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.

2 – #INTRODUCTION

2 #INTRODUCTION

We live in a connected world.  

Not limited to the wealthy nations and peoples of the world, nearly six billion of the planet’s seven-billion-and-counting individuals own a mobile.  Rich and poor, everyone sees the value in being continuously in-touch.  Connectivity creates opportunity.

A story related in THE ECONOMIST perfectly illustrates the relationship between connectivity and opportunity.  For thousands of years, fishermen in the Indian state of Kerala, on the nation’s southwestern coast, sailing their sturdy dhows into the Indian ocean, have dropped their nets, said their prayers, and harvested the sea’s bounty.  Once they’d filled their hold, the fishermen would head back to the mainland.  At this point, they’d be faced with a choice: where should they sell their fish?  The Kerala coastline, dotted with ports and fish markets, offers fishermen lots of choices, and the markets need fish every day.  Working from instinct, the fishermen would pick a port, and sail into it.

Inevitably, other fishermen would have had the same idea, pulling into the same port at the same time, their holds also filled.  Suddenly there’s a problem of oversupply: Too many fish for sale means low prices at the market.  A fisherman might just barely cover their costs, no matter how hard they worked, or how many fish they caught.  Meanwhile, just a few kilometers away, another fishing port had been forgotten by all the fishermen that day.  No fish for sale in that market, at any price.  The Kerala fishermen had grown used to their subsistence lifestyle, and Kerala fishmongers to their inconstant supply.  It’s just the way things were, the way they’d always been.

In 1997, mobiles came to Kerala.  Cell towers began to spring up all over Kerala, including its extensive beaches.  Radio signals travel in straight lines, so mobile coverage carried out to sea for nearly 15 miles.  Anyone could make a call from the middle of the Indian ocean, almost out of sight of land – if they had a reason to make a call.

As is the case everywhere, the first mobiles were expensive to own and use, so only the wealthy could afford them.  A month of a fisherman’s income barely covered the price of the cheapest mobile.  (In relative terms, mobile cost as much to a Kerala fisherman as a good used car would cost us.)

At least one fisherman had enough spare cash to purchase a mobile.  That mobile went out to sea and at some point – no one knows precisely who, or where, or when – someone rang that mobile.  Over the course of a conversation, the fisherman learned about a fish market which going without fish that day.  He immediately set his sails for that port, and made a tidy profit on his eagerly awaited fish.

The next day, the fisherman phoned around, calling each of the fish markets in succession, learning which of these markets most needed fish – and would pay the most for it.  That day the fisherman made another excellent return on his catch.  The same thing happened the day after that, and the day after that.  With his mobile to check the markets, every day brought a very nice profit.

News of the mobile-facilitated fish market spread very quickly throughout Kerala.  Within a few months, every fisherman, from the poorest to the most well-off, owned a mobile, checking prices at several fish markets before selecting a port of call.  Three things happened as a result: every fish market now had a supply of fish; the price of fish at one market matched the price of fish in another market; and the fishermen now got the best possible price for their fish, every day.  That mobile, which had cost a month’s income, could be paid off in just two months.  

Kerala’s fisherman have a new tool, helping them earn more money.  They’re not alone.  Farmers in Kenya use DrumNet, a text messaging service allowing them to check the current market prices for their produce at a range of locations.  When a farmer readies his vegetables for sale, he sends a text message to DrumNet, using the response to select the market offering him the best price.  Forever at the mercy of the weather, insects and crop blights, farmers have also suffered from ‘informational asymmetry’ in the marketplace, never knowing quite enough to make the most of their opportunities.  Connectivity wipes away these asymmetries: using DrumNet, Kenyan farmers have been earning as much as 40% more for their vegetables.

In Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan, barbers have always had to rent an expensive stall in the public markets to ply their trade.  As Pakistanis bought mobiles, a different kind of commerce became possible.  A barber can just print up signs reading “FOR A HAIRCUT CALL 03XX-YYYYYYYYY”, posting them on any available space.  Everyone is better served by this relationship: the client gets on-call service in his home, while the barber saves a fortune in rent.  

The market, which had always been attached to a place in space and a point in time, has migrated into our mobiles, following us everywhere, all the time.  Unexpected and unpredicted, most businesses have little understanding of how this transition to a universal market fundamentally transforms commerce.  Yet billions of individuals have already grasped the truth: the mobile is the most potent tool for wealth-creation since the invention of the metal axe-head, thousands of years ago.

The business case for the mobile is irresistible: a small investment yielding enormous returns.  Owning a mobile in Bangladesh or Peru or Nigeria dramatically improves your capability to care for your family.  As people saw their employers and friends and family using the mobile to earn more money, the mobile became the must-have device, the universal item in the 21st-century toolkit.

Marshall McLuhan wrote “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”  Seeing it as an essential element for our success in the world, we have taken up the mobile.  We grow richer, but this gift comes at a cost: the more we use the mobile, the more we are transformed by it.