21 – #LOOK

In any place where people congregate – a bus stop, an airport, the line at a cafe – they practice the same behavior. Where once they might have fidgeted, or set their gaze at a neutral distance (to better preserve the anonymity of the city), today each one stares down, into the tiny display cradled in their palm. Staring down, staring in, captured and captivated by the goings-on in another land.

A decade ago we never looked at our mobiles unless making a call. Five years ago we stared at them only while we carefully prepared a text message. Today we gaze into them constantly, almost continuously. Something has changed.

The most obvious change concerns the device itself, which evolved from a very simple alphanumeric display – 3 or 4 lines of 20 characters – into something more akin to a videogame console than a telephone, bristling with processing power, colorful, high-resolution graphics, stereophonic sound, and a surface sensitive to the slightest touch. This ‘smartphone’ realizes the Star Trek vision of the handheld communicator/tricorder (two hundred years ahead of schedule), a flexible, personal device capable of being put to work in practically any situation.

That’s certainly part of what’s going on, but even in the areas of the world where the smartphone hasn’t begun to penetrate (three and a half billion of the planet’s four and a half billion mobile-owning individuals do not own a smartphone) the behavior persists. The smartphone provides plenty of excuses to look down into the device, but they aren’t necessary.

Everyone else – and even those with a smartphone – stares into the device because they’re engaged in conversations, 160 characters at time, in the form of text messages. Over seven trillion text messages were sent last year, a thousand for every person on Earth, with a good percentage of people sending or receiving a hundred messages a day. Teenagers think nothing of spending spare time connecting and communicating with friends through text messages; easily sending and receiving three thousand a month.

These sound like huge numbers, almost as if texting represents a habitual, addictive behavior, but reframed it becomes less scary: What if these teenagers spoke five thousand sentences a month? We’d wonder what had made them so quiet and withdrawn. Texting carries our conversations across space, completely natural to teenagers who have never known anything but hyperconnectivity.

The first mobiles with text messaging features did not tout this capability. In the beginning, few saw any real value in text messaging. Mobile hardware manufacturers added text messaging into their products as an afterthought, buried behind a confusing array of menus. Nothing about first-generation text messaging was easy: Most people had no idea they could send a text message until they received one, when they would learn both how to read the message and send a reply.

Despite all these difficulties, people learned how use text messaging, then taught their friends to do the same, by sending them messages. As messages shot around, more people began to send messages, in a loop of positive feedback which brought us to the trillions of the present day.

Carriers were soon earning more from text messages (which cost almost nothing to send) than from voice calls. Mobile handset manufacturers transformed their devices into messaging machines, demoting the mobile’s voice call capabilities in favor of an interface geared around text messages. The users of the mobile had changed the design of the device, by their patterns of use.

These next generation messaging machines removed most of the barriers to effective messaging. People could manage many more conversations – serially and concurrently – and the number of text messages sent began to accelerate, because people had a platform which reflected their own desire to reach out and connect with others. Texting grew from a rare activity into an occasional practice, eventually becoming a nearly continuous behavior.

Text messages have well-known shortcomings, including message length, lack of rich media, and clumsy keyboard interfaces. (While it is possible to use a 10-digit telephone keypad to type a novel, it often can be and infuriating experience.) People wanted to be able to communicate without any of the constraints of text messages (because of the design of the carrier networks, these constraints were set in stone), so demand grew for more flexible messaging tools.

The immediate and overwhelming popularity of Research In Motion’s BlackBerry platform, seamlessly integrating electronic mail into the mobile experience – with a full, if tiny keyboard – demonstrated the pent-up desire to move beyond text messaging. Other devices, such as Danger’s Hiptop, effectively positioned the mobile as a device that was all about messaging, handling voice calls as an afterthought. Once again, users had driven design changes in mobile devices, making these devices more useful to them, leading to higher levels of usage, and more attention paid to the device. Gradually, we were being drawn in.

By the mid 2000s, the mobile had become more message center than voice communication, with SMS, email and a growing number of new messaging environments, such as Twitter, Facebook and AIM. In order to accommodate so many different conduits for communication, the mobile had to become a general-purpose communications platform: a fully-functional and openly programmable computer. Nokia introduced the first of these highly flexible devices – known as ‘smartphones’ – in 2007, soon followed by devices developed at Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

The smartphone can perform any function of a desktop computer and any function of a mobile, marrying the rich experience of desktop Internet and pervasive wireless hyperconnectivity in a single point of contact, producing an explosive growth in the range of messaging options available, and exponential growth in the number of messages being delivered across all formats. The smartphone continuously offers up a stream of messages. As a result, the smartphone has become nearly impossible to ignore for more than a few moments.

The smartphone itself – metal, glass, plastic and silicon – is not the source of this seductive glamour, unworthy of such dedicated attention. Its surface – the ‘black mirror’ of the display – acts as the individual’s portal to the connected world. Shaped through trillions of messages and half a billion seconds of directed engineering, our hyperconnectivity has produced a nearly ideal tool for communication. From their comfortable homes within our hands, mobiles shine a light so alluring we can no longer look away.

14 – #WEB

With the wire, all of humanity collapsed into a single point. For those with radio and television, half a planet represented less distance, in lived experience, than the goings-on half a mile away. We began to know – and care about – things we had never seen, people we would never meet. With the wire, life began to assume a distinct quality of virtuality; some things became truly important to us, without ever touching us.This virtuality had been with us since the advent of language – when someone could place their ideas into our minds, continued with writing – which freed those ideas from bodies, preserving them against time, reaching a pinnacle with printing – which replicated ideas so broadly, everyone could be touched by them. With each advance, the boundaries of sharing extended, from a single person, to a city, to a culture. With the wire, those boundaries disappeared, and the planet assumed the dimensions of the city.

The city shares everything it knows about anything it finds interesting, from gossip to business to politics to natural philosophy. Some of what the city shares with itself speaks directly to the wire: it’s nature, design, and improvement. A culture wired together shares what it knows to improve its wiring. The point-to-point of the telegraph quickly mutated into the hand-switched fabric of the telephone exchange. The true innovation of the telephone is not the transmission of the voice, but the network which connects any two telephones together. The telegraph stitched the world into a cohesive whole, but the telephone connected any two points in space, bringing them together through the action of the network. More than simple connectivity, the telephone fostered collaboration, sharing between minds, across space, giving the individual voice global reach.

The fabric of the telephone network, first powered by vast numbers of human ‘switchboard operators’, yielded eventually to mechanization, wire working to improve wire. But these switches grew too big, too power hungry and complex, forcing a studied search for a solution. The scientific method – and the judicious application of funds – led to the hybridization of the wire with the digital capabilities of the computer. Just as the wire created the preconditions for the digital, so the digital later relieved the overburdened wire. These first ‘computers within the network’ (routers, as they’re known today) took signals from one part of the network and replicated these signals within another part of the network. The network is by definition a replicating machine, and a computer network is its amplification into a flexible, responsive and resilient replicator.

These digital networks, connecting computers – these newest telephone switchboards were actually computers – joined the discrete, two-way ‘holes in space’ into a larger unity. Every point now could simultaneously connect to every other point, recovering to the original unity of the wire. But this new unity needed no center, no master switchboard, through which all messages must pass. Every point could reach every other point, directly.

These points began to connect, and as they did, each point of the network explored its corresponding companion in connection, learning about it, recording that knowledge, and then sharing that knowledge when it connected to another point. The entire network began a process of self-discovery, an investigation of its shape, scope and capabilities. This sharing led to the improvement of the network. A culture networked together shares what it knows to improve its network. Some of these improvements concerned sharing – sharing about sharing – and with that, the World Wide Web was born. The Web created a platform for sharing, in an effort to provide the growing collection of documents within the network within a universal framework, making it as easy for people to share a book, photo, or song as they could share a conversation.

Once anything can be shared with everyone everywhere, the automatic next question is ‘with whom do we share?’. This layer of individual desire sits across the physical manifestation of the network, an intersection of relationship and capability. Once we can share, we become choosy in our sharing, and we begin to share about the ways that we can refine that sharing to suit our particular needs.

This is the core of the idea behind digital social networks – services such as Friendster, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. These tools marry the capability of the network as a replicator to the relationships which we all carry within us. But these digital social networks, powered by computers and amplified by the reach of the network, carry us far beyond the limited set of connections we bear in our minds and bodies.

Just as the city took us beyond our biological limits, out of the tribe and into vast populations, so now digital social networks propel us beyond the comfortable boundaries of relationships, gathering us in new configurations of community. Facebook is a city of the mind; where we could not know everyone in the city, neither can we know everyone we connect to on Facebook – not in the same intimate way our tribal ancestors could. Yet we can now maintain relations with vast numbers of others, a different kind of knowing, neither intimate nor distant, but somewhere in between. This ground feels as new to us as the space within the city walls must have seemed to our ancestors.

Digital social networks amplify our social capabilities. Just as the telegraph, radio and television amplified our eyes and ears, giving them global reach, so now our web of relationships – the defining characteristic of our species – spans the planet. We connect and share with tools modeled from the contour of our minds, but which give us vastly more power. We are only in the first generation of these tools, using them to share what we know in an effort to make these tools better. A social network shares what it knows to improve its social network.

Humanity has always been a network of minds, connecting through the technology at hand. We have always put our minds to work to improve our connectivity. That has brought us to the threshold of universal hyperconnectivity.