11- #WORD

In the beginning is the word.

Impossible to conceive of a time before language, because to conceive thoughts requires the articulation of language, we can not project ourselves backward into the minds of forbears before speech. Even where we can not talk, every gesture we make and every grunt we sound has been shaped by a mind that thinks in words.

Creatures of language, we both master and become captive to the flow of ideas that spring forth from our mouths. The fish swims, the bird flies, and the human speaks. We do not know how this happened, nor when, though perhaps we now know where — on the plains of southern Africa. We have never asked why we speak. The answer has always been obvious.

The pressures of survival drive all living things to explore the full range of their innate capabilities. For human beings, survival has always been a social skill, thriving by working together. Across tens of millions of years we watched one another closely, and used that observation to get into each other’s heads. That was powerful – because we were smart. As we grew more social, we learned to wage war and raise children far more effectively.

We had always grunted, signaling with our voices – just as all primates do. Within the depths of our minds, already hypertrophied from managing our social relationships, we expanded this repertoire, modulating and clarifying these sounds. Each refinement made it possible to share our own mental state more concisely and completely than ever before. The drive to speech is its own reward: the more clearly you can make yourself understood, the more closely you can work together, and the more successful you will be as a group. Even a little bit of speech improves things so much that the advantages of a fully-developed language follow along immediately.

Ontogeny recapitulates philology.” The transition from simple words – perhaps something close to ‘baby talk’ – into the full, and infinitely flexible creative tool we use as our principal means of communication, likely took less than a billion seconds.

Within a few generations we had become inseparable from our linguistic skills. Speech had become synonymous with being human, because it conferred upon us far greater depth in our social relations, now populated not just with feelings and actions, but with the thoughts of others. Speech allows us to know the minds of those around us; though we don’t equate speech with telepathy, those very first linguistic humans wouldn’t have recognized any difference. Speech is the first technology of connection, bringing minds together, and improving the performance of both the individual and the tribe.

With language comes the capability for a distributed coordination: “Go there and do that.” Working together no longer necessitates working in close quarters. There is safety in numbers, but there is another kind of strength in the distributed intelligence of a tribe verbally coordinating their activities in pursuit of a specific goal. Much of that strategic capability would have been applied to martial pursuits, crafting a battle plan wrought in words. The endless chatter of women, seemingly so casual and frivolous, serves to continuously reinforce the web of social relationships, and thereby ensuring that these women and their children will have resources to draw upon.

It is impossible to imagine a wordless myth. Chimpanzees may dance about in a thunderstorm, but without words, this act remains a reflection of the present, and can never be a frame around the past, nor a presentiment of the future. Words are the vehicles for myth. “In the beginning was the word.” As soon as we learned to speak, we began to tell stories of origin, of great deeds, of the eventual and the eternal. We learned these stories, passing them down the generations.

Most of these stories contained within them some information which helped those who heard the story to understand their world. This useful bit of knowledge made life somewhat easier for those who knew these stories, each story distilling hard-won human experience into a digestible and memorable form. Those who knew many stories had more experience to draw upon, and act upon. “All doing is knowing, all knowing and doing.”

The stories we tell ourselves act as encyclopedias, telling us everything about how the world works. Those who know more will do better and will be more successful, on the whole. Language increases capability, and stories – memorized language – further amplifies those capabilities. Just as we are driven to speak, so we are driven to learn and tell stories.

From the Paleolithic through to the present, every culture comes with its own set of stories, carefully conserved and passed down through the generations, inviolable and immutable because the words themselves hold the culture together. The ‘dreamings’ – mythologies – of Australian aboriginals have been preserved, coherently and without significant change, for fifty thousand years. These stories present a specific, cultural map of the known world, an encyclopedia of facts framing a landscape that did not change in any significant way until the arrival of British settlers in 1788.

Stories alter the people who hear them, changing behaviour, forming expectations, and setting limits. Just as language has become both a liberation and a prison, stories release and constrain us. As the generations pass, these stories accrue, usually quite slowly, reflecting a mostly-unchanging world. In times of threat or disaster, these stories might grow by leaps and bounds, as traumatic events faded into a past of mythological dimensions. At other times the stories themselves might even transform the storytellers, taking them outside of themselves, and into a different world.


Blessed with good health, we spend most of our days blissfully ignorant of a vital question: what do we do when we get sick?  In America, Australia or any other developed nation the answer is easy: we go to the doctor.   High-quality medical care might be expensive (or free, depending on where you live), but access to it can be taken for granted.  Thankfully.

This is not the case everywhere.

In Kenya, quacks posing as medical professionals treat gullible patients, depriving them both of their money and a chance for a cure.  With only 7000 qualified doctors to treat 40,000,000 Kenyans, the huge demand for medical services means anyone with enough medical knowledge to sound convincing can set up shop.  As a result, many Kenyans receive sub-standard medical care.  Some die because their doctor isn’t.

Fortunately, that has started to change.

A smartphone app, MedAfrica, provides any Kenyan with a smartphone a list of registered and certified medical providers.  When a Kenyan gets sick, they can learn – more or less instantly – if a particular practitioner is the real McCoy.

While most Kenyans do not yet own smartphones – the cheapest of these amazing devices still costs around $75, which is a lot of money in East Africa – the nation as a whole has 25,000,000 mobile subscriptions.  Half of Kenya owns a mobile, which means that even if they do not own a mobile themselves, Kenyans undoubtedly know someone who does.  And although smartphones are not in the majority, they aren’t entirely rare.  A Kenyan likely knows someone who owns a smartphone, so they could simply call or text that smartphone-enabled friend, and ask them to use MedAfrica check out their prospective doctor.

When people are sufficiently well-connected – hyperconnected – something known by any one of them can be shared with all of them, very quickly.  MedAfrica includes another feature, a decision-tree of questions which helps the sick self-diagnose their illnesses, making the same inquiries a doctor or nurse might.  From these responses MedAfrica offers up a provisional diagnosis that can point the the sick person toward the most effective treatment.  MedAfrica may not be as good as a doctor, but it’s free, and freely available to anyone with a smartphone, helping both patients and doctors.  When patients can off-load the burden from doctors, by doing some of the work themselves, doctors can spread themselves around, seeing the patients who will most benefit from their expertise.  MedAfrica helps make the creaky, overstretched Kenyan health system more effective.  This app will save lives.

That a little piece of software could have such a profound effect tells us a lot about how quickly and comprehensively our culture has transformed.  In 1999, half the planet had never made a phone call.  By 2009, half of us owned mobiles.  The world has grown connected, and that connectivity acts as an amplifier of human capabilities.  Individual efforts have wildly disproportionate effects.

Much of what transpired in 2011 – a year of turmoil, catastrophe and revolution – seemed chaotic and irrational.  In reality, 2011 saw the first fruits of hyperconnectivity: a rising tide of chaos goes hand-in-hand with our ability to reach out to one another.  Much that was difficult or rare has become easy and common.

We are unprepared for this sudden advancement in our capacity, and we have an urgent need to understand the origin and nature of our new-found capabilities. Like children in the bodies of giants, we kick over everything in our path, unaware of our own strength.   Some few among us have chosen to become agents of chaos, exploiting hyperempowerment for ends that serve only themselves.  Others have used hyperempowerment as a fulcrum – like the authors of MedAfrica, propelling Kenya forward with just the lightest touch.

From inside the fishbowl of this transformation – a civilizational acceleration hurtling us toward a future that feels very different and very potent – it’s difficult to understand how much we have changed.  In our behaviors and expectations, we are already very different than we were just half a billion seconds (15 years) ago.  In another half a billion seconds we will be almost unrecognizable.   What we are becoming will be incomprehensible to the people we once were.  The language of sharing and connectivity we employ today simply did not exist half a generation ago; the way we both depend upon and conform to a world of continuous connection tells us that there is no going back.  Even if all the devices vanished tomorrow, they have left a permanent mark on our collective psyche.  Once connected, we are not easily broken apart.  

Drawn from a decade of research into the social and technological factors fusing in this explosion of cultural change, our book, The Next Billion Seconds, has been broken into 100 chapters.  Every Tuesday and Thursday until December 20, 2012, we will dig a little deeper into the processes and products of hyperconnectivity.  For the next hundred posts, this blog will work to articulate a complete vision of a what happens, now that we’re all connected.