. We must be taught to share our things, yet must learn restraint when sharing our thoughts. Such is our need to speak our minds, keeping secrets requires almost superhuman reserves of willpower and fortitude.

In the beginning, we share with those most closely related to us: mother and father, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. As we grow into greater independence, capable of forging our own connections, we share with friends, neighbors, and classmates. By the time we reach adulthood, that circle of sharing extends out to colleagues, acquaintances, and the community.

Ten thousand years ago sharing reached its natural limits at the boundaries of tribal kinship. Five thousand years ago, the walls of the city would have framed our span. Five hundred years ago, we could write our thoughts into a book, send it to the printers, and see ourselves eventually shared throughout the world.

In the age of hyperconnectivity sharing becomes immediate, instantaneous, and universal. Everything we share always goes global, even if it only rarely becomes pervasive. We share ourselves freely, believing our sharing bound by the gravitational forces which have always dragged our thoughts back to earth, but everything has now become weightless photons, and travels without interruption at the speed of light. There is no barrier, anywhere — not even within ourselves.

The hyperconnected leak information, always sharing something. At a minimum we share our presence on the network, this being the first sin that leads to a multitude of transgressions, revelation by derivation: Presence becomes location. Location becomes movement. Movement becomes activity. Activity becomes intent. Everything, from barely anything at all.

Revelation is the common, persistent and continuous condition of the four-and-a-half-billion-and-counting hyperconnected. It is not that there is no privacy anymore; rather, the performance of any act becomes its broadcast, traced out in presence, and, once shared, drawn into a world of meanings attached to our actions. We neither surrendered our privacy nor had it taken away: privacy and connectivity are fundamentally oppositional. Satisfying both simultaneously has proven impossible.

Since we did not give up our privacy, we are not aware that it has vanished, except in those still somewhat rare but increasingly common moments when we become wholly visible to one another. We can generate a peculiar quality of light, where everyone is revealed, all the connections we assumed in innocence casting menacing shadows.

A telephone carrier knows where each of its subscribers are (or at least their mobiles) at every moment. Mobiles, aware of their location, share this information with various services, together with any other relevant information. This sharing expands our awareness. We can know when our friends approach, or a taxicab, or a potential employer. Sifting through this sharing, taking from it the bits most relevant to the present need, reveals the hidden. A recent example: Girls around Me.

Creepy on first sight (an obvious playground for stalkers) the deeper one looks, the more interesting it becomes. Why women? Why not footy fans, car hoons or budgerigar fanciers? Why not Jews? Or skinheads? Or anyone who in any way differs from me enough to present a threat? The shout that once alerted us to a predator on the African savannah has become an message on the screen of our smartphone.

No one need explicitly share themselves in order to be thus captured, qualified, filtered and portrayed. All becomes apparent from connections, associations, movements and activities. Like attracts like, and this reveals more than we would ever willingly provide. Connection is the only light required to reveal absolutely everything.

We find ourselves utterly exposed, sharing everything without hesitation and without volition. We are completely known but do not yet know this. We believe we encompass mystery, that something can be withheld. The space for secrets has grown miniscule, as every act, connected, shared and broadcast globally, tells others more about us than we dare admit to ourselves.

Believing ourselves shy, we nonetheless desire to know the minds of others, longing to learn who to connect with around the topics of importance to us, and who we must avoid in order to preserve ourselves. Threat and opportunity: human drives have changed little in ten thousand years, but now everyone hears our moments of crisis and triumph. These moments act as beacons, allowing us to find one another.