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.

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.

47 – #FAIRFAX

Of course I found out over Twitter. Sitting in my cafe, settling in to write another chapter, I found Mark Scott, Managing Director of the ABC, tweeting about the changes just announced at Fairfax, Australia’s oldest news publisher. Twenty percent of the staff sacked – including a large portion of editorial – plus the transformation of flagship broadsheets Age and Sydney Morning Herald into cheaper-to-produce tabloids, and migration of most web-accessible content behind a metered paywall.

I found out over Twitter because Mark Scott posted the tweet, then half a dozen people I follow retweeted that tweet, and more retweeted those retweets, a Katamari-like snowball of awareness that encompassed nearly my entire tweetstream for a few minutes. This is breaking news in 2012, and how news gets broken: One person, somewhere, sees something and shares it. Once shared the dynamics of salience take over. Everything is shared according to its degree of perceived importance. Something unimportant, or important only to a very few, will not be shared widely. Something of immediate import to 22 million Australians will receive an almost immediate and universal response.

Twelve million Australians walk around with smartphones connected to mobile broadband and wifi, hyperconnected and sharing, hyperdistributing everything that comes their way and catches their fancy. It could be the report of a car accident, sighting of ticket inspectors at the train station, a brush with a television personality, or almost anything else. It happens all the time, everywhere. It’s a completely natural behavior, a form of gossip which has only recently been amplified to global scope by hyperconnectivity.

The national broadsheets (and indeed, newspapers everywhere) consider themselves threatened by the migration of the ‘rivers of gold’ advertising to specialty websites like Seek and Craigslist. They now repent of their decision to offer their news freely through their own websites – realizing that the aggregation of Internet eyeballs provides only a small percentage of the profitability of print, and will place themselves behind a locked door, opened only for a fee.

Newspapers will suddenly become invisible, but Australians will not care, because they will not notice. In the era of hyperconnectivity, the news does not come from newspapers, does not rely on reporters, has no editors, needs no printers or publishers. The news is simply what’s being shared by someone, somewhere. If that sounds banal, well, it is until something like a tsunami or a financial collapse or an unexpected moment of utter tenderness reminds us of the hegemony of salience.

That which is meaningful captures our eye. We share the significant, and if it is important enough, news comes and finds us. Everything else is habit. All of the ritual and regalia surrounding journalism, all of its traditions and practices, however venerable, are now meaningless in the specific even as they approach a universal application.

We may be drowned in observations – the price of the Age of Omniscience is to be aware of too much – but we do not rely a newspaper to tell us what is important, or interesting. We expect that information to come from our relations. They tell us ‘look here’ and we look.

None of this speaks to truth, of verifiable facts from reputable sources. It speaks instead to passion, and this militates against wisdom. Hyperconnectivity and hyperdistribution open the door to demagoguery, but no more than many a newspaper, baying for blood while banging the war drums: “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.”

We are left where we started, but without the institutions that supported the amplification of ideas into policies and passions into prejudices. These we do ourselves, using the tool at hand – our mobiles – paired with the power of hyperdistribution. A mobile on its own is not enough. Twitter on its own is not enough. Bring the two together and the hybrid energy released gives us a permanent and growing situational awareness, but – without so much as an afterthought – it also blows down institutions we consider essential both to our democracy and our culture.

We can’t outsource the work of situational awareness to an institution, however constituted. Hyperempowerment means doing things for ourselves, using our extended and extensive capabilities to manage meaning and salience. We each filter for one another, we each forward matters of salience along to one another, and we each find things – because of who and where we are – which demand to be shared. Every one of us is now journalist, editor and publisher, and not in some lofty, theoretical sense, but in our actual, immediate practice. Every time we share something, we make news.

Making news was until recently a protected province, powerful and impregnable. Publishing was an artifact of the information asymmetries commonplace to all power structures before hyperconnectivity. Now hyperempowered, everyone outside the publisher knows more than the publisher, who suffers in a state of a relative ignorance, less aware and less connected to the world than the putative audience.

The hyperempowered can not be served up as an audience; they can only participate. They may choose to watch, but even viewing will not be a passive activity. They will connect and share and learn and act as suits their purpose. There is no institution, anywhere, just the actions of hyperconnected, hyperempowered individuals, hyperdistributing everything salient. This is not publishing, nor journalism, because it is not a job, simply an activity, an awareness of the moment extended across an entire planet now collapsed into a single point of connection. The global village has become the global nucleus.

This is not the end of people telling us what they think we should know, or believe. But it does represent the end of one form of that telling, an artifact of the time before the last half billion seconds. Before we were all connected. A newspaper is disconnected, isolated, and singular. We are none of these things, and find ourselves losing any connection with something that bears so little relation to what we have already become. The newspaper is an antique artifact from a past so recent it looks familiar, yet so alien we now come to wonder how it ever worked at all.

34 – #DISGUISE

“Let’s hear it for the vague blur!”

In A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick’s dystopian science fiction novel of addiction and redemption, the protagonist – a drug enforcement agent – wears a disguise to prevent anyone from recognizing (and thereby betraying) him. The ‘scramble suit’ creates an everyman projection; in place of a single person, the whole population is represented:

As the computer looped through its banks, it projected every conceivable eye color, hair color, shape and type of nose, formation of teeth, configuration of facial bone structure – the entire shroudlike membrane took on whatever physical characteristics were projected at any nanosecond, then switched to the next…

Looking upon the scramble suit reveals nothing of the person within. Even the voice, transformed in real-time, splices together the words of people of every age and from every culture, resulting in speech full of meaning but lacking any identifiable characteristic.

Overloading ourselves with particulars, we represent nothing. Preference becomes impossible, a meaningless attempt to empty the oceans with a sieve. When everything about us is everything, we become invisible.

Therein lies our escape from the land of the shadow.

Everything that we share in common with others subtracts from our specificity. We connect and share and refine our sharing, to find our interior lives leaking away, expressed and examined and critiqued, but no longer ours. With the loss of privacy comes the loss of uniqueness. We are not defined by what we share, but rather, by what we withhold. It is the things we will not say which make us significant. Hard, secret, and often cruel, these secret stones are the making of us. Creatures of language, we are closest to that which we dare not utter.

If we are to have any of ourselves left in a hyperconnected world, we must learn to keep quiet, drawing lines around our lives, determining which parts we will choose to expose and have bleached to whiteness in the intense light cast by four and a half billion others, deciding which parts we will keep close, telling no one, not even our closest relations, lest these secrets find their way into their sharing and thereby undermine all our efforts.

The simple quiet of the Zen master provides inadequate defense against the mechanisms of the age of omniscience, where actions speak louder than words. Tirelessly watching, our machines faithfully construct their simulacra from a study of our movements; the only silence they could not penetrate would be the absolute stillness of the yogi who holds a single pose for years. Everything else points to a truth we dare not speak, but which speaks for us.

Thoroughly surrounded, we must find another passage to freedom, blinding the machines in a surfeit of light. We need to maintain connections not with a hundred and fifty others, nor even with ten thousand, but with ten million, sending messages to all of them as frequently as our channels allow, so that no pattern can be discerned within the overwhelming flood of connection. Where data can be abstracted, analyzed and applied to the simulacra, there it must be amplified, and shared as broadly as possible, without regard to recipient. Everything we say must be shouted from the rooftops, into as many ears as will hear.

This is our scramble suit: If we say everything to everyone, we say nothing of importance to anyone in particular. It must be this way. We can not simply dissemble, pretend to be other than what we are, because our actions expose our connections. We must be connected to everyone in order to move beyond the reach of the simulacrum. Hyperconnectivity is more than a condition; it is a necessity, stripping away our privacy even as it hands us the tool to restore it.

Each of us, receiving a continuous stream of communication from millions of others, would immediately lose all meaning and all contact, it being impossible to discern a whispered signal within a roar of noise. But within ourselves, in the never-revealed sanctum of the soul (and the soul’s little machines), we keep a list of those whom we choose to attend. These communications are the ones which we interpret and acknowledge. We assign importance, and so construct the screen to prevent the light we generate from dazzling us.

The filter between ourselves and our closest relations lies within ourselves, not out on Facebook or Google or Twitter or in any other system where it becomes fodder for our simulacra. It must lie within, part of our essential self, because who we know is who we are. When a simulacra faithfully models who we know, we have become simulations, programmable and easily controlled.

The joy of sharing is immediate, evident, and completely natural. Amplified across the entire planet sharing also becomes its shadow: hidden and artificial. The way down is the way forward, into an overwhelming and chaotic construction of connectivity which purposely surrenders any extrinsic meaning in order to preserve its occult intent.

Let us then embrace noise and randomness, seeing them not as problematic but as beneficial, the keys to our release. Noise resists analysis, and can not be used to fortify simulacra. Randomness confounds computers, providing no clear picture, only a Rorschach-like exploration of the interiority of the observer, not the observed.

Turning the tables on the observer, we will use our scramble suits as mirrors, turning them to face the shadow machinery of simulacra, which, lacking real data, will feedback upon their own inbuilt hypotheses, producing monstrous projections, a carnival funhouse utterly divorced from reality. What they look for they will find, but it will always be a phantom, the exteriorization of the observer’s own desires and fears, a hall of mirrors filled with hungry ghosts.

We must connect. We are compelled to share. We must no longer discriminate: Everything for everyone, everywhere. If they know us, they will listen; if not, they will thank us for the disguise.

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.