[This paper was originally published for a government report on discontinuity & change management.]
We live in a time of large-scale, non-linear change driven by the twin engines of globalization and hyper-connectivity. Change is, of course, constant but we now have such extreme visibility into the farthest corners of the world that the amplitude of change appears much greater than ever before. Many of us are, for the first time, globally connected and wired to real-time data streams that carry information and emotion across the world instantaneously. When we look through this lens of hypermedia we are confronted by fast-moving, asymmetric complexity that seems to be slipping out of control. The landscape is moving more quickly than we are able to respond. This is deeply challenging to our sense of security.
As Americans, we face a highly multipolar world. We feel the decline of U.S. exceptionalism and the attendant existential crisis of this realization; the ongoing global financial malaise and the emerging debt crisis threatening to break apart the European Union; the rise of China as a dominant world power and the implicit criticism of democracy that comes from its economic success; and the evolution of Islam as an explicit criticism of western prosperity. We are realizing the massive power of finance & energy cartels while struggling with ultraviolent drug cartels. We feel the impacts of domestic unemployment amidst weekly reports of record corporate profits. Capital is moving away from mature western markets for the young labor pools of the developing world. Fund managers are betting more on decline than investing in growth. There is a growing sense that western governance is failing in its charter to effectively manage the prosperity & security of its citizenry, and that selfishness, partisanship, and corruption have undermined the political process.
In the United States there is arguably a crisis of confidence in governance. We face extreme partisanship among policy makers and their apparent inability to effectively govern on domestic issues. Congress has a 20% approval rating. 73% of Americans believe the country is moving in the wrong direction. On domestic issues, the popular narrative of U.S. governance is one of bickering, incompetence, and failure.
So if there is a crisis of confidence, is there an actual crisis in governance? Recently the debt Supercommittee failed to agree on a solution for the deficit. This past July, the largely-manufactured budgetary impasse shook confidence in U.S. governance contributing directly to the S&P downgrade of our hallowed AAA credit rating. To quote the S&P report, the downgrade “reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges”. Even closer to home, the American Society of Civil Engineers recently reviewed U.S. infrastructure with a grade of “D” stating that it would take $2.2 trillion over the next 5 years to bring our roads, bridges, railways, water and energy systems, and waste treatment capacity up to 1st world standards. These are the fundamental needs required to keep a country functional & efficient.
Looking at recent statistics, the U.S. Commerce Department charts wages & salaries at only 44% of GDP – the lowest since 1929. Corporate profits, on the other hand, now contribute 10% of GDP – the highest on record since that auspicious year, 1929. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates unemployment at 9% though real measures of unemployment that include the under-employed and those who have given up looking for work are estimated closer to 16%. Among young adults age 16-24, 50% are without work – the highest number on record since 1948. The majority of unemployed no longer receive state benefits. Tens of thousands of service members are returning to joblessness & homelessness. The 2010 U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 46 million people are living in poverty – 15% of the nation. This number has been increasing annually for the past 3 years. These trends are undermining the legitimacy of the US government both at home and abroad, and contributing to the social unrest sensationally illustrated by the rise of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements.
Typically, when we observe these statistical trends in other countries we see a growing segment of the populace more exposed to gang indoctrination, co-option by religious fundamentalism, and coercion by home-brewed militias. This unfortunate reality is not lost on policy makers, as telegraphed most recently by Congressional attempts to reconfigure the legislative landscape of the Homeland as a domestic battleground.
While national statistics are indeed worrisome, the situation at the local & regional level is more varied and offers some hope. There is a shift towards state’s rights as illustrated by the more libertarian aspects of the Tea Party and the GOP narrative against so-called big government, but also in many state legislatures on both sides of the aisle. While often ideologically driven, this shift towards state governance is a response to the limitations of central management across such a large and complex territory as the United States. Perhaps more interestingly, we see a shift to municipal power as urban populations swell and major cities take ownership of their roles as economic engines. Mayors are gathering more influence over state and federal policy, and are making more lucrative partnerships with global allies.
Yet, there are huge budgetary challenges for both states and municipalities, with states often pushing their own budgetary problems down to the county & city level. There is even talk of an emerging municipal debt bubble as cities issue more bond debt to cover their existing debt costs. The U.S. just witnessed the largest municipal bankruptcy in history when Jefferson County, Alabama, failed to cover its sewage bonds. This is the downward cycle of U.S. infrastructure & budgetary mis-management laid bare.
The picture of local and regional governance is a patchwork of attempts (successes and failures) to address the many challenges confronting us locally and handed down from state and federal institutions. As higher-order governors lose legitimacy, states & regions will work to sidestep their authority and to innovate around budgetary shortfalls and non-local obstacles. Progressive states agitate for marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, conservative states assail big government and immigration, southwestern border states are dealing with the spill-over from Mexico’s narcowar, and many regions across the country are absorbing diverse and extreme climate impacts potentially driving food production, water supplies, and population movements. So while large, productive cities are generally seeing more cohesion there is a significant risk of increased balkanization across regions and states.
U.S. governance is clearly challenged on many domestic fronts. In operational terms, we’re falling short. Governing institutions are too big and too slow to respond to such accelerated change. If we’re failing to manage the present, how can we prepare for the future? There is too much complexity to effectively predict change and yet there’s too much institutional friction to adequately invest in broad resilience. This combination poses tremendous risks to domestic security. The snapshot of social unrest in America arises from two primary drivers: the fear of U.S. decline and the sense that Democracy is no longer working (represented by the Tea Party and OWS movements, respectively). Both are rooted in a lack of jobs, diminishing access to prosperity, and growing insecurity in the face of poorly managed discontinuities. When government fails to meet it’s charter, it loses legitimacy. When conventional channels for change are closed, the gap widens between governors and the governed.
For better and for worse, a lot of innovation happens in the gaps. There is innovation in governance itself, as in the Gov 2.0 & OpenGov initiatives to standardize operational data across organizations, to publicize the data, and to invite the public to work with the data and develop 3rp party applications. Deputizing the crowd to help with governance can offer tremendous opportunities for innovation, as exemplified by tools such as Oakland Crimespotting and the Everyblock platform. The citizenry is becoming more digital and addressable with direct polling, crowdsourcing, and experiments in electronic voting. Transparency initiatives, such as the Sunlight Foundation, build web platforms to track and reveal the influence of money in politics. The growth in mobile/social/location platforms empowers tremendous opportunities in civic innovation, as does the emergence of embedded instrumentation in the built environment. Tech collectives and hacker spaces, experiments in local and digital currencies, slow food and Buy Local movements, increased community volunteerism and more public-private partnerships – all of these examples build local resilience and enable communities to take care of themselves.
Many of these efforts follow open source models that enable fast innovation and iteration across diverse non-local nodes, avoiding hierarchies and direct leadership in favor of feedback loops and emergent self-governance. These models gained popularity with the open source software movement but have since expanded to include innovation in open hardware and fabrication, science and robotics, economics (there is an estimated $10 trillion informal economy growing in the gaps globally), and political movements. Open source templates have enabled new models of power such as Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous, many aspects of the Iraqi insurgency, and the dangerous ecosystem of adaptation and innovation found in the IED marketplaces of Iraq and Afghanistan. The ability to maintain such open source models of organization has been radically empowered by mobile telephony, SMS, and social media. The ability to globally broadcast, communicate and collaborate has enabled a new breed of citizen reporting pushed out through platforms like You Tube and Twitter. Rapid SMS communication across mobile devices enables fast stigmergic coordination that can mobilize people en masses with a moment’s notice. The Green Revolution in Tehran, the Arab Spring, and the periodic support calls sent out by OWS groups are all examples of how borderless, frictionless hyper-connectivity empowers a patchwork of active tribes, locally and virtually.
Gaps in governance empower innovators and competitors alike. Actors exploit the gaps and seek to influence or undermine governance in order to open more gaps. Super-empowered individuals like Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt work to influence conventional channels of policy-making while restructuring the regulatory landscape to better enable their businesses. Activist billionaires like Warren Buffet, George Soros, and Sir Richard Branson use their weight and influence to change world affairs, as do libertarians like Peter Thiel and anarcho-capitalists like the Koch brothers. Some super-empowered actors are feral and may not appear to be powerful yet manage to inflict exceptional discontinuities on their targets. Arms dealer, Victor Bout, has been a significant driver of unrest in Africa. The head of the Sinaloan cartel, Joaquin Guzman, has helped deconstruct Mexican governance into a lawless war zone. Henry Okah, the leader of MEND in Nigeria, used a small group of lo-tech saboteurs to target critical pipeline infrastructure reducing crude output by 50% and costing western oil interests billions in production revenue. Cartels and criminal networks operate on international scales moving billions of dollars to influence authorities and outwit enforcers. Tech-enabled sociopolitical collectives like Anonymous and Wikileaks deputize themselves as moral enforcers, exposing secret agendas and arbitrating punishment. These actors walk the same stage as multinational corporations and NGO’s that have no built-in allegiance to the United States or, in some cases, to democracy itself. All of these actors exert their will on the world by building influence and exploiting the gaps. All of them are empowered by hyper-connectivity and cheap computation to coordinate, collaborate, and influence at all scales.
This is an age of hypermedia and hyper-politics. There are almost 3 billion internet users, globally. There are over 5 billion mobile subscribers – this is 77% percent of humanity. Last year, in 2010, over 6.9 trillion text messages were sent & received. Humanity has global, instantaneous communication; immediate amplification of emotion, ideology, witnessing, discovery, innovation, and iteration. We are sharing what works and what doesn’t in all domains and endeavors. Everyone is being lifted by this rising technological tide. Small-scale power is amplifying exponentially through ubiquitous computation and mobile communication. Power is re-distributing across the globalized, hyper-connected landscape in such a way that a small, minimally-funded group can generate exponential disruptions. In a mediated world, we see a new war of narratives competing for mindshare across hypermedia, cultivating borderless affinities and ideologies, and offering a global voice to disenfranchised and exploited groups. Top-down governance, unable to extend control so far over such large-scale discontinuities, is yielding space to flattened hierarchies and self-governance. All institutions are being forced to evolve and adapt to this new landscape, as all efforts to suppress it will inevitably fail and only drive more turbulence.
Complexity is an expression of information, and hypermedia is a complexity feedback loop of revealing, sharing, and iterating. Hypermedia, in all it’s varied forms, is injecting unprecedented amounts of information into our awareness. This widening perception of complexity drives behavioral uncertainty as people and institutions feel increasingly overwhelmed and lost in the noise. The world wide web has driven massive discontinuities into almost every business model, organization, and political objective. Mobile telephony coupled to social networks has given voice to the real-time status of the majority of people on the planet. In this maelstrom of asymmetrical disruption, chaos appears to be the new norm though this will likely reveal itself to be the turmoil attending a broad shift towards a new order of stability.
Complex systems across many scales have moved into a late conservation phase and are beginning to release their organizational capacity. Legacy institutions have grown far too optimized and narrow to absorb the turbulence unleashed by globalization, ubicomp, and mobile telephony. Systems have destabilized in order to make the phase change into whatever next basin of stability awaits. Governance is necessarily challenged and states will inevitably give some degree of power & influence as capital flows out of the West; as more empowered actors take the global stage; as non-local relationships shift affiliation and allegiance; as borders are antiquated by the internet and the cell phone; and as over-extended unions fracture and balkanize. Centralized control structures are not adequate to manage such large scales of nested and inter-dependent complex adaptive systems. But fortunately, the same drivers that have introduced so much discontinuity and have challenged governance as we know it are helping construct the new forms of distributed, participatory governance. Hyper-connectivity, hyper-visibility, and hyper-empowerment are driving a global peer review of legacy institutions in a patchwork attempt to define Civilization 2.0. The process is turbulent and the future is cloudy but we’ll likely land on solid ground eventually.
I was driving through the Tenderloin the other night – one of the most socio-economically depressed areas of San Francisco. Across a long wall someone tagged “Occupy Wall Street” in big letters with a clean font and preceded by the Twitter “#” hashtag notation. It was a big, funky chorus bridging the grimy street with a shimmering virtuality beckoning from the other side. A shiny enticement to both residents and passers-by, yet it instilled in me that there are some hard reasons why Occupy is still a bit pale, demographically. The Tenderloin is where people fall to the bottom of the American heap, struggling every day just to try and get by. I can’t speak to their cellphone use but I’m guessing most aren’t on Twitter.
In America, poverty & homelessness are specters stalking the nightmares of the middle class. The stigma is crushing and many studies show how hard it is to fall out of society and fail normative expectations, forced to walk as a ghost the rest of us don’t want to acknowledge. We’re all “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”, to quote Steinbeck, but most are scared to death we’ll wake up from the American Dream wearing dirty rags and begging for pittance.
Amidst the looming failure of governance and the siphoning of capital into the hands of elite gamers the system starts to reveal interesting and exploitable gaps. The gaps opening up between the ruling elite, the body politik, the business world, the towers of old-world power, global supply chains and international demand structures, and the organic messiness of the street lashing together its own ad hoc infrastructure, battening down against the hard approach of a faceless Winter. A lot of innovation happens in the gaps.
When a control system releases it’s organizational capacity, the system tends towards a period of turbulence. Turbulence can be thought of as a widening of constraints on energized systems, ie things start getting wonky & unusual. Institutions are challenged. Stability & confidence are shaken. Calcified bureaucracy cedes power to fast, open-source iterations. Hierarchies flatten, though riddled with super-empowered outliers, revealing design patterns more akin to fuzzy biology than the mechanized Taylorism of the Industrial Age. A mycelial hypermedia of distributed, tech-enabled, self-empowered collectives emerges. The landscape is shifting so quickly that even the rules of the game are being forced to adapt. And not in any particularly easy way, mind.
The United States government is failing to adapt or effectively shepherd its populace into the 21st century. Many western nations share a similar sentiment. They’re falling left & right to the slipperiness of the behavioral economy and to top-tier predators drawing capital out of weakened states and widening the gaps between people & power. Meanwhile, gangs & cartels and urban collectives (oh, and the estimated $10T – trillion! – informal economy) are all pulling the weave apart further and staking their territorial claims. The landscape is ragged and hungry and a bit unhinged. Many of us are growing nervous feeling the hot breath of the meathook future on the back of our necks.
“You will not hear me, you will not listen to me, so I will stand in your face and you will be forced to see me.”
Occupy Wall Street is an expression of this sweaty fear & creeping nihilism in a world that looks decidedly different than the one we were raised to expect. It’s an empowered disenfranchisement: the realization and acceptance that the American people no longer have a say in the conversation about our country. “You will not hear me, you will not listen to me, so I will stand in your face and you will be forced to see me.” This is what Occupy says. And it says it encamped in front of your hallowed institutions, deploying local food & health services, brewing ad hoc energy supplies, coordinating collective actions, surveilling the local PD and running mobile counter-ops, holding signs to the media cameras and managing international PR campaigns. This is a new model of power emerging across technologically-savvy collectives, economically detached on the ground but coordinated with well-healed and influential sympathizers among the extended technorati. You get amplification, charitable donations, shout-outs, drop-ins from mayoral candidates, and as-needed mobilization of supporters who still have to hold down their day jobs and take the kids to school. Of course, the PD knows all this & knows how to exploit mobile social media as well.
The Short Message Service (SMS) was implemented in 1992 and is now ubiquitous and coupled to an insanely sophisticated global supply chain. A large driver for cellphone adoption, these discrete packets of information passed almost immediately across non-local nodes have proven extremely powerful. With very lightweight protocols and minimal hardware demands, SMS is fast becoming one of our primary signalling pathways. Witness the simple observation that mobile-enabled teens are constantly texting, rarely speak on the phone, and disregard email almost entirely. More info, less work. Now make sure every one of the somewhat feral and vaguely radical protestors occupying the park across from your ridiculously powerful and possibly sociopathic local tax base, eg The Federal Reserve… make sure they all have SMS mobiles. And make sure all the other urban clans have them too so they can share updates & anticipation, coordinate a distributed response, propagate the sticky phrases and hashtags, and rapidly pass counter intelligence to every single global node. Oh, and there’s this thing called Twitter that will take your SMS and push it out to a broadcast subscriber list that’s being crawled by every journalist, intel org, and revolutionary sympathizer across the modern world.
Of course the NYPD is scared and twitchy. Of course the DHS is yelling at all jurisdictions to get this under control. The true sign of fear will be revealed if they send in the National Guard – a tacit admission that the police are more sympathetic to the protesters than the economic cartels. And if you wanna get really meathook, peep the vid of the armed, self-appointed border guards standing against the Arizona Police Department to defend Occupy. “Using our 2nd amendment rights to defend our 1st amendment rights” was the money quote from that one.
Pundits and old-century analysts can’t get past its slipperiness. It doesn’t look like how protests were supposed to look. It won’t fit into a neat soundbite or flashy statement of demands. This gets really annoying for a mainstream press corps empowered by semantic containment.
Occupy Wall Street is an exceptional sociocultural hack. Grabbing eyes & hearts, they’re making it OK to protest again in America. After 911 the normative pressure around dissent & protest shifted, making it very un-American to disagree with and or show criticism of The U S of A. Occupy is quickly becoming view-fodder for the mainstream media. Spin it any way you like but OWS is grabbing the spotlight globally. Expect the election cycle to raise it as a common talking point – a good reason Occupy can safely find heat indoors for the Winter, come back swinging in Spring. This normative shift allows the many many folks who aren’t yet willing or simply can’t come sleep in the streets to be active & connected sympathizers helping spread the word, defend the narrative, and get downtown at 2am on a Thursday to stand against an expected police action. Social media invites participation at all scales.
People talk of so-called “new models of work”. Remote specialists coming together around a shared task, doing the work with a minimum of resources, taking value, and collaborating with adjacent like-minded ad hoc clusters. All enabled by information technologies and responding to shifting economic realities. BTW, capital is leaving the West and moving eastward and into Africa. Brazil is doing OK as well, I hear. But these new models of work are the same 21st century design patterns iterated on by Anonymous, WikiLeaks, and the Mexican cartels (with varying degrees of flamboyant and or enigmatic leadership). Another eye-opening newsblip from the past week is word that Anonymous is going after Los Zetas cartel (or possibly not). Thing about the Zetas… they don’t just hang out in cyberspace. You don’t wanna be trolled by Zetas.
So yeah, DHS is nervous. They see all these small fires and worry that one will flame up into a real conflict, or that their ranks will be taken over by legitimate militants/gangs/cartels/etc… Meanwhile, China is quietly laughing at us, gently suggesting to the world that maybe Democracy isn’t really all that necessary for a decent house, a reliable job, and good prospects for your kids. It’s worth considering what this means for U.S. diplomacy and the project of Democracy.
The sympathy that boomers have with OWS is rooted in this emigration of prosperity away from our shores. They did fine, my generation is fighting to hang on, and the younger generation can’t get a job. Of course, the Boomers think OWS should be using the tried-and-true models of the 1960′s, not this crazy post-modern artwar stuff. But they lived in a very different world and, ironically, it’s the protest movement of the 60′s that hardened the economic jungle and trained it against the Left.
The front of the emerging cultural war is everywhere & nowhere.
Occupy is a new creature bred to adapt to a markedly different environment. It uses similar design patterns from Tahrir Square and Tehran. It’s the new hyperpolitics enabling virtualized ideologies & coordinated actions by distributed collectives. Like everything else being spread across the real & virtual, the front of the emerging cultural war is everywhere & nowhere. The focus now is on prosperity and equality but it’s tugging at the sweater threads of our entire industrialized economy, already well-frayed & tattered from the wear & tear of the new millenium. Occupy is a statement about failure & fear and a realization that the people who have been entrusted to keep it all together for us are no longer acting on our behalf.
It’s a scary place to find yourself, falling into the gaps. But there’s tremendous potential there as well. And it’s likely a manifestation of far deeper and longer evolutionary imperatives brought to bear on the aging and deprecated foundations of industrial civilization. We are due for a major upgrade. New features & workflows are direly needed, and please patch some of those nasty bugs we’ve been complaining about for centuries. It would be really nice if we could all get back to work helping the world get a little better, day by day.
[This article was picked up by Business Insider.]
Egyptian recording on mobile. From NYT.
The course of recent events across the Middle East & North Africa have highlighted both the power in organizing & reporting protest movements using network technologies and the weakness inherent in their corporate & state-controlled architectures. While social media & mobile phones have not explicitly created the revolutions we’re witnessing in Egypt, Libya, & Bahrain and the protests mounting in many other regions, they are making it much easier for collective actions to coordinate, inspire, and outwit the authorities. Conversely, ruling classes are now far more savvy to the threat these tools bring and will quickly act to shut down internet & SMS services that might undermine their authority. The tension in this dynamic emerged in 2009 when Chinese Uighurs in Xinjiang had mobile access removed by the government in an attempt to quell their uprising. And these tactics have played out repeatedly since as design patterns for resistance & rebellion formalize into institutional playbooks.
In this context, mobiles offer immediate & direct communication with allies while social networks offer distributed coordination and instantaneous global reporting. Indeed, the ability to capture and share information across the world is ultimately the most threatening aspect of such hyperconnected protest movements. Social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube empower protesters to be field reporters,capturing atrocities and inviting the rest of the world in to see. It is this universal witnessing that makes a local protest into a global movement. It brings normative pressure from the free world into old and rigid totalitarian regimes. Once such regimes could easily crush uprisings with limited exposure. Now they find themselves cast on the world stage in a glaring spotlight. Dispersed & sympathetic legions of like-minded freedom hawks mobilize around these events lending moral & technical support to ensure their success. Aging dictators wrinkle in the sun as their every word & action is shared & deconstructed by the world at large. And so these rulers move quickly to try and shut down the networks, to hide from the light and roll their rule back into the pre-dawn of geographic isolation.
And yet the revolution spreads. Mobiles & social networks transmit ideology & emotion, outrage & courage. Everyone wants in on the spectacle and the hope of real change that it invokes. It might not be too hyperbolic to suggest that True Democracy, co-opted and tarnished by Western realpolitik, so often used as an excuse to prop up the very dictators who’ve held these people in fear for decades, might break out through the networked world, demanding its due and even resuscitating the anemic corpus of the American protest movement.
But this assumes many things. Douglas Rushkoff and others have begun to point out the relative weakness of the internet and of mobile networks. Corporate choke points quickly buckle under government pressure and the threat of national security. So people naturally look for ways to build resilient networks that can resist the hunger & fear of power. Ways to route around the censorship.
Of course, revolutions are not the only things that need resilient ad hoc networks. Increasingly, large-scale construction projects require on-site network support, with or without internet backbones. Emergency relief, as we saw in the Haiti earthquake in 2010, also require fast response to restore communication networks. Any sufficiently large regional disaster could knock out communications & database access leaving first responders in the dark and victims & families struggling to find help & relief support. It’s important to understand that these services require local networks but don’t necessarily require internet access. In emergencies its critical that quickly-scalable ad hoc regional networks can be deployed to restore basic communications and access to necessary information, be it status updates or institutional knowledge bases.
Venessa Miemis has a great round-up of the many players in this field, highlighting 16+ Projects & Initiatives Building Ad-Hoc Wireless Mesh Networks. From her list its impressive how many groups are working on solving these problems.
Mobile phones are a valuable infrastructure that often gets overlooked in discussions of resiliency. Everyone has a phone so everyone is a potential node. Research in wireless meshnets that use mobile phones instead of carrier backbones offer localized solutions for resilient networks. If a city loses it’s carrier support, if AT&T & Verizon are offline, mobiles can default to a lilly-pad model where voice & data move from phone to phone, hopping across the community through wireless overlaps. The phone becomes the hot-spot and a personal IP address. This allows information to pass from across the mobile meshnet until it reaches an internet uplink, such as a Meraki node. In this manner individuals can still coordinate resources & activities if, say, an earthquake or a dictator has taken mobile carriers & ISP’s offline, and can hop to a strong wireless uplink outside the range of blackout.
To look forward, local mobile meshnets could be used as distributed processing clusters, like a SETI At Home for mobiles. Consider the processing power latent across a city of 20 million mobile subscribers, such as Tokyo. As smart phones integrate more diverse sensors, mobile meshnets could be addressed as distributed sense platforms, analyzing air quality, for example, or deputized as camera arrays. [Klint Finley expands on this idea over at ReadWriteCloud.] Consider what could be done with an API for addressing clusters of mobile sensors. [Update: Imagine the types of shared augmented reality experiences that might be possible across localized mobile meshnets... eg bands could push experience layers out to their audiences during concerts - any venue could run a layer that would automatically sync with a user's phone/headset when they entered it's radius of activity.] When mobiles have the ability to firewall from selected authorities or create opt-in experience zones users might develop incredibly sophisticated tools for distributed in-field utilities. Of course, so might criminals and insurgents… and regimes.
There’s a tremendous amount of work advancing these technologies. The events in the Middle East & North Africa, coupled with the creeping authoritarianism and neglect in western countries, are lighting a fire under innovators to figure it out. Likewise, major mobile manufacturers are exploring this space to anticipate consumer demand and create differentiating features to compete in the impacted & accelerated smartphone marketplace. The internet & mobile communication have rapidly proven themselves to be indispensable to the lives of billions of people. Any efforts to exert power and authority over them on a mass scale while run into fierce challenges born from the simple nature of human ingenuity & adaptation. And yet, there are many reasons we should not take such access to mobile communications and the internet for granted.
John Gilmore’s famous quote (and Mark Pesce’s analysis) applies here: The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. Whether that censorship comes from corporations, dictators, or acts of god is immaterial.
[Update: Check out the World Community Grid for crowd-sourced cluster computing. Would be great to see them include mobile when the tech catches up...]
[Definitely read this Tech Crunch post, Humans Are The Routers, by the founder of the Openmesh Project, Shervin Pishevar.]
Most product opportunities are ephemeral, rising off the whims and fads of the social world. Likewise, most products and services cater to temporary needs, momentary desires, and passing fads. There are certainly a bounty of successful business models that capitalize on such trends (remember Beanie Babies?) and there will be plenty more, but in the long run all are doomed to pass after a few years at best, downcycling more resources and adding yet more volume to the world’s landfills. Ultimately, product solutions that don’t speak to the more fundamental motivations of the human animal will rise and fall on the endocrine tides of psychology.
The technologies that are really transformative and sticky are those that help people adapt better to their world (duct tape being a contemporary classic, environmental concerns aside for the moment). They make it easier to be an effective human. The technologies and solutions that make the biggest mark on the landscape are those that reinforce biological imperatives. The ability to harness fire established several millenia of product iterations designed to deliver heat to the needs of humanity. Agriculture, metal alloys, the printing press, immunizations, the car, the telephone, the computer, and Google all created enduring markets by providing adaptive advantages to the user.
Now in the hyper-connected, hyper-accelerated world of the Digital Age it seems as if we’re caught up in constant revolutions in technology, each Big Thing laying the foundation for The Next Big Thing. The marketplace is driven to spot the upstart that will unseat the previous generation in innovative cycles that are increasingly impacted and shortening. And when they find one, the antibodies flare up to test its mettle. Is it really that innovative? Is it useful? Will it make any money?
Twitter is a prime example of this condition. In 2 short years it’s gone from nothing, to something cute & fun, to presenting a viable challenge to the world’s largest information house, Google. Hitting the hype crescendo lately, everyone is trying to figure out why Twitter is useful and why anybody would use it in the enterprise and how & when they’ll start drawing revenues. The answer to these questions seem plainly obvious when we acknowledge that the fundamental needs of the human animal will always trump all other market factors.
So, how can you spot deep innovation that addresses the core requirements of the human animal? You have to ask these questions:
1) Does it enable you to more effectively address a fundamental biological need? Eat, drink, sleep, mate, procreate, move, establish dominion…
2) Does it enable you to more effectively address a fundamental social need? Communicate, collaborate, contact, support, share, trade…
3) Is it presented in simple & clear terms? Easy to learn, obvious functional use, immediate advantage…
4) Can it easily be integrated as an entrained extension of the user? Simple to use, second-hand adoption, action without thinking…
5) Does it provide the user with a selective advantage in the competitive landscape? Finding and obtaining resources, getting work and pay, making friends and collaborators, finding potential mates…
A truly profound illustration of these principles is the mobile phone. This seemingly simple technology addresses and enables almost every one of the above needs. Data on cellphone uptake shows the sharpest arc of adoption of any device ever. In every case the technology enables humans to be more successful at being humans, particularly in the ability to easily coordinate group efforts towards socioeconomic and biological ends. Clay Shirkey explores this phenomenon in depth in his seminal work Here Comes Everybody.
To turn this eye towards Twitter, we ask “Why does it work?”. Two things are immediately clear: It’s simple to use and it enables much greater communication & coordination. Specifically, it allows one person to quickly communicate with large groups of people while simultaneously drawing information about the landscape from the larger herd. With mobile integration each user becomes a sensor communicating to the tribe, and when in need the user can appeal to the tribe for immediate assistance. In this context, it’s obvious how Twitter would be of value within a secured enterprise, enabling ostensibly coordinated individuals to see more into the operations & needs of their collaborators & their company, while providing the channel to reach out for information and assistance in accomplishing the goals of the business.
Of critical importance, and why Twitter succeeds in ways that other social networks don’t, is that It forces communication to be succinct and to the point. The 140 character limit forces communications into small, digestible chunks, limiting the overhead of use and managing the potential for overload in signal. Passing a link, a question, or a simple plea, “ARRESTED”, brings the core of the communication up front & center rather than buried within paragraphs of narrative padding. Granted, all datastreams require management as the volume of input rises, but the word limit fundamentally rewrites the game of communication – and even language itself – in ways we don’t yet fully realize.
There will obviously be many more successful business models that don’t cater to the evolutionary, socioeconomic, & political needs of the human species, just as there will be many more billions of dollars spent on using energy and creating waste to capitalize on the current desires of the marketplace. I submit that the truly compelling and enduring innovations – the innovations that build long-lasting behavioral & business opportunities – are those that design for the fundamental needs hardwired into every human user on the planet; that design for the immediacy of an interconnected planetary ecology; and that reflect Tim O’Reilly’s call to work on stuff that matters.
Markets are abstractions that merely arise off the imperatives of survival, adaptation, and success, and are often far too volatile & obtuse to be really reliable, much less enable us to be more effective members of a planetary ecology. Designing for deeper principles is imperative not only for salvaging a faltering economy, but for creating sustainable models of innovation and evolutionary adaption that bring our species into a greater degree of harmony and cooperation with the world in which we are intimately embedded. The arc of our times is quickly becoming the necessary realization of these imperatives.
[This is a reply I left recently to a Global Futures question about the near-future of the web. It goes a little off-topic at the end but such is the risk of systems analysis. Everything's connected.]
Within 10-15 years mobile devices will constantly interact with the world around us, analyzing objects, faces, signage, locations, and anything else their sensors can engage. Camera viewfinders will identify visual sources using algorithms to match them up with cloud data repositories. Bluetooth and GPS will interact on sub-channels silently exchanging relationships with embedded sensors across devices and objects. A user’s mobile device will become their IP address hosting much of their profile information and mediating relationships across social nets, commercial transactions, security clearances, and the array of increasingly smart objects and devices.
Cloud access and screen presence will be nearly ubiquitous further blurring the line between desktop, laptop, server, mobile devices, and the objects in our world. It will all be screens interfacing between data, objects, and humans. Amidst the overwhelming data/content glut we will outsource mathematical chores to cloud agents dedicated to scraping data and filtering the bits that are pertinent to our personalized affinities and needs. These data streams will be highly dynamic and cloud agents will send them to rich media layers that will render the results in comprehensible and meaningful displays.
The human sensorium and its interaction with reality will be highly augmented through mobile devices that layer rich information over the world around us. The digital world will move heavily into the natural analog world as the boundaries between the two further erode. This will be readily apparent in the increasing amount of communication we will receive from appliances, vehicles, storefronts, other people, animals, and even plants all wired to the cloud. Meanwhile, cloud agents will sort through vast amounts of human behavioral information creating smart profiles and socioeconomic and environmental systems models with incredible complexity and increasing predictive ability. The cloud itself will be made more intelligible to agents by the standardization of semantic web protocols implemented into most new sites and services. Agents will concatenate to tie services together into meta-functions, just as human collectives will be much more common as we move into increasingly multicellular functional bodies.
The sense of self and our philosophical paradigms will be iterating and revising on an almost weekly basis as we spread out across the cloud and innumerable virtual spaces connected through instantaneous communication. Virtual worlds themselves will be increasingly common but will break out of the walled-garden models of the present, allowing comm channels and video streams to move freely between them and the social web. World of Warcraft will have live video feeds from in-world out to device displays. Mobile GPS will report a user’s real-world location as well as their virtual location, mashing both into Google Maps and the SketchUp-enabled virtual map of the planet.
All of this abstraction will press back on the world and create even greater value for real face-to-face interactions. Familial bonds will be more and more cherished and local communities will take greater and greater control of their lives away from unreliable global supply chains and profit-driven corporate bodies. Most families will engage in some form of gardening to supplement their food supply. The state itself will be hollowed out through over-extended conflicts and insurgencies coupled with ongoing failures to manage domestic civic instabilities. Power outages and water failures will be common in large cities. This will of course further invigorate alternative energy technologies and shift civic responsibilities to local communities. US manufacturing will have partially shifted towards alternative energy capture and storage but much of the real successes will be in small progressive towns rallying around local resources, small-scale fab, and pre-existing economic successes.
All in all, the future will be a rich collage. Totally new and much the same as it has been.