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.