55 – #TOMORROW

Beijing apartment fire, tweeted live

What does the future hold? Sown today, the seeds of the future show us what tomorrow brings.

For example, consider a request recently issued by Matt (@ponk):

Carried from person to person, each forwarding it along into their own connections, this plea reached tens of thousands of people within a few hours, some of them Welsh-speakers, and eager to help. Matt quickly got flooded in offers of assistance, finally lamenting, “I wish there was some way to tell everyone I’ve received the help I asked for.” Thanks travel more slowly, and less broadly, than requests for help. Matt will find people responding to his request for some weeks to come, as it slowly diffuses out to hyperconnected humanity.

Even just a few years ago, with no way to reach out and reach everyone with our requests, we didn’t even think in these terms. We settled for what we had at hand, and made the best of it. Now we bring the best the planet has to offer to everything we do. Yet we do this inconsistently because we do not remember that in every moment we have billions with us. Only when it occurs to us do we fall back on our line of supply – fortified with hyperconnectivity, hyperdistribution and hyperintelligence transformed into hyperempowerment – acting with unprecedented strength. Like Matt, we frequently seem amazed and almost overwhelmed by our own capabilities.

In other ways, we take these new capabilities entirely for granted.

A fire in an apartment block in Beijing gets tweeted (with an accompanying dramatic photo) almost as soon as smoke pours from the building. Anyone listening for news from Beijing would see this photo, despite the fact that Twitter is banned in China, pervasively censored within an autocratic and ever-vigilant state. Somehow the news leaks out from behind the ‘Great Firewall’, where, almost immediately, it gets picked up by and shared with everyone who cares about Beijing. This happens not over days, but within minutes.

Hyperconnectivity has given us eyes everywhere, seeing things when others see them. We no longer wait for wire services or newspapers to tell us what’s happening. In an unremarked upon reversal, we now tell them. We pass along the important items that merit broader coverage. We are the news, but somehow this fact is not news. Everything looks much as it did half a billion seconds ago, even though everything now works quite differently.

Having eyes everywhere does change some things, as my friend Rod (@rod3000) indicates with this tweet:

In a hyperconnected culture, the near impossibility of anonymity of any public act gives us all pause. Someone, somewhere has the capacity to capture and share our actions. Anything done in secret will be broadcast, if it incites enough interest. Rod runs every day – and has undoubtedly endured his share of taunts over the years – but only recently realized he could share those taunts with others – and direct his observations to the police department monitoring probationary ‘P-plate’ drivers.

Rod needn’t have beamed the message to the authorities; his message would have found its way there, eventually, forwarded along by someone who took offense at the act. That’s one scenario, but it’s easy to imagine things spinning slightly out-of-control: his message could have inspired some of the public to action, a hyperochlocracy that could quickly translate a license plate into an owner, an owner into a driver, and a driver into a target of derision.

The boundaries of acceptable public behavior have always been arbitrated by the mob. Go too far and the mob will shun you, taunt you, perhaps even kill you. The mob serves as the mindless enforcer of the public will.

In the United Arab Emirates, the public – which favors conservative Islamic dress, up to and including the whole-body-covering abaya – Emiratis have been confronted by a deluge of foreigners (only 10% of the population of the UAE are native-born) with very different customs of dress and personal modesty. Asma al-Muhairi, a young Emirati, took it upon herself to begin a campaign to bring modesty back to the public places – malls, parks, beaches and restaurants. From the Twitter account @UAEDressCode, al-Muhairi connects to and works with other Emiratis to bring modest dress back into the public sphere.

The account has become a gathering place for people to connect, share, learn from one another, then transform that learning into doing, eventually catching the attention of the UAE’s Federal National Council, which pledged stronger measures to enforce the existing dress codes. Should hyperochlocracy successfully pressure UAE’s foreign-born population into conservative public dress, it will be a victory for the hyperconnected. But even if the campaign fails, everyone who participated in it has learned from their experience, and will put that experience to work the next time they need it.

Although we might imagine hyperochlocracy and hyperpolitics serve only radical ends, they can equally serve as the enforcers of conservative values. Wherever the mob finds an organizing principle, hyperochlocracies emerge. As we become more connected, we find ourselves increasingly confronted by the actions of others, inhabiting a state of continuous agitation (bordering, at times, on outrage), and as a result giving birth to an unending series of hyperochlocracies. Paradoxically, when we try to turn our backs on the future, we instinctively reach for the tools the future has provided.

In a 2003 interview with THE ECONOMIST, science fiction writer William Gibson (who coined the term ‘cyberspace’) quipped, ‘The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ Tomorrow has already arrived. The technologies have been deployed. We are all already hyperconnected — if we spend the next half billion seconds bringing the remaining two billion into hyperconnectivity, that’s little more than a denouement, almost an afterthought. The hard work is done.

Buzzing with ideas, each of us shares everything of importance, learning more and more every day about how to thrive in a hyperconnected world. Everything we learn we pass along, so we are learning very quickly now. Every day brings something new. The future is already here, and we hold the instrument of its distribution in our hands. Today. We no longer need to wait until tomorrow.

54 – #DISRUPT

A curious device has begun to appear at civil disturbances. Small enough that it can be worn on the body, this ‘IMSI catcher’ electronically lures all nearby mobiles into connecting to it. Once connected, those mobiles enter a negotiation with the device, which asks them first for their number, then – if they would be so kind – to stop using encryption on their messages. So that those messages can be read by anyone.

The gadget has a two-fold purpose. First, when mobiles connect to it, they can not connect to the broader mobile network. They become nearly pointless slabs of silicon, glass and plastic, unable to communicate with the world beyond. Second, those connected mobiles render up the contents of all of their outgoing communication – text messages, data transmissions, voice calls. The gadget builds the social graphs of the people participating in the disturbance, as they fruitlessly try to connect.

Drop it anywhere, in any crowd, and the IMSI catcher will generate the map needed to disrupt the relations in any community, producing results torture can not. This has made these devices broadly popular, for they solve a vexing problem in the age of hyperconnectivity: how do you disrupt an emerging hyperpower? The state will use every technique at its disposal to maintain control. As witnessed in in Egypt, any sufficiently desperate state will even disrupt its own networks to thwart hyperempowerment.

The existence of an IMSI catcher means the war of power against the hyperempowered has already begun. One thwarts the other’s hyperconnectivity, while the other thwarts the thwarting.

Indian ISPs, forced to block all BitTorrent websites – until a court order reversed the ruling – found themselves, after the judgement had been reversed, receiving numerous requests to have specific content removed from their sites. Anonymous broke into the server of the firm issuing these requests, then altered the request to something less serious, and much more embarrassing. The long arm of control – commercial censorship (disguised as copyright), backed by the state – reached out to disrupt hyperdistribution, pulling back a bloodied stump.

Similarly, should these IMSI catchers prove successful, some clever people will be compelled to invent an ‘IMSI catcher catcher’. This anti-gadget would advertise itself over the appropriate radio channels identifying itself as hundreds or even thousands of fake mobiles, keeping the IMSI catcher busy and overwhelmed with meaningless or misleading transmissions. With the IMSI catcher caught in the snare of the anti-gadget, protesters would remain free to hyperconnect into hyperempowerment.

Hyperempowerment can be blocked, temporarily, but every block produces a stronger countervailing force: Gilmore’s Law in practice. This is the contour of the next billion seconds, a succession of blocks and disruptions, as every institution with any power confronts hyperempowerment and struggles to contain it.

There is no lock anywhere, nor any wall, law, or taboo, that will not be broken. Anything that remains will survive at the sufferance of the hyperempowered, because it pleases them. There is no question of whether this will happen – it is already happening. The only question remaining for us concerns how we choose to greet this transformation of our capabilities, our quantum leap into hyperempowerment.

As the generation caught in the midst of this transition from unconnected to hyperconnected, our actions have a disproportionate influence on the generations following us. The things we do today shape the world to come. We are in the process of articulating a new language, and it falls to us to form the first words. These words make the world that all who follow us will inhabit, and though they will utter their own new words, they will inevitably draw from the language we passed down to them. They will build upon what we are now creating anew.

We must accept that each word we utter will bring something down. It sounds pleasingly puissant to possess that kind of power, but we who have grown up with the presumptions of power are not well-constituted to live without it. Much that others did for us we need to do for ourselves. Much that we took for granted no longer holds true. As power falls, we increasingly find ourselves caught out by the delusions of power, things we believed eternally true, but which are no longer.

Neither can we be so afraid of our Shaivite aspect that we keep silent for fear of disrupting ourselves. If we do not do it, billions of others, who have different aims – some in concert with ours, others in conflict – will. On a hyperconnected planet, there is no place to drop out, no hermitage that puts us beyond the reach of those touched by hyperconnectivity and transformed by hyperempowerment. We can choose to remain silent, we can choose not to listen, but neither posture will prevent or even slow this process.

Thus far this has been an unconscious revolution. It has happened to us, but not with us. That is changing. We are becoming aware of ourselves, in our vast and potent billions. Every day we connect, share, and learn about ourselves, and all of this changes the scope of possibilities for doing. Some of this doing reflects back upon us; it is not only that we can do, but that we know we can do.

Can we sit between delight and terror, balanced carefully, neither feeding adolescent fantasies of universal apocalypse, nor the magical thinking that our acts alone (or our withdrawal from the world) could prevent it?

Should we try to do too much for ourselves, at the detriment to others, they will rise to block us, just as, situation reversed, we will rise to block them. We have great power without great freedom. Our scope for action has narrowed in concert with the force we bring to our acts, a paradox that will seem completely natural a billion seconds from now, but one which makes us feel strangely confined.

Just as everything opens up, we feel the walls of our cage. We want to knock down those walls – while we are kicking down so many others – only to learn that we are the walls. The billions of us – Homo Nexus – have come together in an unexpected form. Like infants struggling against our limits, we have a lot to learn about the bounds of the possible.