25 – #SHARE

Silence is not an innate skill among human beings. Quite the opposite. From time out of mind, our success has depended upon our ability to share everything we know with anyone who might need to know it. On the African savanna, sharing indicated the presence of predators, a sighting of a favoured plant, or the signs of an approaching thunderstorm. The more effectively we shared as individuals, the more successfully the group could prepare for and respond to any challenges. Sharing means survival. The forces of natural selection have favoured sharing, so we find ourselves at the end of a long line of people who simply could not shut up. Blessed are those who share, for their numbers will increase.

Sharing as a species hearkens back to our beginnings, and ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: we can watch as sharing behaviors emerge in children. From our earliest moments, fresh from the womb, we begin to share ourselves. Babies move their arms and legs in syncopation to mother’s voice, dancing to her soothing tones. The infant freely offers up their internal, inchoate emotional state with smiles and gurgles and cries and screams, and continue sharing for the entire span of our lives.

Ask a small child to share a favoured toy — and prepare yourself for a battle of wills. Ask that same child to share the details of their day, then sit back as a stream-of-consciousness flow of associations, impressions and memories pours forth. We must be taught to share our things, yet must learn restraint when sharing our thoughts. Such is our need to speak our minds, keeping secrets requires almost superhuman reserves of willpower and fortitude.

In the beginning, we share with those most closely related to us: mother and father, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. As we grow into greater independence, capable of forging our own connections, we share with friends, neighbors, and classmates. By the time we reach adulthood, that circle of sharing extends out to colleagues, acquaintances, and the community.

Ten thousand years ago sharing reached its natural limits at the boundaries of tribal kinship. Five thousand years ago, the walls of the city would have framed our span. Five hundred years ago, we could write our thoughts into a book, send it to the printers, and see ourselves eventually shared throughout the world.

In the age of hyperconnectivity sharing becomes immediate, instantaneous, and universal. Everything we share always goes global, even if it only rarely becomes pervasive. We share ourselves freely, believing our sharing bound by the gravitational forces which have always dragged our thoughts back to earth, but everything has now become weightless photons, and travels without interruption at the speed of light. There is no barrier, anywhere — not even within ourselves.

The hyperconnected leak information, always sharing something. At a minimum we share our presence on the network, this being the first sin that leads to a multitude of transgressions, revelation by derivation: Presence becomes location. Location becomes movement. Movement becomes activity. Activity becomes intent. Everything, from barely anything at all.

Revelation is the common, persistent and continuous condition of the four-and-a-half-billion-and-counting hyperconnected. It is not that there is no privacy anymore; rather, the performance of any act becomes its broadcast, traced out in presence, and, once shared, drawn into a world of meanings attached to our actions. We neither surrendered our privacy nor had it taken away: privacy and connectivity are fundamentally oppositional. Satisfying both simultaneously has proven impossible.

Since we did not give up our privacy, we are not aware that it has vanished, except in those still somewhat rare but increasingly common moments when we become wholly visible to one another. We can generate a peculiar quality of light, where everyone is revealed, all the connections we assumed in innocence casting menacing shadows.

A telephone carrier knows where each of its subscribers are (or at least their mobiles) at every moment. Mobiles, aware of their location, share this information with various services, together with any other relevant information. This sharing expands our awareness. We can know when our friends approach, or a taxicab, or a potential employer. Sifting through this sharing, taking from it the bits most relevant to the present need, reveals the hidden. A recent example: Girls around Me.

Creepy on first sight (an obvious playground for stalkers) the deeper one looks, the more interesting it becomes. Why women? Why not footy fans, car hoons or budgerigar fanciers? Why not Jews? Or skinheads? Or anyone who in any way differs from me enough to present a threat? The shout that once alerted us to a predator on the African savannah has become an message on the screen of our smartphone.

No one need explicitly share themselves in order to be thus captured, qualified, filtered and portrayed. All becomes apparent from connections, associations, movements and activities. Like attracts like, and this reveals more than we would ever willingly provide. Connection is the only light required to reveal absolutely everything.

We find ourselves utterly exposed, sharing everything without hesitation and without volition. We are completely known but do not yet know this. We believe we encompass mystery, that something can be withheld. The space for secrets has grown miniscule, as every act, connected, shared and broadcast globally, tells others more about us than we dare admit to ourselves.

Believing ourselves shy, we nonetheless desire to know the minds of others, longing to learn who to connect with around the topics of importance to us, and who we must avoid in order to preserve ourselves. Threat and opportunity: human drives have changed little in ten thousand years, but now everyone hears our moments of crisis and triumph. These moments act as beacons, allowing us to find one another.


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.

9 – #WAR

A warm late afternoon, hanging out in the trees in Africa’s Rift Valley. Just you and your friends – probably ten or twenty of them. You’re all males; the females are elsewhere, mothering and gathering. At a signal from the chief, all of you drop out of the trees, fall into line, and begin a trek that takes you throughout the little bit of land you call your own, with your own trees and plants and bugs that keep you well fed. You go all the way to the edge of your territory, to the border of the territory of a neighboring tribe. That tribe – about the same size as your own – is dozing in the heat of the afternoon, all over the place, but basically within sight of one another.

Suddenly – and silently – you all cross the border. You fan out, still silent, looking for the adolescent males in this tribe. When you find them, you kill them. As for the rest, you scare them off with your screams and your charges, and, at the end, they’ve lost some of their own territory – and trees and plants and delicious grubs – while you’ve got just a little bit more. And you return, triumphant, with the bodies of your enemies, which you eat, with your tribe, in a victory dinner.

This all sounds horrid and nasty and mean and just not cricket. The scourge of war, as familiar to us today as it would have been to our most distant human ancestors. But war begins before we did, an inheritance which came to us from those species which came before us.

How do we know that ‘war’ stretches this far back into our past? A paper published in Current Biology and reported in THE ECONOMIST described how primatologists have seen this precise, coordinated, warlike behavior among chimpanzees, in their natural habitats in the rain forests of central African. The scene I just described isn’t ten million years old, or even ten thousand, but current. Chimpanzees wage war. This kind of tribal warfare is exactly what was commonplace in New Guinea and the upper reaches of Amazonia until relatively recently – certainly within the last few billion seconds. War is a behavior common to both chimpanzees and humans – so why wouldn’t it be something we inherited from our common ancestor?

War. What’s it good for? If you win your tiny tribal war for a tiny bit more territory, you’ll gain all of the resources in that territory. Which means your tribe will be that much better fed. You’ll have stronger immune systems when you get sick, you’ll have healthier children. And you’ll have more children. As you acquire more resources, more of your genes will get passed along, down the generations. Which makes you even stronger, and better able to wage your little wars. If you’re good at war, natural selection will shine upon you.

What qualities make you good at war? You’re good at war if you and your tribe can function effectively as a unit. To do that, you must be able to coordinate your activities to attack (or defend) territory. We know language skills don’t go back millions of years, so our pre-human ancestors did this the old-fashioned way, with gestures and grunts and an ability to get into the heads of the other members of the tribe. That’s the key skill: if you can get into one another’s heads, you can think as a group. The better you can do that, the better you will do in war. The better you do in war, the more offspring you’ll have. That skill, reinforced by natural selection, transforms, over thousands of generations, into evolution. With every generation you get better at knowing what your tribe is thinking.

This is the beginning of the social revolution.

All the way back here, before we looked anything like human, we grasped the heart of the matter: we must know one another to survive. If we want to succeed, we must know each other well. There are limits to this knowing, particularly with our small-brained ancestors. Knowing someone well takes a lot of brain capacity, and soon that fills up. When it does, you can’t know everyone around you intimately. As that happens the tribe grows increasingly argumentative, confrontational, eventually fracturing into two independent tribes. All because of a communication breakdown.

There’s strength in numbers; if I can manage a tribe of thirty while all you can manage is twenty, I’ll defeat you in war. There’s pressure, year after year, to grow the tribe, and, quite literally, to stuff more people into the space between your ears. For many generations that pressure leads nowhere; then there’s a baby born with just a small genetic difference, one which allows just a bit more brain capacity, so it can manage one or two or three more people — a small difference with a big impact. Genes that lead to success in war get passed along very rapidly; soon everyone holds a few more people inside their heads. But that capability comes with a price. Those pre-humans have slightly bigger brains, within slightly bigger heads. They need to eat more to keep those bigger brains well-fed. And those big heads would eventually prove very problematic.