31 – #SHOW

Mobile service in India costs quite a bit less than in the developed world. In 2009, during a price war, most of the nation’s carriers cut voice call rates to half a paisa a second – with 100 paisa in a rupee, that’s roughly one-hundredth of a US cent per second, roughly one-fiftieth the price a caller might pay in Australia or Europe for the same service. And although the average Indian mobile user spends only US $3 a month on their mobile subscription, for a huge number of India’s most poor, that’s too much.

As is customary for mobile carriers globally, Indian customers pay nothing if their calls can not be completed, but the recipient of the call knows who had called – their mobile records the caller’s number. It didn’t take long for someone to figure out that this ‘missed calling’ could be used as kind of signalling.

Many years ago, when interstate calling was still very expensive in the United States, I remember visiting aunts and uncles making missed calls to our home phone, informing us they’d arrived home safely. A single ring (on the single household phone), then silence. It saved them a few dollars, and saved us all some worry. For as long as direct dialing has been available, people have been missing calls intentionally, signalling one another. One ring: safe. Two rings: call me. Three rings: emergency.

India went from very little wired infrastructure – one phone per hundred people – straight into hyperconnectivity. At least half of all Indians now own a mobile. But without a wired history, how did the practice of missed-call signalling develop? Someone might have invented it on their own, but more likely it came via a visitor from a country where missed-call signalling was already commonplace. As soon as missed call signalling is practiced in front of someone else, it is understood, and begins to replicate. When a behavior is practiced on the network, it replicates quickly and broadly, soon becoming pervasive.

Human beings are excellent imitators. From our birth we imitate everyone around us, beginning with learning how to talk – an inconceivable feat of intellectual accomplishment, listening to and imitating our parents and older siblings. We learn so fast because we imitate one another so well. Wired for mimesis – imitation – we embody ‘monkey see, monkey do’.

If imitation has any boundaries, we haven’t found them. Harvard researcher Dr. Nicholas Christakis has spent the last decade studying how behaviors spread through our relationships. First, Christakis learned that tobacco smoking (and the decision to quit smoking) follows from our social connections. The more smokers we are in relation with, the more likely we are to smoke ourselves. The more of our friends decide to quit, the more likely it is that we, too, will stop.

More than just like finding like, Christakis showed that these behaviors actively spread through our connections. One person deciding to smoke makes it more likely their connections will smoke. One person deciding to quit makes it more likely others will follow. Christakis then found that this also characterized obesity: you are more likely to be obese if your connections are with the obese, and more likely to go on a diet if those around you have made that decision.

Our capacity to imitate one another so well makes us peculiarly susceptible to the actions of others. Everyone has heard a lecture on good behavior from their mothers that culminates with, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?” The answer, as it turns out, is probably yes. Our innate desire to imitate one another will even wrestle against the drive for self-preservation: we know that smoking and obesity are bad for us, but, under the influence of our connections – peer pressure – we surrender.

It goes deeper. Studies have also revealed that divorce spreads through our connections. If a couple you’re connected to breaks up, your marriage is in greater peril. Why is this? Does a close-to-home divorce get couples thinking about the dissatisfactions of marriage? Or is it simply a desire to imitate one’s friends, in sickness and in health?

Seen in this light, our connections have an almost epidemiological quality, acting as carriers for diseases of the body (obesity) and heart (divorce) which can infect us and leave us changed. Parents and mentors warned us to ‘be careful who you hang out with’; it’s common knowledge that maintaining connections with ‘the wrong crowd’ can be ruinous. Now we understand why. We are in each other’s heads, the best and worst parts of us always leaking out, or leaking in.

As we research how behaviors spread through the human network, we may attempt to medicalize our connections, creating a cordon sanitaire for ourselves and our children, places beyond the reach of these socially-transmitted diseases. This reaction – typified in the growing number of gated communities – only moves the threat, but never removes it. When you pick your friends, your colleagues, and your neighbors, you adopt their minds.

Humans have always been a colony organism, moving in sync together. The closer our connections, the closer our minds. Half a billion seconds ago, those connections, limited by speed and proximity, gave infections-of-the-mind a natural range. They could not spread quickly, nor very widely. Hyperconnected and disseminated at lightspeed, behaviors now go from unknown to ubiquitous in a few days. Half a billion seconds from now, it will all happen in a matter of seconds: hypermimesis.

Some behaviors – such as missed-call signalling – become immediately pervasive because they offer an improvement in connectivity, spreading through hypermimesis. Demonstration of a behavior over the network allows billions to observe and imitate that behavior. Every improvement in our connectivity (text messaging and missed-call signalling are but two among many) also improves our ability to imitate one another, via the network. Showing is doing, and doing, showing.

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.

29 – #SCREEN

Checking my email one morning, I found two messages with very nearly the same subject lines: “FYI: Google Begins Testing Its Augmented Reality Glasses” reads one, while the other simply identifies itself as “Google Project Glass”. Both emails concern the search giant’s efforts to develop eyeglasses which project an overlaid data display, similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s view in the Terminator series of films. Both pointed to a YouTube video demonstrating how the product might work in the real world. After watching the video, I shared a link on my Twitter feed, so all 28,000 individuals following me now know about ‘Project Glass’. If they hadn’t heard about it already from somewhere else.

As they probably had.

My two friends emailing me reside on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Dan in Boston, Philippe in the Canary Islands. They do not know each other, and it seems unlikely they will ever meet. Yet both of them know me well enough to know that I’d like to read something about Project Glass. Years of sharing have forged the bonds of relationship around shared interests, which include an abiding interest in virtual reality technologies such as Google’s experiment in ‘heads-up-displays’. Neither of them needed to consider whether I’d be interested in such an article; they knew without thinking, because years of experience (23 in Dan’s case, 15 for Philippe) have taught them everything they need to know about me to make them confident enough to hit the ‘send’ button. Both do — within a few hours of one another.

Even if I had no access to the Web, if I didn’t obsessively check my news feeds for anything new and interesting, if I didn’t have nearly the eight thousand people I follow on Twitter feeding me things that interest them, I would have learned about Project Glass, and I would have learned about it within a few hours of it hitting the wires. I am too well connected to too many people who know my interests for something like this to pass me by. The news would enter the network of individuals who know the individuals I know, and would be forwarded along, like the baton in a relay race, making its way from hand to hand until it found its way to me. Which is precisely what happened – though the New York Times accelerated this process somewhat by publishing an article for its millions of readers. But should the Times have been silent, I would have heard through someone, somewhere, who had heard it from someone else, somewhere else, who heard it from someone they knew. And so on.

This is no less true for any one of us. We go out in search of the things that interest us, but it’s just as likely that those things will flow to us through our network of relationships built from shared moments around shared interests. We no longer need to seek out the news – news comes and finds us. Each of us sits at the center point of a vast network of individuals, every one of whom, constantly on the lookout for any new shiny thing to catch their eye, shares a stream of novelty.

If everything every one of the hundred-and-fifty we know well came to our immediate attention, that would be difficult to digest. If we tried to take in everything shared by the ten thousand who know well those we know well, we’d be overwhelmed. And if we tried to encompass everything of note to the million who know well the ten thousand who know well those we know well, we’d immediately immolate, vaporized by too much light.

We are already directly connected. We don’t need better connections. We need better filters, something to stand between us and the impossible intensity of observation that comes from four and a half billion minds sharing whatever tickles their fancy. We need to be able to screen the light, reduce the pressure, ease back, and in the dim find a space for thought.

Fortunately, we have one another. Humans make excellent mirrors, reflecting the lights shone by others, but we can also block this light, or share it very selectively. We hear a lot, but don’t repeat all of it all at once to any one person. We select and choose, directed by the memories of the relationships that have grown up over shared moments of sharing. Each shared moment has the potential to reinforce or weaken the bond of relationship, so we become very careful with our strongest relationships, working to keep them strong by refreshing them constantly with the best we can find. Everything not immediately relevant to that relationship is ignored, or saved for a time when it might prove relevant.

We rely on our relationships to provide us with everything they believe we might need to know. Those closest to us will forward something along because it has made its way past the filter they use to keep that relationship strong. We do the same, sharing ourselves judiciously in the quest to keep ourselves well-informed.

This parallel ‘human network’ has grown up alongside the broadcast and print media, uses them, but would experience surprisingly little disruption if every television channel went dark and every printing press stopped. We are the network now, and everything we need to know finds its way to us, precisely because we express our interest in it. Nothing more is required, no subscriptions or sophisticated sharing technologies. These accelerate the human network, and amplify it, but even if all the sharing tools we know and love simply vanished, our human network of sharing and filtering would prove sufficient for all of us to have as much awareness as desired of anything that we consider salient.

27 – #SPHERE

Once we connect, we begin to share. No one has to tell us to share ourselves: this is who we are. As we share with others, and they share with us, we learn more about them. We share something important to us, and they respond. Where that sharing triggers a memory, hope, or resonance, they respond positively, sharing something of their own experience with us, and that moment is reinforced. Where our sharing is meaningless – or worse, upsetting – we receive little encouragement, even silence. We remember this as well.

Each of these sharing moments become the shape of our relationships. Moments become memories, and eventually these memories acquire a life of their own, a rendering of the relationship into a miniature version of someone whom you’ve shared with and who has shared with you. This model grows more complete as these shared moments of sharing accumulate. From our point of view at the center of our personal universe, these shared moments compose that person – or at least all of that person we can ever know.

Everyone you know well, you know well precisely because of the accumulation of those sharing moments. Sharing is how we come to know one another. Our infant minds fill themselves up with mom and dad (mostly mom). Only gradually do we learn how to sort all of those other people out. Our circles of connections grow wider as our minds find the room to house a battalion of individuals. Without memory of the shared moments of sharing, all human contact would exist within an eternal present, a Memento-like state where no one could ever matter. Without memory, there is no relationship, and without sharing, there is no memory.

Each of our relationships grows from sharing, conforming to the boundaries established by that sharing, and tends to reinforce that we already know. Like shares with like. If we want to talk about the latest movies, we know whom to turn to. If we want to gripe about our employer, we know who will provide a sympathetic ear. And if we want to speculate about our own possibilities, we know who’s willing to join us on our flights of fancy. The ‘echo chamber’ of human culture — which recirculates the same truisms endlessly between like-minded individuals — did not begin with the Internet; it is as old as speech. We need to have our beliefs confirmed, fears soothed and secrets held. We focus upon the relationships which provide these.

We grow from knowing nothing about one another to knowing everything needed to breathe life into a simulacrum, a mind’s-eye version. We know a handful of people exceptionally well, sharing with them continuously. We know a larger number reasonably well, certainly enough to find some excuse to share something with them as desire or opportunity presents. We know enough people well enough to share something in common with them. These three levels of intimacy emerged from the familial and tribal bonds of our common heritage. We have always needed to share ourselves with those in the tribe: sharing means survival.

Our ability to share meaningfully defines the boundaries of the tribe, and limits it. Relationships nourish and tax in equal amounts. Time and attention and dedication keep our relationships fresh. Friends ‘drift apart’ when they forget to feed their relationship, eventually becoming estranged. We all know the odd feeling of meeting someone we once knew well, but now hardly know. The memory of relationship remains, like dried bones. This happens and needs to happen because we can not feed every relationship equally. Some people enter our lives to stay, some only drift through. We retain something as they depart, but most gets lost as we plow over the ground of that relationship to make room for another. We have limits, and can only sow our minds with so many simultaneous relations.

Estimates vary, but something between one hundred and fifty (the so-called ‘Dunbar Number’) and two hundred and fifty seems to be the upper limit on the number of active and well-fed relationships we can manage. This conforms to the size of tribal groupings known from the study of paleoanthropology and prehistory, as well as examinations of the hunter-gatherer cultures still with us today in Amazonia and New Guinea. Tribes make manifest the limits of memory and relation, never growing beyond the natural confines of our ability to hold everyone within our heads.

Ten thousand years away from the tribes, we carry these same boundaries in our modern minds, but whereas once everyone within a tribe held the same set of individuals in their heads, no one today has precisely the same array of relations. Even husbands and wives, in a lifetime together, maintain separate social spheres. We overlap and intersect, but instead of a single unit of blood and tribe, we span multitudes. Each of us knows one hundred and fifty others well, and each of those know one hundred and fifty well. Even with a fair bit of overlap, you and the people you know well know more than ten thousand people well. Those ten thousand know a million well. The million know a hundred million. That hundred million know everyone. This ‘six degrees of separation’ emerges from the relations of sharing and memory which once kept our horizons narrowly focused on the tribe, but which now (with a little mixing and connecting) spans the species.

Every one of us, everywhere, resides in the embrace of this ‘human network’ of relations built from shared moments of sharing. This network presents us the opportunity to share our experiences, or learn from the experiences of others. Above the broad physical network of communications – the wires and waves of Internet and mobile – an invisible but pervasive, highly mediated, but entirely human network reinforces our relationships with every act of sharing. The sphere of our relations has grown to encompass the whole world.

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.

 

 

13 – #WIRE

Writing created a collective memory for humanity, one which far outstripped the capability of any single mind, both in scope and duration. Clay, parchment and paper do not last forever – particularly before the advance of an invading army, launched by another city – but they do create a record that stands outside and beyond any single mind. Anyone who mastered the skill of writing – the high-technology of the fourth millennium BCE – could share in the wealth of information gathered by those who came before, or who lived in distant lands. The space for knowledge immediately transcended any particular place or time, becoming all places and all times.

The library is the visible manifestation of this cultural wormhole, where the works of all the sages, gathered together, provides a common mind unlike any previously known to humanity. Thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of volumes so extended the scope of knowing possible for any single person that a new creature – the scholar – came onto the scene. By definition well-read, the scholar assumed the roll of the ‘storyteller of the cities’, distilling the wisdom of the ancients into utility. Alexander the Great kept Aristotle close at hand, finding in Plato’s student a living encyclopedia of the known, knowledge Alexander put into practice to conquer the ancient world. As a king, Alexander could command scholars to serve him, and this, as much as any technology of war, gave him advantage.

One of Aristotle’s students founded the famed Library of Alexandria, the greatest collection of books in the ancient world. No one today knows how many texts the library housed – estimates range from several tens of thousands to half a million. By today’s standards, the most important library in history was no bigger than an average city or university library. Yet scholars spent entire lifetimes reading through the works, learning everything others had learned about the world. Much of this fell into history, poetry and rhetoric, but some works concerned themselves with observations of the ways of the world – natural philosophy.

The ancient Greeks knew of the peculiar properties of a substance they named electrum, which we today call amber. When rubbed against fabrics and furs, amber creates an electrostatic charge that can be literally hair-raising — and capable of mysterious attractions. Greek natural philosophers knew none of the whys, but knew how to make it happen, an observation passed down in their writings, and carried along in works which survived the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, the Fall of the Roman Empire, and the collapse of the Classical world. Within a few hundred years, Islamic scholars in Baghdad had recovered the thread, translating Ancient Greek texts into Arabic, which, as a result of the Crusades, soon made their way into Europe. (War spreads more knowledge than it tramples underfoot.)

These texts reached Europe in the years just before the technology of movable type turned a repurposed wine press into a replicating machine. Gutenberg’s printing technology automated the task of writing, making books reproducible in vast quantities, and, for the first time, easily affordable. Libraries, both institutional and personal, exploded, with an average gentleman’s library containing two hundred volumes. The printing press transformed every reader into a scholar. Readers with a thirst for natural philosophy quickly absorbed everything the ancients had written, moving on to the more recent Islamic scholars (who gave us Algebra and optics, among much else) using their writings as a springboard for their own investigations into the characteristics of the natural world.

These Europeans scholars used a common language (Latin) to communicate their results with one another, developing a methodology which demanded they share both the results and the process of their investigations, so that those results could be reproduced by others. Results that could not be reproduced would not be accepted as discoveries. This ‘scientific method’, a specific and refined form of sharing, made it possible for natural philosophers to quickly build upon the experimental results of their peers. Sharing across a common framework of scientific methodology amplified and accelerated the overall rate of discovery, improved the effectiveness of experiments, and lead to a huge growth of the amount known about the world, knowledge which would then be put to work in new experiments, leading to new discoveries, and so on, in an accelerating ‘virtuous cycle’ of reinforcement.

By the early eighteenth century, the ancients’ experiments with electrum had grown into a full investigation of the attractive and repulsive qualities of ‘electricity’. Benjamin Franklin identified lightning as electricity, while André-Marie Ampère established the relationship between electricity and magnetism, a relationship fully quantified, first by Michael Faraday, then by James Clerk Maxwell in his eponymous equations. In the years between Ampère and Maxwell enough had been learned that experimenters could create simple circuits, built from batteries, wires and magnets, circuits that could transmit a signal from one point to another, almost instantaneously.

In 1837, Samuel Morse conducted the first successful experiments in telegraphy, using the magnetic field created by a closed circuit to carry a signal. Suddenly, the field of human communication, no longer bounded by the reach of our voices or the speed of our horses, extended across the entire surface of the planet, bringing everyone, everywhere into a‘global village’. The whole planet united into a single city. This collapse of space and time transformed knowledge, enabling a sort of universal library, where information from anywhere could be delivered everywhere, immediately.

Until the modern era, human connectivity stopped at the city’s gates. Only a very few powerful individuals or institutions, able to afford their own messengers, could expect to have connectivity beyond the confines of a given urban area. The telegraph gave connectivity global reach, and collapsed the time for message transmission from months to moments. As distance collapsed, the amount of knowledge coming to each one of us increased: the telegraph led to the newspaper – which printed the articles ‘off the wires’ – then to radio and television.

All of this knowledge, continually presented to us, produced a corresponding pressure to preserve what had been learned. Just as the concentrated social sharing of the city heated the social crucible, and led to writing, so the electrification of communication created the preconditions necessary for digitization. We think of the first century of electrification as hopelessly ‘analog’, yet the dashes and dots of Morse code are the first binary encoding system. From the beginning, electrification has been essentially digital.

The digital is the response to the electric, just as writing was the response to the city.

12 – #WALL

Language allows us to share what we observe within the world: the passing of the seasons, the behaviors of animals, the stars in the skies above. Over thousands of years, a study of grasses led to an understanding of the relationship between seed and plant. Seeds could be sown, multiplying the number of plants. The Agricultural Revolution has its roots in language and the ability it confers upon us to transmit our experience and experiments.

Agriculture provides the caloric foundation populations far denser than the widely-disbursed hunter-gatherer tribes roaming the continents. People could be fed, but could they live together in vast groups? We have fixed physical limits for the number of individuals we can hold within our minds; for nearly two hundred thousand years, this kept the upper boundary of human groupings below the critical value of one hundred and fifty. Beyond that, you weren’t in one another’s heads – and this, for any primate, is an unacceptable state of affairs. We instinctively distrust strangers. Xenophobia may be shameful, but it is also perfectly natural, the visible echo of the limits of our ability to know others.

How could cities ever come to be? We find it nearly impossible and literally inconceivable to tolerate the presence of unknown others. There must have been an internal, psychological conflict, as we confronted our fear of the other. Yet we inexorably drew together, compelled by something so powerful it overwhelmed our innate reticence.

Before language we knew only what we carried within ourselves. Once we acquired the ability to talk, we knew everything worth telling to anyone within the tribe. Language gave us a weak group-mind, broadening of our knowing, producing an amplification of capabilities, propelling us into an understanding of the world wrought in stories and myths. The linguistic tribe triumphed, and established a precedent: coming together in a shared mindspace conferred obvious benefits.

These benefits acted as the lure to draw us out of our tribal selves and into the new social configuration of the city. The division of labour that is a defining characteristic of urbanization trades intimacy for capability, a bargain that leaves us vastly more powerful and consequently more isolated. The city has always been anonymous, precisely because it transcends our ability to know everyone within it. In reaction, we withdraw within ourselves and draw together within tight groupings of consanguinity. We put up a wall, both within ourselves, and around our families.

The city is defined by the wall. Both defensive technology and psychological boundary, the city wall separates the elect from the exiled, echoing of the close familiarity of the tribe, but at a greater scale. People gathered within the wall share an identity as residents of the polis, and the wall stands as the visible marker of their affiliation. Within those walls, overwhelmed individuals found sanctuary and meaning as they turned to something outside the province of their personal and intimate experience. The city-dweller defines himself in relation to the culture of the city.

This culture brings with it capacities impossible for and inconceivable to the tribe. Tribes can wage war, but cities raise armies – vast and highly organized – to raze other cities. The properties of the army portray, in miniature, the defining characteristics of the city, with its faceless anonymity, division of labor and amplification of individual capability.

With thousands of inhabitants, the city represented a wealth of human experience too great for any single person to apprehend. Each member of the tribe can know the important stories of their tribe, but there are a million stories in the city. Our capacious memories can not contain them. Where stories are lost, or forgotten, some of the meaning of – and justification for – the city disappears. In order to preserve itself, and maximize its own advantage, the city had to create its own form of language, one that could facilitate the sharing of minds beyond our individual capacity to encompass the stories told by others.

From this pressure to cohere, language concretized into writing. Although the earliest texts from Sumer are scribes’ accounts (here accuracy perfectly maps onto success) the first narrative work – the oldest written story – the Epic of Gilgamesh, both begins and ends with a meditation on the walls of the city of Uruk:

Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around,
examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly.
Is not even the core of the structure made of kiln-fired brick,
and did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans?
One league city, one league palm gardens,
one league lowlands, the open area of the Ishtar Temple,
three leagues and the open area of Uruk the wall encloses.

The story of an urbanized humanity is the story of walls, and a walled-in humanity, stewing in its own stories and experiences, people who need writing to make the experience of the city something commonly accessible. Writing becomes the speech of the city, the mechanism through which each generation passes along what it has learned. Writing is the vehicle of city culture, defining the psychological walls which separate residents from foreigners. Without writing, there can be no law. Tribes function on lines of custom and tradition, but cities have edicts, ukases, and commandments. The Decalogue are specifically indicated to have been written by the hand of God. The law may be ‘written on men’s hearts’, but it is always written.

One of the few surviving fragments attributed to the Presocratic philospher Heraclitus goes, “The people should fight for the Law as if for their city-wall.” The law of the city is the culture of the city, the internal representation of belonging. Just as the walls protect from invasion, the law protects against a cultural disintegration. Laws hold our innate xenophobia in check, bound by cultural prohibitions, compelling us to accept those we do not know, so long as they adhere to the same rules.

We wage a constant war within ourselves. Our oldest parts want to be clannish, insular, and intensely xenophobic. That’s what we’re adapted to. That’s what natural selection fitted us for. The newest parts of us realize real benefits from accumulations of humanity too big to get our heads around. The division of labor associated with cities allows for intensive human productivity, hence larger and more successful human populations.

The city is the real hub of human progress; more than any technology, it is our ability to congregate together in vast numbers, sharing what we know, that has propelled us into modernity.

 

 

 

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.