54 – #DISRUPT

A curious device has begun to appear at civil disturbances. Small enough that it can be worn on the body, this ‘IMSI catcher’ electronically lures all nearby mobiles into connecting to it. Once connected, those mobiles enter a negotiation with the device, which asks them first for their number, then – if they would be so kind – to stop using encryption on their messages. So that those messages can be read by anyone.

The gadget has a two-fold purpose. First, when mobiles connect to it, they can not connect to the broader mobile network. They become nearly pointless slabs of silicon, glass and plastic, unable to communicate with the world beyond. Second, those connected mobiles render up the contents of all of their outgoing communication – text messages, data transmissions, voice calls. The gadget builds the social graphs of the people participating in the disturbance, as they fruitlessly try to connect.

Drop it anywhere, in any crowd, and the IMSI catcher will generate the map needed to disrupt the relations in any community, producing results torture can not. This has made these devices broadly popular, for they solve a vexing problem in the age of hyperconnectivity: how do you disrupt an emerging hyperpower? The state will use every technique at its disposal to maintain control. As witnessed in in Egypt, any sufficiently desperate state will even disrupt its own networks to thwart hyperempowerment.

The existence of an IMSI catcher means the war of power against the hyperempowered has already begun. One thwarts the other’s hyperconnectivity, while the other thwarts the thwarting.

Indian ISPs, forced to block all BitTorrent websites – until a court order reversed the ruling – found themselves, after the judgement had been reversed, receiving numerous requests to have specific content removed from their sites. Anonymous broke into the server of the firm issuing these requests, then altered the request to something less serious, and much more embarrassing. The long arm of control – commercial censorship (disguised as copyright), backed by the state – reached out to disrupt hyperdistribution, pulling back a bloodied stump.

Similarly, should these IMSI catchers prove successful, some clever people will be compelled to invent an ‘IMSI catcher catcher’. This anti-gadget would advertise itself over the appropriate radio channels identifying itself as hundreds or even thousands of fake mobiles, keeping the IMSI catcher busy and overwhelmed with meaningless or misleading transmissions. With the IMSI catcher caught in the snare of the anti-gadget, protesters would remain free to hyperconnect into hyperempowerment.

Hyperempowerment can be blocked, temporarily, but every block produces a stronger countervailing force: Gilmore’s Law in practice. This is the contour of the next billion seconds, a succession of blocks and disruptions, as every institution with any power confronts hyperempowerment and struggles to contain it.

There is no lock anywhere, nor any wall, law, or taboo, that will not be broken. Anything that remains will survive at the sufferance of the hyperempowered, because it pleases them. There is no question of whether this will happen – it is already happening. The only question remaining for us concerns how we choose to greet this transformation of our capabilities, our quantum leap into hyperempowerment.

As the generation caught in the midst of this transition from unconnected to hyperconnected, our actions have a disproportionate influence on the generations following us. The things we do today shape the world to come. We are in the process of articulating a new language, and it falls to us to form the first words. These words make the world that all who follow us will inhabit, and though they will utter their own new words, they will inevitably draw from the language we passed down to them. They will build upon what we are now creating anew.

We must accept that each word we utter will bring something down. It sounds pleasingly puissant to possess that kind of power, but we who have grown up with the presumptions of power are not well-constituted to live without it. Much that others did for us we need to do for ourselves. Much that we took for granted no longer holds true. As power falls, we increasingly find ourselves caught out by the delusions of power, things we believed eternally true, but which are no longer.

Neither can we be so afraid of our Shaivite aspect that we keep silent for fear of disrupting ourselves. If we do not do it, billions of others, who have different aims – some in concert with ours, others in conflict – will. On a hyperconnected planet, there is no place to drop out, no hermitage that puts us beyond the reach of those touched by hyperconnectivity and transformed by hyperempowerment. We can choose to remain silent, we can choose not to listen, but neither posture will prevent or even slow this process.

Thus far this has been an unconscious revolution. It has happened to us, but not with us. That is changing. We are becoming aware of ourselves, in our vast and potent billions. Every day we connect, share, and learn about ourselves, and all of this changes the scope of possibilities for doing. Some of this doing reflects back upon us; it is not only that we can do, but that we know we can do.

Can we sit between delight and terror, balanced carefully, neither feeding adolescent fantasies of universal apocalypse, nor the magical thinking that our acts alone (or our withdrawal from the world) could prevent it?

Should we try to do too much for ourselves, at the detriment to others, they will rise to block us, just as, situation reversed, we will rise to block them. We have great power without great freedom. Our scope for action has narrowed in concert with the force we bring to our acts, a paradox that will seem completely natural a billion seconds from now, but one which makes us feel strangely confined.

Just as everything opens up, we feel the walls of our cage. We want to knock down those walls – while we are kicking down so many others – only to learn that we are the walls. The billions of us – Homo Nexus – have come together in an unexpected form. Like infants struggling against our limits, we have a lot to learn about the bounds of the possible.

38 – #MASTERY

Pity poor David Cecil, totally unprepared.

The unemployed truck driver, with nothing to fill his days, decided on a course of self-improvement. Clear on what interested him, he sought out others who shared his interests, connecting with them, then listened to everything they could teach him. Completely engaged, he spent up to twenty hours a day online, reading and researching and engaging those ahead of his own understanding, learning everything they offered up. An excellent student, Cecil soon felt qualified enough to apply his autodidactic efforts. That’s when the trouble began.

If Cecil had studied ‘bathtub biology’, learning how to catalyze the Polymerase Chain Reaction in order to do DNA amplification, he might have bred himself a superbug, a strain of E. coli capable of giving the whole planet a fatal tummy ache. If he’d briefed himself on nuclear engineering, he might have constructed a homemade particle accelerator, bombarded atoms, and perhaps created a contamination threat affecting his entire neighborhood. Instead, Cecil studied computer security, coming into an understanding of the techniques used to protect and secure networks, then used these skills to break into, subvert, and control the systems for a small Internet Service Provider.

It all ended badly: the ISP quickly detected his intrusion – Cecil didn’t know enough about how to cover his tracks – then shunted him off to systems designed as ‘honeypots’, which look inviting and potentially powerful, but which simply trap the attacker in a sticky dead end. After compiling a sufficiently large body of evidence, the police broke down Cecil’s door one morning, arresting him and impounding all of his computers. The neighbors seemed surprised; an unemployed truck driver with no particularly remarkable talents suddenly become an ‘evil’ hacker? It strained credulity.

Welcome to the age of connected intelligence.

Now that everything known is shared broadly and freely, now that everyone who cares about any given body of knowledge maintains a constant relation to it and to everyone else who cares about that knowledge, the entire world is composed of a continuously multiplying set of knowledge amplifiers. Any of us can place ourselves within one – or fall in, almost accidentally – simply by engaging. By being present, connecting and sharing, we shed our ignorance and quickly acquire a degree of mastery. We can know nothing and crash headlong into one of these knowledge amplifiers, emerging on the other side changed and potent.

Knowledge does not confer wisdom. That is a slower process. Cecil learned everything about how to penetrate and invade computer systems, but he never realized that to possess the capability is far more valuable than actually putting it to use. A well-qualified expert in computer security will earn two or three times as much as a truck driver, and can always find gainful employment. Drunk with power, blind to reason or even common sense, Cecil, guns blazing, charged into a buzzsaw.

This sort of behavior will become increasingly common, as we see individuals with hypertrophied knowledge reach out with their extended capabilities, grasping at things which they do not yet wholly understand. The step function between ignorance and arrogance has become so clearly resolved, communities are growing into an understanding of how those newly engorged with knowledge become a danger to themselves and others. Some communities may isolate these individuals behind a ‘blast shield’ of plausible deniability, others will seek to engage and bring these fledglings into wisdom. Neither approach will be wholly successful.

Imagine the secrets of the atomic bomb had been revealed not at Los Alamos, but within a kindergarten classroom, filled with the high and mostly thoughtless emotions of children still far from their full cognitive capability, and lacking any capacity to restrain themselves. ‘Knowing is doing, and doing, knowing.’ An uncontrollable chain reaction, created in a momentary fit of pique, vaporizes everything. The child has learned how to build the bomb, but has not learned they must never drop it.

Human knowledge in the era of hyperconnectivity has achieved ubiquitous dissemination, and as a consequence all human knowledge will be reframed around consequence. It is not that you can know something; with few exceptions that will be nothing remarkable. The entrapment of information no longer carries within it the seeds of power; rather, the application of information becomes the new wellspring of puissance. We can all know the same things – nothing any longer prevents this – but our application of this knowledge will be guided by wisdom. We can seek to self-aggrandize and destroy, or we can support and strengthen. The choice is always there for everyone, though not everyone will be able to see it.

In the next billion seconds, ignorance, presently viewed as a character flaw, a state of complete lacking, will be seen as something easy to ameliorate, more like a bruise that needs bandaging than a permanent and disfiguring scar. We will acquire (and perhaps neglect and forget) whole bodies of knowledge, transforming our understanding daily, as we become more expert at learning from those who know, and build tools more perfectly suited to the ways we want to learn from them.

Once again, this is no utopia, but actually a world more fraught with human dangers than any we have ever known. If the boy next door can brew up a superflu because he didn’t get a date to the senior prom, we will need to be more sensitive to both the moods and the capabilities of others, or confront pervasive, sudden annihilation.

Communities of knowledge must derive from within themselves the essentials of self-regulation that prevent these sorts of disasters. We are playing with matches while doused in petrol, and need to recognize this. Good fire control policies will prevent needless tragedies, lives ruined (like David Cecil’s) or even lost, merely because our knowing outstripped our sense of what is right. This is the new ignorance, the penumbra of wisdom. It is not that we do not know, it is that we do not know what to do with our knowing.