32 – #SHARP

Two people meet. They do not know each other, but thrown together – perhaps in a taxi, or sitting next to each other on a long flight – they break an uncomfortable silence with conversation. Too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry – everyone always starts with the weather, climate being the one thing we all share in common.

Somewhere during this conversation something else comes up – a mention of a child, a visit to a faraway land, or a favored pastime, immediately seized upon as broader common ground, a platform for further conversation. This exploration of what each knows begins with a series of confirmations of knowledge shared (we both know these things) but as conversation deepens it sharpens, reassurance transforming into exploration: what do you know? What can you teach me? What can I share with you that will surprise, delight or amaze you?

Under the right conditions, all of this can happen in a minute or less. We are spectacularly good at detecting and zooming in on the things that unite us (and, unfortunately, those that divide us), prepared to go deep in order to display our own prowess (thereby gaining in social standing), and equally prepared to become the student, when we stumble upon a true master.

A behavior this immediate and casual forms a template we repeat throughout every corner of our lives. All of our relations have this quality of discovery, where we assume one of three postures: master; student; or exploring together. Where several people come together to share, we will assume all of these roles simultaneously, teaching some, learning from others, and joining in open-ended endeavors.

From tribe to megalopolis, every grouping of humanity has seen us mix and match ourselves into these human networks of sharing. The antecedents of our schools, we have always come together in numbers to learn from one another, to teach one another, and to delve into the unknown. Most of our relations can be characterized in these terms: elders teaching the young; young learning from the experience of the old; lovers and friends striking out together on life’s great journey.

This, more than anything else, might be humanity’s defining quality. A recent study compared young chimpanzees with human toddlers on a range of intelligence tests. The humans blew past the chimpanzees because they learned from one another, teaching one another, pooling their knowledge to solve the tasks set before them. Chimpanzees, although very much as bright as those toddlers, did not share what they knew, and so had to re-invent the solution, every single time.

We share, and so take the shortcut, leveraging all previous experience into the present moment, sharpening the blunt instrument of our intelligence against the whetstone of learning. For time beyond measure, human culture has been so rich that we need to become learned in its ways, and we sustain this complexity only because we have developed effective techniques to cram all of it into the heads of the young. If we learned nothing from one another, we would still be arboreal foragers in the Rift Valley of East Africa, like our chimpanzee cousins.

Instead, we have schools, where we gather together in formally acknowledged roles of student and master, codifications of relations that existed informally but pervasively within the tribe. Yet the previous patterns persist, innate, immediate, and natural. In or out of school, we can not help but learn, nor can we stop ourselves from teaching.

Schools have always required the proximity of the city, students gathering together with masters in the Academy. In the tribe we were all together all the time, always available for any moment when knowledge could be shared. In our new-found hyperconnectivity we have recovered that moment, amplified with all of the tools and techniques of ten thousand years of school. We are always available to learn or to teach, but now we can learn from four and a half billion, and be taught by any of them, freely associating ourselves in common pursuit.

We share and thereby ‘find the others’ who share our passions and our pursuits, associating with them online and in the flesh, forming communities of ‘gurus’ and ‘n00bs’, each with a role to play. The student must sit at the feet of the master and learn. If they refuse to endure the necessary rites of passage, they will be heckled and ridiculed and excluded until they accept their place within the hierarchy of relations which characterizes all such groups.

Prized to the degree they choose to commit to the teaching of those less advanced, the teacher must balance teaching with learning, lest they fall behind in their own expertise, losing their place of prominence within that hierarchy of relations. Withdraw too completely and be considered selfish; give too willingly and lose one’s position. Those who can must do and teach.

The number of peers-in-expertise decreases as one approaches the pinnacle of craft. The more expert one becomes, the greater the pressure to demonstrate that expertise. These demands slow forward progress, and where nearly everyone is less expert, those demands become onerous. The most expert withdraw behind a cloud of mystery, and a guild materializes, a barrier between initiates and the hoi polloi.

A thousand years ago, that withdrawal would have kept knowledge hidden away, locked securely within a community of experts, but that withholding – a form of censorship – can not be sustained in the age of omniscience. Experts can remove themselves, but they can not remove their expertise. You can no longer take your toys and go home. Even where someone stops playing the game, the game goes on.

With a constant pressure from beneath to improve, there is no escape into expertise, only an increasing acceleration into greater expertise. Association becomes the only way to maintain expertise; there’s simply too much for any one mind to absorb. Communities spontaneously differentiate, relying upon individuals to be reservoirs of particular expertise within a greater body of expertise, knowing that all can be called upon as required, providing collective capacities far greater than any of its individuals.

This book is a shared pursuit – not just of the two co-authors, but of all readers interested in the topics explored in these hundred chapters. For this reason, we are now making public all of our research links – collected over the last 12 months – so we can more broadly learn from one another, and explore this collective sharpening of our minds.

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.

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.

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.

14 – #WEB

With the wire, all of humanity collapsed into a single point. For those with radio and television, half a planet represented less distance, in lived experience, than the goings-on half a mile away. We began to know – and care about – things we had never seen, people we would never meet. With the wire, life began to assume a distinct quality of virtuality; some things became truly important to us, without ever touching us.This virtuality had been with us since the advent of language – when someone could place their ideas into our minds, continued with writing – which freed those ideas from bodies, preserving them against time, reaching a pinnacle with printing – which replicated ideas so broadly, everyone could be touched by them. With each advance, the boundaries of sharing extended, from a single person, to a city, to a culture. With the wire, those boundaries disappeared, and the planet assumed the dimensions of the city.

The city shares everything it knows about anything it finds interesting, from gossip to business to politics to natural philosophy. Some of what the city shares with itself speaks directly to the wire: it’s nature, design, and improvement. A culture wired together shares what it knows to improve its wiring. The point-to-point of the telegraph quickly mutated into the hand-switched fabric of the telephone exchange. The true innovation of the telephone is not the transmission of the voice, but the network which connects any two telephones together. The telegraph stitched the world into a cohesive whole, but the telephone connected any two points in space, bringing them together through the action of the network. More than simple connectivity, the telephone fostered collaboration, sharing between minds, across space, giving the individual voice global reach.

The fabric of the telephone network, first powered by vast numbers of human ‘switchboard operators’, yielded eventually to mechanization, wire working to improve wire. But these switches grew too big, too power hungry and complex, forcing a studied search for a solution. The scientific method – and the judicious application of funds – led to the hybridization of the wire with the digital capabilities of the computer. Just as the wire created the preconditions for the digital, so the digital later relieved the overburdened wire. These first ‘computers within the network’ (routers, as they’re known today) took signals from one part of the network and replicated these signals within another part of the network. The network is by definition a replicating machine, and a computer network is its amplification into a flexible, responsive and resilient replicator.

These digital networks, connecting computers – these newest telephone switchboards were actually computers – joined the discrete, two-way ‘holes in space’ into a larger unity. Every point now could simultaneously connect to every other point, recovering to the original unity of the wire. But this new unity needed no center, no master switchboard, through which all messages must pass. Every point could reach every other point, directly.

These points began to connect, and as they did, each point of the network explored its corresponding companion in connection, learning about it, recording that knowledge, and then sharing that knowledge when it connected to another point. The entire network began a process of self-discovery, an investigation of its shape, scope and capabilities. This sharing led to the improvement of the network. A culture networked together shares what it knows to improve its network. Some of these improvements concerned sharing – sharing about sharing – and with that, the World Wide Web was born. The Web created a platform for sharing, in an effort to provide the growing collection of documents within the network within a universal framework, making it as easy for people to share a book, photo, or song as they could share a conversation.

Once anything can be shared with everyone everywhere, the automatic next question is ‘with whom do we share?’. This layer of individual desire sits across the physical manifestation of the network, an intersection of relationship and capability. Once we can share, we become choosy in our sharing, and we begin to share about the ways that we can refine that sharing to suit our particular needs.

This is the core of the idea behind digital social networks – services such as Friendster, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. These tools marry the capability of the network as a replicator to the relationships which we all carry within us. But these digital social networks, powered by computers and amplified by the reach of the network, carry us far beyond the limited set of connections we bear in our minds and bodies.

Just as the city took us beyond our biological limits, out of the tribe and into vast populations, so now digital social networks propel us beyond the comfortable boundaries of relationships, gathering us in new configurations of community. Facebook is a city of the mind; where we could not know everyone in the city, neither can we know everyone we connect to on Facebook – not in the same intimate way our tribal ancestors could. Yet we can now maintain relations with vast numbers of others, a different kind of knowing, neither intimate nor distant, but somewhere in between. This ground feels as new to us as the space within the city walls must have seemed to our ancestors.

Digital social networks amplify our social capabilities. Just as the telegraph, radio and television amplified our eyes and ears, giving them global reach, so now our web of relationships – the defining characteristic of our species – spans the planet. We connect and share with tools modeled from the contour of our minds, but which give us vastly more power. We are only in the first generation of these tools, using them to share what we know in an effort to make these tools better. A social network shares what it knows to improve its social network.

Humanity has always been a network of minds, connecting through the technology at hand. We have always put our minds to work to improve our connectivity. That has brought us to the threshold of universal hyperconnectivity.